Sport's leading role in a show of unity

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The Independent Online
EVEN in the space of a week, echoes of the Rugby World Cup have tended to lose their resonance in the clamour of this crowded sporting midsummer but they deserve not to be ignored. What happened in South Africa last weekend would have gladdened the hardest of hearts and considering that, until recently, some of the world's hardest hearts resided in that very country, we saw a sporting event that contributed to a near miracle.

It would be ridiculously optimistic to suggest that the troubles of the new rainbow country have been significantly reduced by the acquisition of a golden trophy. A country that has 60 per cent unemployment and no social security will take more than a few tries to get that situation under control.

We can, however, hope that the spasm of unity that reverberated throughout South Africa in the moment of victory at least revealed a common emotion that would not have been thought possible even two years ago. I will add great expectations to my hopes if there is a similar expression of national accord should the predominantly black South African soccer team do well in the football World Cup, which they undoubtedly will do, sooner rather than later.

Sport can undoubtedly be proud of the part it has played; not only in providing the opportunity for Nelson Mandela to preside over a great, unifying occasion but for the contribution it made to the downfall of apartheid by years of sporting boycotts. Sometimes you wonder how much progress the rest of us are making. I watched the final in a bar on the Algarve. The only other person paying any attention was a young Englishman.

When Mandela was being introduced to the South African team before the match, I said: "Isn't it amazing? Just a few years ago they had him in prison."

"Yeah, I agree," he said. "I think he's a bit dodgy myself."

There were other unsatisfactory aspects. Notwithstanding allegations that the All Blacks' lamb stew was off, that the refs had been bribed with gold watches and that witch-doctors had turned Lomu into something more resembling Lulu, there was a measure of begrudgement.

More than one reporter from Britain has mentioned how the atmosphere in Ellis Park that day worked heavily in South Africa's favour, how the urge for a home victory was insufferably oppressive. The national anthem was played during the match, which, I agree, was going too far. But isn't this criticism stretching churlishness to its extreme, especially from a country that should know all about the importance of World Cup fervour?

World Cups are weighed heavily in favour of the host nation. The history of the football version offers several examples of that and none more vivid than that which took place in England in 1966. England played every game at Wembley, and their opponents in the final, West Germany, endured an atmosphere laced with more deep-seated antipathy than any team has ever faced - even more than the England rugby team at the Arms Park, Murrayfield and Lansdowne Road - plus a Russian linesman.

I very much hope that the overpowering home advantage that South Africa enjoyed last weekend is available when Wales are the hosts in 1999, but there is a negative side to the inspiration that sport can bring to a country. When it goes wrong it has the effect of a hangover, as any Welshman will tell you.

South Africa has problems that few countries in the world can match. Sport won't solve them, but the contribution it has made ought not to be slighted.

SINCE he arrived with his big business reputation flaring like a parachute behind him, Alan Sugar, the chairman of Tottenham Hotspur, has frequently been irritated by the way football conducts itself. Much of this has been understandable, especially when he found he was carrying the heavy can left at White Hart Lane by previous administrations.

When he was in dispute with the Football Association over the savage punishment they dished out for offences committed before his arrival, I counselled him not to get too litigious. Football people can often avoid expensive legal suits with a few whispered assurances over the boardroom whisky. He took no notice, of course, and Spurs managed to wriggle free of an FA Cup ban and a six-point penalty.

Then there was, and probably still is, his long-running battle with Terry Venables in which writs were batted back and forth with all the fascination of a baseline battle between two 14-year-olds. Sugar even banned the England manager from attending matches at Tottenham, which is really not on.

Last summer, Sugar earned the admiration of all when he personally completed the transfer coup of the decade by signing Jurgen Klinsmann. Unfortunately, the contract proved not to be watertight and the popular German dropped out through the plug-hole and will not be playing among us next season.

Perhaps it was this frustration that caused his recent explosion about the lunacy of soccer's transfer market. He was speaking just after Spurs had spent pounds 4.5m on Chris Armstrong and Arsenal had paid anything from pounds 7m upwards for the brilliant Dutchman Dennis Bergkamp. The comparative sanity of those two deals will be best calculated when we add up their goals at the end of the season.

The transfer market has long been attracting outbursts about its craziness but, like other areas, is driven by supply and demand. One day it might suffer like the housing market and we will judge the shrewd club chairman by the amount of negative equity he has in the team.

Building a football team, like building a business, takes skill. Unlike business, however, if it all goes wrong you can't start another club in the wife's name. As long as there are so few good players to go around, we are going to have a lunatic transfer market.

Alan Sugar may soon have a chance to bring some order to it all. Manchester United, who have been selling good players like hot cakes recently, are rumoured to be interested in Tottenham's Darren Anderton. No doubt, United will be offered him at a very sensible fee.

TIM HENMAN's disqualification from the Wimbledon Championships for an angry gesture that accidentally hurt a ball girl will be of interest to those who remember what John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and others used to get away with. I would have thought it was a little late for Wimbledon to display such toughness but perhaps they were waiting for an offender whose absence wouldn't hurt the tournament's appeal and who wouldn't shout back.

I'm more concerned with the behaviour of the opponents of Henman and his doubles partner Jeremy Bates. After the incident, the American Jeff Tarango said that the blow could have killed the girl. It is typical of professional tennis players to take advantage of an opponent's misfortunes. When was the last time one of them questioned a line call when an opponent's ball was involved?

We can have long arguments about which is the best sport of all. But we can all agree on which produces the most pillocks.