15 JUNE 2002, Page 8


Football rather passed me by as a child. I went to a prep school where the Germany/Saudi Arabia goal difference was a normal Saturday afternoon's result, and I was never good enough to make our first XI — even though there were only 14 boys in my year and injuries were not uncommon. When young I went just once to a professional match; it was an outing for the rugby team (which, of course, needed 15 players — hence my inclusion), but there was some confusion over buying the tickets for Northampton Saints v. Llanelli at the rugby ground, so we ended up witnessing Millwall kicking a spherical ball around with Northampton Town — then, but not now, fully deserving the nickname of The Cobblers'. It was 1976, and my only other memory from the day was the constant barrage of loo rolls raining down on the pitch; intriguing behaviour to a boy attending a school so rigid that you were beaten if you so much as spilt a glass of water three times in a 13-week term.

The World Cup, though, gives me the chance to be as obsessed as all the other sporting also-rans who have forgotten the utter humiliation of chafing shorts and frozen thighs, of disbelieving team mates and solitary walks back to the showers. We can all get wrapped up in the sheer scale of the event, even if it's sadly considered politically incorrect to wrap the cross of St George too tightly around us. The thrill of Beckham's goal against Argentina may well prove to be the highlight of the competition for England. We are now through to the second round, of course, after our draw with Nigeria, but Beckham's goal will remain a golden moment of sporting and human redemption.

South Africans have had a chance to look at both themes for themselves recently. They are high on the feistiness of their football team's performance, first for coming back to draw a match they were losing 2-0, then for recording their first ever World Cup finals' victory. Apart from our own partisan loyalties, we tend to concentrate on the results of the major European and South American teams; but if you are in one of the less fancied nations when they get it right on the global stage, be prepared to witness scenes that rival those we see on those ageing reels from 1966.

Aongside the footballing triumphs, South Africans have also had to deal with cricketing tragedy. In his 32 years Hansie Cronje rose from schoolboy sporting prodigy — he had to choose between interna

tional rugby or cricket in South Africa, the equivalent of opting for a bishopric or a cardinal's hat in a religious nation — to captain of the hugely popular, deeply respected, thoroughly decent South African cricket eleven (for which. read Tope). Then came the fall. Addicted to money, he accepted bundles of it from bookies in order to alter the course of matches. Caught out by the Indian police, cast out by the cricketing community. he was just beginning, very gradually, to emerge from a disgrace that was the equivalent of David Beckham's four years ago, to the power of one hundred. But there were to be no second chances for Hansie. Dying in a plane crash may have drawn a convenient line under the matter for many overseas, but in South Africa it has bought him final redemption: a result of shock at the real sadness of the whole tale, compounded by seeing his proud, brave widow coping with yet more public trauma, and of guilt at the vitriol of the criticism he had to withstand in his final two years.

Flying back from South Africa. the contrast between the thrill of sport and the dire predictability of manufactured entertainment could not have been more obvious. British Airways showed the entire Argentina match on one channel, while two of the others were showcasing a pair of Hollywood's latest offerings. The first involved an imprisoned senior army officer, played by Robert Redford, gaining his men's respect in the face of a cruel and tyrannical prison commandant. Redford's character

becomes ever more deeply patriotic, and eventually he goads the crazed commandant into shooting him. Cut to a series of shots of Redford's men saluting his fallen body to stirring martial music. The other involves an imprisoned senior army officer, played by Bruce Willis, gaining his men's respect in the face of another commandant, whose prison routine owes more to Papillon than to Porridge. Same plot, same result: goading, pistol shots, slumped leader, and square-jawed salutes all round.

Not that I can complain about all of Hollywood's output. Its enduring fascination with British costume drama has again helped to focus the travelling American's attention on us as a destination. Gosford Park may not have garnered as many Oscars as was expected, but Robert Altman's homage to English class division, spiced up with an Agatha Christie-like murder plot, has certainly helped to rekindle interest in this country's historic houses. This link is particularly evident in the way in which visitors have wanted to know about the relationships between the owning families and their servants in preceding generations. A year after many stately homes found that admissions had fallen by 15 to 20 per cent, thanks to the still obscure way in which the government chose to handle foot-and-mouth, movies are helping to bring the foreign tourists back through the turnstiles. We open at Althorp on 1 July, and already have 50,000 advance ticket sales. Althorp Park humbly thanks Gosford Park for its help in achieving this.

The Golden Jubilee will also help this country's historic tourism greatly, of course. Watching the Queen lighting her beacon reminded me of 1981, when I had to torch a rather more modest creation locally, in Northamptonshire. This was to be broadcast live on the BBC, as part of the royal wedding celebrations. It proved not to go as smoothly as had been hoped, since I had spilt petrol down the right arm of my jersey, leading to my TV debut being performed to the sizzle of lambswool V-neck, with more than the usual nervousness playing on my face. The outside broadcast finished, after which I made a dash to a waiting car that was to take me at top speed to catch the last train to London, so I could witness the next day's celebrations in St Paul's. To the delight of 5,000 whooping Northamptonians, I skidded in a cowpat and ended up flat on my back. It was humiliation of a magnitude that at first felt uniquely terrible. But then I remembered my last game of football some years before, and it all seemed horribly familiar. . . .