The traditions of football have been strong enough so far to resist the most disquieting aspects of television interference

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The Independent Online
For some time now, there has been a continuous argument - sometimes amiable, sometimes heated - about how much football can afford to concede in negotiation with its television paymasters.

My view is that the game will eventually suffer from overexposure, but let us concentrate on the threat of commercially driven intrusions that pay no account to history and tradition.

For example, a report from Germany this week resurrects an idea first put forward with some enthusiasm three years ago during preparations for the 1994 World Cup, and then abandoned after running into stiff opposition.

It is that three periods of 30 minutes would be better than a game of two halves, which, if nothing else, would put paid to a cliche still favoured in analysis by football coaches and managers.

The impetus for a move that sadly appears to have the support of the game's world governing body, Fifa, is provided by German television companies, who argue that it may be impossible to go on providing comprehensive coverage unless there is another natural break for commercials.

Doubtless Rupert Murdoch, whose Sky channel is already sending out more live football than is good for the game generally (what will be the long- term effect on attendances in the lower divisions?), sees this as being very much in his interests. Handy, too, for Murdoch's men that the bullets are being fired for them.

The essence of football's widespread appeal is its simplicity. Changes in playing procedure have been kept to a minimum. Allowing for developments in fitness, fashion, technique and tactical thinking it remains the game that took hold in the infant years of this century.

Messing around with it could have dire consequences. Forty-five minutes each way (why was the interval extended to 15 minutes?) is as perfect as the distance between home plate and first base in baseball.

The traditions of football have been strong enough, so far to resist the most disquieting aspects of television interference. Worryingly, however, I sense a weakening of resolve, a willingness to go along with anything that guarantees further injections of money.

It is difficult in a short space to challenge pernicious influences in sport without doing some decent people a clumsy injustice. Nevertheless, there is enough evidence to suggest that, given half a chance, television will take over football completely.

The night the report from Germany came in, and reminding myself that sport ought not to be taken too seriously - a magnificent irrelevance, as a friend once called it - I thought with sudden vividness of another time and place.

In 1967, when employed as a consultant by the Toronto Falcons of the original North American Soccer League, I found myself baffled by the decisions of a former Football League referee who repeatedly called for goal-kicks and throw-ins to be retaken.

Investigation revealed that he was wired up to receive instructions from a television director working for the American network, CBS which paid $1m - even then not a great deal of money - to cover what ended up as a pretty dismal attempt at pioneering the game on its last frontier.

Proof that mysterious stoppages coincided with advertising slots caused something of a scandal, costing the referee his job. CBS promised not to repeat the practice. However, the director was unrepentant.

"What else was I supposed to do?" he complained. "This crazy game doesn't allow me to do the job properly."

People connected with commercial television do not say a lot about this but it is in their minds constantly. The half-time break simply is not enough for them. Subsequent experiences in the United States made it abundantly clear that while soccer was growing in popularity its continuity would be a problem on television.

There is no doubt that Fifa almost gave in to the idea of a game in three parts before the World Cup was staged in the US. With more encouragement it would have happened. Not for the good of football, which is their responsibility, but for materialistic reasons.

Unfortunately, that is the name of the game now. Tradition? Who cares, just look at the contract.