A game on another plane

Rigorous refereeing allows total football to flourish in a tournament that blends the best from home and abroad; Ian Ridley looks back at the success and failure of Euro 96 so far
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C'est la guerre, mais ce n'est pas magnifique. Yesterday's dispute between England and Scotland at Wembley, at once civil and uncivil, may nominally have been part of the European Championship finals, but more importantly it was a tribal battleground for an island nation.

As early as last Sunday's matches (you wait all Saturday for a good game then three come along at once) it became clear that England could not equal the preparation and the quality of most other teams. The nations to whom England gave the game have taken it to another plane (if that is not still too uncomfortable a word for the hosts).

And for all Scotland's application against a weakened Holland, they were mostly outclassed. After 15 minutes, I mused whether they might take part in the game at some point and a friendly Scot replied realistically: "They'll need to throw on another ball." Had John Collins's hand-ball on the line after seven minutes been spotted, it would have have been a different match entirely, with the Scots looking unlikely to score.

If the Dutch are for the purists, Germany are for the professionals. Their performance against the Czech Republic recalled their 4-1 opening against Yugoslavia as prelude to winning the World Cup of 1990 - Andy Moller's goal even resembled Lothar Matthaus's that day.

In terms of spirit and determination, the English should most resemble the Germans and the thought occurred that their talismanic libero, Matthias Sammer, was what Mark Wright might have become but for 10 years of tactical entrenchment in a back four. The Germans have always been well-prepared and strong starters, which should make their match today at Old Trafford against the Russians, who are fighting for survival, quite an encounter, especially with Jurgen Klinsmann back to lead the team.

Last Sunday's referee David Elleray came in for much criticism for brandishing the yellow card 10 times as the issue of fussy officiating dominated the first series of matches. It was ill- considered, as Uefa commendably emphasised in their swift statement of support for their referees. The competition should be grateful to this Englishman at least for setting a tone that enabled the Italy v Russia match, which might once have lacked ambition, to flow so beautifully two days later.

It was significant that Sammer was not one of the 10. Here was a player, a blend of thought and technique, for whom the stricter application of the rules was designed. His desire to stay on his feet and his anticipation in pilfering the ball in front of an attacker, rather than smashing through from behind and grabbing, was a lesson for any aspiring defender. It has probably come too late for Tony Adams. Sammer's potential encounter with Gianfranco Zola and the incisiveness of the Italians that will place him under real pressure at Old Trafford on Wednesday is mouth-watering.

"Not that type of game," say the recidivists from the "no blood, no foul" generation who bemoan the number of cards that have been handed out. They miss the point, as they did in wondering why Spain's Pizzi was sent off against Bulgaria for his first offence. It was a tackle from behind of the sort that causes the growing number of injuries about which Uefa is rightly concerned. It is precisely because a referee issues cards appropriately that it becomes not that type of game.

Naturally, there is a balance to be struck in a pursuit that demands physical application and here referees fearful of being disciplined themselves take some blame. "There is a difference between aggression and brutal play," the German coach, Berti Vogts, said last week. "Football is an aggressive game and you are trained from youth how to separate a ball from a player. But football is a challenging game and it requires technique not brutality." Not so dirty Berti after all.

There is one gripe with officialdom, however. It is becoming an increasing annoyance that linesmen, now apparently mutating into assistant referees, still fail, despite directives, to give the benefit of doubt to an attacker in offside decisions. If they did, Hristo Stoichkov would have been given his just deserts for Bulgaria against Spain.

Then there was the goal not awarded to Dorinel Munteanu of Romania, who, as Kevin Keegan pointed out, are not now going to remain 'ere. Try telling them that these things even themselves out. Consulting television replays in such a spontaneous sport would be an abomination, but surely in these high-tech, mega-buck days it is possible to install the kind of electronic eye employed for line calls during the tennis at Wimbledon for the goal line.

Thus far, the mood of the tournament has been subdued, hampered by a ridiculous ticketing policy that, embarrassingly, has seen stadiums more than half-empty at times and left the FA unlikely to recoup the pounds 18m cost of staging the competition, though Uefa are likely to make sure they do not suffer financially.

The FA's statement that 90 per cent of tickets had been sold was probably accurate but it quickly became clear that they were sold to foreign travel agencies then unable to sell their packages. Hastily, attendance figures were issued reflecting sales unreturned rather than backsides on seats. An attendance figure at Anfield last Tuesday of 35,120 was plainly exaggerated.

Belatedly, efforts have been made to put tickets back on sale, though at great inconvenience to people. Telephone lines are constantly engaged and turning up at venues during working hours is the only alternative. "And you want to hold the Olympic Games?" one German wondered as he tried to plot a path through the cluttered corridors of Villa Park's media centre last week. What price, too, the 2006 World Cup?

As outrageous as the methods of ticketing are the insensitive prices - for example pounds 35 for what are called seats at Wembley but are in fact places from which you have to stand to see - with young children especially disadvantaged. Many parents, at a time when holiday money and renewing season tickets are a priority, simply cannot afford some pounds 100 for themselves and their offspring to see a match.

The sadness in this, as with spiralling Premiership prices, is that a new generation of spectators is being deprived of what could be formative moments of their football-watching lives. After all, 1966 spawned many of us, inspiring an unquenchable feeling. Short-term greed could mean long-term loss.

Security and segregation are supposedly concerns, and thankfully there have been only isolated incidents of trouble, even if rumour has it that in some cities outbreaks are being hushed up to avoid bad publicity.

Yet Holland's fans, who turned the streets around Villa Park into orange groves and the ground itself into a genuine sell-out mingled happily with Scotsmen, bonded by communal singing and a common distrust of bigger neighbours in Germany and England. As the brass band played with gusto, you could only believe that this it how it is meant to be, and that more people should be exposed to it. For pity's sake, put tickets on sale for a pounds 10 to kids and fill the grounds.

Then the horizons might be opened to overseas cultures and skills, the island mentality eroded. We might then see that football doesn't have to be war but can be magnificent.