Game in a corner over death penalty

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Accompanying football's return to its place of birth has been a flurry of chickens coming home to roost. In addition to any enterprising touts with fistfuls of tickets for today's final, others who can count themselves accursed by the high peaks of drama scaled by England include prominent members of the Football Association, particularly those responsible for the arrangement by which the contract of Terry Venables officially terminates at midnight tonight.

In effect, his employment as coach dribbled to an end at the same time as Gareth Southgate's penalty kick and it is difficult to gauge whose wretchedness will last longer. Southgate, at least, will have plenty of opportunity to expurgate the moment. Venables is fated never to know what he could have achieved had his stewardship of England been allowed a fair run.

What will forever be a dull ache in his memory, however, may take a more virulent toll among his former employers if England's exciting progress over the past five games is not maintained by his successor, Glenn Hoddle. The gentlemen concerned appeared to go to ground after the Cathay Pacific incident and even the great victory over Holland failed to tempt them out to be seen showing solidarity with the lads.

Normally, preening FA leaders would have been a strong feature of such a landscape. It was as if they had agreed to leave the football entirely to Venables while they concentrated on cocking-up the ticket arrangements.

Venables will no doubt content himself with the way his appealing team made off with so much of the limelight that Wembley is likely to be in the gloom this evening. It will require an ambitious contribution from Germany and the Czech Republic to elevate the final above an atmosphere of anti-climax. The game will otherwise add to the litter this tournament leaves behind.

The general level of excitement received little assistance from those teams who usually hurry the heartbeat. Italy suffered a managerial aberration but we can claim on behalf of Arrigo Sacchi that he made his errors on the run, so to speak, when he underestimated the strength he would need against the Czechs. The French coach, Aime Jacquet, took the decision to exclude Eric Cantona weeks ahead of the event and as a result his team suffered grievously. So did we all. Euro 96 might have grounds for suing France on account of this massive contribution to the empty seats which ensured that the most relevant toast of this tournament has been the one to absent friends.

But, above all the frustrations, the most worrying feature has been the damning confirmation that football is seriously flawed by its increasing inability to define the best teams within the normal limits of the game. That four of the six matches at the quarter- and semi-final stages should end in stalemate can't be dismissed entirely as evidence of the sterility of the teams involved. England's semi-final against Germany was as open and aggressive as you could hope for, yet you could feel it being drawn towards a penalty conclusion by the second half of extra time. It is a fate that all players surrender to sooner or later - some a lot sooner and more enthusiastically than others - and the result is inevitably a distortion of the game.

It would not be a massive shock if today's proceedings ended in a penalty shoot-out, just as the 1994 World Cup did. The authorities are not complacent about the problem but their efforts to solve it have proved impotent. The Golden Goal period, introduced to Euro 96, has proved to be even less effective than normal extra time in producing a decisive score.

The Uefa president Lennart Johansson has said that they will listen to all suggestions for viable alternatives for settling a deadlocked match. No doubt he will now be swamped by the usual solutions which range from taking the goalkeepers off during extra time to reducing the teams by one player every 10 minutes. All highly ingenious but not a lot to do with the game we know and love. Football's rulers have realised that if they want to get rid of the dreaded impasse without compromising the traditional shape and integrity of the game, they must return to basics and seek the remedy inside 90 minutes. Accordingly, they proposed that the dimensions of the goal should be increased. By making it easier to score goals, they argued, it would reduce the number of drawn matches.

The suggestion was rightly shouted down. It would disfigure the game while still leaving the draw as a distinctly possible result. Now they must act positively to remove the drawn match from the face of the earth once and for all. This is a very difficult concept but it requires only the belief that a draw or a tie is a complete negation of what any sporting contest is about - i.e., deciding who is the better.

Thanks to photography and electronics we have almost eradicated the dead- heat from sports like athletics and swimming in which it is possible for two competitors to produce exactly the same performance. Yet, in football we are producing more and more draws from a game in which it is virtually impossible for two sides to be equal.

The only satisfactory answer is to promote the humble corner as a deciding force when a game is level. The number of corners is a fairly accurate indication of the amount of attacking a team does and, if introduced as a secondary measure of superiority, would settle most games. If the teams were equal on corners then a third consideration, such as the number of free-kicks conceded, could be introduced.

All this would require a change in attitude from players but by removing the draw as a cosy option it couldn't fail to introduce a more positive approach without the format of the game being altered.

The change wouldn't suit a team that builds its game on the rapid counter attack. Romania gained only eight corners in their three matches. Holland, on the other hand, were far and away the corner kings, 41 in their four games. England won 20 in their five and, if you needed another dimension to the 4-1 win over Holland, England had three corners to 11 gained by the Dutch, proving them to be a blunt instrument in need of a cutting edge. And after extra time on Wednesday England had been awarded six corners to Germany's four.

None of this proves anything other than that the corner count usually tells an interesting story. But if they were promoted to tie-breaking importance, corners could be a genuine solution to a problem that threatens to suffocate the game.

Eagle-eyed traditionalists will have noticed Euro 96 did not stage the usual play-off for third and fourth places yesterday. It was decided that such matches had no appeal. Absolutely right, of course. Who would have wanted to see England v France at Wembley? England, anxious to wipe out the dismay of Wednesday and give Tel a good send-off . . . France, desperate for a last chance to demonstrate their worth . . .

We all had better things to do yesterday than watch a total bore, didn't we? Once more we must praise the foresight of the organisers who are expected to report a loss on the tournament. It's roughly the same amount you'd earn from staging an attractive match at Wembley.