Three vital weeks for football and England

If hooliganism is contained, it could be a glorious tournament, writes Glenn Moore
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The Independent Online
football and England

It could be the best of times, or the worst of times. By the end of June, English football may be embarking on a new era, the domestic renaissance matched by a renewed respect within Europe and beyond. Or it could be back in the wilderness, its football regarded as primitive, its supporters primeval.

That is how important Euro 96 is. The Football Association knew they were taking a calculated risk when they applied to host the championships, now they have arrived that risk remains as real as ever. Events from Dublin to Rotterdam and, even, last week under the shadow of the twin towers, make that quite clear.

But it was, and is, a risk worth taking. The common sense and legal power of the Taylor Report, and the largesse of the Football Trust, have led to the creation of arguably the most impressive body of stadiums in the world. Improved policing, and changing social trends, have made those grounds largely trouble-free. Money, from television and merchandising, and the imagination of managers such as Kevin Keegan and Alex Ferguson, have made Premiership football the most attractive on the globe.

The success of the tournament, in a domestic sense at least, depends upon three factors: peace, in and out of the grounds; attractive football; and a good showing by England. None are guaranteed but all are feasible.

The most important factor is the first, or, at least, the perception of it. Hooliganism has never gone away, just retreated out of sight of closed-circuit television, occasionally erupting as it did in Dublin. That night underlined the extent of pre-planning involved in some modern hooliganism. Just as Terry Venables and Craig Brown have been preparing for this summer for two years, so will have been the hooligan hard-core, at home and abroad.

It is inevitable that there will be problems, if not at Villa Park and Anfield, then at Hilton Services on the M6, or Euston station; in Newcastle's Bigg Market, or a camp-site on the outskirts of Leeds. Some of this will be organised, a lot of it will be men behaving badly, fuelled by lager and xenophobia.

How telling an impact these incidents have will depend on how they are reported. According to some coverage the 1988 championships, in Germany, were akin to World War Three. According to people there, there were a few isolated incidents and a lot of arrests - standard European policy when trouble threatens.

The best thing that could happen for football is for a major, non-nationalistic, mass market story to dominate the tabloid front pages for the next three weeks. Otherwise a small incident will almost certainly be exaggerated and lead to others. The outlook is not good. Already anti-German sentiment has been whipped up by the farce of the missing 1966 football, and the anti-European coverage of the beef ban.

Alternatively, communities could take the visitors to their hearts, adopting them as Middlesbrough did the North Koreans in 1966. It should not be too difficult, even the Germans can be loved. Jurgen Klinsmann is one of the most popular players in Britain, while Berti Vogts' side have already been a hit in Northern Ireland. The "adoption" possibilities are intriguing, Bulgaria are staying at Scarborough, Russia are based in Wigan, Turkey at Grantham.

As in USA 94, the cosmopolitan nature of English society should ensure every country has some ex-pat support, while such is the prevalence of foreigners in the English game many teams will have a domestic link. While it is a shame France won't be fielding David Ginola at St James' Park there will be a few Evertonians swallowing their pride and watching Andrei Kanchelskis roam Anfield's broad acres.

England may also appear at Anfield, the odds-makers, pundits and, judging by ticket sales, supporters, envisage them playing a quarter-final there after finishing runners-up to the Netherlands in group A. England should be as inspired there as at Wembley. Since the opposition will be of a similar standard at either venue - from the very even group B - it matters little whether England win their group, as long as they finish in the top two.

That should be within their grasp, though Scotland will be doing their best to prevent it. Both sides have the beating of Switzerland and the 15 June clash could go either way. Scotland's downfall may be their inability to score goals. England have more options in this area and look to have the greater depth and quality generally. Whether they have enough to win the tournament is unlikely, but, once in the quarter-finals anything is possible.

A good display by England would have ramifications beyond the tournament. Success breeds imitation and, under Venables, England are playing a more continental style than any team in Britain. If English clubs are to regain their European standing some of these ideas need to be absorbed.

It remains a pity that Venables will not be coach after the championships. Throughout his reign, one has felt his England's impact will be greater in 1998, at the World Cup in France, than now. Recent progress is cause for optimism but the semi-finals may prove their limit. There they would be likely to meet Italy or Germany, assuming one of the pair, both customarily slow starters, has not already knocked the other out.

This prospect arises because of the general strength of the competition - almost everyone is a potential semi-finalist - and because the planners have, for once, got the format right. There is no messing about with best- third places and the like, nor is there a second group stage. The top two in each group go straight into a knock-out competition. A welcome innovation is the "golden goal" (or sudden-death) rule in extra-time. Anything which reduces penalty shoot-outs is worth a try.

The football ought to be worth watching, there are enough outstanding players on display. A bright opening match is needed to set the mood, and some early results - draws make everyone cautious. Uefa are yet to announce the usual referee's crackdown, but if the officials are as strict as in America strikers will flourish. If they do there will be plenty of spectators to appreciate them. To date, 90 percent of all tickets have been sold, an impressive figure given that most matches will be live on terrestrial television. With the intensive media coverage and the many football-related events in the host city, the country should take on the air of a nationwide football carnival by mid-June.

Should that happen, and the organisation work, and Uefa make money, and the hooligans be restrained, a bid for the World Cup can be expected.

That is assuming the only right-wingers running riot are Kanchelskis and his ilk. If they are not, the game - for all the talk of boom - is precariously placed. It will not take too many blood-stained images to turn off the sponsors and new-found middle-class family support.

But it is a time to be positive. The opening bars of "Nessum Dorma" still conjure images of Toto Schillaci celebrating on his knees, Gazza wiping away the tears, Platt swivelling to score against Belgium and Lineker drifting past the German defence to equalise.

The BBC's theme tune for this tournament is Beethoven's "Ode to Joy". Maybe in years to come it will evoke similar images: Ravanelli celebrating with his head in his shirt... McCoist popping up at the back post to beat van der Sar... Gazza wiping away tears of joy... Platt lifting the Henri Delauney Trophy?

You never know.

THE EXPERT'S PREDICTIONS

GLENN MOORE

Final: Italy to beat Germany

Losing semi-finalists England and Netherlands

Scotland to fail to qualify

KEN JONES

Final: Germany to beat Spain

Losing semi-finalists England and Portgual

Scotland to fail to qualify

PHIL SHAW

Final: Italy to beat Germany

Losing semi-finalists England and France

Scotland to fail to qualify

GUY HODGSON

Final: Portugal to beat Germany

Losing semi-finalists

England and Spain

Scotland to fail to qualify

RUPERT METCALF

Final: Italy to beat France

Beaten semi-finalists Netherlands and Portugal

England to lose in quarter-final Scotland to fail to qualify

CLIVE WHITE

Final: Germany to beat Portugal

Losing semi-finalists

France and Spain

England to lose in quarter-final Scotland to fail to qualify

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