x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Beware the tourist traps

You see, whatever players do during major tournaments, however they behave, they will be criticised. It is all part of tournament fever.

England players Ben Foden, Nick Easter, Dylan Hartley and Chris Ashton go white-water rafting in Queenstown, New Zealand.
England players Ben Foden, Nick Easter, Dylan Hartley and Chris Ashton go white-water rafting in Queenstown, New Zealand.

Roll up, roll up! Time to complain about the latest off-field antics of the England rugby team in New Zealand: being chased around a former mental asylum by masked men wielding chainsaws.

It was not real, Scots will be disappointed to learn, but a ghoulish Auckland theme park called Spookers (slogan: "Run for your … life!") visited by 15 of the squad on Thursday, including Ben Youngs, Delon Armitage and Chris Ashton.

But that will not stop people having a pop.

Experts in mental health who are offended by the negative stereotyping of the insane; Health and Safety officers concerned about children playing with real chainsaws; pot-bellied pundits pontificating about the potential impact of such an excursion on that crucial good night's sleep before today's clash with France.

"Chris Ashton was red in the face! What does that tell you about his heart rate and cortisone levels?"

And if they do not complain spontaneously? Well, some enterprising journalist can always phone them up and ask them to.

You see, whatever players do during major tournaments, however they behave, they will be criticised. It is all part of tournament fever.

Stay in their hotel rooms and they are sulky ingrates. Play golf and they are pampered millionaires. Do something adventurous and they are reckless idiots. Do something cultural and they are pretentious box-tickers.

This is why David Bernstein, chairman of the England Football Association (FA), is on a fool's errand when he claims that the national team will aim to be "good tourists" at next year's European Championships in Poland and Ukraine.

By this he means they will stay in central Krakow instead of hiding away in splendid isolation, as they were criticised for doing in South Africa last year (which, in turn, followed criticism that they were too visible in Germany in 2006, which followed criticism they were too isolated in Japan in 2002, etc).

It also means that they will engage more with fans and at least pretend to be interested in the host nation. One complaint at last year's football World Cup in South Africa, for example, was that the England team did not bother to visit Nelson Mandela's prison cell on Robben Island, but the more successful Holland team did.

Bernstein's plan will be well-received, of course, until a player twists his ankle on a Krakow cobble, or responds sharply to an obnoxious fan, or forgets to remove his iPod earphones during the inevitable visit to Auschwitz. At which point, we will demand to know why they were put in such a perilous position in the first place. Then, after a suitable period of self-flagellation, a slightly different FA man in a slightly different suit will promise to shake things up, swapping words like "explore", "engage" and "tourist" back to ones like "routine", "focus" and "professional".

The problem with this never-ending cycle is the cry-wolf factor. If we criticise our athletes for everything and anything they do on tour, then we should not be surprised when they cease to pay attention to even legitimate concerns and simply shrug it off as another media witch hunt.

Indeed, it seems fitting that Media Witch Hunt sounds like it could be one of the ghoulish experiences on offer at Spookers. Once you know the chainsaws are not real, and the men wielding them are just playing a game, it becomes nothing to lose any sleep over.

 

sports@thenational.ae