Game under the influence of moralisers

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The Independent Online
Following their victory over Switzerland on Thursday, Holland's players joined with wives and friends for a celebratory party at which, I can exclusively reveal, drinks were freely, openly and in some cases enthusiastically consumed while members of the media mingled with the jolly throng doing interviews, taking pictures and having a sip or two themselves.

Whether anyone got rat-arsed is of no interest to me nor, apparently, to the Dutch newspapers, which published pictures of the revellers with no accompanying moralising. The contrast with the resounding condemnation of the drinking partialities of some of the England team could hardly be greater.

Any English player who puts himself within reaching distance of strong liquor can expect denouncements to follow in the next edition. Charles Taylor, sports editor of De Telegraaf, one of Holland's leading popular papers, can scarcely credit what he has been reading.

"Sports people are not on the whole educated to the highest level. They are very influenceable and the kind of rubbish that newspapers like the Sun have been printing can do a lot of harm to individuals and the collective spirit," said Taylor, a Dutchman despite his name.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to compare the two countries in this matter. Holland have enjoyed a highly respected place in world football for many years and seem to suffer from little of the latent loutishness present in an England team that has long laboured forlornly to earn the love of the nation. Neither is Holland the centre of an uncompromising circulation war among whose frontline troops are an unprecedented number of columnists primed to hurl outrage at anything that moves.

Even a modest run of English success would help to calm things and redirect attention to those green acres upon which any judgement on the worth of a player ought to be based. But so much damage has been caused already that you wonder if it can be easily repaired.

Strangely, the Football Association have yet to receive the full ration of the blame - they deserve the three lions' share - for the shameful episodes in the Far East and on the return journey. Whatever happens to the growing suspicion that a sizable ticket cock-up has occurred, they face an indictment of having made a big contribution to the disappointment of England's first match against Switzerland.

It has yet to be established whose bright idea it was to take the squad to play meaningless matches in China and Hong Kong so close to the start of the championship but to inflict the peculiarities of jet-leg on your players was an act of folly. To permit the players to have unlimited access to alcohol for many hours amounts to serious negligence.

Experts are united in concluding that the dehydrating effect of all that drink coupled with the air journey would have remained in the systems of the players long enough to cause their dramatic and costly lapse of energy in the second half of the Swiss game.

The behaviour of certain members of the England team falls well short of what should be expected of highly paid athletes but drink- inspired high-jinks were not invented by the present England football team. Indeed, they would finish way down any list of team misbehaviour during the last century. The difference is that the public are far more likely to grass on them these days and the press more ready to make a meal of it.

Thus, we have the paradox that no team has been surrounded by more PR men and advisers and no team has created more bad publicity. I can't imagine why, once they were given an ill-advised two days off at the beginning of last week, they weren't told to keep away from public drinking. The fuss over the drinks had by such as Paul Ince and Terry Sheringham was ridiculous but so predictable. My impression of the FA's public relations team is that they couldn't organise abstinence in a monastery.

It was obvious that the media spotlight was going to shine a piercing light on every scrap of activity. After 30 years without staging a major football tournament, we couldn't expect the players to realise the perils of, for want of a couth expression, shitting on their own doorstep.

Now we have the sinister sound of a temperance backlash being organised. There will be no shortage of climbers on to the bandwagon. It was amusing during the week to read the surveys carried out by one or two newspapers on the drinking arrangements of the other teams engaged in Euro 96.

They were hardly likely to admit to having the biggest bunch of piss- heads ever assembled in their country's colours. They confined themselves to unbelievable claims of the kind that their players drink a daily glass of wine between five of them and all are in bed by 10pm with back-issues of Football Monthly.

Scotland, where drinking has never been a problem, confessed to having a strict regime in which the players must drink three litres of non-alcoholic liquid after a game before contemplating anything stronger. This is the sort of clap-trap we must brace ourselves to hear. The only way most footballers are going to ingest those three litres is if they fall into the river on their way to the pub.

Like it or not, there is a strong relationship between sport and alcohol that goes back to the very dawn of organised games. Most if not all of our modern game were born on licensed premises. The FA itself was formed in the Freemasons Tavern at Lincoln's Inn Fields. The Rugby League sprang to life in The George in Huddersfield . . . the history books tell us that almost every game, union, league, association and club, had its rules and constitution hammered out in a public house or hotel bar.

We then gave those games to an ungrateful world which doesn't realise that laws they abide by today were most likely framed by men who were half-boozed at the time.

This doesn't give anyone the right to take this traditional partnership to excess but it is worth remembering when the reformers make their move. Football teetotalism must be nipped in the Budweiser. Moderation by all means but we must remain faithful to our history. Football has always been more than just a game of two halves.

TOMORROW, a big step will be taken towards settling the Derby's future. United Racecourses, owners of Epsom, will meet to decide to recommend to the sponsors, Vodafone, whether the race should be switched back to Wednesday after the second of two experimental appearances on Saturday last weekend.

I trust they will do the sensible thing and scurry back to the uncluttered and traditional day to which it belongs. It might have have been unfortunate that this year it clashed with England's opening game in Euro 96 but this great event appeared to be no more than an overture to the football.

It deserves better than that but, on a Saturday in June, it will invariably clash with another big event given the crowded sports programme. I don't quite understand why the sponsors should have the final word. There are more important considerations than mere commercialism.

The Vodafone I am calling might be switched off but I'll say it nevertheless: a decent sponsor would return the Derby to the exclusive day on which it belongs.

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