Sacred Cows: Euro 96
Don’t misunderstand me; I loved every minute of it…
Karel Poborský’s chip, England’s abandonment of the rigidities of 4-4-2, Davor Šuker making a monkey out of Peter Schmeichel, a June weekend that inspired Arab Strap’s breakthrough tune, the dentist’s chair, a rousing Scotland performance against Switzerland, a capital packed full of fans from across Europe, the drama of Oliver Bierhoff’s winner.
More importantly, the substitution of a union flag for too long tainted by the noxious fumes of hooliganism, jingoism and violence with the more innocent George Cross and a welcoming attitude that transcended national boundaries. Speak to most football fans of a certain generation and they’ll have the 1996 European Championships down as one of their formative experiences.
I spent the bulk of the competition in the pubs of Camden Town, a borough at the centre of attention as Cool Britannia held sway while half decent music – and Oasis – managed to form a bridgehead in the charts. Good weather – or is my memory playing tricks on me? – played a major part in swelling the mood of joyfulness and behind it all, John Major’s lacklustre Conservatives were dead men walking as a young soccer fan from the North East gathered plaudits in the polls.
Fast forward sixteen years to 2012 and for some, the parallels are there as Wiggo, Jess and Andy have cheered the nation’s sports fans – The Daily Mail and others have lauded the ‘greatest ever’ Olympics while tossing hats in the air to celebrate a jubilee – we’re told that the atmosphere has been heady and the celebrations prolonged.
The problem is that you don’t need to ask a resident of Barcelona or Beijing as to which was the greatest ever Olympics and not hear the words ‘London 2012’ – get on a boat at Dover and you’ll receive a myriad of responses from any comers you may choose to question. Just as few people east of Calais will have George Best down as one of the all time best footballers and Bobby Moore is far from a household name in Valencia or Prague, we as a nation seem unable to recognise when parochialism blurs our own perspective.
Sure, both Euro 96 and London 2012 were richly enjoyable events, well organised and something to be heartily proud of – especially for those who participated and volunteered – but too many, like the hero of an Old Half Man, Half Biscuit song mistake this competence for being intrinsically ‘better’ than the others.
Take England’s progress through that competition. The static root vegetables of Euro 92 had seen their USA 94 dream ended by Ronald Koeman’s flick and a two and a half year period without a competitive fixture left us champing at the bit – by then, even a miserable 1-1 draw against Switzerland at Wembley would do.
There then followed a first half of abject woefulness against the Scots before Jamie Redknapp’s introduction, Alan Shearer’s bonce and that miracle of a goal from Gazza saw off the Auld Enemy. Results elsewhere had been fortuitous and England went into the final group game against Holland with an extremely cosy two point cushion.
That 4-1 win over the Dutch was the game often cited as the best of England’s recent memory, challenged only perhaps by the 5-1 victory over Germany in Munich half a decade later, but while the latter match was a must win that saw the Three Lions leapfrog that other old enemy to qualify for the East Asian World Cup, the earlier encounter was in fact a canter; Terry Venables’ charges obtaining a grip of the match early on and taking advantage of a Dutch side wracked by divisions and providing a first team spot to Jordi Cruyff.
I felt lucky to be present at Wembley for the quarter final against Spain. Yet, with the opposition actually turning up this time, England were extraordinarily fortunate – a goal from Julio Salinas should have stood and would have put the Spanish through – but England prevailed in the penalty shootout and Stuart Pearce’s fist pumping celebration is all we choose to remember.
Germany laid in wait in the semi-final – with Piers Morgan’s Daily Mirror prefacing the contest with the headline, “Achtung! Surrender! For You Fritz, ze Euro 96 Championship is over”. The atmosphere of more responsible nationalism so evident for the Spain game was thus expunged and England fluffed their lines, failing to push on after Alan Shearer’s early goal and exiting the competition on penalties after Stefan Kuntz had equalised.
Kuntz was the subject of some mirthless ribbing from the Fantasy Football League duo, Frank Skinner and David Baddiel even if these characters had helped bring us a memorable tune. The disappointment was marked but I never felt as much excitement as I had six years earlier when England had fallen in almost identical circumstances to the Germans in the Italian World Cup.
Having won their only major tournament to date on home soil, to merely reach the semi final in a smaller competition minus South American heavyweights, at home again, and in particular given the chequered progress to get there seemed not all that much of an achievement – the collective clutching at straws was audible amid the rush to boast.
Indeed, the expansion of the Nations Cup to 16 teams led to a diminution of quality just as it will do when 24 national 22s roll up in France in 2016. The golden goal experiment produced stultifying encounters between France and Holland in the quarter final and the French and the Czechs in the semi final, each team far too petrified of the sudden death format to take any risks.
The French, Spanish and Italian teams were all less than prime vintages and the latter failed even to make it out of the group stage while the new Gallic star Zinedine Zidane had a miserable tournament. Nor were the German victors a truly great side – unlike the master class of 1990, the squad was badly affected by injuries and suspensions and they were hugely unsatisfying winners in the overall context.
The card fest led to a series of latter stage matches punctuated by understrength teams while the public showed only sporadic interest – 19,107 turned up at St. James’ Park to see Bulgaria take on Romania – a match between two of the American World Cup’s most entertaining teams and featuring two of the greatest players of the decade in Hristo Stoichkov and Gheorghe Hagi. Not one for the Geordies.
Television watchers were let down when commentators failed to ascertain that a late Patrick Kluivert goal against England would deny Scotland progression to the quarter finals, the opening ceremony appeared to have been organised by the Newport Pagnell branch of the role playing society and the official song was actually Simply Red’s unspeakable We’re in this Together and not Three Lions as is commonly believed.
Historical revisionism is dangerous of course and I’ll admit to being entertained by Skinner and Baddiel’s antics back then just as I leaped from the sofa as that future embarrassment to punditry Alan Shearer thumped home against the Dutch. Euro 96 was, as I took pains to point out at the beginning of this piece, a splendid affair on balance – but any objective analysis needs to point out its shortcomings. The best ever European Championships were those held in France in 1984 and proponents of Euro 96 should perhaps settle for the certainty that their event is at best certain to be superior to the next French affair four years hence.