He rocks.


We live in interesting times. Rio in big trouble. Man United in even bigger. Fergie portrayed as a bad man by the Manc-loving press. England's discredited pampered millionaires - a squad which contains a disproportionate number of footballers from our rivals - disgraced. Sol gets off with just a fine for his wee indiscretion against Djemba-Djemba.

Excellent week for the Arse then.

Well yes in one sense. Events this week certainly give us an edge and for that we should all be grateful. However, what is more disquieting, in my view, is that the last seven or so days represent nothing less than Revenge of Middle England against the miscellaneous ills that football (and, more importantly, footballers) personifies.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of RioGate – and I for one think it’s a little less clear cut than it might seem – what a gift for the tabloids! This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the likes of Jeff Powell from the Daily Mail, James Lawton from the Independent, Peter Corrigan from the Independent on Sunday and the rest of the usual suspects. Drugs! Sex! Young Millionaires Disgracing The Nation! WHO THE HELL DO THEY THINK THEY ARE! They sit there, in their hermetically sealed bubbles, listening no doubt to hip-hop filth on their Discmans, stealing our women and polluting the minds of our young. And they ACTUALLY THREATEN TO STRIKE. For God’s sake! Don't they realise that Playing For England Is A Privilege And An Honour for which they should be eternally grateful! They are, after all, Wearing The Shirt!

Well, bollocks to all that. My problem with all of this is two-fold. Firstly, I can't say I’m really an England fan. I can't remember the last time I was even moderately excited by an England performance. I fell out of love with the Ingerlund a long time ago, 1973 to be exact. At the tender age of 13, and displaying treachery beyond my tender years, I found myself wanting Poland to win against England. Well, they got the draw they needed and England were out. I was quite happy. I loved the Dutch style of football anyway.

Patriotism apart, I could see no reason to like the dull, stodgy, one-dimensional football we played. When your club plays that kind of football, you can kind of forgive it if it brings results. But when your national team does likewise - the supposed crème del a crème - it’s just what it is: anodyne and soporific and a million light years from the creative clever and dynamic play the likes of Holland were producing.

Nothing I’ve seen since, apart from two brief chimeras in 1990 and 1996, have persuaded me otherwise. Who wants organisation and efficiency when the whole point of global tournaments is to be blinded by genius, thrilled by unpredictability and brilliance? Why watch Mariner and Keegan when you can watch Platini, Zico, or Maradona? Aside from Holland, I always loved Italy until they betrayed me by defaulting to the same Route 1 efficiency beloved of successive England coaches.

My second problem is, ironically, encapsulated in an article I read today in the Observer by Kevin Mitchell about Man United and the antipathy felt by Man United fans towards Ingerlund. A fan sums it up thus: “being hated by the rest of the country has kept us going for 15 years.” Now who does that remind you of? Does a prominent much-derided team in North London come to mind? Don't get me wrong, I despise the Surrey housewife's favourites as much as the next Gooner. But Arsenal actually have more in common with Man United than perhaps we think we do, at least in the context of the twisted circumstances which have come to light this week. I am beginning to think RioGate is less about Ingerlund and the nation's pride and more about the underlying power struggle between the FA and what Peter Corrigan described in the Independent as ‘the bullying barons of the Premiership’.

And there you have the real point. This is about the Future of the Game. This is about the dark forces that are gathering to turn the Game We All Love into some half-imagined malignant tumour infested with venal agents, millionaire rapists, corrupt, amoral managers, and greedy chairmen. Take a close look at the guys writing these columns full of sanctimony and frothing with self-righteousness and you'll see one common strand. All of them are white, middle-class, middle-aged, and imbued with a kind of sad reactionary conservatism which has found a sudden outlet. Their solution to this ‘sorry-looking game’ (Corrigan again) seems to be a belated return to yesterday’s values, when men were men and footballers knew their place. Conveniently overlooking the various excesses of yesteryear – Willie Morgan being sent home from the 1978 World Cup in ‘drugs disgrace’ anyone? – these grizzled old hacks seem to be believe that a diet of good old-fashioned discipline and the possible restoration of Walter Winterbottom, were he not in his grave – to the seat of England manager to be the solution.

Is it just me or does anybody think there’s a faint whiff of racism about the press furore? These kids from the housing estates, with their hip-hop and trainers. They don't really deserve a chance do they? And how dare these ‘strutting peacocks’ (Ian Ridley from the Observer) have an opinion? Not on. I would imagine that the mutual antipathy between the hacks and the players is pretty near to boiling pitch. It's pretty obvious that a lot of what sports journalists write is motivated by personal hostility (just talk to David Seaman if you want an example of this) and I can't see this changing. There’s the suspicion that RioGate represented a God-sent opportunity for the assembled hacks at the national team's Hertfordshire hotel this week to settle a few old scores. And didn't they just.

Getting back to the question of the FA versus the Premiership clubs, there's only one winner, and it ain't Mark ‘Arnie’ Palios. I'd tread very carefully if I were Mr Palios in this particular battle and not just with the clubs themselves. There are more fans who increasingly come down on the side of club rather than country than he and his press chums might think. Franz Beckenbauer said in 1998 he could foresee a time when all the important matches were played between club and not national teams, and he's right. And I can foresee a time when the like of Man United and Arsenal instruct the FA to play their players’ wages whilst on international duty. Now wouldn’t that be fun?

Move on guys. The game is changing irrevocably, and the ‘my country right or wrong’ line might wash with Ford Mondeo Man and Gloucester Woman but it won’t hold much sway with the vast multinational, multiglobal and multicultural, often Internet-based constituency that now make up football fans, nor with the black kids who buy Thierry Henry replica shirts but who have never heard of Denis Law or Bobby Charlton and care even less. Otherwise the chant ‘Are you England in disguise?’ will spread like wildfire.


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