Playing at international level, you learn to accept some of the diving and acting. We shouldn't. This is deliberate and calculated cheating

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The Independent Online
Up until Sunday, Euro 96 was a conspicuously low-scoring tournament. The tiredness of the players may well have contributed to the veritable flood of German and Croat goals, but it is generally harder to score goals at international level now. Teams all over Europe, and indeed the world, have become more defensively co-ordinated. Even relatively poor players installed in an organised structure can be difficult to break down.

I am not only talking about the Luxembourgs and Lichtensteins. The Scotland team progressed to these finals on the same sort of defensive base, conceding only three goals in 10 qualifying games. Most teams in this competition prefer to play systems that allow one, or at best two forwards. They soak up pressure in the hope of scoring on the break. It becomes mind-numbingly tedious when both try to do it at the same time. Scotland struggled because to play that way you need pace and guile up front. Sadly, we have no Stoichkov, Klinsmann or Davor Suker.

These systems invariably employ a sweeper or a third centre-back. Their popularity blossomed when managers realised that they provided the perfect means to foil the rigid and conventional 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 formations.

Amazingly, it has been the Italians under Sacchi, who have tried to employ the dated and rather British flat back four, with the midfielders pressing the opposition. Sadly for the Azzurri, it immediately looked naive against the Czech Republic, when their lack of depth was exposed to great effect for the game's first goal.

Another less obvious, though no less important, reason why teams are forgoing a forward concerns the directive for stricter refereeing. Because professional fouls inevitably lead to a red card and even a mis-timed tackle elicits a yellow, it is safer to defend in numbers than to trust in the tackling abilities of a skilled defender. Hence the need for extra cover at the back.

So an adoption brought in to help attackers has managed to help put some of them out of a job in this tournament. The overzealousness of the referees demanded by Uefa has never enjoyed the full support of the players, especially in these islands. The red card shown to the Italian Apolloni against the Czech Republic managed to spoil one of the classic games of the tournament, although it continued to be an intriguing encounter. He should not have been sent off. The first yellow card was for a raised-foot challenge that had no malice in it at all.

It was also disappointing to see the Dutch coach, Guus Hiddink, having to replace Clarence Seedorf before half-time in the Swiss match, for fear that one more slightly misjudged tackle would see the talented defensive midfielder dismissed.

We are in danger of losing the art of tackling as players become understandably over wary of being booked. A fine example of the skill came from Stuart McCall in the game against the Netherlands. His last-ditch, perfectly timed lunge in the six-yard box to deny a certain goal was one of the most exciting moments of that game.

Players such as McCall, and indeed the whole Scottish team, will not be able to survive at international level if their terrier-like tackling is curtailed. The smaller nations' chances are also lessened by the certainty of suspensions later in the tournament. They would need a squad of 22 equally talented players to stand any chance of proceeding.

A similar situation arose in the Premier League last year. As the referees became more card happy, the wealthy teams who could afford a large, high- quality playing staff had a growing advantage over those with limited resources. The more the bookings and suspensions accumulated near the end of the season, the less the smaller clubs were capable of competing.

One of the most offensive traits in Euro 96 is that of players gesturing to the referee to use his cards, often for the most innocuous of challenges. The idea of so blatantly trying to get a fellow pro into trouble is repulsive to most British players. If it continues to happen to them, do not be surprised if our lads feel the need to fight fire with fire. However, the idea of Colin Hendry pleading with the ref to send an opponent off, after the gentlest of nudges, is difficult to imagine.

Playing at international level, you learn to accept some of the diving, acting and general rolling about. We shouldn't. This is deliberate and calculated cheating. It is far more worthy of punishment than those odd, undeliberate, mistimed challenges that seem to offend Uefa so much.

Jurgen Klinsmann became very popular in England not only because he was very talented but also because he realised that the culture of our game would not accept the excessive histrionics so prominent earlier in his career. The one-time villain adapted his game accordingly and became a hero.

Other areas that should be targeted by match officials in this championship are shirt-tugging and blocking at set-pieces. Obvious shirt-tugging isn't a problem - yellow cards are compulsory and frequent here. It is the more subtle, off-the-ball variety that has to be dealt with. In Continental football, the shirt is pulled long before the ball reaches your area. The pass invariably runs out of play or through to the goalkeeper as the defenders yank has checked the momentum of your run. Referees are blissfully unaware of the foul, their eyes are fixed 50 yards away at the inception of the pass.

There is a similar problem with blocking. Officials are busy watching the kick being taken and checking that the wall stays 10 yards back. Meanwhile, in the box, every run is deliberately and illegally blocked. The clique of international players laugh at the fact that this standard practice is never punished.

Every national team works on this blocking tactic in training. It is made to look as innocent and accidental as possible, but when you have suffered from it time and again, its deliberate nature becomes transparently obvious.

Maybe it is time the suits at Uefa HQ, and the referees who are their flak-catchers, started listening to the players and the players' organisations. They do not realise the complexities of what is happening on the pitch. If they accepted the input in good grace, their tweaking of the rules might start to have the desired effect of more goals and more open play.