Get set for the World Cup of reading;Opinion

29th May 1998 at 01:00
THIS IS an article about the National Year of Reading, but I must start by pointing out that next month the World Cup will begin.

The tension is killing. Scotland will (heroically, no doubt) fail to make it to the knock-out stage and then the real battle will commence. No, not who will win the World Cup, but what, if anything, should be done to ensure we never again have penalty shoot-outs. The letters columns of newspapers will bulge. Radio 5 Live phone lines will hum. And some aspirant heroes will join the long line of villains - Chris Waddle, Gareth Southgate, Roberto Baggio - who miss a crucial penalty and find their careers are never the same again.

This is one reason why the penalty shoot-out should be abolished. The second is that it biases the whole tournament in favour of Germany, whose teams have not missed a penalty in a shoot out since 1976.

Of course, introducing the sudden-death goal in extra time was meant to avoid penalty shoot-outs but, as we found in Euro '96, it does not work. The players are too tired and too afraid of error to score. And the Germans win again.

I have two suggestions that would remove the need for penalty shoot-outs. The first is that at the start of extra time, each team would withdraw two players, making goals more likely. Every five minutes into extra time, two more players from each side would be withdrawn until someone scores. Imagine if you were down to one player each and someone was sent off ...

My second proposal would be more fun and less predictable, but totally decisive. After every five scoreless minutes of extra time an extra ball would be added. When I discuss these ideas with friends over dinner, some nod sympathetically, others think they are a load of balls.

Like it or not, the World Cup and other similar mega-events generate conversation, interest and excitement. Remember Euro '96: people who had never before shown an interest in soccer wept for Gareth Southgate; children painted their faces and dinners in the City were interrupted by cheers more usually heard on the streets of Islington and Toxteth.

The National Year of Reading is designed to do for literacy what the World Cup does for soccer: put it at the heart of our lives, high up in everyone's consciousness. Media organisations, newspapers, publishers, booksellers, libraries, business, schools, local authorities and many more organisations are joining a movement that will transform our culture. It will not be like any national year before it.

Perhaps your experience of national years of things is rather like mine. You hear someone on the Today programme being interviewed at the launch of this national year of flag-waving, hang-gliding or whatever. You do not listen because one of the children wants more corn flakes, and you never hear about it again.

The National Year of Reading will not be like that. The logo will appear in bookshops, on packets of Walkers crisps, and several newspapers, including The TES, will give it high-profile support. Many businesses are intending to encourage their staff to provide reading support in schools or simply to ensure they read with their own children at home.

Meanwhile, many schools, libraries and local authorities are gearing up to promote activity at that level. At last, primary teachers will be supported by a cultural tide flowing with, instead of against, them. The National Year of Reading will start in September and run for a full school year. You could be part of it. Prepare for a future in which there are more books and fewer penalty shoot-outs, in which everyone can read and no one has to feel like Gareth Southgate on that dreadful night.

To get involved, contact the National Year of Reading Team, National Literacy Trust, Swire House, 59 Buckingham Gate, London SW1E 6AJ, e-mail: or see

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