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Updated Tuesday June 27, 2000
So, is this the best tournament we've ever seen?
By Martin Lipton

It is just 24 hours until the first semi-final of Euro 2000 - but can we wait that long? All across Europe, the overwhelming feeling is that this has been the best football tournament ever staged.

Households from Barcelona to Bucharest, Newcastle to Naples will be carefully planning their timetables around the action as the excitement builds to Sunday's grand finale in Rotterdam.

So often in the past, tournaments which began with bright expectations have declined into a caution-induced sterility that no amount of colour off the field could disguise.

Even four years ago, the fixation with England's progress and ultimate heartbreak served to blind many to the poverty of football in their quarter-final with Spain and the knock-out matches which saw Holland, France and Portugal eliminated.

Of course, there were great games. Too often, though, the mass of matches were dire, enlivened only by a rare flash of inspiration.

But as Euro 2000 reaches a last-four stage comprising the three best attacking sides in the tournament and the one team that defends with genuine class, it is difficult not to feel that a defining moment in the game has been reached.

Just close your eyes and picture one of Luis Figo's slaloming runs through a cluster of bewildered defenders or Zinedine Zidane's elegant excellence dictating another flamboyant victory.

As perhaps at no time since the 1970 World Cup Finals in Mexico - and maybe even exceeding that tournament lit up by the brilliance of Pele and Co - the accent of Euro 2000 has been on attack.

Skill, rather than strength, has been the arbiter and where a decade ago the physical attributes of the northern European teams gave them an edge, the closing of that gap has allowed technique to be the fundamental divider.

Even as experienced a campaigner as former Italian boss Arrigo Sacchi accepts that there has been a transformation.

'Apart from Italy, all the semi-finalists have rid themselves of the sterile style which was the hallmark of the Nineties,' he said. 'What we have is technical football allied to athleticism and tactics.'

France coach Roger Lemerre agrees, saying: 'Portugal, France and Spain can be compared because of the Latin style, while the creativity and collectivity of France is something that has evolved over the last 30 years of footballing education.

'Holland also have a good football school and the basic qualities of all the Portuguese team are creativity, collectivity and talent.'

The Dutch are hardly Latin in temperament but the fact that so many of Frank Rijkaard's team play their club football in countries where entertainment is the pre-requisite of the game hints at what has developed in the past three weeks.

Manchester United and Real Madrid have conquered Europe over the past two seasons by going for the jugular at every opportunity.

That attacking ethos has been picked up and taken on by all of the top teams in Europe, providing fans with wonderful entertainment such as Chelsea's 10-goal aggregate thriller against Barcelona.

Now this dramatic shift in football intelligence, catalysed by the premier club competition, has brought us the equivalent Mensa parade in Europe's top international tournament.

Danish referee Kim Milton Nielsen said: 'I was in charge of the Champions League group game in the Bern-abeu, when Bayern Munich beat Real Madrid 4-2. Even two years ago you wouldn't have dreamed that games between two such big clubs would have so many goals and so many chances.

'But now it seems that teams want to attack, are willing to take the risks because they feel they can score more goals than the opposition. It has been the same in this tournament.

'All of the referees felt that they could enjoy being part of it because there was so much positive play and players who wanted to create, rather than try to destroy. I hope that this is the signal of the future of football.'

Nielsen's view is backed up by statistics. So far, 28 matches have brought 79 goals at 2.88 goals per match, as opposed to Euro 96, for instance, where the average was 2.06.

Some, Johan Cruyff among them, have bemoaned the fact that passes have occasionally gone astray, that some of the play has not reached perfection.

Yet, that surely is more than an acceptable price to pay for the verve demonstrated by virtually all the teams and the remarkably high tempo at which the matches have been played.

Even the cynical view that once the knock- out stages had started the defences would stifle any attacking notions has been thrown out on its ear.

The Italians seamlessly moved up another gear against Romania on Saturday, while Portugal carried on playing the only way the know how in beating Turkey.

Holland's 6-1 demolition of Yugoslavia will have temporarily silenced coach Rijkaard's critics and Spain have provided us with some heart-stopping moments over the past few days, starting with their amazing revival against Yugoslavia last Thursday and culminating in Raul's dramatic 90th-minute penalty miss against France on Sunday.

The TV companies who pay out millions to screen the Champions League will hope for a continuation, although England's failures bore out Kevin Keegan's concern that almost all of the Premiership's most creative players are foreigners.

Lemerre agrees that England, like Germany, must start again. 'The Germans are now involved in a complete reorganisation,' he said. 'They have a specific style in mind but it takes time for this to work properly.

'England should not be satisfied that they have given the world the most beautiful of sports. They should also try to take advantage of it. They should go back to the attractiveness of the game and the essence of sport.'

That attractiveness and essence has been embodied by the tournament so far. It seems the fantasy has come back into football and the game can never be the same again.

Nobody will complain about that.

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