Why the Prince stepped into a foul mess

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ACCOMPANIED by an impressive collection of sporting worthies, Prince Philip last week launched a crusade for an eight-point code of conduct to be upheld by all those who play games for a living. Alas, the Prince could scarcely make himself heard above the din caused by players busy breaking as many of the eight points as they could manage in the short time at their disposal.

Clearly, the Institute of Professional Sport's meeting chaired by the Prince under the slogan 'Unite to Fight Foul Play' could not have been better timed. Among those attending were Mike Gatting (Professional Cricketers' Association), Barry McGuigan (Professional Boxers' Association), Peter Scudamore (jockeys), Gordon Taylor (professional footballers), David Bryant (bowls players) and representatives of several other sports who all signed and supported the 'absolute necessity' for the following code to be strictly observed in all sports:

'Fair play; Good sportsmanship; Self-discipline; Respect for the rules; Respect for the spirit of the game; Respect for fellow competitors; Respect for umpires, referees, judges and other officials and acceptance of their decisions.'

Within hours Eric Cantona had gone through the card. Manchester United's dazzling Frenchman was the week's star villain, beating Paul Gascoigne by a short fuse. The uproar raised when Cantona used the chest of a Swindon defender as a temporary trampoline last weekend was still at full blast when he was sent off on Tuesday night for two fouls on Arsenal players within four minutes at the end of United's 2-2 draw at Highbury. I am assured by fair- minded friends who witnessed the Arsenal match that his offences were by no means savage and it was probably a case of giving a chien a bad name.

For Gascoigne so promptly to submit a performance which, pout- for-pout, rivalled Cantona's required an enormous effort, particularly as he didn't have the benefit of a match to play in. He was minding his own business at a Lazio training session when a sharp word from his coach Dino Zoff caused him to issue a piercing scream, run hysterically to the dressing-room and throw objects in every direction despite the efforts of his father to calm him. He later stood opening and slamming his car door until he ran sobbing to Zoff, begging his forgiveness.

These may have been more exotic, but they were not isolated incidents. Many have protested about the attempt by the Welsh outside-half Neil Jenkins to put the crust, as they say, on his opposite number Rob Andrew at Twickenham while no one was watching apart from the Queen and many millions of her subjects. What Her Majesty might have spotted but which was missed by the cameras was that Andrew had appeared previously to be heading for a similar assault on Jenkins.

Either way, I am told it was not a patch on Andy Gregory's lunge at Paul Grayshon of Bradford Northern the previous night which has earned him a four-match ban. I would have liked to have judged for myself how bad it was but, although we have seen the Cantona and Jenkins incidents repeated several times on our screens, Sky seem not as anxious to oblige the curious. It wasn't on their round- up programme Boots 'n' All on Thursday evening which, incidentally, is not the first time that they've dodged the rough stuff. Boots 'n' All is obviously not intended to be warts 'n' all.

Given such a torrent of transgression, the IPS code appears to have arrived just in time and suggests that sport has reached a dangerous level of misbehaviour. This is a false impression. No one can deny that there are frequent examples of violent play and a prevalence of the so-called professional foul which is encouraged, many say, by the amount of money now involved. Yet many sports have been dominated by gamesmanship for years, just as the parks are full of players administering professional fouls entirely free of charge.

It is right and proper that this new organisation of professional sportspeople should attempt to foster a more enlightened approach as long as they realise that they are merely planting seeds that will take a long time to grow. Those players' representatives who endorsed the code of conduct are endeavouring to exorcise attitudes with which they would have been familiar in their playing days and which are part of a philosophy that most clubs condone. Even the Prince looked pretty mean when he was carriage driving.

The quickest remedy lies with the governing bodies and they don't seem to be ignoring the problem. Richard Dunwoody received a ban for riding his rival jockey Adrian Maguire out of a race - a professional foul if you ever saw one - that caused him to miss the riches and glory of Cheltenham. Cantona has already been fined more than pounds 15,000 by United and is likely to miss five games just when he is needed most. Their goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel is serving a ban for a stupid foul and Paul Ince is due to follow.

This doesn't mean that Manchester United have more than their fair share of footballing psychopaths. It is significant that more than a third of their bookings this season have come in the last dozen games when the strain of dominating the season has begun to show and when their opponents are raising their games and adding a little winding up for good measure.

It is not enough to be brilliant, a team has to impose itself physically in the final stretch. It is also a problem when you are relying on temperaments as fragile as Cantona's. Cantona shares with Gascoigne a capacity to explode, but they're not the only players in history to wear Semtex shin-pads.

A more solid reason not to panic was provided by the

England-Wales match last weekend. At the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, the build-up that preceded the meetings of these two countries led to a violent confrontation that culminated in the sending-off of Paul Ringer. The hype was even more intense this year but, apart from the Jenkins incident, there was no untoward violence.

The IPS believes that because professional players are in the public eye they have a duty to the young and impressionable. But is that duty greater than that of others in the public eye - royalty, politicians, military men, film stars, City tycoons? When it comes to role models, sport still doesn't have many rivals.

DON'T get up especially early, but Radio 5 Live, the BBC's experiment with a rolling news and sport network, begins at 5am tomorrow. Since the station is never likely to be more receptive to suggestions, however rude, than in its early stages, all sports fans should ensure that they register a quick reaction. Rest assured this space will be live to the opportunity.

NO DOUBT the rugby unions are paying attention to which of the channels competing for their business offer the best streaker service. This has become an important part of modern rugby coverage, particularly when one's team is taking a hammering. I am not alone in considering that Twickenham's streaker last weekend was rather summarily dealt with by the BBC director. A quick flash is not enough.