Football: Fanfare for the footy fans

Trevor Haylett sees the supporters warm up for Euro 96 with their own competition
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The Independent Online
When Euro 96 began yesterday, a day earlier than had been expected, England kicked off against a team representing the St John's Ambulance. Bearing in mind England's capacity to inflict injury on people's sensibilities not to mention a couple of aeroplane television sets, this unlikely starting- point appeared entirely reasonable.

Switzerland failed to show, so who better to substitute for the team with the red cross than the ambulance men? At the six-a-side tournament that was the supporters' way of warming up for the real thing, the European Championship Finals which begin at Wembley today when England take on the Swiss, it helped not to take things too literally.

The Turkish side, for example, conveyed accents that owed more to North London than Eastern Europe. And what were Wales doing in Group B? It has been years since they have been anywhere near an international tournament.

Fun, friendship and involvement rather than serious sport were the order of the day at Middlesex University where the Football Supporters' Association had organised a curtain-raiser designed to bring closer together the fans from Europe who have journeyed to England for the big event.

Not every team could make it, which explains the presence of some unlikely names including the St John's who are the FSA's chosen charity. The format was similar to Euro 96 with a plate competition for the group losers. That way Scotland could avoid their traditional early exit.

Early on, England were clearly under the influence of Gazza, Platty and the rest - though, they hurriedly pointed out, they had not just arrived by plane. Despite having most of the game they drew 0-0 against the stretcher- bearers. Terry Venables would know that particular feeling.

Next they had to face the Scots, or at least a team of one genuine Scot, Andy Strachan Miller, one boasting a Scottish grandfather and four English makeweights. Initially they had struggled to get a team at all.

"We had a lot of people who just turned up looking for a game," the FSA's Val Jones said. "They said that they were quite happy to be Turkey or Croatia, but Scotland? They said they're rather not."

Scotland's lack of preparation showed. They had not trained up for the day and that went for most of the others. As a relentless sun roasted aching limbs the pace dropped appreciably, though England continued to chug along nicely.

Against the auld enemy Adi Mowles' penalty put them on the way to victory. "That's definitely the highlight of my international career, which began at 10 o'clock this morning," he joked. "It's been a great day. The people involved here are not the hooligan type. This kind of thing can't do any harm at all."

Russia were an interesting team, the best organised according to the FSA and the genuine article, composed of fans who had come over to England especially for the Championship. The same went for Germany, while the Bulgarian Embassy were called on to round up a side of their countrymen domiciled here.

Igor Petruhin, a Moscow sports shop assistant, has taken advantage of a friendship forged with a Newcastle fan during the 1992 tournament in Sweden to give himself a northern base from where he will take in Russia's group games. "Much has been made about the hooligan problem, but this event shows the friendship that exists between fans from all nations," he said.

The French, half a dozen French students at the university, had local knowledge on their side. They also had youth as well as Gallic flair ,which was enough to see off England in the final. "Just like the real final in three weeks' time at Wembley", smiled match-winner Gauthier Legros. It's not just Eric Cantona who is showing the English how to play.