Just too much

Since the Beckham bubble will surely burst when it becomes clear again that he is no natural winger, David Bentley could surely be of great value to the waning England team.

Recently, Brazil faced the Copa America in Venezuela without two of their star turns, Kaka of Milan and Ronaldinho of Barcelona. They were not injured, they had merely had more than enough football with respectively the European Cup winners and the Barca team which had finished joint top of the Primera Liga, only to be pipped by Real Madrid. Nor was this all. Somewhat lower down the scale of distinction, David Bentley of Blackburn Rovers had caused something of a furore by withdrawing very late on from the England under-21 squad to compete in the finals of the European tournament in Holland. There was outrage from that gung ho warrior Stuart Pearce, in charge of the England team, who publicly deplored the decision and at least one newspaper columnist inveighed that Bentley, who had had an excellent season on Blackburn’s right-wing, should never again be considered for England at any level.

Bentley’s excuse or explanation was that he was simply tired after the exertions of the season. But looking into what the summer held in store for Blackburn, you could find a certain sympathy for him. As Blackburn had entered for that abomination, the Intertoto Cup which, if a club can survive long enough, carries an entry ticket to the UEFA Cup.

Quite how a competition which began many years ago as a kind of summer supplement in Switzerland whereby their football pools could be extended into the summer has grown to this level, ask me not. I have never thought of it as anything but a burden and an imposition on the tired limbs of players who have only just emerged from a taxing domestic and European, not to say international, season. Banishing Bentley from international soccer, given England’s problems on that very right flank would seem to be cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. After a bright start at Arsenal, where being English seems to be the nemesis of any player, Bentley faded somewhat at Norwich City but has emphatically come to life at Ewood Park.

Since the Beckham bubble will surely burst when it becomes clear again that he is no natural winger — and heaven help him now that he has gone into the backwater of the Major League Soccer in LA., Rodney Marsh, who succeeded there with Portland, having warned him of the killing air journeys — Bentley could surely be of great value to this waning England team.

Almost concurrently, Ruud Gullit, once such a major figure with Holland and Milan, was having his say. He trumpeted the vital importance of international matches but despised international friendlies saying that they should be abolished. Well if you approach them as Sven-Goran Eriksson did when he managed England, putting 11 substitutes on the field in the second-half, then they are indeed an utter waste of time. But there are friendlies and friendlies. The recent England-Brazil match at Wembley attracted a colossal crowd of almost 90,000, provided an entertaining game and, be it noted, featured both Kaka and Ronaldinho in the Brazilian team. Look back at the previous season and you find a fascinating friendly game played between England and Argentina on Swiss soil, in which Riquelme gave a master class in playmaking.

As for Gullit, he seems to have no sense at all of irony. It was he, before the 1994 World Cup in the United States, who petulantly flounced out of the Dutch training camp in a flurry of lame excuses, when his presence might well have enabled them to make more progress than they did in the USA.

In bygone years, the South American Championship, as it was then called, was a fascinating tournament. The idea that Brazil would turn up with a weakened team as they did and lose 2-0 to moderate Mexico in their opening game would have been risible. Not that Mexico who are hardly South American or the United States would ever have been competing in what is now known as the Copa America. But at least the recent season has not been one bloated and overshadowed by the South American qualifying tournament. In days past, South America divided into a handful of small groups, with the winners going to the World Cup finals. Then it was decided, absurdly, to throw all the teams into one massive qualifying group which dragged on for the best or worst part of a year and a half; all the more burdensome when so many of the star players were involved in European clubs, and had to make continual long air journeys between the Old Continent and South America.

Many years ago Vittorio Pozzo, most competitive of competitors, winner of two World Cups with Italy in 1934 and 1938, lamented the fact that everything had to turn into a competition. Doubtless the European National Cup as it then was, founded in 1958 with a relatively small number of competitors — the British teams stood aside — was on his mind. And well it might have been, for, look at it now. Initially, it was reasonably compact, moving up to a last four surviving nations which contested the semi-finals and final in one of the surviving four. But that wasn’t good enough by a long chalk. Today it is a 16-team final tournament, and the recent announcement of group sizes for the qualifiers is daunting indeed. Groups of as many as eight teams, largely the result of the break up of the Soviet Union, leading to a proliferation of smaller states. But also because, absurdly, minnows such as San Marino and Andorra are allowed to clog up the schedules.

As for the World Cup, it has, as we know, ballooned in size from a compact and manageable 16 finalists to 24 and now 32, so that on and on it drags. By the time it came to the Brazil-Italy final of 1994, neither team in its weariness could face the thought of a play-off. And so the irrelevant horror of penalty kicks prevailed in football’s most significant game as indeed, alas it did in Berlin, last year. But with top players and even those with lesser claims making such huge sums of money, we are hardly likely to see the revolt among them which would be so appropriate and perhaps even effective. Clubs such as Blackburn will grasp at any financial opportunity.