LONDON — It has long been one of the mysteries of English football — why does the national sport accept so much money from the product that has fueled so much hooliganism, which has caused so much trouble — even deaths and destruction?
Football and alcohol have had an uneasy relationship over the years. On one hand football is reluctant to turn away any lucrative sponsor and from the beer companies’ viewpoint the people who watch and play the game are the ideal market for what they are selling.
Yet when you see the ugly face of football — the English hooligan with hatred in his face, wearing a union flag T-shirt and carrying a can of beer — one wonders how the authorities can justify taking money from the companies who sell the “fighting juice” to the lager louts.
There is nothing wrong with a social drink. It is something that goes on around the world and millions of people enjoy a tipple or two without smashing up someone else’s property.
The English have never quite come to terms with alcohol, though. While the Scots, Irish, Scandinavians and others can indulge in some serious sessions they seem to be able to resist the urge to fight, insult foreigners and be generally obnoxious.
England fans have left a trail of destruction behind them over the last 30 years. UEFA threatened to send the national team home from Euro 2000 if there was a repeat of the trouble caused by England supporters in Belgium.
A high-ranking police security officer told me that we should all be grateful that Alan Shearer scored the winner against Germany — he was not being patriotic because he said: “Had England lost I don’t think we could have held Charleroi.”
In other words, an England defeat would have seen street fighting with German fans on such a scale the police would have struggled to restore peace.
Yet the Premiership was, until recently, sponsored by a beer company — ditto a significant number of clubs. While the companies can claim that millions of people consume their product and do not start fights, alcohol is nevertheless a drug like tobacco and cigarette companies are banned from any sponsorship involvement in football.
England travels to Liechtenstein for a Euro 2004 game on March 29 and the principality is bracing itself for the invasion of the “Ingerlund” fans. Liechtenstein is planning to initiate border checks to ensure supporters without tickets do not get into the 3,500 capacity Rheinpark Stadium, but the big worry is that English hooligans could clash with those from Germany or Switzerland near the borders.
It is not just spectators who have been affected by the excesses of alcohol. Many players have hit the headlines for the wrong reasons after being arrested for drinking-related incidents.
It was reported that Hayden Foxe, then with West Ham and now at Portsmouth, urinated on a floor in a trendy bar on a Christmas night, but his agent, obviously worried about his client’s image, was quick to put out a correction. The Australian international had, in fact, relieved himself in a pot plant, which of course is far more socially acceptable.
“I’ve learned from my mistake,” said Foxe. “I was embarrassed not so much for me but for my wife and family. It hurts when you hurt people close to you. I have changed my habits. I’m not saying I don’t enjoy a beer but I now choose the right time and place for it.”
George Best, Tony Adams, Paul Merson and Paul Gascoigne are just four top players who have been treated for alcohol addiction.
Adams served 56 days of a three-month sentence at Chelmsford Open Prison for a drunk-driving charge, though it was not until six years later the Arsenal defender admitted he had a problem and has cleaned himself up.
One too many drinking sessions saw Gascoigne dropped from the 1998 World Cup squad, while Merson had a gambling addiction which saw the Portsmouth forward amass debts of around £500,000.
Jonathan Woodgate, the Newcastle defender who as a Leeds player was found guilty of affray, testified that he drank seven or eight pints of a rum and vodka cocktail — that is not a misprint — on the night student Sarfraz Najeib was attacked.
His Leeds teammate at the time, Lee Bowyer who was cleared of all charges, was described by a witness as being “absolutely hammered” in the Majestyk night club.
Last weekend Aberdeen manager Steve Paterson missed his team’s game against Dundee after a drinking binge.
The club is standing by Paterson who is getting help for what is described as an “alcohol management problem.”
Paterson said: “I’ve had problems over the past few years that have maybe escalated. Occasionally, I’ll have a drink and I’ve had problems managing that — I suppose it’s like binge drinking. Usually it’s brought on by some personal tragedy and it’s an area I have to find a different way of coping with.
“I’m ashamed and embarrassed because I’ve let everyone down.”
For players the temptations can be immense for 20-year-olds earning £500,000 a year and too much time on their hands.
Adams, Gascoigne and Merson are to tour clubs across the country to urge young players not to make the mistakes they did. This is a start. Clubs should do more to make their players aware of the dangers of not just alcohol but other social drugs, too.
For every manager, player or supporter who lets themselves down there are, of course, thousands who act responsibly, with David Beckham the ideal role model. The England captain does not drink or smoke and is more likely to be seen leaving a fashion show than a bar.
He realizes that football is, in eyes of many, the best job in the world where you can earn millions doing what billions do for nothing. It is asking too much of somebody earning £1 million a year to restrict their drinking to perhaps a couple of glasses of wine after the game on Saturday?
Let us hope is it also not asking too much of the England supporters traveling to Liechtenstein to avoid doing anything that will embarrass the game and their country.
Hooliganism is something everyone wants to call time on.
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Glenn Hoddle, the Tottenham manager, had a novel way of describing his team’s display in a 3-2 loss to Liverpool. “There was nothing wrong with the performance apart from throwing away the game.” That’s all then, was it?
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Howard Wilkinson was sacked as manager of Sunderland last week and while few of the club’s players or fans will miss him, we must hope here turns to football soon.
After all, we are talking about the man who said: “Trying to get out of relegation is like pushing custard uphill”; “we did not deserve to lose today — we weren’t beaten, we lost”; “our squad looks good on paper but paper teams win paper cups”; “I’m a firm believer that if the other side scores first you have to score twice to win”; and most memorably to this observer: “if you had been born on the same day as Pele there is no reason why, with the right coaching, you could not have been as good.”
Come back quickly, Howard.
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