So, has soccer at last won a PR battle? Before I try to answer this
question, let me confess. I am an undying supporter of lost causes -
Halifax Town, Burnley and Crystal Palace, where my son and I have stand
After sitting through all Margaret Thatcher’s No 10 meetings to curb
murderous hooliganism, I found the soccer authorities even less inclined
to take responsibility when the death toll soared beyond 100 than they
were when it was in single figures. It was, they said, society’s
problem, not theirs.
I proclaimed it a serious blot on the judiciary’s escutcheon when it
substituted Eric Cantona’s prison sentence (for going feet first kung-fu
style into a Crystal Palace moron) for the hero worship of community
service, teaching kids the finer (?) arts of the game. Nor can
brilliance on the park excuse players’ boorishness off it.
I accused retired Lord Chief Justice Taylor of whitewashing, in his
inquest, the real culprits of the Hillsborough disaster; the tanked up
yobs who arrived late determined to force their way in. This has earned
me condemnation on sensitive Merseyside where their Stalinist
politicians banned me from speaking. It has also moved Glenda Jackson,
our thespian MP, to table an early day motion censuring me on the
Commons Order Paper.
Having thus established my credentials, let me answer the question. Euro
96 has been astonishingly successful both on and off the field. Skill,
fitness and stamina have generally risen. There is not much between the
best and worst of soccer nations. The quality of referees is more
variable and some, it seems, absurdly wish to eliminate bodily contact.
The yellow card count might have been lower had they been able to impose
their personality on the game immediately, but let us not quibble. It
has been an entertaining and emotional tournament.
Golden goals in extra time and penalty shoot-outs may be an
unsatisfactory way of deciding matters. But only duelling at dawn with
pistols would be more dramatic and bloody. As Desmond Lynam, the BBC
presenter, said before Gareth Southgate failed to keep England in the
competition: ‘You’ll probably want to hide behind the sofa now.’ But the
greatest success has been in Britain’s staging the tournament in a
carnival atmosphere without the brutal menace of a minority of ‘fans’.
They were exiled miles away in Trafalgar Square for, let us hope, their
last forlorn violent provocation.
If that is what it was, English soccer will at least be able to claim a
deserved and unexpected PR success. We lost the tournament but won the
war, as it were. All that remains is to clean up our grubbier press
which daily corrupts the game with its juvenile hysteria. England 5
Tatty Tabloids 0.