Sport on TV: Zen the only voice of sense in an unreal world
Sunday 12 December 1999
In reality, of course, it did not matter whether Michel was completely au fait with the draw's technicalities, or winging it in a major way. Maybe he did have only a "rough idea" of what was going on, but it was still a damn sight better than anyone else's. He could have announced that the Netherlands would play Holland in Group 29 without raising so much as a murmur of dissent. And he also had the benefit of a day in Japan to prepare himself for his moment in the spotlight. For British fans, tuning in at around 10am, it was rather more than the grey matter could stand.
And this was the European draw, which was an absolute doddle compared to the mad convolutions of Central America and the Caribbean. "Look at it as a sort of geography lesson," Michel soothed, "about some of the world's most attractive islands and republics." He then proceeded to draw half a dozen teams into two groups of three - using three different pots on his right hand side, and two more on his left. "This 'as to be 'onduras," he said, as the last one emerged about 10 minutes later. Indeed it was. Thank 'eaven for that.
A few moments later, all manner of exotic names were emerging from the pots. Aruba, the Netherlands Antilles, the British Virgin Islands, the US Virgin Islands (why, you wonder, don't they join forces and play as Virgin Islands United?). All the while, Nick Collins, Sky's man on the spot, was trying to stop the interest flagging. "St Vincent have Rodney Jack," he pointed out, "who plays for Crewe. And Ken Charlery of Barnet, he's an international for St Kitts & Nevis."
All too soon, the geography lesson was over, and somehow they managed to miss Mustique. Princess Margaret puffing away in goal and Roddy Llewellyn directing the midfield from a sun-lounger in the centre-circle would have been worth paying good money to see. But no, it was on to Africa, where 50 nations needed to be whittled down to just five, who will then travel to the Far East so that Ron Atkinson can describe their defenders as naive.
It should have been possible to laugh at it all. In fact, it should have been a source of pride. On a planet where neighbours rarely get along, and frequently descend into prejudice and violence, the stage was draped with the flags of 195 nations. And yet it was all so ludicrously overblown that the lesson seemed to be not how football can bring nations together, but how far it has removed itself from the ordinary people who created and nurtured it.
There were occasional glimpses of the International Forum in Tokyo, where the draw was taking place. The rows of faces stretched off towards the horizon like an illusion in a Hall of Mirrors. Every last one, it seemed, belonged to a "dignitary". But at least the organisers had no sense of irony, otherwise they would not have invited Konishki, the famous Dump Truck of sumo legend, to help out with the European phase of the draw. One vast, bloated body was assisting another.
The Dumpster, as it happened, was not too happy under the television lights, and kept reaching for his hanky to dab a brow which leaked sweat as freely as Michel dropped his h's. By the time his fat fingers plucked England's name from one of the many pots in front of him, he seemed ready to topple over backwards, no doubt taking the stage, dignitaries and half the Forum with him.
He, and they, survived, but only just. It was time to cut back to London, where Dave Clarke could not contain his excitement at the prospect of England versus Germany for a place at the finals. Clarke normally lives - along with Jimmy Hill - in the zero-ratings land of Sky Sports News. This was his big chance, and he was eager to make an impression. He even had a gimmick. He delivered every line as if he was on the brink of a fit of the girlie giggles. For five seconds or so, it was almost amusing.
Back in Tokyo, Collins had rounded up Craig Brown and Kevin Keegan to gather their first impressions. Kev was in upbeat mood. Germany, of course, would be difficult, but he didn't think England would have too much trouble with Greece, Finland or Albania. It was at this point you realised that from an English point of view, the draw was probably as good as the 2002 World Cup would get.
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