Sport: Serious side of Minister for silly talks

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Considering how partial the English once were to using foreign mercenaries to fight their battles - notably against the Scots at Culloden and the Americans in the War of Independence - their outcry against the new Minister for Sport's suggestion that the England team should be able to enlist any foreigner who plays for an English club was more than a touch hysterical.

It was almost as hysterical as the suggestion itself. Tony Banks has brought an uncommon amount of zest to his new job and, while playing himself in, is indulging the fantasies that he, like most sports enthusiasts, has accumulated in a lifetime of dreaming of how to improve our sporting world.

The lightest of taps on the head with a cricket bat may be necessary to slow him down eventually but there is nothing to be alarmed about at the moment. At least he is the owner of some firm views on the subject, unlike many of his predecessors, and it so happens that he is now at the stage at which any idea he produces is walked around the block to see who shits on it. This particular one came back in no fit state to proceed any further. In years to come, however, the proposition might not seem any more outrageous than it would have been to suggest five years ago that two All Blacks would qualify for Wales as Hemi Taylor and Dale McIntosh have done.

The danger in this unchecked torrent of enthusiasm from the fan with the portfolio is that the odd good idea might get swept away with the dotty ones. Before he went to question the whereabouts of Paul Gascoigne's brain, the minister's call for the likes of Zola and Juninho to have the three lions branded on their chests was coupled, almost in the same breath, with a fancy for the four home countries to be combined in one British team. Strangely, it was the latter suggestion, which is far less crazy than the others, that he backed down from on Friday. Indeed, his retraction was so swift and contrite one is forced to wonder who got at him. I know how forceful the anti-UK team lobby is because I've tripped over them several times myself. But I'm only a humble columnist.

On the occasions that I blow the dust off and bring this kite out for an airing, I brace myself for an enraged reaction. Nowhere do they take this perceived threat to their football sovereignity more seriously than in Scotland. But there might come a time when even they will look more kindly on an amalgamation of our forces - strictly for the World Cup only, of course.

To what extent Banks had thought the notion through before including it in his rapid-fire repertoire is difficult to gauge. Not very much, judging by the ease with which he caved in. Had he paused to collect a few supporting arguments along the way, he might have been able to argue that a golden opportunity to experiment with a UK team and clinch the prize of the World Cup in the year 2006 is staring us in the face.

The new government has already pledged itself to help bring the world's premier football competition to England that year. Why not bring it to Britain as a whole, assuming that is the "one nation" they've been referring to? The Football Association are already locked in deadly rivalry with Germany's bid, and there will be others to come, but the promise to involve the four home nations in one swoop would be hard to resist.

Predictably, the four associations have a well-rehearsed rebuttal routine whenever this subject surfaces. They parade their fears that the world of football will insist on classing us permanently as one if we give them the slightest encouragement. There are few governing bodies to whom self- preservation has a higher priority than our football associations but this has never been an impressive argument and is even less so in these circumstances.

To agree to combine to host one special tournament is hardly an invitation to suspend the oldest autonomies in football. There is no other comparable situation in the world to that which exists in the game's birthplace and if a concert of hosting countries can be proposed for areas like Scandinavia a British case is surely irresistible.

The immediate beneficiaries would be Wales and Northern Ireland who both need a near miracle to qualify for a World Cup again. This is not meant as a slight to either but it is a matter of fact that they have fallen so low in the group seeding system they will forever be faced with fearsome opposition in the qualifying stages and are faced with a seriously dwindling earning capacity.

Scotland are in a stronger position but it is as well to remember that when England last staged the World Cup in 1966 the Scots failed to reach the finals and, with the Welsh and Irish, had to stand and watch England earn the glory and the profit.

What does a united effort hold for England? Ryan Giggs for a start and any other genius the celtic nations produce over the next nine years. And don't tell me that the English aren't perennially short of a few better players! What the world will get, of course, is the closest concentration of modern and capacious stadiums, and the most enthusiastic collection of those willing to fill them, to be found anywhere; plus, of course, the best television coverage. No country can match Britain in the facilities department.

As for the United Kingdom itself; every last man, woman and child will be represented on the field of play. When was the last time that happened in football? Is it such an outlandish concept to grasp on the weekend that has seen the departure of the British Lions to South Africa? We send a British team to the Olympics and the England cricket team is open to all our nationalities. There appears no clear reason why football should be different.

Or do we think it is more important for our four FAs to retain the absolute power they misuse so merrily? Of all the targets that Tony Banks blazed at last week this was the one he hit, despite his hasty withdrawal. Out of the mouths of babes and ministers ...

I ONCE sat next to a charming lady at a dinner who confessed she was the wife of a tabloid sports editor. She brushed aside my murmurs of condolence by saying how much she enjoyed it especially when they lay in bed at night thinking up funny headlines for the next day.

Her husband had even more fun because he went to the office next day to find stories to fit them. Alas, I fear the science has gone out of the art and a disturbing new development has been spotted.

Confined, so far, to the Sun is a tendency to stray from the saucy to the smutty. A report on the dismissal of Harlequins coach Dick Best because of a player revolt last week was headlined "Carling Gets His Dick Out". A recent injury to West Ham's Julian Dicks brought the gem "Swollen Dicks Out".

When one's own medium starts on that descent it is very difficult to criticise the puerility of televised sports programmes like They Think It's All Over in which new lows were touched last week when Julian Clary appeared. There was only one crack on the show and they repeatedly referred to it.

I implore the Sun to pull back from the chasm before it's too late and take us back to the heady, creative days of Swedes 1 Turnips 0.

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