Blair's boys defend UK pride

The Honourable Member for Norwich, the distinguished academic and writer Dr Ian Gibson, rose to his feet. More than 200 parliamentarians and senior civil servants from across Europe listened attentively as Dr Gibson began to sing. "Stand UP if you hate Man U," he chanted, his voice brimming with feeling, "stand UP if you HATE Man U."

Across the room, the athletic cream of the Italian parliament cheered him to the rafters. They launched into their own back-row-of-the-coach song, soon to be taken over by the Finns, the Portuguese, the French, the Danes and the Swedish.

This was the culmination of a three day fiesta of football, hosted by the Portuguese in Lisbon in September and bringing together nine teams of politicians from around the continent for the first ever such tournament.

Mr Gibson was not alone. His colleagues Clive Betts (Sheffield Attercliffe), Russell Brown (Dumfries), Ivor Capin (Hove) and Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar) added their vocal disapproval for the legendary triple winners. Only Gerry Sutcliffe (Bradford), a stauch Man U fan, stayed in his chair.

Government whip Sutcliffe manages and captains the UK team with a firm hand. He is used to reining in the incalcitrant and as team goalkeeper screams at wayward defenders in his distinctive purple strip. Clive Betts, another whip, is the nullifier, chasing down (and booting, in the nicest possible way) any threatening forwards. In this tournament he took out a Swede, a 20 year old French student playing for the European Parliament team and an Italian pace man.

In deference to tradition the UK team lost the semi-final on penalties to the Italians after a nil-nil draw. It had been a very tough contest: two well-organised defences cancelling each other out and two purposeful attacks never quite finding the final ball.

The day before was another story. The UK began brightly against Sweden, Jim Fitzpatrick thumping in two goals in the first quarter of an hour. Another followed after the break before a consolation for the Swedes left it at 3-1. The lads were fabulous. Then came the real test. The European Parliament team had been packed with 20-something ringers: not one actual MEP among them.

The British saw this as a bit of a fiddle (they were fielding 12 MPs out of a squad of 24; most of the others work for the Commons administration). They determined to kick the bastards off the park, as they put it. Ivor Caplin (Hove) was first in and last out. He gave those Europeans such a bashing that they seriously considered withdrawing from the tournament. "You fucking bastard!" shouted one of them as he lay writhing on the sidelines. "Come here and say that!" replied Caplin, clearly hoping to bring nations closer together. ("I did have various plans on what I would do if he took me up on it," said Caplin later.)

To no-one´s surprise, the UK team failed to win the fair play award, which went to the French Senate, a highly polished and attractive side. But getting to the semis was a major achievement for a team of middle aged men with spreading waists and years of deadening late night debates on local government planning policies behind them.

The credit belongs largely to the sole woman on the trip. Sheila Hunter is a qualified doctor and sports therapist and has closely nurtured the team´s physical and mental well-being, putting them through rigorous training and diet schedules before, during and after matches. She was on an earlier trip to Hungary when they played the Hungarian paliament and lost 2-0 and gave strict instructions for the build up to this event. No alcohol, little caffeine, plenty of carbohydrate, early nights, lots of stretching.

In Lisbon, the team went through a ten minute exercise regime before and after each game, loosening up all those creaking hamstrings, shoulders and ankles. Her day job is team doctor to a Newcastle rugby league side and she relishes the role of mothering a bunch of hard men with soft centres, revealed by her delicate administrations. They adore her and the seriousness with which they approach games is certainly her work. Otherwise it would be little more than an average pub side puffing away on a Sunday morning. (Hunter is also the loudest screamer on the touchline, which is very funny to watch).

There are gifted players among them. Jim Fitzpatrick's goals were splendidly taken, Jim Murphy (Eastwood) is a tenacious forward with good touch and an intimidating turn of speed, Ian Gibson used to play for Scottish cup-winning St Mirren side. Now approaching retirement, his footballing nouse inspires the side from the middle of the back four or from the sidelines.

It is a robust defence. Clive Betts at 49 is fitter than many 20-year-olds. In a test at Lilleshall he scored an equivalent result a premiership player. Ivor Caplin´s strength is his ability to un-fit the opposition. Lax refereeing in Lisbon meant that while Caplin would have been booked in the first five minutes of any regular game, the bovver boys of the UK team were allowed to do as they pleased. Dumfried MP Russell Brown was finally booked for a tantrum in the final minutes of the last match.

There were some clashes which almost threatened to become international incidents, as players squared up to one another or gave less than friendly pats on the cheek. One European Parliament player was stretchered off to hospital with a broken leg in their semi-final against eventual winners and hosts Portugal. This could also have been provoked by the EU's un-(italics)communitaire(end italics) attitude to team selection.

Politics cropped up all the way through. Portugal wants to host the 2004 European Football Championship, in competition with a combined Austria-Hungary bid and another from Spain. None of those teams showed up in Lisbon. The UK team made some subtle efforts to promote the 2006 World Cup bid.

The fact that the tournament took place at all can be attributed to a general leftwards shift in Euro politics, with pinkish governments throwing up football players and fans from Helsinki to Rome. The UK´s 1997 Labour intake was much in evidence - Jim Murphy for example is in his 20s and won the safest Tory seat in Scotland on a huge swing.

There was one Tory on board, Nick Hawkins, but he was only given half a game and didn´t excel himself. The Scots do form the backbone of the side, which makes for some interesting misapprehensions. After one cruching tackle against the European Parliament one player turned on Jim Murphy. "Fuck England!" he shouted. "Yeah, fuck England!" replied Murphy with a huge grin. On the coach there is a pattern of Anglo-Scottish banter. "Can you hear the England sing? No-oh, no-oh," and so on.

This was probably the best bonding exercise the UK parliamentarians have had for many years. Here it was all lads together, in the shower, on the park, in the bar, jumping around in the pool between matches like a load of kids on holiday in Benidorm.

Hosting the tournament next year has been mooted. The offer could boost our 2006 World Cup bid and some players muttered darkly about Tony Blair turning out in a football strip rather than doing photo opportunity headers with Kevin Keegan before elections.

Meanwhile there are plans to tour South Africa and China with potential sponsorship from Richard Branson. National Express and Spall Sports stumped up for this one and reaching the semis has doubtless added to the team´s commercial magnetism. Like all good New Labourites they are eagerly tying up public/private funding deals.

There will surely be another tournament next year, somewhere or other, since the level of hysterical fun and ardent, biting football will have imprinted itself on the minds and shins of all concerned. It is a small part of the Great European Project but maybe an important one. The Swedes turned out to support the UK team, shouting "England, Scotland, Wales. UK never fails!" which the team corrected to England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales. UK football never fails!" The UK team then shouted for Finland in their final match, earning the fond affection of Yuri, Seppo and Matti, who embraced the team warmly at the final night party.

All told, it was a fantastic hoot and something the academic, writer and honorable member for Norwich Mr Ian Gibson will not forget in a hurry, even though he may wish he wasn´t reading about it now.