Tuesday, June 11
Where are the fans?
Off to Liverpool for Italy-Russia, which proves to be an entertaining game, in that both defenses commit terrible blunders and Italy goes forward until the final whistle of a 2-1 win.
But the worrying thing is the empty seats at Anfield. Euro '96 announced the crowd as 35,190, but to use the old NASL gag, a good 10,000 have come disguised as seats.
Aside from the opener and the Netherlands-Scotland game, none of the stadiums has been full so far.
One reason is that the tickets are very expensive. A top price seat will set you back $80 in the provinces, $125 at Wembley. Another is that tickets are hard to come by. The Euro '96 ticket hotline, for example, invariably gives a busy signal every time you call it.
"We can report that we have sold 90 percent of the 1.4 million tickets for the tournament," Euro '96 tournament director Glen Kirton tells the BBC.
"But not all the stadiums are full," counters the reporter.
"I didn't say we'd sold them all out," Kirton snaps back. "We sold 90 percent of the tickets to fans and competing federations. We have no control over what they did with them."
Euro '96 sold tickets in advance on a sale-or-no-return basis, which explains the big projections and the empty seats. Some tickets for today's match ended up in the hands of Russian promoter Vladimir Modelevsky, but most of his traveling party were refused visas by the British government.
"This is barbarious [sic]," he says, waving blocks of unsold tickets. "They sold us the tickets, didn't let most of our group in and now we can't sell them here."
The Russian fans are occupying the Russian cruise ship Astra, which is docked somewhere in Liverpool, but only 100 out of 300 berths are occupied.
The situation is worse in Leeds. The $120,000 Temple Newsome campsite displays 10 giant marquees for supporters to sleep in, but it is playing host to just two fans.
Plans to stage a five-a-side tournament at the campsite (capacity: 2,000) were scratched due to lack of numbers, but staffers joined forces with the camping duo and there was one four-a-side game. Who said British invention was dead?
Wednesday, June 12
Venables takes on English `traitors'
It's a rest day, but the tabs have a couple of controversies on the boil.
First, there's Gazza: Fatty or misunderstood genius? You decide. The press are divided on that one, but Spanish daily El Pais harbored no illusions after the England-Switzerland match.
"Gascoigne has lost himself in a sea of injuries, beer and lack of control," wrote the paper. "What we now have is a slow and overweight midfield player."
Yes, but he's our slow and overweight midfield player.
Gazza will face Scotland of course -- he's spent the last season torturing defenses up there -- but he used the two-day leave granted by Terry Venables to go shopping for potted plants, trailed by two reporters. Gascoigne later emerged with a soccer ball, challenged them to a game of five-a-side and then booted the ball into a nearby lake.
The two-day leave is the other scandal.
One, that it was granted in the first place.
Two, that it was maintained after England faded against the Swiss.
And three, that squad members Teddy Sheringham, Jamie Redknapp and Sol Campbell were spotted in an Essex nightclub Sunday at 2 a.m.
"England aces back on booze!" roars the Sun. "You've got a nerve, Teddy!" say the inside pages.
"We need less partying and more goals," says Tory rent-a-quote politician David Shaw.
Venables, who's enjoyed a comparatively easy ride with the press in his two-year tenure, goes on the offensive.
"We don't understand why it's necessary for you to do what you're doing --
some of you feel like traitors to us," he says. "I'm not going to tell them that you can have a beer if you win but not if you lose. That makes me like a very silly boy ... In Italy they drink wine with their meals, in Spain the same. What would we make of that?"
But do they? The Spaniards have an extra room at their hotel with fridges filled with beer and soft drinks, which has gone untouched.
Venables' defensive cover suffers another blow when Steve Howey injured an ankle on a training run during the two-day leave, joining Gary Pallister and Mark Wright on the sidelines.
Under UEFA rules, a player can only be replaced in exceptional circumstances. If, for example, he was hit by a car.
"Let's take him out and run him over then," jokes Venables. Add in a posse of the more poisonous pressmen, and I'd be tempted to take him seriously.
Thursday, June 13
More trouble in Dutch camp
Play resumes at St. James' Park in Newcastle, where Bulgaria is pitted against Romania. Nineteen thousand turn up for the least glamorous clash of the first round. Hristo Stoichkov takes matters into his own hands in the third minute and scores the only goal of a 1-0 win.
Romania, beaten 1-0 by France in its opener, goes home early, although the team is robbed by Danish referee Peter Mikkelsen. Dorinel Munteanu's superb volley bounces off the underside of the bar, crosses the line and bounces out again. Mikkelsen waves play on.
And in Birmingham in Group A, the Dutch and the Swiss bore the pants off everyone for an hour before Jordi -- Johan Cruyff's son goes by the single name now -- scores. Dennis Bergkamp adds the second in a 2-0 win ("Ice Berg" says the Sun) but all is not well in the Dutch camp -- is it ever?
"Our coach spends too much time sticking his head too far up some of the players' a**es," says AC Milan-bound Edgar Davids, who was dropped for the game. "I'll never be dropped again."
Davids believes that Guus Hiddink is in cahoots with former Ajax teammates Ronald de Boer and Danny Blind.
Hiddink shows Davids -- known as the pit bull to his chums -- the door and Davids becomes the first player to be sent home from Euro '96. Grrr!
Saturday, June 15
Euro '96 at last comes to life
On the road from Manchester to Leeds, a newsflash comes on the radio to announce that a bomb has exploded outside the Arndale Centre, Manchester's main shopping area. A Ford van received a parking ticket at 9:20 a.m. Twenty minutes later, coded warnings from the Irish Republican Army are received at four locations, announcing that a bomb will explode in one hour.
At 10 a.m., police decide to evacuate the area and bomb squad officers arrive. One hour later the area is evacuated and the truck identified. At 11:20 a.m., the remote control robot slips up, detonating the bomb.
The evacuation process does not go far enough, though, and 226 people are injured, including a pregnant woman thrown 15 feet through the air. A 42-year-old woman needs 300 stitches in her face from falling glass (putting her face back together "was like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle" says the surgeon).
Downtown Manchester is cordoned off and declared a "sanitized area," which means people are unable to enter or leave the city center, which is playing host to 10,000 German fans and 600 Russian supporters.
At Old Trafford, scene of tomorrow's Russia-Germany match, police send Euro '96 staffers home early, clear the area and conduct security checks. UEFA announces the match will go ahead as planned.
At Elland Road, seats in the media center are at a premium as everything stops for the England-Scotland match at 3 p.m.
Staffers and sportswriters crowd around TV sets to watch the most hyped-up clash in history. All week there has been a barrage of invective from the English media about their northern neighbors. To them the stereotypical Scotsman is a red-haired, kilt-wearing, haggis-eating, whisky-guzzling tightwad who hates Sassenachs, who are "soft." The Scottish media, by and large, has left well enough alone.
"Wam Bam Win It For Sam!" says The Sun on its front page, as topless model Sam Fox poses in an England uniform. Teddy Sheringham appears on the back in Tartan regalia under the heading "Let's Get Teddy To Rumble!"
So much for the promise of blood and thunder. The first half is a tame fare, downright boring in fact. But we get some blood -- Gareth Southgate's elbow turns Gordon Durie's thinning thatch red, and the Scottish forward reappears sporting the word's biggest band-aid.
Another elbow is more influential in the second half. Gary McAllister hits a feeble penalty at David Seaman's elbow after Alan Shearer had given England the lead.
A minute later, Gascoigne has the last laugh on the press as he races on to Darren Anderton's throughball, turns Colin Hendry inside out with a looping ball that he smashes past Andy Goram on the volley, then embarks on a well-choreographed drinking routine that reminds one and all of a certain dentist's chair in a Hong Kong nightclub.
The studio pundits run the gamut of emotions: Jimmy Hill is euphoric (a tartan scarf on sale at Villa Park reads, "We hate Jimmy Hill. He's an old poof!"), Ruud Gullit, best of the experts, smiles indulgently, while Scotsman Alan Hansen pouts moodily, moaning about bad defending on the goals (he's never seen a good goal).
But the England win does one thing: it keeps the tournament alive. Four years ago in Sweden, no match was complete without some chants for the Swedish team. The same happens tonight, with cries of "Engerland" mixed in with the more tuneful French and Spanish songs. The fans of the competing teams warmly greet the intrusions -- Euro '96 has come to life at last.
Sunday, June 16
Schmeichel falls on Suker Punch
England's 2-0 win over Scotland and the Manchester bomb blast compete for column inches. The England game wins by a nose.
"Gazza hits the Jockpot" says News of the World , which offers booze ratings instead of numbers for the England players: Gascoigne, Seaman and Shearer get champagne, the rest of the lads get a pint of beer, except poor old Stuart Pearce who is awarded a glass of tap water.
News of the World also reveals its secret weapon -- spoonbender Uri Geller was flown over Wembley in a helicopter clutching an England cap belonging to 1966 defender George Cohen and armfuls of crystals to transmit positive vibes to the players.
Geller claims that he knew Shearer would score for England (so did the bookies -- he was the 7-2 favorite) and was sending secret signals to Seaman.
"When the penalty was taken, I willed David to dive to his right," says Uri. "He did, and it was a magnificent save."
Yeah, you and the rest of the country, Uri.
On to Manchester for the Russia-Germany match. The city center is cordoned off and there are many diversions to get to Old Trafford.
Security has been beefed up for the match: Bags are searched, electronic equipment tested and reporters are frisked going into the media center.
Fifty thousand is the announced attendance. This time it actually looks that way and the Wave is doing the rounds before kickoff.
A poor first half follows. Germany begins strongly then fades, allowing the Russians to attack. Ilya Tsymbalar hits the upright, but Igor Kolivanov, with most of the goal vacant before him, opts to head straight at Andreas Koepke. Seven minutes before halftime, Alexander Mostovoi is thwarted by Koepke, who forces the striker to go wide.
The second half, though, is all Germany. Matthias Sammer races from deep to catch a delightful chipped pass from Andy Moeller. His first effort is parried by Dmitri Kharin, but the rebound is rolls into the back of the net.
Sweeper Yuri Kovtun is sent off for a risible challenge on Dieter Eilts in the 70th minute, and the Germans spend the remainder of the game tearing into the Russians, two splendid strikes from captain Juergen Klinsmann ensuring a 3-0 win.
After the game, the Russians take turns at tearing into each other. Coach Oleg Romantsev divides his players into three categories.
"Some of the players looked bad, the others very bad," he says. "The only players I'd single out were the ones on the bench."
"I didn't play in my own position," says Andrei Kanchelskis, who's known happier times at Old Trafford with former club Manchester United. "I found it difficult to play as a defender ... [But] many of the players didn't follow the instructions of the coach."
Over in Yorkshire, current United No. 1, Peter Schmeichel, also has a match to forget against Croatia.
After another dismal first half, the Danish keeper is adjudged to have tripped Mario Stanic in the box. Davor Suker converts the penalty.
Zvonimir Boban makes it 2-0, slotting away a beautiful ball from Suker on the left.
Then Suker, who was so confident of Euro '96 stardom that he'd taken English lessons, goes close with a 50-yard effort that a back-pedaling Schmeichel does well to tip over.
But 10 minutes from time, Suker has another crack, this time from a more modest 20 yards after Schmeichel is caught in midfield. Suker runs on goal and hits a sublime chip over the keeper and into the net, leaving Croatia as the first team to definitely reach the last eight and the headline writers to work on variations of the Suker Punch theme.
by Soccer America Senior Editor Duncan Irving