LIBERO: Signal failure in a sea of red

Why Fifa must not backtrack on their get-tough policy and keep up the pressure on referees
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THE NADIR was 1990. Off the field, Italy's World Cup was a joyous, colourful event made glorious by a country with a profound feeling for football; on it, there was an attritional, spiteful mood that made for grim viewing. Never again, said the game's governing body. Never say never, though.

Stricter application of the rules in the United States in 1994 led to a more expansive and enjoyable tournament, with more goals being scored and more creative play encouraged. Going a step further for France 98, Fifa told us that the foul tackle from behind would be an automatic red card so that the ball player could concentrate on the ball and not on the man. Not so far, however.

The low point came on Wednesday night when Cameroon's Njanka might just as well have taken a scythe to Roberto Baggio. A yellow card was produced where it should have been red. Raymond Kalla's later dismissal was scant redress, even if Cameroon were properly punished by the 3-0 scoreline.

Clearly there was a backlash the next day as the red-carded confetti came out in the Denmark-South Africa and France-Saudi Arabia games, the referees undoubtedly instructed to be firmer. The five red may have been excessive but at least a reminder of players' responsibilities had been issued.

Previously, the Baggio tackle was not an isolated oversight. From the outset, bad tackles have been being penalised often by just a free-kick - where the victim is lucky. "Some referees are not applying the rule about the tackle from behind and should be sent home as soon as possible," said the co-president of the organising committee, Michel Platini. Quite.

Apart from lenient officials, the worst offenders are the emerging nations. There has been much patronising drivel about how they brighten up the competition, but some of the tackling by the Iranians, Tunisians and Moroccans has been brutally amateurish and they should not be here unless they can adhere to the rules. In addition, there has been an increase in shirt- pulling, something referees should also be clamping down on.

The main problem is that bad players have proved themselves unable to adapt, whereas the better defenders of the better countries have introduced self-policing into their game, as was no doubt the intention of the rule. As a result, where two good sides are in competition, such as Spain and Nigeria, a more open match develops and more goals are scored, which is the general idea, after all.

One can only hope that when the second round begins at the weekend - the real World Cup, rather than the current simulated showbiz - and the more proficient teams are on view, that the more gifted players will come into their own.

Fifa's aim in increasing the size of the tournament - not mentioning, of course, the money-making nature of the exercise - was "pour encourager les autres" in the world game, so that standards and status will improve.

There is little sign of it so far. It may be that teams can organise themselves with the aid of foreign coaches so that they are difficult to beat - though lack of concentration at set pieces often undermines them - and thus give the impression of a closing of gaps. But, in reality, they have demonstrated only patchily the quality necessary. Finals are, after all, supposed to be about the excellence of the elite.

Fifa should now keep up the pressure on referees if we are not to endure another gloomy week like last. Hang the pandering to those coaches whose pre-tournament bleating about seems to have paid off. After '90, we almost witnessed the extinction of the talented ball player in favour of the solid athlete. Now that we are getting a few back, players such as the Brazilian Denilson - if we ever get to see him, that is - Fifa must not backtrack.

IT WAS somewhat lost in the telephonic transmission or translation. One newspaperman sent in his account of events in Marseilles last Monday but his news desk was baffled. What could he mean when he said that to deal with violent England fans, "vanloads of John Barnes" arrived on the scene?

THE ARGENTINE Football Association had a novel idea for dealing with its own hard-core hooligan element of around 100: they would pay for them all to come to France, if the hoolies in turn agreed to behave themselves. A pact was cagily signed.

All went well, apparently, until Argentina's first match against Japan. The hard-core quickly realised that they could get up to 1,000 pounds for their tickets from desperate Japanese and duly flogged them. Now the Argentinian officials, perhaps wearied by having to travel around with the 100, are rethinking their strategy.

Inevitably one's thoughts turn to whether this might work with the English. First there is the question of whether it is right that crime should pay; for the next World Cup there might even be a queue of miscreants seeking to get on this "most wanted" list. Then, could we really see Graham Kelly and the rest of the FA executives playing travel managers to a cadre of Combat 18?

Sadly, it does seem unworkable. In fact when the phrase "if you can't beat them, join them" comes up, the temptation for those of us around Marseilles last week is to reply that the solution is simply to beat them.

MY daily paper colleague Glenn Moore turned up for a David Beckham press conference the other day wearing a sarong, in the hope that this might cheer up England's dropped and downcast midfield player. It duly brought a smile to the face of the bleach boy who earned much publicity when he stepped out in such attire with Ms Posh Spice recently. It has to be said, however, that two sarongs do not make a right.