I liked Richard Keys' drum roll the best. "Coming up, the most eagerly awaited Fair Play handshake of all time." It captured the absurdity of the non-event superbly. Keys actually downplayed it; this was the most eagerly awaited handshake since Yitzhak Rabin reluctantly touched flesh with Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn.
Alas, President Clinton wasn't at Stamford Bridge to do the cajoling. Although reading some reporting in the build-up, it is a surprise he was not persuaded. So Wayne Bridge ultimately refused the hand of John Terry. And the symbolism ran up the Kings Road with all the gusto of the great flood. Fifa's Fair Play procedure will never be the same again...
Actually, Bridge inadvertently did Fifa a favour. Before yesterday the pre-match slapping of palms was the most wholly ineffective gesture in the history of meaningless tokens. Yesterday, viewers were forced to consider its significance, however fleetingly. Maybe even the other players were as well, maybe that accounts for Chelsea's soft edge. Fifa should go ahead and fine Bridge for ignoring their edict. The message would then be rammed home. The governing body is serious about ridding the sport of its indignities. Just as its website so evocatively states.
"The handshake," reads Fifa.com, "is to ensure players send the correct signal to the fans. It will tell them: 'Despite a hard battle, emotions, disappointment or frustration, look, we are still friends. We are thanking our opponents and the match officials for a good game and have accepted the result. So, stay calm, and remember that no matter what is at stake in a match, it is ultimately only a game to be contested in accordance with the Laws of the Game and not to be dwelled upon once it reaches its conclusion and we leave the pitch."
Note that there is no asterix which reads *"unless the opponent has slept with your missus". Obviously, Bridge should therefore be made to suffer still further. Pour encourager les autres – as Michel would say – if nothing else.
At least then something good may emerge from a tale which was instantly granted the "tawdry, sorry" prefix in each and every national publication, including this one. There was a school of thought – or there seemed to be – a few weeks ago that the Bridge-Terry-Vanessa-Toni-Others love pentagon had established Fabio Capello as a leader of such blessed ruthlessness and decisiveness. We were assured that by sacking Terry as national captain – in just 12 minutes, don't forget – Capello had produced a masterclass of management. Maybe now, as we finally realise that this mess will become even messier, we can all see that Capello's action was, in fact, blindingly obvious.
As he demoted Terry, Capello would have known that the danger of squad rifts remained clear and present. And he knows it still does now, despite Bridge's international "retirement". If you don't believe this then you must be one of those pragmatists who insisted right from the very off in this scandal that what happens off the pitch should have no relation to what happens on it. Well, it does, as we may well have witnessed yesterday. And it's no use in saying that if Bridge was as professional as Terry that he, too, could keep his job separate from his private life. The truth is that Terry did not act very professionally in not acknowledging that the betrayal of a best friend – and more importantly of a team-mate – would have its consequences on his profession. Those consequences may yet prove to be decidedly more costly to England than the loss of a reserve left-back.
There is and will continue to be sympathy for Bridge as the victim who has ended up suffering a double whammy and when the going gets sticky in South Africa, as it invariably does with England, any resentment in the squad will bubble to the surface. Sure, the other players could and should be able to rise above it and concentrate on what they are being paid for. But they are footballers, not accountants, and emotions do happen to simmer and fester in the claustrophobic environs of a team hotel. Any erosion of squad unity, or resulting distraction, may be critical to England's chances. This is set to be the legacy of Terry's disgrace.
At this point, many will point to the most pathetic aspect of this "tawdry" saga and point to the clouding over of an infinitely more important story. And no, we're not talking about what could be seen as a vital afternoon in the title race. This column is as guilty as any in not donating this space to the first Premier League club going into administration. How defining could last week's news from Portsmouth prove? So why does what is essentially a personal spat take precedence in the headlines? Depressingly, that is all too simple to explain.
In those American blockbusting soap operas they call it "the killer storyline". It's the plot rumbling along in the background which the script-writers fail to control because of all the jaw-dropping mayhem they are intent in wreaking up front. Eventually the viewers will see what has come to pass and then that's it, finito. Dallas went this way in a tale of its own hubris, as did Dynasty. The debauchery was never sustainable and neither is it in the Premier League. That is why we need largely irrelevant sub-plots to divert our attention from the grim reality. As Jack Nicholson once put it, "You can't handle the truth".
So thank you, Wayne and John, and go on then, Ashley, too. You're doing one hell of a job in keeping the tills in the Big Top ringing. As the tent-pegs buckle and the guide ropes go ping.
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