The European Union is expanding as rapidly as the waistlines of retired footballers. Al Needham puzzled over an event that brought the two together

The Europe United Masters tournament was held at the London Arena on a miserable October Sunday, wedged between the Disney Channel Kids Awards and Beauty and the Beast On Ice. It had a weird premise: the Foreign Office decided that the best way to mark the admission of ten new coun­tries to the European Union was to organise a kick­about for retired foot­ballers, some of them not exactly re­nowned for their Europhilia (one of the British Masters squad once said living in Italy was like being in a foreign country and another famously told Norway to “Fuck off”). Mind you, if you needed reminding that there have been worse ideas, we’re only a stone’s throw away from the Millennium Dome.

Although Masters football has a bit of a joke reputation, you can’t deny it’s an impressive turnout. There are four squads – British Masters and representatives (loosely defined) from northern, central and southern Europe, scattered with the aforementioned legends and lesser stars from Ireland to Slovenia. And I’m in the “press area”, which is actually the empty end be­hind one of the goals on the carpeted-over hockey rink. As soon as I get there, I’m granted an interview with none other than Tony Banks. Crikey. “So, Tony, what’s the appeal of retired footballers?” He looks back at me as if I’ve suggested that he’d been involved in threesomes with David Mellor and Stamford the Lion.

“Well, you just wait until you see the skill level of these players,” he asserts. “Gazza in particular, he’s in outstanding condition. Masters Football does a lot of good work in showcasing the talents of former professionals, and remember that most of the players here are part of the last generation before the big money arrived, so they’re entitled to it.” Tony then goes on to describe the entertainment he organised for a selection of Leeds United Old Boys, and I depart with a night­mare image of him having a “Singalonga” with Paul Madeley, and Gary Sprake in a sequinned suit organising the tombola.

I’m now backstage, behind the curtains, witnessing a passing triangle between Gazza, Ally McCoist (who looks two stone heavier than he does on the telly) and Ray Wilkins. They tap the ball about with all the casual flair and nonchalance of the Four Tops hunk­ered round a brazier, and I’m desperate to lunge in and tonk it one like Peter Kay in the beer advert. But I can’t. The main focus of today is Gazza’s at­tempt to make one last comeback, and he appears to be taking it seriously. There’s a tennis court off to the left. The Gazza of old would have been knackering himself out on it, but not today.

Then he muscles the ball off Ally Mc­Coist, blasts it miles, says “Have it! Hurr hurr! Off the advert, like!” and wanders over to the arena. There’s a huge crowd of people roped off in the corner like the saddos in Leicester Square when there’s a film premiere, not even watching the games, bran­dishing autograph books the size of the Yellow Pages, desperate for his attention. In the most telling moment of the day, Sebastiano Nela (Italy squad, 1986 World Cup) pushes a camera into the hand of Moreno Manini (Sampdoria and Forest), shyly taps Gazza on the back and poses for a photo with him.

The games themselves. Well. “Interesting.” Rather like those episodes of Roy of the Rovers in the late 1970s when the NASL looked esoteric and threatening. The main concern for the audience was what shape the heroes of old were in. Gazza – fit. Ian Rush – leaner than ever (possibly because his tache has gone). Liam Brady – very dad-like. Neville Southall? Ted Bovis. From close up, the entire skill set is still in place and at times you forget that these players are pros no more (Amara Simba, for example – surely he could do a job for a club a few rungs up the ladder from Clacton).

But it’s weird. The Gladiators-like presentation de­tracts from it. You can’t really believe it when the an­nouncer screams: “Boncho Genchev, who ab­solutely shone for Sporting Lisbon – and Carshalton Athletic”, or: “We need a hero! We need Henry IV! We need Winston Churchill! We need… Michael Thomas!”

Tellingly, most of the kids are looking up at the TV screens built into the ice hockey scoreboard, just like Top of the Pops aud­iences, and slope off during the games not in­volving Britain (who don’t make the final, putting a bit of a damp squib on things – the South beat the North 6-2, incidentally).

When it was all over, I hit the door wondering what the point was of seeing past-their prime-players. And then I saw a billboard for forthcoming attractions at the London Arena: Madness, Dollar, Five Star, Visage, for Christ’s sake. And the scales dropped from my eyes. We live in an age when audiences reject the new for the old, and if bands who haven’t had a hit for nearly two decades are en­titled to be on stage and earn a pension, then why not Paul Walsh, Bernie Slaven and Owen Coyle too?

This time next year, some entrepreneur will take the phenonemon to its logical conclusion and form lookalike “tribute” teams. You’ll be able to see Boys Of ’66, The Perma-Wave (Liverpool 1977), Spirit Of ’76 (Czechoslovakia’s European Championship squad) and the ’48 Crash (Blackpool’s FA Cup-losing squad, for the purists). I guarantee it.

From WSC 190 December 2002. What was happening this month

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