When football and alcohol do not mix

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The Independent Online
It was three hours before kick- off at the Stadio Delle Alpi and several coach loads of Manchester United fans were limbering up for the big game. Bottles in hand, beer in bellies, they roared out "We hate Leeds''. Across the road Turin's citizens stared at them in nervous wonderment. They could not have been more wide-eyed if Martians had landed.

Public drunkenness is as rare in Italy as it is common in England. Alcohol is part of Italian society but drinking to excess is not. In England, especially among young men, there is a belief that you have not proved yourself until you have sunk 12 pints and a curry then ended the night with your head over the toilet bowl.

This behaviour tends to be tempered as people get older but in some, usually all-male environments, maturity comes slowly. Football clubs are such places. Footballers have always liked a drink, they have time and money to spare and, for a while, are fit enough to get away with it.

Some of the game's greatest players have been legendary boozers. Some coped with it, others, like Jimmy Greaves, Jim Baxter and George Best, could not. Today, with money flooding the game and results all-important, the temptations and pressures are greater than ever - for managers as well as players.

This is the background to Tony Adams' weekend confession that, like his Arsenal team mate Paul Merson, he is an alcoholic. It is a brave admission but it is typical of the man. Adams has his faults but cowardice is not among them.

After years of alcohol related incidents including a spell in prison for drink-driving, Adams took the first step to facing up to his illness in February. "I took a look at myself in the mirror and I did not like what I saw," he said. He then went on the wagon in the months leading up to Euro 96.

However, after the defeat to Germany he went out for a "quiet drink'' - and was drinking a day later. His problems have been exacerbated by his personal life - his wife Jane, who has been undergoing treatment for cocaine addiction, is believed to have left him.

Finally he contacted Steve Jacobs - Merson's sponsor with Alcoholics Anonymous - and admitted he had a problem. He has since been going to AA meetings and this week went public.

"I'm not living a lie any more and I feel better for it," Adams said. "It took me 29 years to come to this decision and Paul Merson has been fantastic for me. He knows what I'm going through, he has been there for me."

While Adams' confession adds to the turmoil at Highbury he may be at the right place. The club, like the Football Association, have supported Merson and are likely to do the same for Adams. It is, however, something Arsenal could have done without. Having lost an important match and a manager in midweek the glare of the spotlight is unwelcome. Tonight they face a Sheffield Wednesday side keen to return to the top of the Premiership.

What will Arsene Wenger make of it if he is ever prised away from Japan? The glowing references from his ex-players indicate a decent man but for all his experience English football's drinking culture will come as a shock.

Graeme Souness, on his return from Italy, noted: "Alcohol is not part of the lifestyle. They work on the principle that your body is a machine. You drain that machine so you have got to put back into your system what is good for that machine. And the one thing you do not fill it with is alcohol."

More recently, Bobby Robson, when asked why Portuguese teams were doing better in Europe than English ones, said: "The players don't drink for a start. There are no 12 pints a night men here [in Portugal]. They go straight home to their families and behave like responsible athletes."

Despite the influence of foreign players and dieticians, alcohol remains at the core of British sport. Drink companies sponsor the main leagues in both rugby codes as well as football, the national cricket team is backed by a brewery, and a host of other sports, from golf and horse racing to basketball, take the fermented pound.

This is not entirely a bad thing, many people enjoy alcohol in moderation. But there are dangers and, if Adams' example, encourages others to take care his torment will not be in vain.

Arsenal: problems with the bottle

Tony Adams - jailed in 1990 after crashing into a wall when three times over the drink-driving limit

Paul Merson - admitted addiction to alcohol and gambling

Steve Bould - criticised for going on a binge during a sex show at Clacton

Nigel Winterburn - sent home from a tour of Singapore and fined pounds 2,000

Ray Parlour - fined in Hong Kong for assaulting a taxi driver

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