Peter Corrigan's Column: Political football for Blatter or worse

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The Independent Online
AMID THE disgrace, the betrayal, the dishonourable conniving and the other atrocities accompanying the rape of the Football Association Challenge Cup, there are two underlying questions that cannot be answered despite exhaustive sifting through the thousands of words expounded on the subject of the withdrawal of Manchester United from next season's competition.

First, what is the reason for the hellfire urgency behind England's frantic attempts to secure the 2006 World Cup? Secondly, what are Fifa conducting - a serious investigation to establish which country is best equipped to stage the event or an arse-licking contest? If it is the latter, we should be home and dry considering the number of expensive visits abroad undertaken by the FA's representatives and the ubiquitous Minister for Sport, Tony Banks. At an estimated cost of pounds 7m and heaven knows how many man hours that would have been better spent on more pressing problems at home, we've crawled our way around the world touting for votes.

Our envoys will be at it again in Los Angeles this week when Fifa hold a congress to coincide with the finals of the women's World Cup (for which none of our teams qualified but surely not for lack of encouragement and finance).

But the real opportunity to ingratiate ourselves with the world power - when our "Suck up to Sepp" campaign comes to a head, so to speak - has a touch of divine sponsorship. Fifa's president, Sepp Blatter, has had the idea of introducing a world club championship to be held in Brazil between the champions of the six continents, plus Real Madrid and the Brazilian team Corinthians, between 5 and 14 January. No time could be less convenient for an English football club, yet the fact that Manchester United are European champions offers a brown-nosing opportunity beyond our wildest dreams.

But wait. What about the FA Cup, the fourth round of which falls within that period? United should pull out of it, say the Government and the FA. It would do "irreparable damage" to our 2006 campaign, says Banks. It would send the "worst possible" signal to world football, added the FA's David Davies. Both seem unashamed that it has been since refuted by Fifa that United's attendance would have any bearing on the 2006 decision.

Apart from the fact that the FA Cup is nothing to do with them, we can be a little tolerant of the Government because barking up the wrong tree is an occupational hazard with politicians. But what can you say about the FA, an organisation that has trundled its unwieldy, reactionary but steady way for 136 years and suddenly makes this inexplicable lunge off the rails.

For what other purpose do they exist but to promote and protect the game within the confines of its mother country? And there is nothing more central to that than the strict guardianship of the world's oldest football tournament and the only one that bears their name.

There's only one place for Manchester United to be on Saturday 8 January 2000. Their glitzy coach should be gliding through the drab streets of some run-down suburb, passing lines of tongue-poking kids before turning into the dowdy entrance of one of our more homely football grounds whereupon they would take part in a tumultuous ritual almost as old as football itself.

The echoes of the millennium celebrations and Auld Lang Synes of bumper bonhomie would have scarcely died away as they offered themselves to the hot breath and wild eyes of the aspiring giant-killers with whom the random mercy of the FA Cup had drawn them.

It is possible, of course, that they would avoid a confrontation with the lesser brethren who lie in wait in the gloom of January to ambush one of our glamour clubs. That the man-eating minnows have succeeded on so many occasions is the main reason why the cup has retained its magic. It all depends on the draw, of course, but you can be sure that every lowly team that enters the competition is succoured by the dream of drawing a giant and not for many years, if ever, have we possessed one as gigantic as United.

The FA Cup is an essential part of football's fabric; an annual reunion with reality, a chance for the lowly to level things with the mighty, a coming down to earth, a reminder to everyone of their roots. It is also regarded as a pain in the arse by many top clubs who resent the risk of embarrassment and meagre gate money share that goes with it.

And if they had been trying to wheedle their way out of it I would not have been surprised. But for the FA themselves to insult and downgrade the competition is appalling, especially on such dubious grounds.

Obviously, if the World Cup is on offer we ought to be up for it. It saves England having to go through the increasingly humiliating qualification process and means we don't have to suffer the acute shame of our hooligans defiling another country. It also forces us to upgrade our stadiums, but that is already happening. It brings in revenue and promotes the game, but only if England do well.

But there are not enough plus points to justify the crazed passion with which the Government and the FA are pursuing it. And, certainly, it not worth the sacrifice of our footballing heritage. The world may beat us with distressing regularity on the international field but they can never take from us the compelling intensity of our domestic competitions, among which the FA Cup is paramount. For us to surrender that treasure on some spurious and highly suspect political reasoning is insane.

I have a strong feeling that this is not going to happen, but the FA should act now to recover their position as the game's guardians.

The quicker this damaging decision is reversed and its perpetrators reminded of their priorities, the quicker we can get on with the more important problems that crowd in on our game.

AN interesting little cameo is developing in advance of the Rugby World Cup. New Zealand, probably the favourites at the moment, are to take delivery of a revolutionary tight-fitting jersey made of light-weight, chamois- like material that will be difficult for opponents to grip.

The manufacturers, Adidas, have also added panels across the front that will make spillages less likely. The jerseys will not be used until the World Cup and Adidas will supply them to no other team until after the tournament.

Since the All Blacks are the last team to need any extra help, rumbles of discontent are being heard from their rivals. The International Rugby Board say there is nothing in the regulations to make the jerseys illegal but I would be surprised if the IRB didn't want to examine them in advance to check that unfair advantage is being sought.

Meanwhile, given the intense rivalry among sports goods firms, I suspect that even now scientists are slaving away to concoct magic garments other countries can wear. If they care to contact me I've already patented a Vaseline-smeared frogman's suit with a strip of Velcro on the chest so that players can stick the ball on it and have both hands free to fend off tacklers.

SKY TV were fortunate that the First Test provided such a lively introduction to their coverage of England and initial impressions of their commentaries and camera angles were very good. The Sky-line adds an interesting view and even the commercial breaks failed to spoil the smoothness of it all, due no doubt to the adept use of a shoe-horn.

There was also the indication of beady eye for controversy. The replay of Matthew Horne's dismissal by Alan Mullally caught an exchange between bowler and departing batsman. My knowledge of modern oathing being sketchy, I couldn't make out the adjective. But the noun was definitely "twat". David Lloyd bumbled something about it being a big boys' game. The big boys are going to have to master the art of cursing without moving their lips.