Shirty players have got their lions crossed

Click to follow
The Independent Online
REPRESENTING your country in the sporting arenas of the world is a great honour but no longer, it appears, as attractive as representing yourself. Hence, the three most imposing players due to carry England's hopes into the World Cup finals in three weeks time were at the Football Association last week thumping the table in support of the squad's right to a little commercial individuality.

Goalkeeper David Seaman, centre-half Tony Adams and centre-forward and captain Alan Shearer are the very backbone of the England team on the field and while not in action act as more vocal vertabrae on behalf of their colleagues. Their meeting was to agree the final details of a new contract for sponsorship earnings after the World Cup and, alas, the talks were scuppered by a snag that may well lead both parties into court.

The argument surrounds the players' entitlement to exploit their membership of the English team by accepting individual sponsorship that may cut across deals done by the FA involving the squad collectively. Supposing England won the World Cup - we are taking hypothesis for a long walk, here - the demand for using the players to endorse products would be colossal.

Quite reasonably, the FA want to ensure that any deal they did using the squad would not by upstaged by a player, resplendent in his England shirt, supporting a rival product. That is why they are insisting on players seeking permission to wear the England crest in an advertisement. Whose three lions are they, anyway?

Fascinating as they are, the facts of the matter are less important than the question of what possesses the FA to allow their players to be involved in such a squalid little row at a time when they should be thinking of naught else but giving their all for England?

It didn't help that the FA's commercial director, Phil Carling, used words like "ambush" and "morality" when commenting on the rift or that he concluded: "We are hoping common sense will prevail because it doesn't benefit the FA or the players to have the Sword of Damocles hanging over us."

Why a commercial man should give Damocles a plug when he could have got a much better price from Wilkinson is a poser that can tackled some other time. More to the point is that even if the tiff was unavoidable why was it allowed to get into the headlines and drag yet another negative feature across England's World Cup skyline?

When it comes to nipping an embarrassing story in the bud, the FA have a recent record of being distressingly slow and their damage limitation is even less effective. Yet, it is not clear who wanted to bring it into the open.

The players or, more probably their agents, might have considered that by leaking the facts they would force the FA into a rapid settlement for the sake of peace. Or, it may have been that in a rare display of cunning the FA gambled on letting the world see what grasping hearts beat below their countries' colours. Either way, the impression is not flattering.

It is bad enough that the public have had to withstand acres of print regarding the assistance the English players are receiving from faith- healing, astrology, auto-suggestion, detoxification units, low-fat diets, high kebab diets... it insults the enthusiasm already building up among their followers for it to be revealed that their innermost thoughts are not wandering around the high plains of nirvana but busily seeking spoils of which they have yet to be proved worthy.

It would be easier to tolerate if the players were perceived to be in need of better reward - a category into which the heroes of 1966 would justifiably fall - but of all the things that the England team lack at the moment, money is the last that would come to mind and is certainly a long way behind glory, success, admiration and respect to mention just a few.

In fairness to the players, they are trying to retain a freedom already in existence rather than create a new earning potential. But that's enough fairness for one day. The fact remains that the commercial side of the game has advanced so swiftly that any rule surviving from less lucrative days deserves to be re-examined.

It is difficult to take sides with a governing body these days - in rugby it is practically impossible - but the FA do have a large parish to nourish. Part of the pity about this unseemly row was that it obscured the announcement of a pounds 50m five-year sponsorship deal between the FA and the sportswear people Umbro. Of that cash, pounds 20m will be pumped into a youth development programme.

It should be clear, even to the players, that the game in England needs every penny of investment at grass-roots level and the FA have a duty to raise as much as they can; a mission made a little more difficult by last week's withdrawal of Littlewoods' sponsorship of the FA Cup and Charity Shield.

It is not as if the England players are going to be under-rewarded for anything they might achieve in France. The squad are said to be guaranteed fees and bonuses in excess of pounds 1m even if they do moderately well in the tournament. The sponsorship deal at the centre of the dispute will add another pounds 4m a year to be divided among all who play for England following the World Cup.

The FA's intention is to persuade 10 major companies to sponsor the team over a period of four years and, naturally, the players would be an integral part of whatever endorsements the sponsors required. A player good enough to keep his place in the squad would earn an extra pounds 600,000 from this deal alone. They would have to sign 500 items such as footballs and shirts and make an average of three personal appearances a year for which they would be paid an additional pounds 5,000 a time.

Not many would regard this commitment as arduous. The players would be free to pursue their own commercial exploitation of their England persona and to pose for anyone anxious to pay for the privilege.

If they wear their club shirts, or even a T-shirt, there would be no problem and, in most cases, would be given permission to wear their England kit. But that permission would be withheld if there was a clash of interests. It seems an entirely reasonable situation but it is not one the players are prepared to accept. With the heels of both sides dug in so firmly a visit to the courts seems likely.

As appalling a prospect as that may seem it will at least be interesting to see how the law interprets a sportsman's duty to his country. When he pulls on his national colours, does he become the shirt or does the shirt become him? I would have thought he was just the temporary tenant of someone else's property; and by "someone else" I mean the rest of his countrymen. But such simple views don't always survive the logic of the courtroom.

Perhaps the time will come when the FA have to put the team positions out to tender. Candidates could submit applications such as: "I am willing to keep goal for England for pounds 1m plus VAT."

But one conclusion can already be reached. When it comes to the motivation required for a man to give his all for his country, patrotism is no longer enough.