Leading Article: Coming soon: a Euro football lesson

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The Independent Online
If what we are hoping for from England in the Euro 96 football championships - only six weeks away - is honourable defeat, then Wednesday's draw with Croatia at Wembley was certainly encouraging. The time is fast approaching when we have to face reality about Terry Venables' reign as England coach. Many had hoped that, regardless of his off-the-field travails, Venables would revive England after the dreadful tenure of Graham Taylor.

The truth is we are not bad, quite respectable, in fact, but little better than that. We can grind out a draw with the best of them. We can close down the opposition, deny them scoring opportunities, turn a good game into a stalemate. But can we win with any conviction? Forget it.

There were some good things on display at Wembley on Wednesday: the makeshift defence was sound (against an opposition that gave up trying to score); the midfield was disciplined and Paul Gascoigne occasionally creative; Robbie Fowler appears to be a prodigious talent although he missed chances.

But that piecemeal praise misses the point: Croatia is better prepared for the championships than the hosts. Croatia's skill and sophistication is not simply the product of having a clutch of players with top teams in Europe. Nor were all the good players inherited from the former Communist system in Yugoslavia. They are still producing them. The real testimony to the depth of Croatia's football culture came on Tuesday night when its under-21 side beat England convincingly. How can it be that a small nation a only a few years old and still recovering from the effects of a bloody civil war in the former Yugoslavia can produce a better youth team than England with all the money that has been pumped into premiership football in the past couple of years?

The answer is that Croatia seems to have a football culture intense enough to overcome the country's material weaknesses. That culture produces players who think their way to victory. Most of the British press joked derisively that Wednesday's game was like a game of chess. That insult in Britain is probably a compliment in Croatia.

It may all come right. Venables may yet pull it off. But it is not looking remotely likely. English football fans have probably been preparing themselves for months for the sense of deflation they will almost certainly feel this summer.

That will leave us with the task of devising an approach to the game, particularly the way it is coached to youngsters, that should give us some hope for the future. It's obvious where that review should start: a serious examination of how countries such as Holland and Croatia produce young players of such skill, poise and talent.

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