13 August 2000
13 August 2000
Adding extra piquancy to the new football season about to engulf us is the doubly enchanting prospect of being able to avoid watching England play and save money at the same time. Whereas the official reaction to the news that England's World Cup qualifier in Finland on 11 October is to be shown live only on a pay-per-view channel was one of horror, some of us saw much less reason for dismay.
A future in which pay-per-view football will be the norm is as inevitable as being able to watch games on your mobile phone, and we should be bracing ourselves for the many difficult decisions about which games are worth paying for and which are not.
England's recent endeavours in the international arena have not suggested that they deserve a high box-office rating. Few countries on earth contain as many breasts from which hope springs more eagerly when the national team runs out to play but that is largely due to a triumph of patriotism over realism. It will be interesting to see how much of that hope is bankable.
Kevin Keegan has been the most vociferous critic of the match being screened by a little-known pay channel, u>direct, on BSkyB's digital service. The decision to go private was taken by the Finnish FA and the English can do nothing but moan about it on the grounds that the national team should be available for all to see at no extra charge.
This has long been a dubious privilege and Keegan might be glad of the privacy if England don't raise their game above the level we saw in Euro 2000. To those of us who will happily fail to fork out the £10 or so it will cost to watch the Finland match, it could be pointed out that it has always been in our power to avoid watching England by turning to another channel.
That may well have been our resolve but the build-up to an English match is usually so illogically tempting that even inquisitive neighbours feel impelled to take a peep. Rarely, in the past decades at least, has the watcher been sufficiently rewarded. By placing a tenner toll on that curiosity, they make it easy to resist.
There are better times than this to think about England. It is precisely because of the frustrations of the team's inadequacies in Holland and Belgium that we have been looking forward to the new season because, as always, we look to the clubs to replenish our spirits.
The wounding reminder of our international shortcomings has been heavily salted since June by the interminable inquests into the reasons why we are not producing a higher standard of player. The fact that this failing has been in existence for many years is overlooked as new voices join the clamour.
Citing the number of foreign players here is the most popular theory but, as I have pointed out before, the presence of so many imports is the result of our lack of top players, not the cause of it. If our guests went home tomorrow, or even half of them, our clubs would be left with a gap in standards that would take years to fill.
Our strength is in our clubs and in them is deeply embedded the foundations of our interest in the national game. I don't hear any complaints about foreign players from the supporters of the clubs whose teams have a high proportion. Why should they complain? Since League football began here in 1888, English clubs have recruited heavily from Scotland, Wales and Ireland and, in football terms, the Celts are as foreign as anyone else.
When they weren't blasting foreigners, our headlines have been preoccupied with the high wages our players command. This has been tempered slightly by reports of much higher wages being paid on the Continent. Who cares anyway? It is only when they don't produce that we bring up the question of their wages - perhaps if we did that more often we might get more for our money.
Besides, nest-feathering is far more advanced in the City and business worlds and they haven't even got a crowd to please. Many people seem to have a problem in seeing the game for what it is; not a sort of national measuring stick but a collection of teams that for one reason or another millions of us are bound to with hoops of steel.
A football match is an entity. Essentially, it is not part of some bigger picture, it is a contest between two teams and if you don't badly want one or the other to win then you are not going to experience the same racking of your emotions as those who do. It doesn't matter how the supposed standard compares with other countries or whether we are 15 years behind the rest of the world. It's a game we've been totally immersed in for longer than anyone else and they can't take from us the passion for it that has been seared into our soul for 112 years.
And whatever happens, whatever misfortunes befall the game at large, we greet each season with relief and honed anticipation. Anyone submitting the summer that English football has endured to an objective examination would rate it a PR disaster. England's flop at Euro 2000, the hooliganism, the farce of the World Cup 2006 bid, controversy about foreigners, wage-levels, ticket prices, the cost of replica shirts... it's all part of our great football carnival and it's good to have it back.
From this weekend, referees will be taking steps to stamp out petulance - 10 steps, in fact, will be paced out towards goal by the referee if he gets any dissent after awarding a free-kick.
The 10-yard advance works very well in rugby and has been experimented with in football over the past two years. It was tried out first in Jersey and in the lower leagues in England last season. Before Fifa decide to implement it worldwide they want it tested on our top 92 clubs this season. I can't wait to see it foisted on the Italians but we will do for a start.
Last season was disfigured by the sight of players screaming protests at the referee after free-kick decisions.
Manchester United's manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, is against the new law because, he argues, it will lead to different interpretations from ref to ref. But , surely, all laws are subject to individual assessments. I can understand his concern because United have a few serial dissenters in their midstbut referees have room to use their discretion.
There's a distinct difference between a spontaneous reaction of dismay at conceding a free-kick and an orchestrated attempt to mob the referee and weaken his resolve with subsequent decisions in mind.
I'm less concerned with players, who should learn to curb their incessant yapping, or the ability of referees to use the law wisely than I am with the law as it stands. When the move was first mooted, I imagined that when a free-kick was awarded less than 10 yards outside the penalty area it automatically became a penalty if the ref docked the defending team the 10 yards for dissent. That would be a real deterrent. But, no; the kick is taken as normal.
A free-kick from 19 yards would become a free-kick from nine yards and the defenders, i.e. the whole team, could line up on the goal-line, thereby making it harder to score. Around the penalty area, the nearer a free-kick is to goal the easier it is to defend against. It is a fascinating and worthwhile experiment, but this law may end up back in the committee room.Reuse content