In search of the beautiful game

It may be time for British football to alter its approach, says Glenn Moore
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The Independent Online
In a recent edition of the BBC's documentary series on European football, Football, Fussball, Voetbal, Hugh McIlvanney recalled a fellow Scottish journalist's comment after Real Madrid had beaten Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 at Hampden Park in 1960. "It's all very well, but would our punters stand for that every week?" McIlvanney was asked. "They have just stood around for an hour, stunned with admiration," McIlvanney replied. "Would they stand for it? They would like the chance."

Modern defensive techniques and attitudes mean the 1996 European Championship is unlikely to bring us anything to equal that match, but it could give the British game the confidence to reappraise its approach. Tony Adams said this week that the public needed to be educated to expect a more patient game. As the wide interest in the BBC series and Channel 4's coverage of Italian football has illustrated, they may be ready to learn.

Thoughts are increasingly turning to Euro 96 following the conclusion on Wednesday of the qualifying competition (although the last of the 16 places will not be decided until next month's play-off between the Republic of Ireland and the Netherlands).

The last time England staged a major tournament, in 1966, Pele was kicked out of the tournament, several matches were disfigured by malicious and violent play, and the winners were a side who owed as much to Nobby Stiles as Bobby Charlton. The consequence was two decades of stagnation within the English game. This time, there is hope of better things.

Since the last World Cup there has been a move towards brighter football, led by the likes of Ajax and encouraged by stricter referees. More than half of next summer's teams have caught this mood - Croatia, France, Romania and Portugal are all enterprising sides while Russia, Bulgaria, Germany, Italy and England have similar potential.

With a record 16 countries involved, the 10th European Championship does not have an exclusive guest list, but it is an impressive one. If the Netherlands overcome Ireland in Liverpool to qualify next month, all previous eight winners will be at Euro 96, the first time this has happened since 1964, when there was only one previous winner. Only Sweden and Belgium are missing of Europe's better sides. Neither are among the elite.

The strength and depth of the qualifiers means much hinges on next month's draw. Depending on how seeding is arranged, it would be quite possible for England to have Croatia, Bulgaria and the Netherlands in their group. It would be a pleasure to watch, but a nightmare to qualify from. Ireland, if they qualify, and Scotland could have it even worse, as neither are likely to be seeded.

By the semi-finals, the tournament should have developed a momentum of its own, but at least one of the home teams, ideally the hosts, needs to reach the last eight to sustain interest. England are the most likely, but their possible progress does evoke mixed feelings.

Player development in the English game needs a dramatic restructuring, ideally one undertaken by the new technical director, which would encompass all levels of the game from primary school to Premiership. Abject failure next summer would, at least, ensure this need is recognised. But it could also lead to apathy.

A measure of success, on the other hand, would create a surge in enthusiasm which, if skilfully directed, could pay massive long-term dividends. The danger is that self-interested parties could use success to argue that the system works as it is, which is patently untrue. These thoughts will be echoed in Scotland. So, let England and Scotland hope for success, but if it comes, not let it blind them to their faults.