England's loss is an English Welsh supporter's gain

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I HAVE a friend who is more keen on football than I am. I said to him the other day that I was sorry England had been beaten by Holland, thus seeming to lose its chance of qualifying for the World Cup.

'Sorry?' he said. 'You're SORRY?] I'm heartbroken]. It's a disaster] It's unthinkable]'

'Oh, come on,' I said. 'It's only a game. It's only 22 men kicking a . . .'

I could see he was seriously thinking of committing an act of hooligansim on me at this point, so I stopped.

'I'll tell you what it is,' he said. 'Quite apart from it meaning that England has been knocked out of the World Cup, it means that next summer is ruined for me. I was looking forward to a delightful couple of months in 1994. Now - nothing] It's a tragedy.'

I said that my friend was keen on football. I see now that I was wrong. I should have said that he was keen on England. The World Cup Finals are going to take place whether England is there or not, and presumably are going to be just as enjoyable and skilful whether England is there or not. Perhaps even more so. So why should a football-lover say it is a disaster if his team doesn't make it to America? It's akin to liking Hamlet only if Kenneth Branagh is in it.

I can afford to be detached about this, because of my peculiar upbringing. Although I am English, I grew up in Wales and was thus heavily outnumbered by Welsh supporters when it came to sporting events. If I cheered for England, I tended to get beaten up. So, purely for reasons of survival, I became a Welsh supporter where sport was concerned, and after a while found I had brainwashed myself into emotionally believing this as well. I still do. In fact, as I reminded my football-mad friend, unlike England, Wales is in with a very good chance of qualifying for the World Cup - just one game to win and it could be the only British team in the World Cup in America. This did not seem to cheer him up at all. He thought I was making a joke in poor taste. But I was never more serious in my life. It has taken me the best part of a lifetime to become an English Welsh football supporter, and I do not propose to give it up now, just when it seems to be paying off.

I am not alone. In Friday's International Herald Tribune, Ian Thomsen said that if Wales qualified, Ryan Giggs could become a star of the tournament, a sort of Georgie Best without a beer in his hand. (I can't think of anyone in the English squad who could be so described.) Nor was Mr Thomsen too upset about England not qualifying. 'The Netherlands is the more deserving representative, a much more entertaining team than England . . . While the Dutch teach their children technique, English boys are taught to win above all else. It is the difference between Lassie and the doberman snarling at you from behind a pawn-shop door. As happens so often in football, one team plays with finesse, while the other grunts and strains, and then when the match is over everyone talks about killing the referee.'

Blimey. I wonder what nationality he is. If he is English, he probably grew up abroad. In Wales or Scotland, perhaps. Maybe, like me, he supports a team that has no chance of winning, and therefore he gives the bulk of his allegiance to the team that plays the most attractive football. I have to admit I was mildly upset to learn that England had lost to the Netherlands, but I was more upset to learn at the same time that France had lost to Israel, and thus endangered its passage to the finals. France is almost always a more attractive team than England, in rugby and football, and is more indispensable to either game.

While I am being tactless, I might as well declare my profound sense of relief that Manchester will not be hosting the Olympics, and thus is being spared the ignominy of bankruptcy. (It was interesting to hear a report from down under that people in Sydney are already having second thoughts about their good luck, and are beginning to regret the vast sums of money they will have to spend just to host a few weeks of nano-seconds being shaved off world records.) But I heard a new gloss on this the other day, from a wife who has a sports-mad husband.

''There couldn't be a worse place for the Olympics than Sydney,' she said, 'because their day is our night, so all the events will be taking place in the middle of the night and William will be up till dawn listening or watching and it will be three weeks of hell.'

There was a pause, then she cheered up.

'Still, look on the bright side - at least England didn't qualify for the World Cup.'