15 JUNE 2002, Page 63

Bad guys come last

Michael Henderson

IT could not possibly have turned out better. England caned Argentina in Sapporo and then Lennox Lewis humiliated Mike Tyson, the self-confessed `baddest man in the world', in Memphis. Even for those of us who feel that the flag-waving is getting out of hand, it was a memorable weekend. The World Cup has become a bloated enterprise, and there is far too much in the newspapers and on television, but England's 1-0 victory, achieved with a David Beckham penalty, was a reward for virtue. Criticised for their poor performance against Sweden, which brought only a draw, the players were worthy winners against opponents whom they despise.

Who can blame them? They were cheated in a World Cup quarter-final in 1986, when Diego Maradona punched in a goal, and they were abused by gloating Argentina players four years ago when they lost on penalties after Beckham had been sent off. There is also the little matter of Rattin, the Argentina captain, refusing to leave the field at Wembley in 1966, after which Sir All Ramsey. the England manager, called the South Americans 'animals'. For supposedly civilised, indeed Anglophile people, something transforms the Argentina players when they take to the field, and they were up to their usual tricks last week. They spat continually at the England players, committed any number of sly fouls and, when the game was over, they jostled and abused their conquerors. What a loathsome, ungracious, small-minded and juvenile bunch they are.

Back home neither the fans nor the newspapers could come to terms with their defeat. Football, apparently, is the only thing that can restore self-respect to that bankrupt country', and to lose to England robbed them even of that. To make it even more memorable, Maradona, who now resembles a fat little toad, his body ravaged by years of alcohol and drug abuse, had a jolly good blub. Goody!

Lewis's victory was also a triumph for the good man. The British heavyweight is in danger of bringing boxing into repute, handling himself with dignity at all times despite the revolting provocation of Tyson, whose antics are too disgusting for words. There is a sensitive side to Tyson's personality but, robbed of millions of dollars over the years by unscrupulous agents, and incapable of controlling his essential baseness of character, he is heading for oblivion. After this overwhelming defeat, administered by Lewis in the eighth round of a one-sided fight, one fears for him.

Predictably, Tyson was begging for a rematch within minutes of being pounded into submission. It shouldn't happen and, in truth, this fight should not have gone ahead in the first place. But, boxing being boxing, utterly without principle or decency, it did because, as usual, money spoke. Now it is time for Lewis, a dignified man and a notable champion, to walk away with his honour satisfied.

The World Cup does not exactly smell of roses. We have already seen a Brazilian player feign injury to get a Turk sent off, not to mention those street riots in Moscow, when one person was killed, after the Russians had lost to Japan. One might imagine that there are more important things going on in the world. One would be wrong.

But, overrated shindig that it is, this tournament will always produce great moments. England's victory last week was one of them. The players may not go much further, but they have already given us all something to savour. England 1 Argentina 0 — and a disputed penalty at that. Wunderbar!