Qualified success for England

Glenn Moore considers whether Euro 96 lived up to hopes that it would be both peaceful and entertaining and highlights the lessons that can be learned from it
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The Independent Online
The newly crowned champions of Europe are barely on the way home yet already football's relentless calendar is asserting itself. The mind is turning, to Vialli's debut at The Dell and Hoddle's bow in Moldova.

And yet, when the flags of St George are gathering dust in the attic and the attention is focused on a wintry White Hart Lane, or a chilly Ewood Park, how will we remember Euro 96?

For three weeks of escalating pride and patriotism? For the goals of Gascoigne and Poborsky? Or for a mosaic of images: Sacchi consumed by anxiety; Pearce exorcising the ghosts; Turks and Dutchmen banging the drum; or, a personal favourite this, Caminero of Spain, pausing before taking a corner in extra-time against England, to ruffle the hair of a photographer. It is only a game, after all.

But what a game. What else could hold half the nation in thrall? Whenever this tournament is recalled England's bewitching semi-final against Germany will stand most vividly in the memory. From the explosion of joy at Shearer's early goal, to the chant of "there's only one Gareth Southgate" after his fateful penalty, the crowd was magnificent and so were the players. There was quality and commitment in abundance but no malice.

While that match stood out, the atmosphere of healthy respect which surrounded it typified the tournament. There was not enough imaginative football, and not enough goals, but there was little spite and few sides were negative as a matter of policy. It was more a case of a shortage of magicians - though France, Italy and Spain left theirs behind.

Three prerequisites were listed for the tournament's success: peace, inside and out of grounds; a good showing by England; and attractive football. As the song says, two out of three ain't bad, and there was enough of the last to make it two-and-a-half.

The most important was the relative absence of hooliganism. It seemed inevitable that there would be incidents, at service stations, camp sites and railway terminals, if not inside stadiums. In the event, the only serious violence was after England's defeat, and that appears to be as much drunken yobbery as football hooliganism.

This was despite some of the shameful excesses of the tabloid press. England did not deserve such association, once they began to roll they behaved impeccably.

The most impressive aspect of England's performance was not so much their achievement as the manner of it. In reaching the semi-final, England did not surpass expectations, only meet them. It was the style in which they did so which captured the imagination. The demolition of the Dutch was, by all accounts, better than anything in 1966 or 1990. The semi-final performance would have overwhelmed all but the Germans, the most resilient of opponents.

It is a considerable pity that the FA have let Terry Venables go but, in appointing Glenn Hoddle they may have mitigated the damage. Watching him build on Venables' work will be interesting. One name which had been mentioned is Matt Le Tissier. The gifted one used to wonder aloud what he had to do to get in Venables' team. On Wednesday he was given the answer. Paul Gascoigne, deep into extra time, burning with energy and passion closed down a German defender one minute, then weaved to the byline to carve out a chance the next, was inspirational. How could we ever have doubted him?

It should be remembered that Venables' alchemy almost succeeded despite the limitations of the domestic game rather than because of them. There remains work to be done in the coaching and development of young players and in the management of the professional game.

Solutions are required too, of Uefa and Fifa, the European and world governing bodies respectively. The penalty shoot-out was brought into be used in extremis. Now it is commonplace. In 1966 none of the six knock- out ties went to a replay or penalties, this summer four of them did, the highest percentage of any World Cup or European Championship.

The "golden goal" may be one reason for this, as England and Germany showed, it only works when teams conquer their fear to be positive. A bigger cause is the levelling of standards and growing organisation of defences.

There are two answers - either make results more likely, or replace the shoot-out. One solution - and how we laughed when Sepp Blatter suggested it - is bigger goals. When football was codified all players, but especially goalkeepers, were smaller of stature. A foot extra would turn all those shots against the post, like Darren Anderton's, into goals.

An alternative would be to copy Australian Rules and hurling and have a goal within a goal. This would involve building a bigger goal around the current frame and, if normal goals were level, count the ones scored in the bigger net. However, the logistics of building such complicated equipment around the world probably precludes it.

Or penalties could be held after 90 minutes but only count if extra time was goalless. Sudden death extra-time would then ensue with one side committed to attack and the other wondering if they dare invite the opposition on to them for 30 minutes if would mean their exit.

Cautions, too, need looking at. By all means penalise unfair play, but there may be a need for another card to create a wider range of punishments.

Lessons can also be learned on ticketing. The organisation of Euro 96 was, on the whole, a success. However, rows of empty seats - and the refusal to discount them, indicated a flawed sales policy. This was not entirely down to the Football Association but the problems faced by members of the England Travel Club, who had to tour England to collect tickets for the knock-out games, were their fault.

That is something to bear in mind for 2006, though technological advances will have changed the nature of ticketing beyond recognition. England will certainly bid for that year's World Cup, but they face being tipped by the Germans once more. In the meantime, it is off to The Dell - and where is Moldova?

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