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Spectator sport

Spectator Sport

Back to the future

13 February 2008

12:00 AM

13 February 2008

12:00 AM

My friend Simon has a lovely bench in his garden made up of the blue-painted wooden seats he sat in with his dad when they went to Rugby League decades ago. He bought them when the old Swinton ground was knocked down. That’s what a lot of sport’s about: you mustn’t let the past disappear. But we can’t sidestep the future either.

So naturally Manchester United did a brilliant retro job last weekend for the Munich anniversary derby against City: the plain red shirts were gorgeous, the trad scarves on every seat inspired, only the haircuts had changed — oh, and the performance was rubbish. And of course the minute’s silence was unbroken and very moving, after what seemed to be weeks of frenzied hand-wringing all over the media about how it couldn’t hold. Of course it held: people behave decently, given half the chance. Most of the time, anyway.

How odd then that this feast of retro style in front of 75,000 and millions on TV around the world should be taking place against such a furious backdrop of rage about English football’s very cunning plan to go even more global than it is already. We’re a conservative country, OK, but blimey — sports people can be unbelievable. Man U were only pretending we were back in the Fifties: it wasn’t real, guys. The Premier League’s chief executive Richard Scudamore wants to take a midwinter break of a fortnight in January, four of the 20 teams will each go to one of five warm foreign cities around the world, where they will play two games. The match will be extra, the 39th game, and some sort of seeding will take place.

What’s not to like? For me, the howls of outrage are out of all proportion. You might not want to travel to Singapore to watch Sunderland, but it will be on TV, as will Birmingham in Bahrain. Already I understand five US cities have pitched, and New York can’t be one as it is too cold. A big Premiership match is like a three-day event anyway, as the thoughtful Reading manager Steve Coppell has observed. Scudamore’s plan is simply an extension of that, with massive marketing potential, as well as engaging new fans worldwide. My personal choice would be to play at random one of the 38 games, one that falls in the January window, abroad. But the Premier League has, for the time being, rejected that as when the NFL tried it in the US it did a lot to alienate the fans who had lost a home game.

This is a far-sighted plan which shows that those at the higher levels of English football are thinking ahead of their rivals abroad, not to say most people here. The globalisation of sport is not just something for the future; it is going on at eye-watering speed now. There are European tour golf events in India; not long ago there were no F1 grands prix in Asia, now there are seven; my guess is that there will soon be an NBA basketball team based in London, Madrid too. The list is endless. The upside is that once journalists, administrators and fans see what a great time they can have on a break in Miami or Melbourne, Dubai or Durban, this hysteria will subside as quickly as it blew up.

While we’re on money, there’s a ghastly ad campaign right now starring Tiger Woods, Roger Federer and Thierry Henry. It’s for Gillette Fusion razors. In the poster ads, they’re holding their razors like little insignia across their chests: demeaning, no? And the film ends with Federer aiming a playful punch at Woods’s gleamingly clean-shaven chin. Woods turns to Henry with an absurd, ‘Aw shucks, who’s this guy?’ gesture. Please gentlemen, you can’t need the money for this dross. And if you do, can’t you chip in to pay for a decent script?

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