Necessary shock therapy for the football maniac

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The Independent Online
WHEN England are knocked out of the World Cup, there is one thing of which you can be absolutely sure. Someone, somewhere, will be asked by a journalist or television reporter how they are feeling on the morning after the defeat the night before, and they will think for a moment and say: "Well, as the great Bill Shankly put it..."

Shankly had one of the finest football minds of them all, but his lasting contribution to the English language was the most crass observation ever to leave even a manager's mouth. Anyone who trots it out during France 98 this summer should be immediately forced to watch a video of Escobar's Own Goal (C4), a film which will also serve as an indelible reminder that there are plenty of genuine tragedies in this life, but that losing a game of football can never be among them.

It is another favourite line among the pundits - like the alleged "naivety" of African defences - that the South Americans produce great footballers because the game offers street kids their only chance of a better life. The image is a Latin version of a Picture Post urban childhood - it were tough, but we were happy.

But no matter how grim the old back-to-backs may have been, they were mansions compared to the barrios of Colombia, where millions live and die (violently and young, as a rule) in unspeakable poverty.

Richard Sanders, a British journalist who is clearly besotted, confused and sickened by the country in equal measure, conducted our tour of the slums of Medellin, where sudden death is an hourly occurrence and the gangsters who can afford to buy floodlights for the barrio's dirt pitch earn the same respect as a Home Counties Rotarian.

It was an absorbing and distressing journey. At its heart was one murder among the 40 in Medellin alone on a Friday night in 1994, that of Andres Escobar, the Colombian defender who had scored an own goal against the United States during the 1994 World Cup just a few days earlier.

It may have been a spontaneous attack, or an assassination planned by disgruntled gamblers, and as Sanders pointed out, the tragedy of Colombia is that either theory is entirely believable. What seems certain is that his attacker shouted "goal" every time he pulled the trigger. Escobar was due to be married less than a fortnight later.

Down in the barrios, Sanders met Jorge Molano, a potential star for Nacional Medellin, Escobar's club side. Already, he carries the scar of a bullet wound, and he agreed with his young friend, Kain, that a violent life will probably be a short one, but it will at least be one with money.

Finally, Sanders watched Colombia play Ecuador in a World Cup qualifier, knowing that the Colombian coach had received a death threat shortly before the game kicked off. A late goal after an inspired substitution might possibly have saved the manager's life. Its scorer, however, immediately dedicated the goal "with love and respect to some people behind bars". He meant the Rodriguez brothers, the bosses of the Cali drugs cartel. So compelling was this picture of a tormented country and its football, that somehow it seemed only natural.

After an hour mired in the misery of Colombia, there was a definite hint of culture shock as one flick of the remote control transported you to the opulence of Augusta National and the US Masters (BBC1 and 2). With almost four hours of coverage on the first night alone, the Beeb rose stoutly to the challenge of Sky, and with Rae's Creek - not to mention Peter Alliss - burbling gently in the background, the time simply flew by.

No one but Alliss could watch someone move their ball three pathetic feet closer to a dry stone wall and chuckle: "Ooooh-hoo-hoo-hoo, now he's done it." May his waggle never wobble.

The third highlight of an exceptional week was Living With Lions (ITV), which, after the dismal failure of Premier Passions, was evidence that the sporting fly-on-the-wall documentary is not finished yet. Premier Passions was contrived and self-conscious, and when Sunderland finally got relegated a fortnight ago, most of the country let out a whoop of relief.

Living With Lions, though, managed to get into the hearts and minds of its subjects, and even though you knew they were going to win, you still crunched into every tackle, shoulder-to-shoulder with the brave lads in red.

This may have had something to do with the pre-match pep-talks of Keith Wood, the Irish hooker, who could usefully be employed by Bernard Matthews each December to persuade the turkeys to march into the big black building at the end of the lawn.

Wood was also that essential ingredient of a good fly-on-the-wall, a thoroughly likeable and entertaining character whose contributions were always worth waiting for.

Even his fairly crude lunge at a belly-dancer during a post- victory celebration was almost excused by his sheepish admission afterwards that "belly buttons and pregnant women" make him go weak at the knees.

Memo to the front row of his next opponents: before the first scrum, gentlemen, raise your shirts.