Sport on TV: Only a football game? You're in the army now

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The Independent Online
THERE WERE an awful lot of sporting hooligans on the television this week, and the strange thing was that most of them seemed to be wearing uniforms. For a start, there were a few dozen cadets on the sidelines before the Army versus Navy football game in America, engaging in fisticuffs in their smartest parade-ground outfits, just like casuals in a pre-match punch-up back in the Seventies. The sight was at once both surreal and disturbing, and depressingly familiar too. They say that violence at sports fixtures is the English disease, but it seems to be pandemic.

The Army-Navy game was the subject of Clash Of The Titans (BBC2), a series which has already covered famous rivalries such as the Old Firm and the Ryder Cup. This latest instalment was the best of a fascinating bunch, if only because of the relative obscurity of its topic among British sports fans. I suspect I was not the only viewer with more than a passing interest in American sport who did not even know of the Army-Navy game's existence, far less its claim to match the Superbowl in its power to stop the States.

But that is what it does, despite some characteristics which are so un- American that it's a wonder McCarthy never blacklisted it. The players are complete amateurs, and all they can look forward to once their college days are over is an armed forces pay packet for the next five years. And in a country with no time at all for second best, neither side is even close to a match for the strongest sides in college football, let alone the NFL.

They love tradition in the States, though, because there is so little of it to go around, and the Army-Navy game, which began in 1890, is officially the oldest rivalry in US sport. This is not something which the recruits at the service academies are allowed to forget. Though there is nothing more than pride at stake, the annual football game seems to be the focus of their lives.

For weeks beforehand at the Army academy at West Point, people don't say "hello" to each other as they pass by, they say "beat Navy". They say the same thing instead of goodbye at the end of phone conversations.

The peer pressure on the young men - old children, some of them - who will actually go out to play in this brutal game must be immense. Defeat, inevitable though it is for one side or the other, is simply not an option. They are being trained to be warriors, on the gridiron and beyond. "For a normal college footballer," one veteran of the game said, "football practice is the hardest part of their day. For these players, football practice is the easiest part of the day." For a precious quarter of an hour before practice starts, most of the players lie down in the locker- room and go to sleep.

The key characters in the film were Neil, the captain of the Army side, a senior for whom the game would be his last before a commission and duty overseas, and Bwerani Nettles, a huge defensive lineman from south central Los Angeles, in his first year at Annapolis. The Army man had done the hard part of his training, but now had to face up to life without football. Nettles, on the other hand, could look forward to three more seasons of football, but had to put up with boggle-eyed seniors half his size screeching humiliation and foul abuse into his ears at every opportunity.

He soaked it all up, as they have to, since it is all part of the deliberate, de-humanising regime of military life. Eight thousand miles away, on the other hand, another young sportsman who is barely out of his teens is getting rather more soothing noises in his eardrums. "Ditch your contract with the Arsenal," Nicolas Anelka's "advisers" keep telling him. "You can get pounds 60K a week in Italy." You can only wonder how long he would survive at the US Naval Academy. About as long, probably, as it takes to say "ungrateful brat".

The build-up to the Army-Navy game is so all-consuming that the scuffles on the sidelines before kick-off were almost forgivable. Less acceptable, though, was another hoolie with a badge, who appeared in Cricket Masala (BBC2).

As Indian supporters invaded the pitch after their defeat of Pakistan at Old Trafford, John Inverdale's voiceover said that there had been "minor incidents" of fighting earlier in the day. The only evidence of violence for viewers, though, was a policeman who shoved a celebrating Indian with real meanness and aggression, seemingly for no better reason than that he felt like it. Had he arrested him, the charge, in good old PC Savage fashion, would probably have been "smiling at me in an unduly friendly manner while jumping up and down on the spot."

Cricket Masala saw the World Cup through the eyes of two Britons who were proud to flunk the Tebbitt Test by supporting India and Pakistan, thereby helping to rescue the tournament from cobwebbed tedium. They were passionate and exuberant, but all that some English could do was complain about the noise. This programme was thus what many England followers had been hoping for - proof positive that an early exit was all we deserved.