Euro 96? Little Passion, Even Less Scoring

LONDON -- Soccer, as Euro 96 has shown all too well, used to be more fun when teams worked on the basis that you had to score more goals than the opposition.

Now that the guiding principle has switched to avoiding defeat by not conceding goals, the result is stereotyped football, far too many draws and penalty shootout lotteries.

Euro 96 started well enough but fizzled out into a farce with matches so tight, many were decided by luck or a refereeing error rather than by any streak of inspiration.

There were only 64 goals in the tournament's 31 matches, a paltry average of just over two a game, and in the seven of the knockout stage, only nine were scored. Five of those matches went into extra time and four to shootouts.

FIFA went into urgent deliberations to find ways of making soccer more exciting after the boring 1990 World Cup finals in Italy and UEFA has already indicated it wants to study changes after Euro 96.

FIFA came up with one rule change -- banning the back pass to the goalkeeper -- which did brighten up play a bit and increase goal tallies worldwide.

But the finals in England have shown that coaches are countering the effects again, packing defenses and midfields in formations which often allow for one lone striker up front.

Soccer may need more imaginative moves if it is to return to its halcyon days -- and that means positive action to have more goals scored.

There would have been little wrong with Euro 96 if there had been another 30 goals or so -- an average of one extra per game.

The days when Real Madrid could win a European Cup final 7-3, as they did in 1960, or Brazil win a World Cup final 5-2, as they did in 1958, are inconceivable now.

By comparison, the last World Cup final was won on penalties after a goalless draw -- as was this year's European Cup final.

What can be done? Plenty of ideas have been advanced but soccer's rulers have been wary of making radical changes for fear of destroying the soul of the world's greatest sport.

Modifying, or even scrapping, the offside rule to make the game more open and banning the sliding tackle would be two moves favoring attackers and more goals.

Teams who try to attack would also benefit from a rule under which three or four defenders would have to stay behind the goal for 15 seconds after a corner is taken.

Soccer has, in the past, been a little too self-satisfied and might do well to take a leaf out of other sports which have modernized their rules with success.

The appointment of a second referee and a timekeeper are long overdue, as is the use of video evidence to settle penalty, goal or dismissal disputes in such major competitions as the European championship and the World Cup.

Without drastic moves, soccer might be heading toward the day when a team will lift the World or European Cup without winning a single game in regulation time.