Euro 2012 will be the last of its kind. Four years’ time in France, the current sixteen team format will have eight further nations added to it, replicating the World Cup format from 1986-1994. Sixteen years ago, the biggest European Championships in history kicked off, in the land of my childhood. Football came home, and it was disappointing.
Euro 96 has been eulogised and romanticised from both the English media and supporters alike, in the same way that Italia 90 has. An England semi-final, it appears, is the sole factor for a tournament to establish iconic status. Scotland’s last European Championships was undermined by a Uri Geller conspiracy theory and a soft Patrick Kluivert goal against the English. Heroic failures, yet again, but for the last time in a European Championship.
On the pitch, Euro 96 suffered from a post-World Cup hangover. USA 94 was lamented before it began, but it was a wonderful tournament. The collapse of Communism introduced us to ex-Eastern bloc players who became stars on the international stage. Two years later, however, Hagi, Stoichkov and Kilnsmann, to name three, all appeared jaded. Whilst they still oozed class, they were a shadow of the players who shone in the US.
Three future European Footballers of the Year played in Euro 96, yet neither Zidane, Figo nor Nedved made a lasting contribution. The former two would light up Euro 2000, but few could have predicted the greatness they would later achieve. The two stand-out players of Euro 96 were German defensive midfielders, Matthias Sammer and Dieter Eilts. This sums up the tournament’s mentality, especially in the latter stages. Just nine goals were scored in seven knock-out matches, compared to twenty goals in Euro 2000. The golden goal, designed to entertain, only served to reduce nations to frightened teenagers before a first date, not knowing how far to push themselves.
As a twelve year old, Euro 96 made me cry. From expecting Gary McAllister (who later became one of my footballing heroes as he lit-up Highfield Road) to equalise, I watched in sheer dismay as the embarrassingly overweight, career wasting Paul Gascoigne showed a glimpse of his potential. This was the beginning of the end for Scotland and I. For England, it merely distracted supporters from their team of little talent. They were a penalty shoot-out away from a winnable final with the Czechs, yet they managed one and a half positive games in the whole tournament. Granted, they were excellent against the Dutch, but this was achieved against the backdrop of racial tensions in the disorganised Netherlands camp.
Attendances are a cause for debate when reflecting upon Euro 96. Statistics will point to the high average attendances (41,158) but these are improved vastly by five capacity crowds at Wembley for England games. Blame cannot solely be attached to the English public, because the opportunity was there for fans of other nations to travel, but for a semi-final of a European Championship not to have 12,000 empty seats is perplexing. Bulgaria v Romania in the group stages was only half-full.
Every major international tournament can serve as a rite of passage. They sit as a moment in time, too hurried for time to truly comprehend what is happening within the moment. The cultural shift of the time was reflected in the hysteria of England’s progress. The Tory government were there only in name, and as hard as it is to imagine now, the public were deeply captivated by Labour leader Tony Blair. The incestuous orgy between Britpop, football and the laddish culture of the mid-1990s created a new mindset. The country was changing, and there was promiscuity, music and Alan Shearer to penetrate the soul of the English.
Scratch beneath the surface though, and it all transcends to a fractured façade with the same, little England way of thinking. The English team always played at Wembley, and very little cultural integration truly occurred. The most frightening coming together of nations was when a Russian student was stabbed after the semi-final with Germany. The media’s continued footnote told of him being mistaken for German, as if that added a sense of understanding. German cars were smashed with frightened drivers inside, and the gutter press’ war rhetoric was the antithesis to the very essence of human morality.
In Euro 96 football may have come home, but the Germans took the trophy home. This seems to be a mere postscript of the tournament from English fans, as if the wave of hysteria that swept them along crashed before it could recognise another footballing failure.