WITH many millions watching around the globe, Manchester United and Arsenal played the highest profile match of the football season on Sunday evening.

The English league is the fastest, the most exciting, the richest, the most talked about anywhere in the world. So what did our two most famous teams serve up to further enhance the league's reputation? A hideous dish of hate-filled cheating and violence.

We cannot expect our footballers to be angels - in competitive sport at any level there will always be adrenaline and curses - but we must surely expect them to set a much better example than they did on Sunday.

That is an example not just to children - although if there were punches, play-acting and petulance in the playground yesterday, teachers will know where to place the blame - but also to the older fans. England are just one incident away from being ejected from international competitions. The authorities are desperate for our supporters not to go to the next game in Turkey in case something unpleasant occurs. And yet, the footballers on the pitch show no discipline, no sportsmanship, no common courtesy - all the qualities that the authorities are so keen to drill into the heads of the supporters.

Sunday had everything that besmirches the name of English football. Ruud van Nistelrooy was guilty of outrageous theatrics which contributed to the sending-off of Arsenal's captain, Patrick Vieira. But how can Arsenal complain when only the week before, the theatrical dive of Robert Pires had conned the referee into awarding a penalty which saved them from defeat?

How can Arsenal and their players - who included a 37-year-old former England international who should surely have known better - defend the way they harangued van Nistelrooy with a bang to the head and punches to the ribs on the final whistle?

Their manager Arsene Wenger tried in his usual blind way. But how can Manchester United complain when their own foul-mouthed manager, Sir Alex Ferguson who is currently on report for his behaviour at Newcastle last month, never sees his players' misdemeanours. And when they are captained by a man who in his autobiography boasted about how he tried to maim an opponent?

The Football Association is studying all angles of Sunday's videos to work out what to do. The usual punishment is to fine the players a few quid, but as they earn at least £50,000-a-week each this is useless.

In 1990, the FA docked these sides points after a mass brawl. That punishment must be repeated now in 2003, and every player who dives should be shown a straight red card.