I don’t know about Benjani

MYSTERY of the week: How on earth did Benjani (who is, you will note, a footballer) manage to become embroiled in a discussion over whether the Zimbabwe cricket team should be allowed to tour England next year?

I was beginning to wonder if the striker’s transfer from Portsmouth to Manchester City had taken another twist.

But no. It was far more complicated than that.

Someone, somewhere, somehow had got the idea that the Government was planning to ban all Zimbabwean sportspeople from competing in Britain to step up the pressure on Robert Mugabe, the country’s president.

Such a move, I’m sure, would have been a legal minefield; which was probably why the Government have never stated that was their intention.

However, Gordon Brown has stated that he will support the England and Wales Cricket Board if they go ahead with plans to cancel two Tests and three one-day internationals against Zimbabwe over here next summer.

This move comes as no surprise; Zimbabwe’s cricket team have effectively the most significant sporting symbol of Mugabe’s regime because of repeated allegations of political interference in selection policy.

Or, as a Foreign Office spokesman put it this week: “International sports should never be a way for dictators to publicise their misrule. If the situation does not improve in Zimbabwe, we would not want to see the Zimbabwe team tour here in 2009, nor the England team tour there in 2012.”

So far, so straightforward. The Zimbabwe question has been a tricky one for England’s cricket bosses to deal with for the last five years, and the British Government hasn’t always been as willing to provide the kind of support it is giving now.

But it got complicated when the suggestion emerged that the ban on Zimbabwe’s cricketers might be extended.

The BBC’s Inside Sport programme on Monday night ran a short feature attempting to explain the consequences of a blanket ban. I didn’t see the show, so I can’t comment on it. (Although you’d be amazed at how many people don’t seem to feel that seeing the show is necessary to have an opinion on it.) According to a BBC spokesman, that item did not name any names – but an accompanying article on the BBC’s website did.

By Tuesday morning, a flurry of articles appeared (such as this one and this one), following up the Inside Sport report and suggesting that Benjani’s Manchester City career could be under threat because of the possibility of a blanket ban.

City weren’t terribly happy to discover that the player they had just signed was apparently in danger of a ban simply because he happened to come from a country whose president is rarely praised for his human rights record. With the Government insisting that the blanket ban was not an option, City demanded an apology from the BBC. Maybe it will come, maybe it won’t.

I can’t help but feel, though, that the fans lining up on message boards to claim that the BBC has some kind of anti-Manchester City agenda are missing the point.

And that point is that the British Government are finally giving sporting authorities some backing in deciding how to deal with politically-sensitive situations. And that, for all the confusion that has arisen because a journalist got a little bit over-excited about the possibility of Benjanigate, is surely a step in the right direction.

After all, if politicians are going to share in the glory of our nation’s sporting successes, they ought to be prepared to provide back up when things get a little tricky.

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