Sports Comment: The siren voices of a divided nation

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The Independent Online
At Wembley this afternoon, 50,000 Welshmen will try to convince themselves that they are back in Wales so that they, in turn, can transmit the impression to their rugby team that they are playing at home. The fans will be assisted in this patriotic subterfuge by the London Welsh Male Voice Choir, Max Boyce and the ageless larynx of Tom Jones who will be whipping up the image with the "Green, Green Grass of Home" plus "Delilah" which used to be a pop song but is now the spiritual centrepiece of every Welsh pub Karaoke night.

This final and most valiant attempt to plant the roots of the leek in the infertile soil of a north London suburb does have intentions other than inspiring the Welsh players to great deeds. Apart from ensuring that we who travel up from Wales will be glued to our seats at least an hour before the kick-off so as not to miss the singing, the heavy vocal construction involved in building a pre-match atmosphere that is unmistakably Welsh is also aimed at inflicting on the English team the feeling that they are playing away; that, as Rupert Brooke might say, "there is some corner of their English land that is forever foreign", or, if not forever, then at least for a couple of hours.

All this is necessary because for the past two years Wales have had to borrow Wembley - or, to be more precise, rent it at exorbitant London rates - while the Arms Park is receiving its millennium make-over. It is not a fate that would befall either Scotland or Ireland where there are other stadiums of large capacity to fall back on.

This is just as well because it is doubtful whether even 100 pipers and Kenneth McKellar would be up to the job of fitting out Wembley in a kilt while Michael Flatley and the Riverdance girls would stamp shit out of the Wembley turf. And, in the unlikely event of England ever wanting to borrow the Arms Park, we couldn't run to more than a troupe of Morris dancers and a couple of choruses of "Greensleeves".

The other Five Nations countries have never and will never have to endure such an exile. Wembley hasn't been a bad temporary venue for Wales in terms of support but they have won only one of the five matches staged there. At least, in those games, the opposition had to travel to another country so there was an element of home advantage. The difference today is that England are on their own soil and that's why the Welsh are working so hard to create the opposite illusion.

I make this point not to offer excuses in advance - indeed, I have the highest hopes of a Welsh success - but to explain that what will happen at Wembley is a display of sporting nationalism that must not be confused with an urge for separatism and, most certainly, should not give comfort to whoever it was at the BBC who had the bright idea to issue a directive to staff last week advising that the description "British" should be used carefully in regard to the Scots, Welsh or Irish.

Obviously, this sort of misguided political correction derives from the devolution involved in the election of the Scottish and Welsh assemblies next month. I'm not interested in dragging these new bodies into a sporting discussion other than to hope that they don't make the same mistake of regarding sports fans as rabid nationalists just because they present themselves thus on certain occasions.

The Welsh will always save several tons of extra passion for confrontations with the English but there wouldn't be a massive difference in the fervour of their support today if they were watching the British Lions play, say, New Zealand. The majority of sports fans in this country are happy to offer their loyalty to whichever side happens to be representing them. While we cling fiercely to our national identities we will enthusiastically switch to the mother country when the occasion demands and the Lions are probably the best example of this.

No such opportunity exists in football but I have long maintained that, for the World Cup at least, we should field a GB team. The suggestion usually receives its most disdainful reaction from the Scots and, to be fair, their record of qualifying for the finals is not bad. The chances of either Wales or Northern Ireland ever doing so again is remote which means that many good players haven't had and never will have the opportunity of playing at the top international level.

The reluctance of the four home associations to risk the slightest vestige of their self-importance even stretches to the Olympic Games football tournament which is confined to players under 21. This means another path to glory is denied to our young footballers and yet we quite happily put our full weight of encouragement behind the rest of the GB Olympic squad.

Neither did the Great Britain tennis team lack fervent support in their Davis Cup match against the United States last weekend and that, by rights, should have been called a Commonwealth team. And if a Briton wins the US Masters tonight we won't gauge our delight according to what area he comes from. In the Ryder Cup, furthermore, we have eagerly expanded our patronage to include all Europe.

That doesn't mean that local rivalries are forgotten. At the Manchester ice-rink in the crowded sporting activity of last Sunday evening, Cardiff Devils beat Nottingham Panthers in an exciting final. Among the 15,000 were Sheffield fans whose team had been knocked in the previous day's semi-finals. They wore T-shirts proclaiming "Steelers Supporters on Loan to the Devils" and chanted "We're so Welsh it's Unbelievable". This cross- border affection might have had something to do with their feeling towards Nottingham but it was appreciated none the less.

Whatever else our masters do to divide us, sport continues to remind us that the sense of unity in these islands is still strong and we'll thank the BBC to remember that before they next embark on an ill-judged assessment of it.

Worrying as it is to find myself offering a small word on Robbie Fowler's behalf, I must declare a certain disquiet about the punishment meted out to him on Friday by the Football Association. It is not so much a quarrel with the overall punishment of a six-match ban and a fine of pounds 32,000 but the way in which it was apportioned.

The Liverpool player was banned for two matches for the infamous words and gestures that led to Graeme Le Saux's retaliation in a recent match at Chelsea and four matches, plus the fine, for mimicking an act of cocaine sniffing after scoring a goal against Everton last weekend. Undoubtedly, Fowler is a bit of a scally, to use a Liverpool term, and not a very enticing one at that. There is also no doubt that someone needs to get a grip of him, but I can't understand how his actions in so deliberately and cruelly provoking an opponent can be judged as only as half as serious as a bizarre riposte to rival fans.

His act didn't offend me and the chief reaction among my friends was one of mystification. Fowler claims it was a spontaneous act but, knowing the reason behind it, it was obviously premeditated and quite a striking way of making his point. Presumably, it was a gesture that would have been meaningful only after scoring a goal against Everton and surely doesn't deserve that harsh a punishment.

We may be reaching the time when all goal celebrations need to be curtailed.

The players seem to be spend more time rehearsing elaborate tableaux when they score than they do at learning to play better.