SPORT

The Keane affair and Beckham question mark

SEOUL MAY 29. Seldom indeed can a World Cup have had such a dramatic prelude. Take first the extraordinary case of Roy Keane and Ireland, which has just taken a last bizarre twist. Keane, the outlaw, the outspoken, even ferocious rebel who had been sent home after his obscene outburst at the Irish manager Mick McCarthy, swearing that he would never play for Ireland again under the aegis of McCarthy, suddenly crumpled virtually humiliated himself and apologised! Only the apology to not be accepted by the other Irish players, so the last sudden chance of Keane returning to the Far East to figure in the World Cup had gone.

Let us trace the sorry and tangled affair. In the first place, Keane, with some justification, was violently disappointed that the Irish party should go to the remote island of Saipan where it was almost impossible to prepare decently for the tournament. There was not even a proper football field and when one was prepared the ground was so hard as to make normal football impossible. Even if the Irish officials had intended this to be a rest — in an island famed above all for bars and brothels — it seemed a ludicrous choice and Keane was ready to go home, only to be persuaded to stay on.

What happened next was that McCarthy summoned him to appear before a group of players to explain himself. This, for me, implied that consciously or unconsciously McCarthy wanted to get rid of Keane, far and away Ireland's salient player, for it was utterly predictable that he would explode in such a humiliating situation: which he did, so forcible that even his fellow players such as Villa's Stan Staunton was shocked. So the abused McCarthy sent Keane home.

There it seemed likely to attend despite the intervention of the Irish Prime Minister, Mr. Bertie Aherne. Keane published an article in the Press, fiercely criticising McCarthy, for whom in fact both as a player and manager he seems to have had contempt for long. There was, said Keane, no chance at all of his relenting, apologising and hoping to rejoin the Irish party: he would never play for them again as long as McCarthy was in charge. Now he has climbed down and been snubbed.

Keane is not the easiest of personalities: there is anger and violence in him which has been manifest both on and off the field. Not long ago he put himself out of action for 11 months when attempting a brutal foul on Leeds United's Alf Haland. This past season, when he came up against Haland who is now with Manchester City, he was guilty of another vengeful foul. Yet, it must surely be significant that his club manager Sir Alex Ferguson, a domineering and confrontational manager, seems never to have had a major altercation with Keane.

England is still vacillating over David Beckham. One moment you hear he has little chance of playing in the competition at all, only for the England manager Sven Goran Eriksson insisting that he could even be fit, injured left foot and all, for the opening match against Sweden. But even if he were fit which looks so doubtful, how could be possibly be match fit?

It's hard to make sense of Sven and his choices. Emile Heskey has been in pitiful form in recent games; yet, Sven insists that he will start on the left against Sweden. Why, when Trevor Sinclair, back from his round trip to London, had an excellent game in that very role against Cameroon? So much will as always depend on Michael Owen though there is no Steve Gerrard to serve him with long balls.

As for the Swedes and their fellow Scandinavians — the Danes — they appear to be embroiled in internecine warfare. In a training game there was an embarrassing brawl between Arsenal's Freddie Ljungberg and Villa's centre back Mellberg who had badly fouled his fellow Swede. Then the two Danes — Jesper Gronkjaes of Chelsea and Bolton's Tofting — came to blows.

France is of course without Robert Pires and it now seems inevitable that the star of the show Zinedine Zidane will miss not only the game but perhaps two others. France didn't impress when beating host South Korea 3-2.

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