Sport Soccer

Saturday 16 December 2017

No Bale, no World Cup but at least they'll always have Harry

Dion Fanning

A dark cloud hung over the Gareth Bale story all week. Obviously there was joy, hysteria, delight and benchmarking. Bale was the second-best player in the world right now. No, he was the best player in the world right now. He was unplayable, but nobody wanted to be reminded that Phil Neville had contained him. For once, Phil Neville was not the dark cloud. The dark cloud was Wales.

Bale's Welshness was talked about as if it was some sort of disfigurement, like the car crash that cost Gordon Banks an eye. Banks' crash had robbed England of a great goalkeeper, now Bale's Welshness was denying England a left-sided player.

Bale is a remarkable specimen. "He literally has three lungs," Jamie Redknapp said, making him physically different and strange and not solely on account of his Welshness.

Some even suggested that Bale was saving his best performances for the Champions League because he knows he will never play in the World Cup. By this reasoning, Alan Hutton would be performing a lot better than he is.

So soon after their rain-affected Ryder Cup, Wales has again become synonymous with misfortune, a restraint of trade and even a restraint of dreams. England were missing out on a great player. Bale was missing out on the opportunity to go to the World Cup, sit around with players complaining they're bored, come home earlier than expected and be condemned if he is pictured smiling or enjoying himself in any way within six weeks of the humiliation. Due to his Welshness, he is denied these glittering opportunities.

Of course, England's cause has been advanced this week. Harry Redknapp's handling of Bale makes him the favourite for the England job. It was Redknapp, Owen Coyle said, who saw something in Bale and moved him from left-back to left-midfield. This act of genius demonstrated Redknapp's eye for a player.

Redknapp repeatedly states that he sees Bale as a full-back and his eye may have been affected by Bale's inability to defend but nobody wants to be reminded of these irritating facts. His Welshness is irritating enough and England needed to see some dividend. Bale would have been preferable to Redknapp but they seem to have reluctantly accepted there is nothing they can do about that.

In the past, England has claimed Andy Murray, who is more resistant as he is Scottish and on the record as saying he hopes England lose whenever they play football.

This led to something of a backlash from a certain type of English tennis fan who proved Murray's point by demonstrating they didn't understand football or Scottishness

But Bale's nationality seems more of an affront as England cannot conceal their feeling that it is all so utterly pointless.

Craig Bellamy might disagree. "I've got the Battle of Pilleth going down my arm," Bellers said at the unveiling of his body art a couple of years ago. Bellamy has always given the impression that there are a few more battles going down in his head, but at least he has managed to externalise the Battle of Pilleth.

Nobody seems to regret Bellamy's Welsh heritage or long to see him in an England jersey, even though he would undoubtedly make a difference. With Bale they can't help themselves. There is no doubt they are getting carried away. He killed Inter twice, they said, prompted by Luis Figo. Figo and everyone else seemed to forget that one of these killings took place in a game which Inter led 4-0 before throwing away some of the lead in garbage time.

Bale seems aware of the hazards, even if there was a time when they spoke of Lee Sharpe with the same relish with which they now talk about Bale. After Sharpe scored a hat-trick against Arsenal in the League Cup, he was seen as the future, with the added bonus that he was England's future. Things didn't work out like that.

Bale was just one thing going wrong for England last week. It seems remarkable that the 2018 World Cup will not take place in England but in another way it makes perfect sense.

The Sunday Times investigation into FIFA's shady practices is harming England's bid. Last week, the England World Cup team visited the director-general of the BBC as they feared a further FIFA backlash if a Panorama documentary was broadcast. They discovered that while the BBC might bend for the Daily Mail, they cannot be turned by fear of FIFA.

Into the void comes the Russian bid, now seen as the favourite, and if England is the natural place to hold a World Cup, Russia is the only venue for a FIFA tournament. A country where the response to investigative journalism is to shoot the journalist seems to be the right place to allow FIFA to prosper.

The Qatari Fifa executive committee member Mohamed Bin Hamman put it best. "Forging identity, fabricating evidence and setting traps are unethical behaviours in my point of view," he said. "One thing about Middle East media, these are rare happenings there."

Sepp Blatter has also blamed the English media and in Russia he can expect an ethical standard they are more comfortable with. And perhaps a lot more.

Russia is ready to do what it takes to get the tournament. The similarities between Russia and Ireland have been noted before and if Ireland had a population of 150 million, we would certainly have made a decent stab at bidding for a tournament.

Instead of property developers, we would have had oligarchs and we wouldn't have lost that ability to make things happen. If Ireland had a population of 150 million, the rest wouldn't stand a chance, at least when it came to winning bids. Legacy wouldn't be our strongest suit.

This is the situation England confronts now as it's faced with a country that thinks like Ireland but only more so and fuelled by the same compulsions, addictions and crazy dreams.

England, with their moderation, their committees, their reasonableness and Trevor Brooking don't stand a chance. What has England got? Niall Quinn talking about the urban regeneration of Sunderland? It's fine talk, it's uplifting talk. But when you have FIFA delegates looking for kickbacks, it's not the regeneration that's needed.

Once again, England is going to lose out. Undoubtedly they'll take it out on Wales.

Sunday Independent

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