Brian Viner: Ball games are not war but many men have had the ability to excel at both

When Sir Bobby pronounces on football matters, the rest of us should listen respectfully. And another great sage of the game long ago sounded a cautionary note on the subject of connubial relations too close to kick-off. Bill Shankly told his Liverpool players to wear boxing gloves in bed on a Friday night, and if that didn't work, to send the wife to her mother's.

Sven Goran Eriksson, of course, does not have to worry about that. The wives and girlfriends are safely corralled in another hotel. On the other hand, I don't suppose Eriksson is running an entirely monastic regime in Baden-Baden, and if he is, then it conjures the same sort of image as the late Oliver Reed calling a temperance meeting to order.

Whatever, Sir Bobby is right to suggest that the WAGs are an unhelpful distraction. The terminology he used, however, was slightly suspect. "It's war," he said, "and you don't take your wives and girlfriends to war, do you?"

This provoked several thoughts. One was that, during the military campaigns of the Second World War, British soldiers were sometimes encouraged by their superiors to engage with local women. Meanwhile, their wives and girlfriends were back home, not a few of them satisfying their own desires with American service personnel. But I don't suppose any of that is what Sir Bobby had in mind. And I'm certainly not suggesting that Peter Crouch should have left his girlfriend at home with Brad Friedel.

The other thought Sir Bobby provoked - and I doubt whether I was the only one who entertained it - is that the World Cup, demonstrably, is not war. I wouldn't want to come over too pious, because we all know what the great man was getting at, but it is possibly worth someone pointing out that the last time there were this many Englishmen in Germany, there actually was a war going on. Football might borrow military phraseology, with its attacking formations and rearguard actions, but that's as far as the analogy should be allowed to go. And thank God it's not a war, with Sven in charge. He would have handed a tank to a 17-year-old, with no previous military experience.

Meanwhile, as a passionate cricket fan, Sir Bobby would do well to recall what the great Australian all-rounder Keith Miller once said with exquisite bluntness about pressure on the cricket pitch - that it hardly compared with the pressure of having a Messerschmitt "up your arse". And yet it is no accident that so many people have excelled in both arenas, not least Miller himself. Last week I read an obituary of another Aussie, a man called Nicky Barr. He was one of the Royal Australian Air Force's most successful fighter pilots, credited with at least 12 kills. But eventually he was shot down and taken prisoner by the Italians. He then escaped and stayed behind enemy lines for a year conducting sabotage operations. He did some hair-raisingly brave things. And he was also a brilliant rugby union player, hooker for Victoria and Australia before the war.

Clearly, there is a connection. His physical toughness and quick reflexes, manifest in the front row of the scrum, later served him well in real combat. The Duke of Wellington was getting at the same thing when he said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. George Orwell later added that the playing fields of Eton were where the opening battles of all subsequent wars were lost, the old spoilsport, but in reflective moments I do sometimes wonder what my generation might have done during the war had we been born 40 years earlier, and I do always reach the perhaps naïve conclusion that the ones who are best at sport would have made the bravest and most resourceful soldiers. It is easy enough to imagine Sergeant Stuart Pearce getting the Military Cross for some recklessly heroic act.

But what of Captain Colin Montgomerie? Would he too have been made of the right stuff? I'd like to think that he would, certainly if his endeavours in the Ryder Cup are anything to go by. But at Winged Foot, in the nearest golf gets to the line of fire, he buckled yet again. And if we can forgive him that, and give him the benefit of the doubt regarding the incidents in which he was said to have pushed a state trooper and thrown a tee-peg at a child, it was unforgivable of him not to stay for the US Open prize-giving ceremony. The true giants of sport have always managed to accept defeat graciously. Monty's graciousness all too often goes absent without leave.

Who I like this week...

The Ghana football team, who achieved something momentous by qualifying for the last 16 in Germany - they got my wife interested in the World Cup. She was enraptured by their rapture when the final whistle blew in their 2-1 win over the US on Thursday, and has scarcely talked about anything else since. Indeed, I find myself in the highly unusual position of having to ask her to shut up about the bloody football. But, of course, it was marvellous to see Ghana prosper, and a reminder that the World Cup is so much more than a football tournament. It is an affirmation of nationhood, a celebration of the global village - and an opportunity to see Graham Poll make a total plonker of himself.

...and who I don't

Not Mr Poll but myself, for my article in these pages on Wednesday on the television coverage of England's group game against Sweden. In it I paid tribute to the marvellous commercial featuring famous old England footballers playing in a pub football league, but made the mistake of calling it an advert for Carling, not Carlsberg. I duly got a phone call from M&C Saatchi, Carlsberg's advertising agency, saying how pleased they were that I liked the ad, but what a shame it was that I'd given Carling the glory. I can only agree, and apologise. And assure them that it's nothing to do with being an Evertonian, Carlsberg being the sponsors of the second-best football team on Merseyside.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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