Unrivalled lure of an uncommonly wealthy game

SPORT ON TV
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The Independent Online
Football is life", claims a T-shirt available from your nearest street vendor. "The rest is mere details." And this past week you could see what they mean, for without wishing to decry the noble and largely unrewarded efforts of the athletes in Malaysia, football was the only show in town. Best of all, everyone could watch it three nights in a row for the price of an annual licence fee (though if you live in the Channel 5 shadow, please write to them, not me).

It is only fair to acknowledge that, for some, The Commonwealth Games (BBC) have probably been the highlight of the sporting year, and those with an eclectic sporting outlook could certainly not complain about the amount of coverage. The track and field apart, there has been shooting, hockey, weightlifting, swimming, netball, bowls - in fact, just about every minority interest you could think of. And if you ever found that your eyelids were starting to droop during the early rounds of the badminton tournament, then you could always ponder a question so irritating that it works on the brain like a double espresso - what, exactly, are the Commonwealth Games for?

Originally, perhaps, the theory was that of colonialism by other means, a chance to show all those bits of the world that used to be coloured red that Britain is still the boss (in practice, of course, it tended to be the other way around). But this is 1998. Does it really make sense to go to all that effort, construct all those splendid facilities, and then exclude some of the best athletes in the world for no other reason than that our great-grandparents did not foully exploit their great-grandparents?

One explanation which can be discounted immediately is that the Games have anything to do with making money. A great, rolling expanse of empty seats is the backdrop to everything bar the hockey tournament (Malaysia, it seems, are half-decent at hockey). So, unlikely as it might seem, the answer to the conundrum could be that everyone is there to take part, do their best and promote the fellowship of nations. How quaint.

And, sad to say, unwatchable for the most part. For however delicate the bowlers' touch, however deadly accurate the netball shooters or energetic the squash finalists, Wednesday brought a reminder that no sport will ever be able to match football's blend of individual skill and teamwork. Manchester United against Barcelona had everything, including, since it was on a terrestrial channel, that vital element of discussability when people arrived at work the next morning. Or, more importantly, at school. If Rupert Murdoch has his way, a large percentage of the next generation of football fans will be denied similar opportunities, which should be a cause for shame for club chairmen in general, and Martin Edwards in particular. Who knows, Wednesday's match could turn out to be the last genuinely great game broadcast on terrestrial television, even if it did leave its audience of millions feeling the slightest twinge of disappointment. For five per cent of them, it was because the home side did not fluke a winner, but for the other 95 per cent, that Barca could not find the fourth goal their second- half display so richly deserved.

Still, you could not want for a better example of why football is the one sport for which those who can afford it will be prepared to pay Murdoch through the nose. In no other sport can the balance of power turn so suddenly and obviously, often on a moment of individual brilliance like David Beckham's free-kick, and do so again and again. The video will be a best-seller, not least among Leeds fans who want to spend 45 minutes watching United torn to tatters.

The white part of Yorkshire probably avoided The Alex Ferguson Story (ITV) the previous night, lest it remind them that the architect of United's recent success is a thoroughly decent and likeable man. Even his compulsive whingeing when things do not go his way - the pitch in Monaco, the referee, evil space aliens etc - was at least partly excused by reminders of a childhood in post-war Govan, which is probably as good a reason for the occasional moan as any.

Ferguson himself contributed very little, particularly in view of the programme's opening boast of "unprecedented access". The talking heads which mattered were there, though, including his wife and brother, and instructive anecdotes included the fact that Ferguson's father, a Protestant, was at one time the president of the Celtic Supporters' Club. He must have been a most interesting and unusual man.

Ferguson junior, though, was Rangers to the marrow, first as a supporter and then a player. The memory of a 4-0 drubbing by Celtic in the Scottish Cup final during his playing days, a defeat for which Ferguson shouldered the blame on the terraces, is apparently a particular and continuing source of pain.

Shame on you, anyone who said "good".

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