Bang the drum for the friendly championship

Steve Beauchampe, of the Football Supporters' Association, applauds a tournament whose only problem is selling tickets sensibly
There is good reason to bang the drum for Euro 96. And sound the horn, play the trumpet, ring the cowbell. All those pre-tournament scare stories - widespread reports of secret meetings of Euro-hooligans, threats that "they'll have to stop it half-way through," World War III and camp- sites full of drunken, rioting fans - have simply not materialised.

Not that anyone should be complacent. Things may change if England get knocked out, especially if they are beaten by Germany in the semi-finals next Wednesday. But if that is as bad as it gets, then England can rightly claim the most trouble-free European-based tournament for many years.

In fact, foreign football supporters have more or less no record of causing trouble in England. The likelihood of it happening at Euro 96 was never more than remote. Our city centres have never been battlegrounds for marauding gangs of Swiss, Dutch, Turks or even Germans trashing bars and wrecking shop windows. Frankly, anyone who might have felt like starting something would have looked stupid and out of place.

So far I have been to eight games at seven venues and have no doubt that English fans are thoroughly enjoying the experience of meeting supporters from all around Europe and beyond. The ticket chaos (of which more later), allied to the large number of European nationals living in England, has meant that segregation has been largely non-existent.

The main advantage has been that English fans, who for the most part are enthusiastic but neutral observers, have mixed with more passionate and committed foreign supporters and thus become caught up in the songs, noise and general atmosphere.

This was typified at last week's Bulgaria-Romania game in Newcastle, when a large section of English fans good-naturedly heckled police who tried to stop a Bulgarian drummer. When the officers realised they were on a loser, they sensibly backed off and the Bulgarian held his drum aloft to the crowd, who cheered him raucously.

In 29 years of watching football I cannot recall an atmosphere like that at Villa Park for Scotland's game against the Netherlands. From the camp- site, the supporters marched together to the stadium led by a piper. At the ground, identifying which country the fans were following was not easy, with many supporters wearing both teams' colours.

I sat in front of two Dutchmen and a Scot. They debated and discussed the game, passionately but always with tolerance for each other's team. This turned to mockery at Wembley on Saturday when, as "Three Lions on the shirt" was resounding over the Tannoy at the end, England fans reworded "It's coming home, Football's coming home" to "You're going home, Scotland's going home" before applauding the loyalty of their opponents' support. Much respect.

The police have responded generally very well to the atmosphere. A Norwegian colleague remarked how pleased she was that the British police were not togged out in riot gear and how they entered into the spirit of the occasion by posing for photographs. Nobody ever wanted to do that with the carabinieri at Italia 90.

It is unfortunate that those responsible for the ticketing arrangements could not join in with the spirit of friendliness and tolerance shown by the fans. My thesaurus does not have a word to describe accurately the mess that the Football Association and Uefa, the governing body of European football, have got themselves in. The Football Supporters' Association's football embassies have been inundated with disgruntled and incredulous supporters.

The crux of the problem is threefold. First, many tickets were sold on to third parties - non-European football associations, sponsors and tour companies which then could not get rid of them. Secondly, the prices were too high, with no reductions for children. Thirdly, tickets were, initially at least, not available on match days until pressure from the FSA (among others) brought a change of heart.

It is a variation on the system used at previous world and European tournaments: as long as someone has paid the organisers for tickets, they are considered sold and it is irrelevant where they actually end up. Thus, tour reps have been wandering around towns and cities with fistfuls for the Villa Park quarter-final or the Italy-Germany game at Old Trafford, among others.

At the same time, 40 angry German supporters were turned away from Elland Road before the Spain-Romania game (where the attendance was 16,000 below capacity) because they had not got tickets. The only place you could buy tickets on the day was from the tourist office in Leeds railway station -and no one had told them.

In the circumstances, the Criminal Justice Act has rightly been treated with contempt as common sense policing has allowed face value or under- price ticket trading to be widely conducted "just round that corner where I can't see you".

One sponsor ended up giving away tickets before the Denmark-Portugal game, while the FSA's Sheffield embassy succeeded in persuading two Danish tour operators to donate 350 tickets to local schoolchildren.

With the World Cup in France only two years away there is much to be learned, and a meeting of English, German and Dutch fan activists (who have been working away at the FSA's football embassies) last night discussed an approach to Uefa and the French organising committee to see if a fairer and more flexible ticketing system can be implemented for 1998. But it will take a major change of policy from football's governing bodies for this to happen.