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Back on side!

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It would be totally unfair to blame Scotland, wouldn't it? Had the Tartan footballers defeated England in qualifying for the European football championships, the dreaded hordes of English hooligans that abused the Belgian cities of Brussels and Charleroi would have been left at home to cry into their many, many beers while the rest of Europe concentrated on le foot.

For the better part of the past two weeks, across the Netherlands and Belgium, well-behaved crowds did in fact savor the kind of football that isn't seen enough in big tournaments: wide open, attacking play that rewards ball possession, deft passing under pressure and spectacular finishing. Euro 2000 has featured Luis Figo, leader of Portugal's poetic band, blasting a hole in the English netting, France's Thierry Henry running wild against the Danes, the white-shoed Alfonso providing last-minute salvation for Spain, and Yugoslavia's powerful Savo Milosevic bringing his 10-man squad back level from a 3-0 abyss created by Slovenia's amazing striker Zlatko Zahovic.

With France, Italy, Spain and Portugal advancing to the quarterfinals, along with Turkey, Yugoslavia, Romania and co-hosts the Netherlands, the theme here is Latin power, noted former Dutch whiz (and former star player and manager of Bar-celona) Johan Cruyff. Gone are the more plodding, northern European sides including Germany, Sweden, BorewayŚsorry, NorwayŚand England. So too are plucky Slovenia and co-hosts Belgium, undone by liabilities in their own goal zone and near their opponents'. The Czech Republic played beautifully but became victim to the "Group of Death" that included the French and the Dutch. Co-host the Netherlands, Latin in style (most of its team play in Spain or Italy) and possessing devastating speed, looked better each game after an uninspired start.

But enough about football. Belgian authorities had to spend much of their time plotting strategies to try to handle the hooligans, primarily drunk and primarily English, who overflowed the bars and streets around the historic Grand Place in Brussels and Place Charles II in little Charleroi before and after each England game.

The England-Germany match was always going to be the flashpoint of the tournament. Charle-roi had been considered too small for a game of such weight. Trouble broke out before the match in Place Charles II, an open circular area at the city's center, with English and German fans hurling abuse and bottles at one another, and ended when police moved in with water cannon. Although the confrontation was fairly brief, there was real menace lurking in the wings. One hooligan, who identified himself only as a Middlesbrough season ticket holder, saw soccer thuggery as "all part of the attraction" as he waited for something to "kick off."

In Brussels on June 17Śthe night of the England-Germany gameŚpolice pried out 70 or 80 English fans barricaded in a pub with tear gas, causing many to spill out onto the street gasping and vomiting. The day after England threw off 34 years of German mastery with a rapturous 1-0 victory, the statistics went like this: England had one win, one loss, about 700 arrests and 400 deportations, including some clearly innocent bystanders.

Fed-up UEFA officials warned England team managers that any further violence would jeopardize the team's participation in the tournament. "It cannot go on. It will kill football," said UEFA president Lennart Johansson.

News of the detentions and deportations prompted British Prime Minister Tony Blair to apologise for the hooligans' behavior, and had authorities asking why the government could have let so many hooligans loose on Belgium. British officials kicked the ball back, saying they had limited legal means to stop people leaving the country and that they had provided the names of known hooligans to the Dutch and Belgians in the hope that they would be bounced at the borders. Some were, but not enough.

The days of tension and violence gave the England-Germany match a charge well beyond the game's importanceŚneither of these rusting dreadnoughts was going anywhere. The kind of football that got England by GermanyŚformless and defensiveŚwas of no use against a skilled side like Romania, which prevailed 3-2 on a late and deserved penalty. England's dismissal allowed the tournament's brightest lights and better qualities to shine.

The scene in Amsterdam on the afternoon of the Netherlands-France match was exactly the image that Euro 2000 officials had conjured when they called this tournament ďFootball without frontiers.' The Rembrandtplein and the cafes along its periphery were filled with orange-clad Netherlands supporters, singing, milling, drinking, enjoying. Men were dressed as Dutch girls; they wore headgear of historic sillinessŚwindmills, crowns, lions' heads and maidens' caps with fake red braids. It was like some strange fraternal lodge in which dressing like a citrus fruit and acting goofy was the secret handshake.

Among the orange crush drifted groups of blue-clad French supporters, unafraid to join in the fun, just as they had done in Bruges with equally good-natured Czech fans and with the Danes. Knots of bright red dotted the cafes like flowers: Norway's cowbell-clanging supporters, a threat only to stampede livestock.

Later that day, Yugoslavia and Spain staged a high-wire match with the Spaniards somehow finding two goals in extra time, and ruining their reputation as underachievers. At first it seemed like a disastrous exit for the Yugoslavs, who once again exhibited their best and worst traits. In a single match they can be laconic in defending, cynical in falling down at the slightest nudge, and vicious in their fouls and treatment of the referee. Yet at the same time they can play periods of perfect football. For that they were rewarded with a place in the quarters, after Norway had mudwrestled Slovenia to a scoreless draw.

That night in Amsterdam, the blue- and orange-shirted fans saw France and the Netherlands stage an exhibition of breakneck, offensive soccer, with the home team winning 3-2 after Boudewijn Zenden raced past Christian Karembeu to net the winner. Zenden's goal was preceded by a 32-meter blast from Frank de Boer that smoked French keeper Bernard Lama. Yet the French had started a second-choice team, and still gave the Netherlands fits.

This is what great football tournaments are about. And now it seems, with a little restraint from Turkish supporters, that UEFA officials and fans can look forward to a week of football without fear. England, meanwhile, will once again have to rebuild its team, and its reputation. Neither will be easy.

ŚWith reporting by Jennie James/Charleroi