The Government needs urgently to deliver on its promise to improve sports facilities and coaching in schools, writes Trevor Brooking
England's football team takes to the field against France this Sunday in a match that will tell us much about the current health of the national game.
If England wins and David Beckham goes on to lift the Euro 2004 trophy in three weeks' time, the boost to the national game will be phenomenal.
But while Sven-Goran Eriksson has crossed his fingers about his players'
form and fitness, another contest has taken place over the past few months which could have an even greater impact on sport as a whole.
In the corridors of Whitehall, ministers, civil servants and sporting organisations have been debating how much money should be invested in our sporting infrastructure over the next three years.
The outcome of the Government's spending review will give a real idea about how committed it is to improving grassroots sport and show if ministers have learned from recent past mistakes. Additional resources are needed, not just for our nation's sporting future but to tackle what MPs describe as an "epidemic" in child obesity. Sport also has a powerful role to play in re-engaging disaffected young people, improving behaviour and boosting academic standards.
Ministers must provide money for the high-quality school and community facilities, well-trained coaches and teachers that are vital to sport in this country. Schools are crying out for good coaches who understand the need to engage young people of all abilities in sport.
Primary schools are absolutely critical. Any skill I had as a footballer was already there when I left primary school. Yet, most primary teachers have only the bare minimum of physical education training. For too many children, a typical PE lesson is catching, throwing, skipping or bean-bag racing. This is not good enough.
We need to reach children while they are at their most impressionable, excitable and enthusiastic. By the time they reach secondary school, it is too late. At secondary level, football clubs have helped to fill the void left by the sharp reduction in school sport during the 1980s. Many of these clubs are run by parents who volunteer their services selflessly every weekend, but who don't always have recognised modern coaching qualifications.
We need a greater number of trained coaches to ensure that children can enjoy football and develop their skills free from the fear of being hollered at by angry parents who too often put short-term results first.
Coaches can also provide much needed role models for primary pupils.
During the past three years, the Football Association has invested pound;6 million in our Top Sport programme, which offers training for primary teachers to help them to develop football in their schools. By the end of the year, every school in the country will have had the chance to take part.
We also run a junior football organisers' course which instills responsiblity in 14 to 18-year-olds by providing them with leadership skills to organise safe and appropriate activities for younger children.
Now the Government must work with sports governing bodies to ensure that the high-quality coaches - necessary to make its school sports co-ordinator programme a success - are there.
But coaches can only do so much without the high standard of facilities available in many other European countries. The FA estimates that pound;2 billion is needed to bring every football pitch in the country up to an acceptable standard.
The promise made by Tony Blair at Labour's 2000 conference of a pound;750 million lottery bonanza for grass-roots facilities raised the hopes of all in sport. But the reality has been different.
In my former role as chair of Sport England, I watched frustrated as the New Opportunities Fund took 18 months to appoint its own staff to allocate the money, despite the fact that we could have done it for them in a fraction of the time.
We must avoid the bureaucratic delays of the past. Every local authority should be given ring-fenced funding to provide facilities. Each area should have its own hub with state-of-the-art sports facilities. Where appropriate these should be based in schools but open to the wider community in the evenings and at weekends.
But if the money is to be used wisely, ministers need to listen to sports governing bodies who know where investment is needed. A start is being made with county FAs and local football partnerships drawing up strategic investment plans, prioritising areas of most need. Targets to raise participation and to improve this country's sporting future can only be met if the money goes to the right place.
Trevor Brooking is the Football Association's director of football development and, as a player, won 47 caps for England between 1974 and 1982