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Net losses before the gains

Steve Bunce reports on a curious lack of support for a world event
NETBALL has a serious image problem. Yesterday at the opening ceremony of the ninth world championships in Birmingham the indoor arena was almost empty and the parade of the 27 teams was unbelievably dull.

In England millions of schoolgirls play and there are nearly 4,000 clubs, but during the ceremony the teams arrived on centre court to just a few scattered shouts until the English team came out last. Their reception was marginally better.

The organisers, presumably in an effort not to appear tawdry, had employed the services of the Midlands Fire Service Band and a group of dancers called the Warwick Courtiers. A large helping of local reggae from Pato Banton or any of the tiny, teeny pop stars who entertain children would have been far better.

It was all so wholesome: Brownies, only leaner. The colourful head-dresses of the Cook Islanders and the traditional clothing of the Ugandan delegates briefly lit a dreadful lost opportunity for the sport to enter into the 1990s.

In the midst of the world's finest netball players the debutante USA team chewed gum and appeared amazingly relaxed.

"It may be our first time but there are plenty of experienced players in our team," said Jamaican born but Florida based Jacqueline Shaw, the president of the USA netball association. She was not kidding.

The entire 12 members of the USA team are from the West Indies. Many like Sybil Smith have competed in previous World Cups. Smith, originally from St Lucia but now working as an accountant in Brooklyn, competed at the 1979 games in Trinidad.

At the other end of the warm-up area the Republic of Ireland's genial squad of innocents were in stark contrast to the methodical and blase USA squad. "We have heard that the Americans are full of West Indians. We expected at least a few American girls but we're not too worried - we will see how they get on in their first game against the Malaysia," said World Cup veteran Claire Reid.

Others in the Republic's team had a curious look of resignation on their faces as they outlined various reasons why Jamaica, Australia and New Zealand have dominated every World Cup since its inception in 1963.

"They play a much harder and physical game. We are more skilful," said Dubliner Catrine Lawler. There are only 12 clubs in the Republic compared to Australia where there are over one million affiliated adult netballers.

The event will last two weeks and the most likely final is Australia against New Zealand and if that were to happen, it is feasible that the crowds would actually diminish. What the event needs is English or British success and the emergence of a player equivalent to the All Blacks' rugby star Jonah Lomu.

In fact, there are some Western Samoan and Cook Island competitors who share similar physical similarities with Lomo, but it remains to be seen if that will be enough to upset the stylish Jamaicans or the forceful Australian and New Zealand.