Football: A game set on seeing the light: After shame and tragedy, the national sport is now acceptable, even trendy. Glenn Moore, Football Correspondent, reports on a new wave of optimism.

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The Independent Online
A game once weighed down by shame proudly launched its coming-out party yesterday, one which may mark its final rehabilitation after the horrors of the 1980s.

The award of the 1996 European Championship finals to England suggested that a new era could be emerging from the tragedies of the last decade. Their staging should confirm it.

What occurred at Bradford City, Heysel and Hillsborough cannot, and will not, be forgotten. We may soon come to recognise, however, that they belonged to a different time, one in which the evil intent of hooligans and the arrogant inertia of administrators combined to scar the face of the people's game.

While not eradicated, both groups are now much reduced in influence.

Stadiums in England are the match of anywhere in Europe and so, generally, is the behaviour of their occupants.

The Popplewell and Taylor Reports, which arose from the disasters at Bradford and Hillsborough, are primarily responsible for the improvement in facilities. Even so it is heartening that many - from Huddersfield to Highbury - have done a lot more than simply obey their legal duty.

Heysel, similarly, demonstrated to both spectators and authorities that things had gone too far. Supporters, through fanzines and the Football Supporters' Association; and administrators, by measures like the Football in the Community scheme, have gradually changed the mood of football followers.

So too has better policing, both in terms of a more sensible approach - frequently using stewards rather than police officers - and the greater certainty of prosecution created by the widespread use of closed-circuit television.

The consequence is that football has become socially acceptable, trendy even. The new mood was characterised by the publication, and subsequent success, of Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch, the story of a middle-class Arsenal fan. The news stands are full of football magazines, club shirts have become fashion accessories and crowds have risen for eight successive seasons.

In addition, and crucially for the success of the Championship, English supporters are taking an increasing interest in the wider world. A World Cup without a home nation forced the media and public to look beyond their national side, especially after the Republic of Ireland's exit. Add the regular coverage of Italian football on Channel Four and, most notably, the influx of high-class foreign players into the Premiership, and an awareness of other countries has been built that should be reflected in attendances in 1996.

Capacity crowds are anticipated at many of the 31 matches with the Football Association expecting home interest to be swelled by up to a quarter of a million visitors. Ticket sales are hoped to reach pounds 60m.

The FA plan, quite rightly, to involve local communities in the tournament, linking matches with schoolwork, concerts and public events like fireworks displays. Such a programme builds on the FSA's experience of previous championships and World Cups. The supporters' organisation found that by mixing accommodation across the national groups, and involving all supporters in events around matches, the possibility for conflict was much reduced.

And what of England's chances? Three of the nine previous tournaments have been won by the hosts, the same ratio as for World Cups. But that figure is misleading, since the hosts were chosen from the ranks of the four qualifying nations in the first five competitions.

The home nations, who refused to enter the first competition, have a poor record. Until the finals were expanded to eight countries only England (third in 1968) had reached them. Since then England (three times), Scotland and the Republic of Ireland (once each) have made the finals, but on each occasion they failed to go on to the last four.

The competition now involves 49 countries, almost twice the entry in 1958.

The finals, expanded to 16 teams for the first time in 1996, are six times the size. They present a unique opportunity for English footballers and supporters to show that the game here is thriving. Yesterday's smooth launch suggests it will be taken.

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