Nick Townsend: Peril of moral superiority over Spain's shame

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On an utterly depressing night at the Bernabeu, from which virtually every England memory should be consigned to the refuse site of football, the gut instinct would have been to walk. Whether as a result of a positive decision on his part or whether he was simply guilty of the inertia he has displayed in other circum-stances, Sven Goran Eriksson did nothing as the contorted features of some Spanish supporters spat their venom.

On an utterly depressing night at the Bernabeu, from which virtually every England memory should be consigned to the refuse site of football, the gut instinct would have been to walk. Whether as a result of a positive decision on his part or whether he was simply guilty of the inertia he has displayed in other circum-stances, Sven Goran Eriksson did nothing as the contorted features of some Spanish supporters spat their venom.

The result was that his men walked tall in Madrid and English football could luxuriate in that rarely visited high plateau of righteous indignation. Contrary to the insistence of the PFA chief executive, Gordon Taylor, among many, the Swede was correct not to intervene. He was also right to resist any thoughts of leaving Shaun Wright-Phillips on the bench.

It would have been tantamount to a surrender to the ignorant forces which drive racism. In one of the week's most intelligent and instructive articles, the Spain-based John Carlintold the Independent of a Spanish colleague who was shocked by the whole affair, claiming: "People are so moronic, so unaware of what they're doing... for most of them, doing what they did was as innocuous and amusing as doing the Mexican Wave."

Nevertheless, though we have observed this ugly phenomenon relatively recently in Eastern Europe, where there are few black players, it appears bizarre that it should have surfaced again in Spain, and at the Bernabeu, where Real Madrid's Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos are feted.

The most plausible theory, by no means an excuse, is that it emanates from the rumpus involving the despicable Spain coach, Luis Aragones, who informed Jose Reyes that Thierry Henry was "a black shit". Aragones has neither apologised to Henry nor declared anything in mitigation. If it had been one of our coaches, he would have been out of a job. Aware of the strong feeling aroused by that remark here, and the British media's obsession with the coach's attitudes, the more feeble-brained Spain supporters no doubt believed such abuse was a clever way of irritating, and thereby distracting, the England players. Not that they needed to do so on this dire occasion.

Of course the authorities should voice their displeasure, and an order for Spain to play their next game behind closed doors would be appropriate. One suspects the football fraternity of Spain will have been chastened by the reaction here, and that the response will be a positive one. Yet, in the unholy rush to assert ourselves as moral supremacists, it would be foolish to adopt any smug attitude about the state of English football. Hooliganism is still a latent threat, and the mocking of an opposing team's national anthem is scarcely evidence of great tolerance.

Lest we forget, it was not so very long ago that the late Clyde Best, John Barnes and others were habitually abused. I recall when Chelsea, who once had one of the worst-offending crowds, introduced a young winger named Paul Canoville. He was the club's first black player and, inevitably, immediately became a target of the crop-haired, heavy-booted National Front membership among his own crowd. Those Chelsea "supporters" believed they would hound him out.

The rest of the crowd looked on without demur, deaf to the "monkey" insults. In response, some of us sponsored items of Canoville's kit in a match-programme feature. It was a small gesture, but a way of demonstrating that not all of us harboured such malevolent instincts.

Slowly, since then, attitudes have evolved through education and a form of peer pressure. Undoubtedly, racist attitudes still reside in hearts here; within football, within society. But anyone who was to articulate them would be ridiculed and scorned by the majority. One can only hope, and believe, this will prove to be the case in Spain, too.

It is not belittling the problem to suggest that Eriksson benefited hugely from a bad-news night. A correspondent earlier in the week asked what he was being paid for, the Swede having earned £384,615 since he last named an England team. Why no Stewart Downing? Why Nicky Butt, who just cannot perform at this level? Such paucity of thinking.

The concern is not that England haven't won anything, but that they have not progressed, not since the tenures of Terry Venables and Glenn Hoddle were concluded for non-footballing reasons. But even more damningly, considering Eriksson is now blessed with the enigma that is Wayne Rooney, arguably not since the departure of Kevin Keegan - a man who confessed he was not up to the job.

The spoils and the spoilers

To different matters, although not entirely. On Monday, the conveyors of London's "candidate file", the capital's entreaty to the International Olympic Committee, flew over to Lausanne. Or was it into a world of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest? Predictably, the dispatch of the 2012 bid document was accompanied by the shrill scepticism of some.

The displeasure of those with that viewpoint will not have been mollified by events at the Bernabeu on Wednesday, which, in the curious manner of these things, will have almost certainly confirmed London's second position in the unofficial rankings, behind Paris.

All that is required now is for the French capital to commit some international faux pas and Lord Coe and his fellow advocates will have been vindicated in their faith...

Ah, if only it were that simple. And even if London triumphs, and avoids the Singapore sling when the victor is revealed in eight months' time, the response in some quarters will be less than rapturous. The more one attempts to analyse their arguments, the more exasperating it becomes; not least one insidious campaign which amounts to nothing more than denigration of the capital, the only British city with any chance of success in this battle of the big beasts.

The arguments have been vigorously debated, and the financial evaluation is a legitimate one. At some stage, by dint of local taxation or voluntary taxation (the National Lottery), the public will have to settle the bill. Whether that cost can be justified in terms of the regeneration of the east of London and the invigoration of a sports culture in Britain as a whole is a complex calculation.

Yet there remain other objections. The Olympics amounted to nothing more than "a two-week élite festival", someone wrote last Sunday. The reality is that, once London 2012 was given official credence, it would provide seven years' focus on sport in Britain, with the accent on where its structure fails us all, and the young in particular, as much as on how that fortnight's climax concerns the élite performers.

As that smooth operator, Lord Coe, insisted at Friday's launch of the details of the bid, which neatly negated many of the previous objections: "We have the opportunity to change people's lives, we have the opportunity to change this city and change the face of sport for ever."

It was a bold statement. The hope is that will convert the non-believers, not just preach to us disciples.

Home alone: the pain and pleasure of a professional punter

Strange how gambling of late hascome to represent the darkest niche of depravity. Unless, of course, it involves punters contributing to the National Lottery and, in the event of the London 2012 bid succeeding, helping to bankroll an Olympic Games.

Perceptions of seedy, dubiously backed dens of iniquity still tend to trouble some, when the reality is that many hundreds of thousands, from the comfort of their homes or offices, throng the cybershops. And once you're on the net, you become less a gambler, more a trader, as my colleague Iain Fletcher explains in elaborate detail in his entertaining new book* on the gambling revolution produced by the genesis of betting exchanges.

In doing so, he demystifies this phenomenon, explaining how expressions such as "lays", "exposure" and "positions" are not ones necessarily filched from a porn director's vocabulary. The dominant force in a market whose numbers were reduced last week by the collapse of Sporting Options is Betfair, the brainchild of Andrew Black, a GCHQ worker based in Cheltenham. With too much spare time on his hands, the devil he created was a device which enables the customer both to back and lay (like a bookmaker) events online with a market of "matched" bets, principally on sport, that resembles the stock market.

From the start, Betfair has been superbly marketed, led by Mark Davies (son of commentator Barry), and the company have circled the covered wagons effectively to protect themselves from attack, both from potential rivals and vested interests, notably bookmakers.

To deflect one particular criticism - that it is making huge sums at the expense of horseracing - Betfair, though a private company, have revealed their first financial figures, a healthy but hardly excessive operating profit of £11.9 million for 2003-04, their fourth year of trading (after payment of £9.3m tax and £3.9m to the Levy Board). To counter another objection, essentially that the industry is still young and hence unstable, Betfair, in a move that was not entirely altruistic, also provided a rescue package for Sporting Options clients.

Fletcher, who describes one year as a "pro" on the exchanges in search of a profit and who works them with the mathematic agility of the city broker he once was, admits to an almost masochistic pleasure, describing his obsession as a combination of "fear and promise". He talks of loving "the gnawing at the stomach, the hollow feeling that borders on nausea. I love the anticipation and the angst".

From my own perspective, that of an occasional "player" who over four years has invested relatively small stakes and has remained comfortably ahead, that appears somewhat dangerous territory to occupy. I believe that you should only bet up to an amount about which you can shrug indifferently if you lose.

The eternal quest, for all of us, is value. Fletcher believed he had discovered it the day he laid Tiger Woods for the Masters. It was "a very aggressive lay of probably the most famous sportsman on the planet". If Woods lost, the profit would be £475 after commission, but at odds of 5.5-1, his exposure (the amount he would lose if Woods won) would be £2,250. "Sometimes there is a price that just seems ridiculous, and I thought this was one."

However, that was far from his only bet on this year's Masters. During the tournament, he also backed Woods; he laid Ernie Els, then backed him; and, most significantly, he laid Phil Mickelson, and laid him again, then belatedly backed him to win his first major. The American obliged with that 12-foot putt which defied the detractors who regarded him as a "bottler". "Bloody great viewing, and made even more enjoyable by the £342 I won instead of the £2,670 loss I could have suffered if I had carried out my full plan of laying him [Mickelson] to the bitter end," concludes Fletcher.

The best advice is one with which we both concur: betting against England, or any other of the home nations, isn't unpatriotic. It's common sense, at times. Certainly, laying Sven Goran Eriksson's team in friendlies can prove very lucrative.

* 'Game, Set and Matched: One Year on the Betting Exchanges' by Iain Fletcher (High Stakes, £9.99)

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