Joan Smitih: Money, booze, football: a recipe for violence

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The Independent Online

Jonathan Woodgate, the Leeds defender who was convicted of affray on Friday, has a previous record of violence. Yet he received what most people regard as an absurdly light, non-custodial sentence and will, in all likelihood, continue to play for his club.

Some commentators have come to the conclusion there is something wrong with football culture: that it hands over obscene quantities of dosh to immature young men who then squander it on drinking binges that too often end in violence. You don't have to be a genius to work out that paying young men £20,000 a week is over-rewarding them. It's also obvious that it happens because football is big business, not because the directors of football clubs are in thrall to Victorian notions about sportsmanship. The sentiments of Vitae Lampada, Sir Henry Newbolt's celebrated paean to the character-building properties of sport, are comically inappropriate here. Today's young footballers are very definitely after "the selfish hope of a season's fame" – preferably several seasons, a few appearances in the national team, and affairs with one or two leggy blondes thrown in.

As for the people who run the clubs, the bottom line for them is the share price. Woodgate gets to play again not because his name has been cleared but because he is a major asset. It was always clear that, as long as the outcome was anything other than a prison sentence, Woodgate would be pulling on his boots within hours or days of leaving the court.

While it could be argued that a culture of hard work on the pitch goes hand-in- hand with almost Roman excess off it, the problem is not just football. What we have seen in recent years is instance after instance in which sporting heroes continue to be indulged after astonishing outbursts of violent behaviour. The Manchester United star Eric Cantona was punished with only 120 days' community service and a £10,000 fine in 1995 after he attacked a spectator with a kung fu kick in front of thousands of fans.

In other cases the victims have been women, often the wives or girlfriends of footballers, cricketers and boxers. The former England star Paul Gascoigne beat up his wife, Sheryl, who later joined a campaign to help battered women. The Yorkshire and England cricket star, Geoffrey Boycott, was convicted by a French court of assaulting his then-girlfriend during a fracas in a hotel. The boxer Frank Bruno also attacked his wife and the couple eventually divorced.

What we are seeing is the result of concentrating on young men's physical prowess, encouraging them to hone their bodies into states of exceptional fitness, without any parallel concern about their emotional and intellectual development. Woodgate, with only one GCSE to his name, may be an extreme example. But it is clear that too many of these sporting heroes, catapulted from deprived backgrounds to conditions of unimaginable wealth, are taught that the only thing that matters is keeping to their training schedules. In that sense, sporting culture has become its own Dr Frankenstein, turning out young men whose lightning physical reactions are deliberately encouraged on the pitch, even if it turns them into potential monsters when they walk into a nightclub or bar.

The death penalty is a gulf between us and America

One of the assumptions behind the British government's unswerving support for the US since 11 September is the idea that we share common values. In any other context, Tony Blair's close relationship with such a right-wing administration would have raised eyebrows, but the war against terrorism makes the two governments appear legitimate allies.

But a flying visit to London on Wednesday by John Ashcroft, the US Attorney General, exposed an issue on which there is a yawning ideological gulf, a veritable Grand Canyon of disagreement, between us and the Americans. To be more precise, the rift is between the Americans and the entire European Union, one of whose members broke ranks last week.

The cause of the rift was the indictment in the US of Zacarias Moussaoui, a French citizen of Moroccan descent, on conspiracy charges relating to the suicide bombings on the East Coast. The charges against Moussaoui have what the Americans charmingly call "death eligibility", a circumlocution that means in this instance that a defendant may face execution if convicted. France has abolished "death eligibility", like every other country in the EU, and the French justice minister, Marylise Lebranchu, has made it clear that she is not going to sit quietly by while it is applied to a French citizen. Ashcroft does not like the idea that the British government might refuse to extradite suspected terrorists to America if they would face the death penalty there, even though this is clearly part of British law. The Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, is unambiguous about this, although his statement last weekend prompted a "clarification" from No 10.

Hoon had confirmed that if British troops were to capture Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, they would hand him over to the Americans only if they provided an assurance that he would not face execution after his trial. In practice, it is probable that bin Laden would be handed over, without any such assurance, on the specious grounds that his capture had been effected outside the UK. But I do not think the Government would find it easy to live with the consequences of such an act.

Last month, Bush signed an executive order that gives the US government powers to try foreigners in secret, at military tribunals where they could be sentenced to death without a proper trial. (Moussaoui, as a sop to France, will be tried by a civil court.) This is a practice America has severely criticised in the past, condemning countries for using the kind of courts it now intends to set up at home. Will America's European allies collude in this outrage? The answer seems to be no, in the case of France and Spain. But if Blair finds a way of shipping a few Arabs to the US to explore their "death eligibility" status, perhaps he would like to tell us exactly what values he is defending?

Sarah's family should be left to grieve in peace

One of the few things to be thankful for, after the harrowing events surrounding the death of Sarah Payne, is that no one has made emotional appeals for the return of capital punishment. What is disturbing, however, is the way the case has been reported. In the days after Sarah disappeared, the tabloids promoted the idea that she would be found alive, when it was all too likely that she had been murdered. And last week, when Roy Whiting was convicted and sentenced, the tabloids were again full of snapshots of the murdered child. The Daily Mail devoted nine pages to the story, promising readers "haunting pictures from Sarah's family album", while The Sun offered 17 pages of reports. We are being encouraged to make a vicarious identification with Sarah's parents, even though this is clearly another illusion. No one can know how they feel and the wall-to-wall coverage is a distasteful encouragement to gorge on their grief.

Cooking is the new angst

Perils of modern life, the latest in a never-ending series: Kitchen Performance Anxiety. People are afraid to give dinner parties, according to new research, because they think they can't live up to the standards set by TV chefs. Two-thirds of the public, according to Professor David Warburton of Reading University, have been put off cooking for friends because they cannot compete with Gary Rhodes (right) and Nigella Lawson. Unlike, say, Social Anxiety Disorder there is not yet a cure for Kitchen Performance Anxiety. But I would recommend acquiring some books by Elizabeth David and other cookery writers who have never had their own TV shows.


Those plane-spotters again. Some readers are annoyed with me for suggesting last week that Greece is not a vicious Third World dictatorship, bent on persecuting a group of British citizens for indulging a harmless hobby. Last week the 12 were given bail of £9,000 each, although I was disappointed to see that the Daily Mail, which has championed their cause, was reluctant to pick up the entire bill. Surely £108,000 (refundable when they return to Greece to face trial) would have been a small price to bring an end to their ordeal?