When less is more . . .

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The Independent Online
THIS columnist's record of prophetic utterances speaks for itself. Among last year's forecasts were England's rugby defeat by Wales, the England cricket fiasco in India, the appearance of Widnes in the rugby league Cup final and Sydney's capture of the 2000 Olympics, to name just the few that were right. Nevertheless, the traditional New Year soothsaying is being dispensed with in favour of a more sombre look at a year heavy with foreboding.

Not that it is particularly unpredictable. France will win the Five Nations, the Netherlands will collect the World Cup, Warrington will get to Wembley and Millwall will reach the promised land of the FA Premiership . . . but these are just random glimpses of what is to come over 12 months which will be significant for much more than the mere distribution of the annual glory.

There are issues to be decided that could have profound effects on the sporting destiny of this country, if not the world - assuming, of course, that anything that happens here is still capable of causing a global ripple.

In a week or so, for instance, we shall be sending to the Caribbean a plane-load of young men who, unfortunately, stand no chance at all of being sent straight back home. They will have to stay to face the West Indies in the hope of gathering a little comfort for our hard-pressed cricketing authorities who have wrought some changes in leadership but who have yet to give the impression of being in control.

In that failing, they are not alone among Britain's sporting rulers. Many organisations, from the Sports Council to individual mainstream sports, are coping with increasing feebleness as the demands of the age crowd in on them. It is an imbalance that needs urgent correction. Our top sports performers have never been better rewarded - and now we have to set about professionalising the administrators.

Most pressing of the problems facing those who run our main team sports is overuse of the talent the nation has at its disposal. This echoing storehouse will begin to fill only when we allow space and time for skill to be developed. The way to achieve that is to reduce the physical demands imposed by crowded fixture lists.

No one put the players' plight more eloquently during 1993 than the Wigan and Great Britain rugby league player Phil Clarke who, at 22, is not only one of our best players but has a degree in sports science and runs a health consultancy clinic. Complaining that too many matches were squeezed into too short a time, he said: 'Rugby league is like gladiatorial combat these days. You need time between matches to recover properly.'

Football, and even rugby union at the highest level, are no less demanding and the reason continually put forward is that the clubs desperately need the increased gate money. This is typical of the amateurish thinking that bedevils our principal sports. The most successful, the best presented and the wealthiest contact ball game in the world is American football and even the teams who get to the Super Bowl do not play more than 20 games a season. The marketing philosophy behind the National Football League would work here, even in a diluted form.

It is possible to gain as much if not more revenue from, say, seven matches as it is from 10 by adjusting prices and using the extra time between matches to increase attendances by more aggressive marketing. There would be a saving in the cost of staging matches and in the wear and tear on players' bodies and spectators' pockets.

Club chairmen also fear reducing the number of games because it would mean some of the clubs dropping down a league. But if they did away with the slavish notion that they have to play each other twice a season, they could actually increase the size of the top leagues. Who you play at home and who you play away would be a matter of chance, just as the big cup competitions are.

DISPASSIONATE football watching is not to be recommended as it makes one too judgemental about a game and less committed to the drama. Sadly, most of us will be watching the World Cup in this unsatisfactorily objective manner. I am sure we will take an interest in our Irish kinsmen and we can buy partisanship by having pounds 100 on a team like Romania, but it's not like being there.

Actually, it would be better for the game at large if the whole thing was a flop. This is not sour grapes. There is a distinct danger in the Americans taking a greater liking to football than they have hitherto. Already there is an entrepreneur in the wings ready to plunge billions of dollars into another attempt to create a full- blown professional soccer league in the States.

If he succeeds, enticement of the world's best players will soon follow. We have already seen a handful, Gary Lineker among them, depart to start the new league in Japan. The prospect of the two richest countries on earth buying up all the talent is as dreadful as the thought of what tinkering they might do to the game to make it appeal to their new audiences.

THIS is the year when the much-discussed national lottery will take shape and the destination of the proceeds still remains in a government cloud. The original intention was that the bounty would be used to put the future funding of sport and the arts on a proper footing so that they can make a more positive contribution to the physical and cultural health of the nation.

Since then the beneficiaries have been enlarged to include charities, the environment, and something called the Millennium Fund. This is all very well but no firm commitment has yet been made about the division of the money - apart from the fact that the Treasury are going to take a whacking 12 per cent in tax.

The only discussion to be heard about the lottery seems to concern which private consortium is to be given the lucrative contract to run it. The musician Denis Vaughan, who heads the group whose praiseworthy efforts have brought the lottery thus far, is terrified that what was planned as a regenerative force for good in Britain could end up as a government slush fund.

Unless the lottery is made 'politician-proof', the nation might be wary of supporting something which sets out to improve the quality of life for everyone but ends up being purloined for projects like a parliamentary orphanage or whatever suits the governmental whim. The year will be considerably happier if we can get the lottery's aim firmly fixed.