A rabid world

Blackburn’s D. J. Campbell was one of six people arrested by the police in English football’s latest-AP

Too much good comes from sport — by persuading children to keep fit, by preventing obesity in adults and providing entertainment across all age groups — for it to be taken over by a mafia. By Ted Corbett.

England’s footballers have had a tough time trying to qualify for the final stages of the World Cup in Brazil — the home not just of Pele and all those marvellous players of blissful memory but of modern football — and frankly I will be surprised if they get beyond the first stage this summer.

There is a lot of talk here about our brave lads beginning their attempt in the Amazon jungle as if their pitch might be inhabited by jaguars, anacondas and piranha but of course, although it will be hot, the pitches will be level and grassed, the stadia will be concrete and filled with anxious fans and the same for Italy, England’s earliest opponents. Wild animals should keep away.

All this talk is natural, the by-product of the most popular game on the planet, which has supporters who would give anything to see their team win. So the newspapers, tabloid and broadsheet, the radio and the TV stations play on this anxiety to sell their products.

Once upon a time we had stars — the Beckhams, the Gascoignes, the Charlton brothers — able to bring home a World Cup. In 1966 — a date as famous as the Norman invasion of 1066 in this country — England won the trophy at home but not without a whole bunch of luck.

In the final they beat Germany who, looking back, were not that great but the Brazilian team had grown old and not been given an injection of youth. One famous newspaper columnist predicted the result by saying: “Germany has never beaten England at anything.” He included the two World Wars.

Another phrase entered the British language when Kenneth Wolstenholme, the BBC football commentator, saw the end of the final which England won 4-2, when spectators ran on to the pitch as they were allowed to in those days.

“They think it’s all over,” Wolstenholme yelled. Then, as the striker Geoff Hurst drove home his third goal. “It is now.” No-one has become a fully-fledged sports writer/commentator until they have used that cliché 20 times.

England are certainly short of a full complement of stars like the heroes of 1966 when the genius Gordon Banks played in goal with all the athletic skills that might have won a place in an Olympic gym; Bobby Charlton still so good that one writer remembered him playing in his 30s “like a Rolls Royce with 200,000 miles on the clock” and Martin Peters, “20 years ahead of his time” according to the England manager Alf Ramsey.

In almost 50 years football has changed completely and most obviously in England where “the finest league in the world” is now far more important than the national side.

The Premier League is responsible for the fall in national standards for another reason. It is filled with foreign players so that some of the finest teams have enough not to call on any Englishmen.

It produces a quality rarely equalled on Planet Soccer. Wonderful football feats are on show almost daily, begun by ambitious footballers, encouraged and coached by managers from Italy, France, Spain and almost everywhere else and financed by television and sponsors from industry, the City, and entertainment and, it sometimes seems, permanently on the brink of bankruptcy.

The players earn millions so that lads who began life in the slums suddenly grow rich beyond their dreams or their ability to control their cash. They live on Millionaires Row, they drive cars as expensive as the working man’s house, and they dress as if for a movie premiere.

No-one blames them for valuing their ability highly, for living in the stockbroker belt or driving shiny vast limousines. They will argue that what is good for David Beckham is good for anyone who can persuade his club — or more to the point get his agent to persuade that club — to part with maximum wages.

Sadly, excess breeds excess, and in football at this moment, it is clearly giving birth to criminal acts.

In the last month there have been two sets of arrests of men thought to have been bribed to lose, or be sent off, or booked, or give away a penalty or commit whatever other offence comes to the mind of a master criminal.

Extraordinarily, their offences appear to be centred on the lower, semi-professional leagues in some cases although there is now a connection with the Championship which is second to the Premier League.

I am convinced that it will spread, although like everyone else on the inside of sport I am flabbergasted that incorporates little clubs that rarely make the headlines or produce great players.

This evil has always lurked in sport’s undergrowth much, I suppose, as ivory rustlers searching for elephant tusks lurk on the fringes of the jungles.

It has already made a mess of cricket, crept into snooker and tennis and left a nasty taste in the mouth in many other major sports. It is time authorities found a way to prevent this evil.

Betting, bribery of officials and players, aiding athletes’ performances with artificial stimulants and the foul, personal insults that have slid into Test cricket may seem trivial but they have become a major cause for concern.

Too much good comes from sport — by persuading children to keep fit, by preventing obesity in adults and providing entertainment across all age groups — for it to be taken over by a mafia.