History wiped away by the swipe card

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The Independent Online
FLASH FORWARD two-and-a- half years. You have phoned into work with a "sickie". You may even have taken a fortnight's leave. You could have exploited a European Commission directive on working hours. But you're there in your living room, breakfast downed, and still in your pyjamas at 10 in the morning. The 2002 World Cup is under way and you face a choice of whether to pay or not pay to see a game, perhaps South Korea against France (these being two of the only three certain qualifiers at the moment).

But then you hesitate. Will it be worth the money? Why should I have to pay for something that was previously free on national television channels? If it's a bum game, do I get my money back? Will watching Namibia against Iran cost as much as Chile playing Brazil?

Some of these thoughts flitted through my mind last week when Fifa formally ended their exclusive relationships with the broadcasters of the countries competing in a World Cup tournament. Instead they signalled that it was now the turn of the satellite, cable and pay-per-view stations to broadcast the football to wherever it is wanted around the globe. Much of this had been hinted at three years ago when Fifa assigned the television rights to the tournament to the media mogul Leo Kirch for pounds 750m. Yes, only one team appeared to turn out for that particular shoot-out and it was, of course, German.

Kirch's company will now be busy selling assorted packages of rights to a whole host of companies on a highest-bid basis. Coincidentally, Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB last week spent pounds 940m buying into part of Kirch's Pay TV operation. In previous years Kirch has also entered deals with Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian media man who has Milan as one of his prize possessions.

Well, so what? Over the past seven years or so, we've become almost desensitised to inter-continental media machinations as far as our televised football is concerned. The Premier League clubs now play whenever their paymaster tells them, while European games are spread throughout midweek to enhance advertising revenue and sponsor exposure.

Divvying up the World Cup to as many disparate broadcasters as possible, and allowing them to charge the viewer whatever they can get, merely completes another stage in the cycle of free-market penetration. By 2006, I wouldn't be at all surprised if top geezers will be able to watch World Cup games on the screens of their mobile phones, or on overhead monitors hanging from the bespoke luggage racks of tilting trains.

The supposed saving grace of Fifa's new deal is that national television companies will still be able to screen the opening game, the two semi- finals and the World Cup final itself. And viewers will also be allowed access to live, "free" coverage of games involving their own country. Given the current ropey form and low rankings of our home nations this might not involve much more than three matches. But even this small comfort seems a cold one. For what memories of a World Cup will we be left with, other than the narrow bursts of jingoism created by "our lads" in action?

My televisual memory of World Cups goes back to 1966, and though England's win inevitably dominates, images of Eusebio, the North Koreans and Florian Albert of Hungary are equally potent. Indeed it is possible to encapsulate each tournament with a few names or images that were out of the mainstream. Remember Cubillas of Peru in 1970 or Haiti's goal against Italy in 1974?

What about Bernard Lacombe's first- minute goal for France against Italy in 1978, or Clive Thomas's last-second disallowance of a Brazilian goal? Enzo Bearzot's leonine face lives on from 1982, while Maradona's hand from '86 will be immortal and the last three tournaments have been lit up by outsiders performing beyond their expectations, in the form of Cameroon, Bulgaria and Croatia.

Equally valid perhaps have been the circumstances in which World Cups have been consumed, marking stages in our lives that will remain inextricably linked with the football on the screen. 1966 saw our family glued to the couch; there was A-level anxiety in 1970, a student common room in 1974, and then a boozy flat-share for the late nights of 1978. In 1982, I watched the tournament in France, while 1986 saw me in my first property. Italia 90 was split between the marital home and a special baby-care unit where our premature second son lay in an incubator. The last two World Cups have completed the circle, with youthful eyes gazing in wonder at Roberto Baggio and Zinedine Zidane.

So watching a World Cup is about much more than the football itself. It's about our progress through life; it's about a sense of communal experience and it's about recognising that there are greater footballing talents beyond our shores. But how much of this will come across in 2002, as we squat over our digital boxes, swipe-card in hand, trying to decide whether it's actually worth further enriching the money men who have stolen from us what should be a world festival?

AS A VERY occasional golfer, I was fascinated to learn from one of my local television programmes that only about 25 per cent of club players are actually insured for third-party liability. It seems that in our increasingly litigious age, the golf courses of Britain are bear-pits of legal action over personal injuries or what might be called collateral damage, caused by errant shots.

A specialist golf insurer reported that the going rate for being hit on the bonce by somebody else's golf ball was around pounds 4,000, with considerably more at stake for taking out a car's windscreen or denting its bonnet. The simple cry of "fore" is apparently no longer deemed sufficient cover for ineptitude or waywardness, which should send a shudder down the spines of the legions of hackers who prowl the fairways. Before you set out now, it's imperative that you have some sort of insurance cover not only for the carnage that you might cause, but also for the liability of a huge bar bill after hitting that unforgettable hole-in-one.

I fear that this revelation has finished my putative middle-aged involvement with the sport. Not only am I uninsurable in terms of the human cost, but I'm fairly certain that no policy would embrace my previous record of disruption to local wildlife. Several years ago, at a nine-hole course in Dorset, my soaring drive to the green so startled a sleeping deer in a bush that the poor creature set off for the sea like Carl Lewis and wasn't seen again. Equally, my last visit to a driving range saw a magnificent hooked tee-shot curl so low it biffed a pigeon minding its own business near the boundary fence. "Bird-party" insurance? I don't think so.

NOW THAT Andy Cole, Dwight Yorke and David Beckham have all been hit with driving bans, I wonder when those bright sparks in the spread-betting industry will start offering margins on the entire Manchester United squad being car-less by the end of the season. At fifty grand a week Roy Keane can probably afford the luxury of a chauffeur, but those struggling on 25 big ones are at greater risk. So which will be the bigger total, their points in the Premiership, or those on their driving licences?