The European Championship, which the organisers are calling - somewhat desperately, you can't help feeling - the third largest sporting festival on earth, is the biggest event to happen in this country in 30 years. And if you thought a lot was made of the 1966 World Cup (Harold Wilson, for instance, credited England's victory with his own soon afterwards in the general election) you have seen nothing yet. Things have moved on somewhat since then.
In 1966, the BBC was criticised for screening all England's games in the World Cup live (the other games, played at the same time, received only scant, highlight coverage). This year the Corporation is dedicating 50 hours of this month's broadcasting to live football, plus a further 10 in recorded analysis, and ITV is matching them all the way.
Those seeking to avoid the event, and surveys indicate that this is roughly half the population (even more in Wales and Northern Ireland, whose national teams failed to qualify), will find it tough going: for television reasons the games have been staggered so that no two matches kick off at the same time; the first free day in the tournament is not until Wednesday 12 June. This is bad news if you are trapped with a television fan who will be watching every game; or perhaps not: at key moments in the next three weeks the streets will be clear, shops will be empty and the freedom of Britain's cities will be yours. Saturday 15 June at 3pm, for example, would be an excellent time for a bit of shopping in Oxford Street, because half of the population will be watching England play Scotland at Wembley; though don't stray down there too early or too late unless you plan to run into opposing fans greeting each other in traditional fashion.
Some canny operators have sensed that there may be a market in footie avoidance and are offering escape clauses. UCI cinemas, for instance, have scheduled slushy films for kick-off times. Thus, if you are not shopping when England meet Scotland, you can go and watch Up Close and Personal (and pick up your sick bag on the way out). But make sure you turn up after the advertisements, which will doubtless feature the expensive mini- epic for Coca-Cola centring on lots of fans jumping up and down in football- induced hysteria, with the copyline: "Eat football, sleep football, drink Coca-Cola".
Perhaps the best thing to do is to flee the country altogether. Thomson Holidays, alarmed perhaps at the precipitous drop in bookings for foreign travel throughout June, are offering spectacular Euro 96 deals, savings of more than pounds 50 on brochure prices during a period normally considered a peak. Choose carefully, though. Two weeks in Turkey, self-catering at the Moonlight Apartments for pounds 284, a fortnight in Portugal at pounds 298, or a week in Italy at pounds 194 may look bargains, but all three countries are participating in the championship - and just when you need them, you will find barmen and waiters, sun-lounger operatives and taxi drivers absent without leave, huddled round a television seeking news from England. "You English?" locals will inquire. "What's the score?"
In which case, Greece looks a good bet. Grumpily failing to qualify from a group that included Scotland (yes, it was that bad), things have been made worse for the Greeks by Turkey's success in getting to England. No one will be talking football on Corfu, where 14 nights at the Katia Studio Apartments are available for pounds 268.
The other thing you might do, of course, is to join the enemy and involve yourself in the tournament. Tune in to a game or two, buy a pint of Carlsberg, have a packet of Premier League crisps, use your Mastercard with the jaunty footballers logo all over it.
If you do watch in the company of diehards, a word of advice. The women's magazine idea that the tournament should be viewed as a meat market - phworr, check out Hristo Stoichkov; cor, that Jamie Redknapp's a little cutesie - is to be avoided. This is serious business, and the lardbelly sitting on the sofa next to you, can of Export in hand, will not appreciate his own backside being placed in less than flattering comparison with that of the Italian Alessandro del Piero.
Failing that, there is only one cast-iron way for the non-fan to avoid sight and sound of Euro 96. Take yourself to the first Test match between England and India at Edgbaston: that's cricket, and half a day of it will have you pining for football.
THE KEY GAMES AND WHERE TO GO TO AVOID THEM ...
England vs Switzerland, Saturday 8 June, 3pm Cruelly, the time of the Derby has been switched from 3.50 to 2.25pm to allow football fans to see both, but watching the race at Epsom racecourse will ensure that you miss the Euro 96 opening ceremony, and there is a full programme of racing to keep you distracted until 5.30pm.
Alternatively, UCI cinemas' season of romantic slush, timed to coincide with matches, brings you How to Make an American Quilt, starring Winona Ryder.
England vs Scotland, Saturday 15 June, 3pm The Biggin Hill Air Fair will be a football-free zone - and the noise of the planes will drown any possible discussion of the score.
Alternatively, visit BBC Gardeners' World Live at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham, a celebration of tools, shrubs and lawns without goalposts on them. Similarly, the Thomas the Tank Engine weekend at the Buckinghamshire Railway Centre near Aylesbury looks safe.
England vs Holland, Scotland vs Switzerland, Tuesday 18 June, 7.30pm Victoria Wood, performing at the Nottingham Royal Concert Hall at 8pm, is unlikely to be interested in whether Bergkamp can scupper England or if the Swiss will embarrass the Scots.
Or UCI cinemas will be showing Now and Then, starring Demi Moore, Melanie Griffith and Rosie O'Donnell.
Given their form in recent years it is unwise to assume that England or Scotland will progress beyond the initial stage of the tournament. Nevertheless, the final, on Sunday 30 June at 7.30pm, is bound to excite mass hysteria, in which case the Gran Gran Fiesta, a Latin American festival on London's South Bank, looks welcoming; as do Jazz on the Waterfront in Leeds, the Royal Philharmonic's fireworks concert at Warwick Castle, and UCI cinemas' The Truth About Cats and Dogs, starring Uma Thurman, an actress who might even lure a few football fans away from their sets.
WHAT TO SAY
"I see England have given up on the Christmas tree formation."
"How could France have possibly preferred Djorkaeff to Cantona?"
"Bulgaria are too dependent on Stoichkov to have a realistic chance."
"Spain have always promised more than they have delivered in major championships."
"It's good to see that the Dutch haven't given up on the concept of total football." TV PANELLISTS TO ADMIRE
Alan Hansen (dour Scot)
Alex Ferguson (even dourer Scot)
Kevin Keegan (that Seventies hairstyle)
Ruud Gullit (the dreadlocks)
Gary Lineker (watch out for a trip to the hairdresser)
STRIPS TO WONDER AT
Scotland's second strip (below left)
PLAYERS TO FANCY
Gheorghe Hagi (Romania)
Alessandro del Piero (Italy)
Jamie Redknapp (England)
Patrick Kluivert (Holland)
Patrik Berger (Czech Republic)
WHAT NOT TO SAY
"How come Brazil haven't qualified?"
"Why don't France bring Eric Cantona on?"
"What's a Flaming Lamborghini?"
"Since when did Scotland start playing with a goalkeeper?"
"I thought Wales was in Europe."Reuse content