Technically there is a lot of ground for England to make up but the morale of British players should never be underestimated

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The Independent Online
When it came to penalties at Wembley last Saturday, the organisers of Euro 96 must have looked on with a great deal of apprehension. They knew that the success of their tournament depended upon England remaining in contention.

It is fairly safe to assume that England's dead-eye precision, and then David Seaman's save from Nadal, came as great relief to the blazered fraternity. They knew that without England the championship would have immediately lost impetus.

Leaving aside a flood of national euphoria and tabloid ranting, this was emphasised by a negative response to events in the other quarter-finals. Looking at those matches, one live between the Czech Republic and Portugal at Villa Park, the others on television, Euro 96 looked less than has been imagined in the context of England's heady progress.

That some rather extravagant estimates have been reached over the last two weeks or so was wearingly evident. Having established a reputation for technical brilliance Croatia ran out of spirit when losing to Germany at Old Trafford. The Netherlands improved on a woeful performance against England when meeting France but left the impression that they are not strong on commitment. France, who have been made favourites , promised a lot but have yet to deliver.

Portugal's loss to the Czechs was a bitter disappointment to their supporters but still predictable. Exciting players, quick and tidy on the ball but caught up in a five-a-side mentality. Marred by the German referee, Krug, whose incompetence was quite staggering, the game revealed collective shortcomings in Portugal that had been obscured by individual artistry.

Germany are functional and threatening but do not quicken the pulse. The star, as Berti Vogts says, is the team. Despite losing four of their first-choice players to a ludicrous spate of cautions, the Czechs have big hearts and will be hard to beat but only Karel Poborsky, whose marvellous lob defeated Portugal, seems to possess the brilliance that gets spectators out of their seats.

Let us suppose that England had gone out to Spain and Germany to Croatia. The organisers would have been left with two semi-finals of little local interest. British newspapers would have turned their full attention to proceedings at Wimbledon, found some other patriotic theme to make a fuss about, and television ratings would have plummeted.

Instead we have a semi-final that could be sold six times over and will attract a huge television audience. I have not personally sought an official comment on this but everyone connected with Uefa should offer up thanks for the way things have developed because to my mind Euro 96 has not lived up entirely to expectations. There have been a number of excellent matches but none so far to suggest the presence of a dominant force in European football.

There has been something of the curate's egg about England's efforts. Poor against Switzerland, better in periods against Scotland, they exceeded all expectations in outplaying the Dutch but were generally outclassed by Spain.

That England, a reasonable team but not a great one, have a real chance to become champions of Europe says something about the overall standard and raises a thought or two about the future. Technically, there is a lot of ground for England to make up but the instinctive morale of British footballers should never be underestimated and is greatly admired elsewhere in the game.

It brought England through against Spain, who were the superior craftsmen, and could get them past Germany. "Nobody enjoys playing against us,'' is an argument put forward by British coaches when involved in European club competitions.

A thing the authorities must ensure now is that the remaining games of Euro 96 are refereed sensibly. Their policy so far has been wide open to criticism and a blight on the championship. Unless it is altered for future tournaments, it may be necessary to have squads of 30 players, an impossibility for small countries unless they call on men who are clearly not up to international standard.

There have been alarming anomalies. Players have been cautioned for small errors in timing and yet the Croatian defender, Bilic, was allowed to remain on the field against Germany after kicking a floored opponent. Krug handed out nine cautions and a red card at Villa Park on Sunday but missed a vicious foul on a Portuguese defender that should have resulted in instant dismissal.

Not for the first time, it is in order, I think, to suggest that the authorities get their act together.

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