Dizzy heights of Asian football


Another week without live sport. Sought consolation from "friends" who insinuated, in an unpleasant and malevolent enough manner, that I only ever watched sport on telly anyway so how on earth could current Irish-agricultural related-live-sporting-postponements have any effect on me? A Bohs-supporting acquaintance of mine even alleged that I was blissfully unaware that football was played in Ireland on a daily basis, that I was only interested in whatever Sky Sports had the rights to show me, so the general thrust of my sporting life - chair, remote control, RTE Guide, peanut butter sandwiches and Red Bull and Ginger Ale - remained intact.

"Poppycock," I raged, before curtailing the phone call by yanking the socket from the wall and settling down in my chair to watch Sky Sports' weekly North West Asian football round-up, with remote control, RTE Guide, peanut butter sandwiches and Red Bull and Ginger Ale all within picking-up distance. "I'll sue that lad for slander," I fumed.

It was during the Asian round-up that I was reminded of Ossie Ardiles' immortal line when Glenn Hoddle was appointed England manager: "I wish Glenn luck, but he is putting his head in the frying pan." Stephen Constantine? Well, some might say he put his frying pan on the block and ended up with his head in the fire when he accepted the job of coaching the Nepal football team which, he said, resembled "something off Hackney Marshes" when he took over. Monday? He resigned.

This was bad news for those of us who have been absorbed by the Nepalese managerial career of the "unknown Londoner" ever since learning he had changed his players' diet from rice and lentils to buffalo curry, resulting in sensational wins over Pakistan and the Maldives, enough to see Nepal rise spectacularly to 137th in the world rankings. Their success also led to Everest's Sherpas going on strike whenever Nepal were in action, forcing wealthy Texan George Mallory-wannabees to carry their own knapsacks the four feet from their private jets to base camp.

So why did Stevo resign? Because a government appointed committee took it upon themselves to select his national squad. Imagine a Dail committee picking Mick McCarthy's squad for the Cyprus and Andorra games? My thoughts exactly. Inappropriate, you could say, very nearly as inappropriate as former British Home Secretary Roy Jenkins' greeting to a group of prisoners he met on a visit to a jail: "How nice to see you all here".

Anyway Stevo, who, until Monday, held the highest position in world football, living, as he did, 15,000 feet above sea level in Kathmandu, is now being linked with Lincoln City which, in football terms, is 15,000 feet below sea level. Not that we should scoff - as Bobby Robson said of Cameroon in 1990: "We didn't underestimate them but they were a lot better than we expected".

Gutted for Stevo, then, but the week was to go from bad to worse. "Typhoon Rips Through Cemetery - Hundreds Dead,' as the famous old newspaper headline put it. What? Ah, forgive me, just wanted to fit in my favourite headline of all time (second only to "Prostitutes Appeal to Pope" and "Plane Too Close to Ground, Crash Probe Told").

Where were we? Yes: despair. Tuesday. THE day. For two years now I'd been waiting for the European Hockey Federation (EHF) to decide who'd host the 2003 European Nations Cup qualifiers. Since July 1998, the date of the last qualifier, I'd been undergoing weekly sunbed sessions to prepare my skin for the roasting it would inevitably get at the July 2003 tournament.

I wasn't too fussy about which country would get the nod from the EHF, but I'd have happily settled for Italy, France, Greece, the Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary or Switzerland. But if any of the other contenders - Belarus, Belgium, Croatia, Finland, Lithuania, Poland, Scotland, Ukraine or Wales - had secured the hosting rights I wouldn't have grumbled, so long as it involved the exhilaration of boarding a plane and waving adieu to Ire Land for a week or three.

So, the EHF email arrived on Tuesday morning. You know when you buy a gigantic box of pecan-stuffed caramel chewy chocolate sweets from your nearby confectionary and so overwhelmed are you by the loveliness of the prospect of scoffing them all you sit and marvel at the box for, ooooh, 30 seconds before diving in? Well, that's how I was with that email.

Thirty seconds later I opened it and promptly rang the Irish hockey office to confirm its contents. "Yes, it's true! Isn't it fabulous that Dublin is hosting the tournament?"

Fabulous? No. Could have been Bologna. Could have been Bruges. Could have been Bordeaux. Could have been Basle. But, oh no, it had to be Belfield. Damn it Llandudno would have been better than this.

Not that I've anything against Belfield, you understand. Indeed experience has taught me that if you wear four layers of thermal underclothing on your average July afternoon there's a very reasonable chance that the pneumonia you pick up will only keep you hospitalised for a month or six. But why Lord, why? Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, the EHF had to walk into mine.