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The root of all football's evils

Another week, another scandal: Rotten apples suggest problems at the game's core as the riches on offer are a dangerous lure
AT ANFIELD last week, after a stirring FA Cup tie between Liverpool and Tottenham, a lone figure stood in the dark by the Bill Shankly gates gazing at the Hillsborough memorial, the names of the dead illuminated by an eternal flame. He had just placed a Spurs scarf on top of the carpet of freshly laid flowers.

This moving moment - coming after the Kop had applauded their scourge Jrgen Klins- mann off the pitch - came to mind last week as football endured again its regular dalliance with the gutter. It reminded you that for every football hooligan, there are thousands with decency in their souls.

For every player, too, sentenced to three months in prison for common assault, there are tens giving their time to coach youngsters; for every one arrested in connection with a bribery inquiry there are many more, even if still not enough, visiting children's hospitals with not a camera in sight. And for every manager investigated for taking a bung, there is another driving across country to speak without payment for a worthy cause.

It is for these people and the fans who rightly admire them that the game must purge itself and learn the painful lessons of this mother of all seasons. The assertion that it is not riddled with corruption looks flimsier by the week and its governors' duty rests in redoubling efforts to root it out and acting emphatically. Rotten apples do spoil barrels.

"Money and cheats have trampled on the game and they are still trampling on it," one player wrote recently. "Where there is money there are also cheats and they both go together. I would so like it to be understood how many footballers do not play football just to make money . . . What I have seen in football circles in 10 years of professional soccer entitles me to feel that our dream has flown away. But we must survive."

The player was Eric Cantona, who, along with Paul Ince, faces a court charged with assault next Thursday. His wholesome sentiments illustrate how one may be entitled to condemn a man's act but how dangerous it is to condemn a man. One reason Cantona came to England was the attraction of what he saw as "the respect which they all have for the ethics of the game". Another was to escape the murkiness of French football.

Cantona's central theme was money, and new wealth has provided the English game - and its players - with this identity crisis. At the first hint of being cut adrift from the Premiership gravy train, managers are sacked. Relegation is no longer seen as a chance to rebuild and emerge stronger. Now that the new stadiums are almost paid for, inflation in the transfer market has reached alarming levels. Yet training facilities and those around clubs open to the community fall behind standards on the continent.

Players, too, with average salaries in the Premiership of around £3,000 a week, find more elaborate ways than those of their predecessors to amuse themselves in the many free hours they are given to recuperate. The Professional Footballers' Association, which has recommended they spend at least five hours a week on community work, has set up a financial management company to advise players, but the education must expand.

To cite footballers as role models is, anyway, dubious. Some, by personality, are capable of being so, most not. And for all his admirable qualities as Dr Barnardo's boy made good and presenter of Gladiators, John Fashanu, a player of sometimes frightening physical excess, will not do. These are young men often unable to encounter the public without receiving extremes of praise or abuse. Frequently they are divorced from the realities and mundanities of everyday life. The same is true of the game, often operating with its own code of conduct. But in that it reflects other areas, like politics, or like the City.

In football's case, the need is for its administration to be restructured. The Premier League are writing their own rule book, seeking more autonomy from the FA, who are "holding the tail of the tiger", as the PFA chief executive, Gordon Taylor, puts it. The FA, meanwhile, cling to their role as guardians of the game, not just the professional peak - "An administration that was formed in the last century attempting to govern the modern game," Taylor adds.

The Premier League, FA and PFA have been discussing the future of coaching, at Loughborough University. It does seem possible, therefore, that they could form a body capable of running the professional game. Add representatives from the club owners, the League Managers' Association and the Endsleigh League and there should be a six-headed cabinet with teeth. That is something the Premier League have lacked in their bungs inquiry, which is in danger of fizzling out for lack of evidence now that the Inland Revenue have, it is believed, received payment due from anxious miscreant managers. "I do feel there is a need for a body that is pro-active rather than just reactive," Taylor says.

Football has always had its seamy side, though the problems are more serious now with the money sloshing around and the burgeoning media pack more vigilant. That much was shown last week in the presence of cameras - no doubt alerted by the police - at the arrests of Bruce Grobbelaar, Hans Segers and Fashanu.

Now comes the opportunity to banish the doubts. Was that player dropped for failing a hush-hush drugs test rather than because of a groin strain? Why did that goalkeeper let the ball through his hands? Why is this manager living a champagne life at a lemonade club?

Should the chance not be taken, then the independent inquiry that the MP Kate Hoey has called for must surely be implemented. After all, the greater good of Lord Justice Taylor's Report that followed the individual tragedies of those 95 deaths at Hillsborough that our decent fan was pondering, had to emerge from outside a complacent game. To heck, then, with authorities who say it is not needed.