Jumping to conclusions over Le Lunge : Sport on TV

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The Independent Online
THIS was the week that Gary Lineker, back from Japan, started his new job as soccer chat-meister - a spot of co-presentation on Football Focus (BBC1, Saturday), some punditry on Match of the Day and Sportsnight (BBC1, Saturday and Wednesday), a pl ace inthe studios of Radio 5 in midweek and also a column in a Sunday newspaper.

And what happened? Virtually the entire Football League programme was wiped out by the weather; those games which weren't might as well have taken place on one of the more complicated rides at Waterworld; and Manchester United's finest player flung himself horizontally into the chest of a Crystal Palace supporter. Welcome back to English football, Gary.

Lineker looked about 17 when he left for Japan and now he's returned he looks about 12. Football Focus packed him off to the Tottenham training ground to examine the new spirit under Gerry Francis. "Something had to happen - and it has done," said Teddy Sheringham in a statement which gets more puzzling the longer you look at it. "Jurgen Klinsmann's taken to it like a duck out of water," said Gerry Francis. In verbal whirlpools like these, you can see why broadcasters go for Lineker's calming influence.

On the business of George Graham's financial irregularity: "I don't know what George Graham's defence is, but, for his sake, I hope it's better than Arsenal's was against Millwall." Boom, boom.

It was good to have Lineker around on Sportsnight for the Cantona incident, too - someone who could quietly point out that abuse is the native language up there in the stands. How serious was this moment? Well, Desmond Lynam had a pair of glasses on - that's how serious it was. "One of the most amazing things I've ever seen at a football match," said Lineker from somewhere inside a courageous mix of checks and stripes. "Extraordinary to go in feet first," said Des, analytically. "He's lost les ma rbles," said Gary. Boom, boom again.

It has to be said, the actual Cantona incident was a good deal less tawdry than the torrent of pious garbage written in its wake. There has been much sad head-shaking and accusing Cantona of "bringing the game into disrepute". No one has attempted to back up the implicit allegation that the game was in some sort of "repute" before this happened. Some have referred to "a stain upon football", as if a new stain would even show up on soccer's bib at this point, what with all the ketchup, the brown sa uce, the mud and the dribble.

Should we extend any sympathy towards Matthew Simmons, the man whom Cantona clattered? There he was, innocently going about his business as a football supporter - royally relishing the misfortune of an opponent - and suddenly he's one-on-one with the wayward French genius. This would be a bit like a computer game crashing out of the screen at you. It's understood that the aggression directed by fans at the pitch is a kind of fantasy aggression, that the abuse is a kind of virtual abuse. If real consequences followed from the vigorous accusations of incompetence one makes inside football grounds, Chelsea's Paul Furlong and me would be out in the carpark on a weekly basis. Frankly, I wouldn't fancy myself. Would I berate him in similar tone and at the same volume if I met him outside the ground? No, I would not. (In any case, I would be reduced to a state of speechless fawning.)

The football stadium is an enclosed world in which normal rules do not apply. It may be no bad thing for us to be reminded by Cantona of the frailty of that construct. Then again, there's accusations of incompetence and there's other kinds of abuse. Until all the evidence is gathered and marshalled, we can't be entirely sure what Simmons said to inspire Cantona to hop over the barrier and have a word with him. Given Cantona's intellectuality, perhaps the surest way to wind him up would be to challenge him on a philosophical basis. It may well turn out, in the fullness of the police inquiry, that what Simmons actually shouted was: "Eric! Your conception of individuality is grossly diluted! You fail to acknowledge the despair pendant upon the absurdity of the human predicament! Abandon your semi-consciousness! You're acquiescent and you know you are! Come and have a go if you think you're Sartrian enough!"

But, as I understand it, they don't have a lot of time for existentialism down at Selhurst Park. So one is more inclined to believe the statements from Wednesday night's eye witnesses who maintained that what Cantona faced as he left the pitch was a torrent of abuse relating principally to his origins in France and the desirability of his returning there as soon as possible. In which case, I beg to differ with Gary Lineker's verdict that what Cantona did was "inexcusable".

There is an important initiative in place at football grounds across the country to stamp out racism. It appears Cantona may only have been interpreting this campaign in a baldly literal manner. It was not the kind of protest which Martin Luther King instructed us in. Best to show racism a clean pair of heels. But failing that, how about a dirty set of studs?

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