The world-beaters from another planet

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BEFORE discussing the Great Britain team to play Brazil in the World Cup final at the Rose Bowl, Pasadena, tonight, I had better explain the phenomenon of parallel worlds and how it is that the British nation has been united by a football fever more intense than ever previously experienced and which has taken the entire Royal Family to California to occupy Row B, the Cabinet having beaten them to Row A.

Many readers may not be aware of the existence of another Planet Earth travelling on the same path through the universe. It is the same in every way but although people and places are exactly replicated, the occasional cosmic disturbance tends to change the course of certain events on the other one.

It doesn't happen very often, as those few of us able to flit between the two worlds can testify, and in sport there's just the odd difference. Frank Bruno has just retired as undefeated world heavyweight champion; they're still talking about Martin Offiah's hat-trick of tries in Wigan's 36-0 defeat of Bath in the Rugby League Challenge Cup final at Twickenham; and Tottenham have been awarded pounds 1.5m and six extra points for next season after inventing a revolutionary new accounting system for football clubs.

But an extra-large stratospheric shudder on the evening of 11 October 1989 caused a major variance. It came during a qualifying match for the 1990 World Cup finals between England and Poland in Katowice. England needed a point to qualify and were drawing 0-0 with a few minutes to go when Tarasiewicz hit a shot that beat the English goalkeeper Peter Shilton all ends up only to strike the crossbar and rebound away. England qualified and went on to reach the semi-final.

But not on the other earth, they didn't. A seismic lurch of just a couple of millimetres rippled through Poland just as the ball was approaching the goal and, unnoticed by anyone in the stadium, lifted the crossbar enough for the ball to ricochet downwards and bounce over the line. England were out of the World Cup, as were Wales and Northern Ireland. Had not Scotland qualified it would have been the blackest day ever for British soccer. Unfortunately - and this is where the two worlds combine briefly - the Scots were beaten by Costa Rica in the first match and were soon to return home in some disgrace.

The gloom caused the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, to meet the four associations to see how national morale could be lifted. She suggested that they amalgamate into one team. They were aghast. 'We would lose our identity,' they protested, thinking more about their jobs.

'But this is Great Britain,' she retorted. 'We have one Queen, one Parliament, one army, one navy, one air force, one National Health Service (this was four years ago, remember), one broadcasting corporation and one of almost everything else. We have Great Britain teams in the Olympics, in rugby union and league and even cricket, although we call it England.'

It was a logical argument and her football advisers plied her with other arguments in favour . . . Think of the great British players who have never played in the World Cup because their home country did not qualify in their time. George Best for one. The great Scottish half-back line of Jim Baxter, Ian Ure and Pat Crerand. Ian Rush and Mark Hughes have slim chances before they retire and what about the heroes as yet undeveloped? Our teams are going to find it as hard, if not harder, to qualify in the future. Are we to sit through World Cups to come without one representative?

Finally, after the threat of 50 per cent VAT on all transfer fees, they relented but insisted on retaining their autonomy and would join forces only for the World Cup under a neutral manager of experience and charisma. Brian Clough, coming to the end of his time at Nottingham Forest, was the popular choice. Eccentric but exciting, as the headlines had it.

The first GB match, a flowing, winning friendly against Holland, captured the country's imagination and much praise was heaped on Mrs Thatcher which helped her, some say, to fight off a coup that was mounted against her leadership in 1990. More importantly, it saw GB qualify comfortably for this year's World Cup. Clough's squad for the States was controversial, as you might expect, but has fulfilled our wildest dreams.

There were not many Scots in the squad but the form of goalkeeper Andy Goram and Gary McAllister has been a revelation, as has that of Des Walker, whose international career has been reborn and whose speed will be vital against Romario tonight. Northern Ireland's one representative, Michael Hughes, who plays in Germany for Strasbourg, has had an excellent tournament. But he will be on the bench tonight as will Le Tissier, Dorigo, Scales, Hendry, Pallister, Ince, McStay, Batty, Beardsley, Cole and Anderton.

These are the men chosen to start in the red, white and blue stripes of GB: Goram (Rangers), Jones (Liverpool), Walker (Sheffield Wednesday), Adams (Arsenal), Le Saux (Blackburn), Gascoigne (Lazio), Platt (Sampdoria), McAllister (Leeds), Giggs (Manchester United), Shearer (Blackburn), Hughes (Manchester United).

The striking power of Shearer and Hughes, whose five goals apiece have seen off Nigeria, Bulgaria, Ireland, Argentina and Italy along the way, will provide a severe test for Brazil's suspect defence in the warm California air. I wish I could you tell you what happens but cross-communication is forbidden by Galactic law and I have already gone as far as I dare.

BACK in the days when we seemed to have the time to pause to watch a football match in the local park, one learnt to keep a wary eye open for newcomers to the touchline. If you allowed them to sidle up to you, the following annoying cameo was likely to ensue:

'What's the score?'


'Who's winning?'

'The team in red.'

'Who are they?'

'West End United.'

'Who are the others?'

'East End Rovers.'

'How long to go?'

And so on . . . I have been reminded of these long-forgotten encounters by the controversy over the displaying of the scoreline in the top left-hand corner of the television screen during the World Cup matches. I can't understand why people are complaining.

No sporting event in history has been watched by as many people on screens in pubs, clubs and hotels and this service has saved countless thousands of innocent drinkers being pestered.

Unfortunately, a few persist in the old habit. I was watching the Romania-Sweden game in the malted tranquillity of a Scottish hotel lounge last Sunday when the chink of ice in a gin glass announced a newcomer's arrival.

'Who's winning?' he asked in the time-honoured start to the ritual. One of my companions sighed: 'If you go a bit nearer you find out the score, who's playing, the elapsed time and the name of the channel televising the match,' he said pointedly.

The man squinted obediently at the screen. 'Which team's which?' he asked.