As we approach kick-off in the Stade de France on Friday 10th June, allow us to introduce our latest issue: a special, limited-edition offering that provides a visual history of the European Championship, from its first iteration in 1960 to the present day.
Illustrations by Osvaldo Casanova
Words by Josh Wilson
This feature will be updated over the course of the competition with selected articles from our printed edition. To read the full selection and collect one of only 500 copies of our Summer 2016 issue, please visit our online store.
After the events of the past year-and-a-half, the 2016 European Championship in France is set to be the most poignant and emotionally charged major tournament in a generation. At a time when the social and political landscape of the continent is shifting in new and unpredictable ways, the nation that has come to represent the epicentre of that volatility will play host to twenty-three countries who have themselves experienced diverse collective traumas in the four years since Spain lifted the Henri Delaunay trophy in Kiev. Against that backdrop, the significance of the tournament — the first since the removal of corrupt high-ranking officials from football’s continental and international governing bodies, and the last to be held in a single country before the introduction of a new, pan-European format — should not be understated.
But we should also take care. Too often in recent history, eleven men have been unwittingly shoehorned into narratives pedaled as representative of some wider truth. Successes or misgivings on and off the pitch have been seized upon as reflections on the state of a nation. Ultimately, sight has been lost of the fact that football still provides us with one of the purest forms of escapism; that really, the game we love is just that – a game.
That’s why this special edition of The Green Soccer Journal is dedicated to some of the most iconic moments in the fifty-six year history of the European Championship, and nothing more. With the help of illustrator Osvaldo Casanova, we have selected and captured one enduring image from each of the fourteen tournaments that stands out for its brilliance, its importance, its audacity, or a combination of all three.
Some are mainstays of the highlight reel, while others may have faded from memory. Either way, we hope that they will serve as a nostalgic look back on a competition that has grown in stature and importance, with each instalment, and begun to step out of the shadow of the World Cup. This collection of moments is above all a reminder that, sometimes, the simplest pleasures can be found closest to home.
The outcome of this tournament will undoubtedly be held up as proof of the need to either retain or reform Europe’s institutions. Don’t be fooled. This June, forget Brexit. Forget Farage and the ’Kippers. Forget the ‘in’ crowd. Forget taxes and tariffs and trade agreements and remember, just for a moment, that this summer is about something other than just the ballot box. For one month – please – let’s leave the point-scoring to those who do it best.
The Black Panther
Parc des Princes, Sunday 10th July
The stage was set. Henri Delaunay, president of the French Football Federation, had spent more than three decades waiting patiently for his idea for a pan-European international competition to gain traction among his peers. And now, here it was at last, on his doorstep, in 1960.
Delaunay’s brainchild, known in its fledgling form as the European Nations Cup, would initially fail to attract some of the continent’s major powers, both sporting and political; Italy, West Germany and England were all notable absentees from the championship’s first iteration. Spain, meanwhile, still in the grip of Francisco Franco’s far-right dictatorship, declared itself unwilling to field a team to face Nikita Krushchev’s Soviet Union, since it had been the biggest supplier of munitions and funds to anti-Franco Republican forces during the country’s bloody civil war.
As it was, a seventeen-team qualifying competition was distilled down to a final tournament that ended up featuring two nations from behind the Iron Curtain. The Soviet Union—which received a bye into the competition as a result of Franco’s continued hostility — and Czechoslovakia, along with the largely neutral Yugoslavia and host nation France, would contest two semi-finals, in Paris and Marseille, before returning to the capital’s Parc des Princes for the chance to take home the title.
To say that the semi-finals were goal-laden would be something of an understatement; a thrilling comeback from Yugoslavia saw them defeat France 5-4 in front of more than 26,000 people in Paris, while the Soviet Union eased past Czechoslovakia 3-0 in the all-Communist contest at the Stade Vélodrome.
By the time Soviet striker Viktor Ponedelnik netted in the 24th minute of extra-time in the final, however, there was only one name on the lips of the crowd that would witness the USSR lift the inaugural Henri Delaunay trophy. And that name belonged to the man at the other end of the field – Soviet goalkeeper Lev Yashin.
At a time when it remained customary for ’keepers to spend ninety minutes glued to their line, crabbing their way, füssball-like, between the posts in anticipation of a strike on target, Yashin was quietly rewriting the handbook for the modern era. Unassuming, modest and, by the standards of any era, a model professional, his unbridled athleticism, reading of the game and willingness to launch attacks by venturing outside of his penalty area made him a formidable and deadly barrier; dressed head-to-toe in an iconic black strip, he quickly earned himself the nicknames ‘Black Panther’, ‘Black Spider’ and the more post-watershed ‘Impregnable Spider’.
Unsurprisingly, Yashin was named in UEFA’s team of the tournament in 1960. It was an accolade he added to an Olympic gold medal, won four years earlier in Melbourne, and which would only be supplanted in 1963 when he was awarded the FIFA Ballon d’Or, the highest individual honour in the sport. It’s a testament to his impact on the game that, even to this day, he remains the only goalkeeper to have won the award.
Left to Right
Santiago Bernabéu Stadium, Sunday 21st June
‘Orders from above.’ That was the explanation that had come down the wire in 1960 when the Spanish national team’s trip to the Soviet Union was cancelled at the eleventh hour, as the squad waited patiently to board a plane at Madrid airport. Differences at the highest level of government—a hangover from Spain’s bitter, bloody civil war—had put a cruel end to any hopes manager Ramón Gabilondo might have had of leading his talented side to victory in the first ever European Nations Cup. And what a side it was: comprising a majority of players from Real Madrid, European Cup champions for five successive seasons, Spain had comfortably seen off Italy, England, Peru and Chile in the early part of 1960. Little wonder, then, that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev would borrow from footballing terminology to describe General Francisco Franco’s decision, calling it an ‘own goal.’
By the time 1964 came around, however, it appears Franco had seen the error of his ways. Perhaps more likely, he had come to view the European Nations Cup as a competition in which his national team’s success might provide him a suitable narrative with which to shore up the popularity of his far-right regime. For Franco, it was set up perfectly. In addition to qualifying for the finals, Spain were also selected as hosts, in a tournament that, like its predecessor, featured only four teams; Denmark and Hungary were first-time entrants, as were Spain, while the Soviet Union had pedigree, having won the inaugural competition in 1960.
On the pitch, despite being without a number of key players, including the recently retired Alfredo di Stéfano, Spain played as an effective unit, defeating Hungary 2-1 in the semi-final in Madrid thanks to an extra-time winner from Amancio. Going into the final, however, the odds remained stacked against them. The Soviet Union had dispatched Denmark with ease, beating them 3-0 in Barcelona, thanks largely to the team’s formidable spine, which had already tasted European glory four years earlier.
In the cauldron of the Bernabéu, Spain, playing in an all-blue strip, took an early lead against Lev Yashin’s red army, Jesús María Pereda firing home from close range after only six minutes. Galimzyan Khusainov struck back for the Soviets almost immediately, and so the game remained tied, tense, at 1-1 until Marcelino netted in the eighty-fifth minute to secure an historic victory for Spain. For coach José Villalonga, it capped an incredible few years. Having been at the helm of Real Madrid during their unstoppable run in the mid 1950s, winning two European Cups, he had gone to enjoy further success at crosstown rivals Atlético before joining the national setup and lifting the Henri Delaunay trophy at his first attempt.
Predictably, the win was billed in the Spanish press as a victory for Right over Left, of fascism over communism, and of the West over that strange, reclusive nation from the East. Franco would fall thirteen years later, ushering in a long-awaited period of democratic transition, but it would be thirty-four years before the Spanish national team would taste glory again, at the European Championship in 2008.
Heads or Tails?
Stadio Olimpico, Sunday 8th & Tuesday 10th June
Given the unprecedented social and political unrest for which 1968 is remembered around the world, the European Championship of that year passed understandably under the radar. This, after all, was a year of widespread strikes and protests by students and workers across Europe, anti-war marches in the United States and the assassinations of both Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. It’s little wonder, then, that football tends to take a backseat in our collective memory.
Not that the tournament passed without incident, though. It is perhaps best remembered as one of firsts: the first time England and Italy had participated in the four-team finals; the first time the competition was officially known as the European Championship, as it is today; the first time a European final was replayed; and the first—and only—time a match has been decided by a coin toss.
The replay and the coin toss are explained by the fact that penalty shoot-outs were yet to be introduced to international competition. They wouldn’t make their debut until eight years later, when the final would be decided, fittingly, by what remains the most famous penalty kick of all time. Not that any of this is much consolation to the Soviet Union, however, who were sent packing when their goalless semi-final draw with hosts Italy was left to the one of the oldest games of chance. On this occasion, the Lira didn’t fall in their favour.
England’s qualification for the tournament had been secured thanks to their top-placed finish in the round-robin Home Championship, as part of a group that also included Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland. Yet despite fielding, by and large, the same team that had led them to World Cup glory at Wembley in 1966, England had already hinted at their fallibility, losing 1-0 to Scotland at Wembley and drawing the reverse fixture at Hampden Park.
By the time they took the field to face Yugoslavia in the tournament semi-final in Florence, England’s progression was far from a sure thing. Their task was made doubly difficult by the absence of Nobby Stiles and Geoff Hurst, both injured in a friendly just four days earlier. Without their World Cup talisman, and up against a disciplined Yugoslav outfit, England’s exit from their first-ever European Championship was confirmed in the 87th minute, thanks to a coolly taken winner from Yugoslav winger Dragan Džajić.
June 5th, 1968 would also go down in history as the first time an English player was sent off in an international match. That ignominious honour went to Alan Mullery, whose measured response to several stern challenges during the semi-final had been to line up a kick to the groin of Dobrivoje Trivić. Needless to say, Mullery was swiftly asked to leave the field of play. “The referee was about three yards away and just told me to get off,” he told the BBC in 2012.
“Alf [Ramsey, the England man- ager] was very, very good to me,” he went on. “He came in, looked at me with a stern face and said: ‘I’m glad somebody retaliated against those bastards.’”
Die Drei Streifen
Heysel Stadium, Sunday 18th June
With a squad of names that, today, reads like a who’s who of twentieth-century footballing greats— Beckenbauer, Müller, Hoeness, Heynckes—West Germany hardly needed an advantage going into the European Championship in 1972. Coach Helmut Schön had succeeded in keeping the majority of his players together following an agonising semi-final defeat to Italy at the World Cup two years earlier – a thrilling 4-3 loss that, even now, is regularly held up in the two countries as one of the games of the century. This time around, though, the Germans would not be denied.
It’s strange to think that this was in fact the first time West Germany had qualified for the final stages of the European Championship. Runners-up in the 1966 World Cup, and third-place finishers in Mexico in 1970, the team already had pedigree on the world stage; results against opponents closer to home, however, had never quite gone their way.
Yet to look at an image of the West Germany team that made the short hop to Belgium for the 1972 tournament is to come face-to-face with a group of men who know that, this time, they are destined for glory. Franz Beckenbauer, the lithe captain with an enormous presence; Hans-Georg Schwarzenbeck, the brick-wall defender with a brow-and-nose one-two that would give Mike Tindall nightmares; midfield general and Eyeball Paul lookalike Günter Netzer; and the diminutive, deadly Gerd Müller.
Those crisp, white socks and satiny black shorts, coupled with looks of steely determination, make this German team one of the most imposing in living memory. Even down to the supple leather of their buffed adidas boots—and with all stereotypes aside—they exuded an air of military rigour and precision that made defeat unimaginable.
But the undoubted pièce de résistance, the item that binds these players together as one in our collective footballing memory, is adidas’ iconic baby blue tracksuit top. Almost half a century on, it remains a brilliant piece of sportswear design, with its bold stripes, splayed collar and intricate buttoned pocket over the heart. A colour of innocence and youth, it belied the burning will to win that resided within each member of the squad. It was a fire that would lead them, first, to dispatch host nation Belgium in the semi-final, before easing to a 3-0 victory over the Soviet Union in the final four days later, thanks to two more goals from Müller, plus a third from Herbert Wimmer.
1972 was an equally significant year in the history of the German sportswear manufacturer, with the introduction of its new Trefoil logo and its sponsorship of the Munich Olympics. It was the year after the brand had manufactured the apparel worn by Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali in possibly the most famous boxing bout of the century and, to top it off, they had also become the official ball sponsor of the World Cup and European Championship. The 1972 tournament, then, saw an adidas-sponsored team, bearing the Trefoil on their chests and three stripes on their feet, overcoming all before them thanks to goals scored using an adidas ball; well, it was a marketer’s dream.
Crvena Zvezda Stadium, Sunday 20th June
In football, as in life, there are those who show a willingness to push the boundaries of human capability, and whose deep desire to innovate provides the catalyst for progress. Johan Cruyff, with his revolutionary turn, was one; Zinedine Zidane, with his balletic roulette, was another.
At the moment just before a player debuts a new piece of skill he stands on a precipice, knowing that in the aftermath there can be no middle ground; in the eyes of the crowd, there is only the binary distinction between death and glory. Cruyff and Zidane emerged smiling and showered in praise. David Dunn’s failed rabona, which had the added ignominy of coming in the derby match between Aston Villa and Birmingham City, illustrates the other side of the coin. Dunn’s slow-motion stumble to the turf consigned him, in one mistimed swing of the boot, to be immortalised in bloopers videos from that day until his last.
With those examples in mind, let’s imagine you are setting yourself up to roll out a brand-new, never-before-seen trick; an audacious penalty attempt that deceives the goalkeeper into diving to the floor, only for you to gently float the ball into the vacated space in the centre of the goal. Now, imagine that you’re planning on trying this in a match for your country, during a sudden-death penalty shootout, and that your success or failure could mean the difference between your nation bringing home the European Championship, or ceding it to your opponents.
In fairness, Antonin Panenka probably wasn’t thinking about any of these things when he stepped up, in the 1976 final, to take Czechoslovakia’s fifth and decisive penalty of the shootout against West Germany. After all, thinking can sometimes be overrated: “I saw myself as an entertainer and I saw this penalty as a reflection of my personality,” he told Ben Lyttleton, author of Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty, a few years back.
Footage of the winning penalty is inevitably grainy, given that 2016 is its fortieth anniversary. Nevertheless, it is still possible to make out not just the artistry of the spot-kick, as the ball sails over the prone, helpless Sepp Maier, but also the sheer outpouring of emotion from Panenka as he wheels away from the goalmouth, arms extended high above as head. It is as if he were expecting to be plucked by the footballing gods at any moment from this land of mere mortals.
In football, as in life, there are also bound to be imitators. Like a good Christmas song, however, you get the feeling that in this case the original will always be the best. Some cover versions—those of Francesco Totti, Sergio Ramos or Andrea Pirlo, for example—have given a decent account of themselves down the years, and should be applauded for their solid interpretation. But when they go wrong, they go very, very wrong. Gary Lineker’s woeful attempt against Brazil at Wembley in 1992, which would, had he scored, have taken him above Bobby Charlton to the top of the England all-time scoring chart, proved just that. In that moment, it was to the Panenka what Justin Bieber & Busta Rhymes were to ‘Little Drummer Boy’ in December 2012.
Three on a Match
Stadio Olimpico, Sunday 22nd June
The 1980s is probably best described as a less-than-auspicious decade for football fans in England, Italy and Belgium.
Of course, it would be dominated by a catastrophic event at its midpoint – the 1985 Heysel stadium disaster in Brussels, which unfolded on the evening of the European Cup final between Liverpool and Juventus, and claimed 39 lives. The violence on the night of May 29th of that year, which saw parts of the crumbling, ramshackle stadium ripped from their moorings and used as makeshift weapons in a brutal battle between supporters of the two teams, would eventually lead to a six-season long blanket ban on English teams participating in European club competitions.
But Heysel was ominously foreshadowed by another incident, again involving the three nations, at the very beginning of the decade. And while the ingredients were slightly different—as, mercifully, was the outcome—it shone a light on an ugly side of football that would come to tarnish the sport for the best part of a generation.
Heysel brought together an English and an Italian team in a Belgian stadium. This time, an Italian stadium would play host to an on-the-field showdown between Belgium and England, as the two nations battled it out in their opening Group B encounter in Turin. After Ray Wilkins had given England the lead in the twenty-ninth minute, an almost-immediate reply from Jan Ceulemens was the catalyst for escalating violence behind Ray Clemence’s goal. Apparently, Italian factions attending the game had celebrated the Belgian equaliser a little too excitedly for the England fans’ liking.
Events in the stands soon began to impact on the match itself. As Italian police did their best to bring the warring parties under control, canisters of tear gas were fired. But as the yellow haze gradually emptied the terraces, it began to drift onto the playing area, causing several players to approach the referee, eyes watering, with an appeal for the game to be halted. Heinz Aldinger acquiesced and, after a 15-minute delay during which sponges and water bottles were rushed onto the playing surface, restarted play.
The interruption did little for England’s flow. Despite laying siege to the Belgian goal for the remainder of the game and seeing a Tony Woodcock goal disallowed, there was no way through, and Ron Greenwood’s side were held to a disappointing draw. In the aftermath, however, it was not Greenwood’s players that would feel his wrath, but the hooligans: “We are ashamed of people like this,” he said, angrily, in his post-match interview. “We have done everything to create the right impression here, then these bastards let you down.”
His mood probably wasn’t helped when his side were downed, three days later, in the same stadium by the tournament hosts, thanks to a single Marco Tardelli goal that put paid to any hopes they might have had of progressing to the latter stages. Despite ending the campaign with a 2-1 win over a disappointing Spain side, England limped home in third place in their group, and would not return to the European stage for eight long years.
Le Roi est-il mort?
Parc des Princes, Wednesday 27th June
The 2015-16 season was something of an annus horribilis in the life of Michel Platini.
It started with an investigation, launched in September 2015 by FIFA’s independent ethics committee, that implicated the Frenchman for his role in the receipt of suspect payments from then-president Sepp Blatter. Two weeks later, as a result of those inquiries, he was provisionally suspended from all football-related activity for ninety days. Two-and- a-half months after that, and just in time for Christmas, Platini (at that time still the incumbent president of UEFA) was, along with Blatter, convicted of ethics violations and barred from football for eight years. Finally, to cap it all, he was then among a select group of high-profile figures mentioned, by name, in the Panama Papers leak in April this year.
It’s a textbook example of using a lifetime to build a reputation, only to see it come crashing down in an instant. Ostracised and disgraced, a symbol of the ‘old order’, Platini has overnight become a footballing pariah. Incredibly, it was only after the ethics committee upheld his eight-year ban that he eventually relinquished his presidency of football’s European governing body. Le Roi—the King—as he was once known, had finally lost his crown once and for all.
You suspect that Platini might use his time away from the game to reflect on what was undoubtedly his finest moment as a player, at the European Championship of 1984. Fresh from winning his second consecutive Ballon d’Or, Platini was the captain and star attraction of a French team that was playing on home soil and carrying the hopes of a nation.
To say that he rose to the occasion would be an understatement. Though his primary role was to expertly control the rhythm of his side from a position just behind the strike partnership of Bernard Lacombe and Bruno Bellone, Platini did much more than just conduct. With two perfect hat-tricks (left foot, right foot, header) in the group stages, against Belgium and Yugoslavia, Platini was the strings, horn and percussion sections rolled into one – the beating heart and the final flourish.
To put his mastery of the tournament into context: by the time Platini stepped up and struck the free-kick that gave his side the lead against Spain in the final, he had already scored, by himself, twice the number of goals in the tournament as the team against which he was playing. In the end, he walked away with nine—and the tournament’s Golden Boot—in addition to the Henri Delaunay trophy, to go down in history as one of the greatest-ever players to wear the shirt of Les Bleus.
At least, in theory: because it’s hard not to suspect that, the longer Platini spends out of the spotlight, the more faded the collective memory of his dead-ball heroics and impassioned on-field leadership will become.
As for the institutions where he plied his trade in later life, there are plenty waiting in the wings, ready to take a stand against corruption and bring about wholesale reform. Will it work? Well, plus ça change and all that…
Olympiastadion, Saturday 25th June
Three seconds doesn’t seem like much. But it can feel like an eternity when you’re waiting for a ball to fall out of the sky, synapses firing as the brain calculates the body’s most effective response for when it eventually arrives.
Commentators and pundits will often talk of players making mistakes because they simply have too much time in which to make a decision. The number of options becomes overwhelming and, so, in the end, the player does nothing – or nothing of note, at least. In such situations, acting on instinct often ensures the best outcome.
What marks out Marco van Basten’s volley for Holland against the Soviet Union in the 1988 European Championship final is that, faced with any number of more appropriate ways of addressing Arnold Mühren’s beach-ball delivery, he chose, in those three seconds, to fire the ball back in the direction of the cross, knowing the only way he could score was to set it off on a perfect trajectory over Soviet goalkeeper Rinat Dasayev and land it on a sixpence in the far side of his goal.
Compared to other great volleys of the modern era—Zidane versus Leverkusen, Rooney versus Newcastle, Scholes versus Bradford— van Basten had a comparative age to assess his options, and yet still plumped for the one with the slimmest odds of success. Add to that the importance of the occasion and the quality of his opponents, and it’s easy to understand why it’s regularly described as one of the greatest volleys of all time.
Of course, we’re absolutely right to celebrate it. But that one strike often has the paradoxical effect of eclipsing the rest of van Basten’s extraordinary achievements at Euro 1988. Fresh from his first season as a Milanese, he netted in all but one of the Netherlands’ four matches in Germany, single-handledly dismantling Bobby Robson’s England with a hat-trick in the group stages. By the end of the tournament he had five goals to his name, three ahead of Oleh Pratasov and Rudi Völler, his nearest challengers for the Golden Boot.
His performances for club and country would rightly earn him the first of his three Ballon d’Ors in December of that year. Dutch dominance was on full display at the award ceremony as the voting was announced, van Basten coming in ahead of his fellow countrymen and AC Milan clubmates Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard. He would go on to win the award again the following season, and again in 1992, before his playing career was cruelly cut short by a serious, inoperable ankle injury. To this day, he remains one of only three players—Michel Platini and Johan Cruyff being the others—to have won it three times.
Ultimately, we’ll never really know what was going through van Basten’s head as the ball dropped, in slow-motion, from the Munich sky. But then again, perhaps he’ll never know either. After all, it was a once-in-a-lifetime strike that defies conventional explanation. Speaking to Sky Sports for an episode of Football’s Greatest, the imperious Dutch striker struggled to articulate the brilliance of the volley: “I just gave it a try, and it went in a special way in the goal.” It’s as good an attempt as any.
Walk On By
Råsunda Stadium, Wednesday 17th June
On 17th June 1992, a Wednesday, English pop duo Erasure were sitting pretty atop the UK charts with their Abba Esque EP, a four-song collection of cover versions paying tribute to the Swedish superstars. ‘Take a Chance on Me’ and ‘S.O.S.’ both featured on the mini-album, which would remain the country’s most popular record for five weeks during the summer.
It was also the day when eleven Englishmen found themselves wishing they could be more like another, very different set of Swedish stars, as they teetered on the verge of elimination in their final group game of the 1992 European Championship.
After two dismal goalless draws against Denmark and France, Graham Taylor and his team knew nothing other than a win would be good enough if they were to have any hope of progressing to the knockout stages of the competition. David Platt’s first-half goal had given England heart, but a comeback from the tournament hosts after the break saw the lead overturned, thanks to goals from Jan Eriksson and Tomas Brolin. In the end, though, no one really talked about the result. The loss to Sweden was unfortunate, yes, but not entirely surprising given what had come be- fore; so perhaps it was a relief for the press to be able to focus on an incident that could later be dressed up as a bitter personal dispute between a hapless manager and one of the greatest goalscorers of his generation.
Gary Lineker went into the game one goal shy of the forty-nine he needed to equal the England all-time scoring record of Bobby Charlton. He’d announced prior to the tournament that this would be his last in an England shirt; now, thanks to a missed penalty in a warm-up friendly against Brazil, his hopes of catching Charlton rested entirely on his ability to net in Sweden. And sixty minutes in to their final group game, things were not looking good.
As armchair pundits, it’s easy to come down hard on Graham Taylor for what happened next. A victory over Sweden would have taken England through to the latter stages of the tournament as group runners-up, so it’s not as if the match was a dead rubber. And Taylor has commented, in years since, on the overwhelming tiredness he sensed in his side at half-time, despite leading 1-0. In that context, it’s hard to blame him for rolling the dice.
The problem, of course, was that the gamble didn’t pay off. Had Alan Smith come on for Lineker in the sixtieth minute and scored, the story would have taken on an entirely different complexion; Taylor’s tactical nous would have been lauded, and Lineker would have had at least another ninety minutes to catch Charlton. As it was, however, the substitution had little impact, and England tumbled out of the competition.
The enduring image of the night shows Lineker immediately after leaving the pitch, track top in hand, too bound up in his own frustrations to even look at his manager as he makes his way past him to the dugout. For Lineker, it wasn’t so much that he’d forever be known as a nearly man – more that it was a fate of someone else’s choosing.
The Dentist’s Chair
Wembley Stadium, Saturday 20th June
In the December 1993 edition of American Esquire magazine, the writer Richard Ben Cramer took aim at what he termed ‘the further decline and total collapse of the British Empire’. Holding up a mirror to a ‘Little England’ of moral bankruptcy and pervasive inertia, Cramer delivered a damning indictment of just about every facet of British society, taking in the press, politics, and the arts.
He also reserved some room for sport. In Cramer’s England, a country slave to Tall Poppy Syndrome, it made perfect sense that “the tabloids must convince you, in the end, that England’s one divine soccer star, Paul Gascoigne, has become a fat, witless boozer.”
This was three years after Gascoigne had endeared himself to millions with his tearful reaction, at the 1990 World Cup, to the book- ing that would have ruled him out of the final. It was two years after his rocket-propelled free kick, in an FA Cup semi-final against archrivals Arsenal, had cemented his place in Tottenham folklore. And it was also two years since an ill-judged tackle on Nottingham Forest’s Gary Charles had signalled the beginning of the end of his career, hospitalising him with a knee injury on the eve of a big-money move to Italian giants Lazio. Be it an outpouring of emotion, a surge of kinetic energy through his stocky right leg, or an over-exuberant lunge in the direction of an opponent, excess was the defining feature of Gazza’s career.
You might argue that he did himself no favours in attempting to endear himself to the redtops that inevitably shaped public opinion. But then, the whole point of Cramer’s article had been to shine a light on the shallow moralising of the press, who used it to disguise their gleeful revelling in the misdemeanours of those that might, in another life, have been national heroes. Nevertheless, the pictures that emerged of Gascoigne and Teddy Sheringham ahead of Euro 96, strapped to an antique dentist’s chair with booze flowing down their throats during a warm-up tour of Hong Kong, had given the tabloids more than enough ammunition for their latest assault.
The incident, though, had provided just as much fuel for Gascoigne. So when he received a bouncing ball on the edge of the area in the 79th minute of England’s Group A game against Scotland, delicately floating it over the head of Colin Hendry with his left foot before firing a volley under the legs of Andy Goram with his right, there was really only one thing he could do. Taking up a position on his back, arms outstretched, he awaited the arrival of Sheringham, who deposited the contents of Goram’s water bottle into Gascoigne’s open mouth, in a carbon copy of their Far East antics.
As celebrations go, it wouldn’t exactly bring Gascoigne closer to the footballing establishment. But on a personal level, it was the incarnation of everything he stood for. It underlined his inimitable middle-finger, cheeky-chappy attitude and showed how quick we are to judge as ‘fat, witless boozers’ those who can unite a nation, more successfully than any politician, with one flick of their right boot.
Amsterdam Arena, Thursday 29th June
And we thought we had it bad in England.
Yes, the penalty misses of Gareth Southgate and Darius Vassell—at the Euros of 1996 and 2004 respectively—will live long in the memory of English fans. How could they not? Anyone who has ever played the game, at any level, will testify to the cruelty of elimination from twelve yards.
However, the defeats to Germany and, later, Portugal simply changed—and then confirmed— the way we would approach penalty shootouts in years to come. Rather than launch a national investigation into the mechanics and psychology of the spot-kick, we simply shrugged, resignedly assuming that, well, penalties must just not be our thing. It’s quite liberating, really: if we head in with no expectations whatsoever, we reasoned, then it’s impossible to be disappointed.
Not so for the Dutch, whose loss on penalties to Italy in the Amsterdam Arena in the semi-finals of their home tournament in 2000 caused a rift of such proportions that it threatened the established hierarchy of football in the country. In all, Holland missed five spot-kicks on the day: two during normal time and three more in the shootout, at the end of 120 minutes of football that had failed to yield a single goal. Three had been saved by the imperious Francesco Toldo; one had hit the post; and the other was blasted high, wide and unhandsomely into the stands. By the time it was over, all Dutch captain Frank de Boer could do was shake his head incredulously as Italy celebrated their improbable progression to the final and a showdown with world champions France.
In the aftermath, two broad camps emerged. One, led by Johan Cruyff, argued that it was just one of those days, that Toldo’s goal had a charmed life, and that Holland’s day would come. Others, however, believed it was time for a fundamental, statistic-led reassessment of the country’s approach to spot-kicks. The latter argued for data-driven selection of penalty takers, reinforced by practice, practice and more practice; the former dismissed the idea of rehearsing penalties as nonsense, since the pressure of real-life situations could never be replicated on the training ground. At its core, it boiled down to a simple battle between the head and the heart of Dutch football.
And in the middle of it all, oblivious to all the soul-searching, was Toldo. The understudy to Gianluigi Buffon, who had been an unused replacement at France ’98, was in imperious form behind a back four comprising Fabio Cannavaro, Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Nesta and Gianluca Zambrotta. Away from all the Dutch infighting, Toldo had his own interpretation of events: “The script for this match was written before kick-off,” he told the BBC. “They could have played for an entire day taking shots at our goal and they never would have scored.”
If his assessment of the game as a whole came from the heart, then his view of the shootout was more cerebral: “Penalties are psychological things, wars between you and the attacker,” he mused. “You have to try and unsettle your opponent. That’s why [Jaap] Stam missed.”
A New Mythology
Estádio da Luz, Sunday 4th July
It would be fair to say that, in the past decade, Greece hasn’t had a huge amount to cheer about. A catastrophic debt crisis, three bailouts from the European Central Bank, ruthless austerity measures followed by prolonged political unrest, and a place at the centre of the largest movement of refugees in a generation has more or less seen to that.
In times like these, it can sometimes be of benefit to political leaders to commandeer sporting success as a positive diversion from hard social and economic realities; France’s World Cup win in 1998 and the 2012 London Olympics both provide modern studies in harnessing a nation’s feel-good factor. Sadly for Alexis Tsipras’ left-leaning Syriza party, however, things have been just as bleak on the pitch as they have away from it. Despite qualifying for the knockout stages of the 2012 European Champion- ship and the World Cup in Brazil, Greece have recorded just two international victories in sixteen matches since their elimination at the hands of Costa Rica in June 2014. In that period, the country has also lost twice to the Faroe Islands, a team ranked ninetieth in the world by FIFA.
Of course, it wasn’t always this way. Who can forget Angelos Charisteas soaring above Ricardo Carvalho in Lisbon’s Estádio da Luz to score a winner that rounded off the most unpredictable major tournament in recent memory?
It wasn’t the prettiest of victories, by any means. Greece prevailed 1-0 in each of their three knockout matches; on each occasion, a header, converted from a right-sided cross, was enough to make the difference. But the beauty of the triumph was in its resolve, its determination, and the ultimate success of the underdog. Spain, Italy and Germany had all fallen at the group stages, leaving the Henri Delaunay trophy up for grabs for any who wished to claim it; nevertheless, Otto Rehhagel’s side still had to defeat incumbent champions France and a formidable Czech Republic side on their route to the final.
Rehhagel’s new Greek gods rightly had their moment in the sun on their return, parading in open-top buses, receiving medals from the country’s president and appearing on limited-run postage stamps. It had been an almighty effort from the team many bookmakers had as 150-1 outsiders prior to the tournament.
And had it not been for Claudio Ranieri’s heroics with Leicester City in the 2015-16 Premier League season, we might still be talking about Greece’s victory in Portugal as the greatest upset in modern sporting history.
The irony, of course, is that Ranieri’s previous job in management was as head coach of the Greek national team, back in 2014, and it was the one-nil home defeat to the Faroe Islands on 14th November, the high-water mark of disillusion and derision, that ultimately cost him his job.
With his Midlands miracle, however, not only has he successfully eviscerated the memory of arguably the lowest moment in Greek footballing history, but also comprehensively eclipsed its brightest.
Stade de Genève, Sunday 15th June
If a tree falls in a forest and no one’s around to hear it, does it make a sound?
The image of the Czech Republic striker Jan Koller, suspended, motionless, like an arboreal specimen in resin, suggests that Volkan Demirel doesn’t believe so. In an act missed, in the moment, by the television cameras dotted around the Stade de Genève for this crucial final contest in Group A, the six-foot seven-inch Nicolas Cage lookalike was upright one moment, prone on the turf the next – apparently felled by a firm push to the trunk from the Turkish goalkeeper.
Unfortunately for Demirel, however, the one official that did spot the incident was quick to relay its finer details to Swedish referee Peter Fröjdfeldt, who subsequently brandished his red card.
Some context: the Czech Republic had been cruising at 2-0 just half an hour earlier, thanks to goals either side of half time by Koller and winger Jaroslav Plašil. They had looked comfortable, entirely capable of handling an ill-disciplined Turkish team that had picked up two yellow cards in the first ten minutes of the match.
But then the wheels had started to come off. First came a smart finish from Arda Turan at Petr Cech’s near post, before, with three minutes left on the clock, the then-Chelsea goal- keeper allowed a routine catch to slip through his grasp and into the path of Turkish captain Nihat Kahveci, who hustled and ultimately bustled the ball over the line. Then, less than sixty seconds later—and with Czech nerves at breaking point—a loose ball was collected in midfield by Hamit Altintop, whose through ball slipped in Nihat. With Cech rushing out to meet him, the striker bent his strike high and wide of the Czech goalkeeper, sending the red half of the stadium into rapture as the ball went screaming in off the underside of the crossbar. It’s a moment of Euro magic worth revisiting, even if only for Tunçay Sanli’s horribly mistimed entry into the ensuing pile-on.
That was in the 90th minute. By the 96th, the referee had booked three more players – including Milan Baroš, an unused substitute.
Fatih Terim, the seemingly ageless Turkish manager, whose shirt was unbuttoned to his navel even at kick-off, seemed in danger of ripping it off entirely in his nervous pacing up and down the touchline. In the end, it’s not entirely clear what led to the push on Koller; only that, by the striker’s reaction, Demirel might have been presumed to be carrying a concealed weapon. In any event, the giant striker went full Platoon and Demirel was rightly dismissed.
And just like that, the fall unseen had reverberated around the world.
In the broader context of the match, and of the final standings in Group A, the incident was of little importance. If anything, Koller’s tumble and the ensuing melée denied the Czech Republic valuable seconds in their last-ditch attempts to equalise.
Why, then, is it such a stand- out moment? Probably because, if the enduring success of WWE has taught us anything, it’s that seeing huge men feign serious injury has truly global appeal.
Back from the Dead
Olympic Stadium, Sunday 1st July
There was something in the air that night, the goals were bright, Fernando.
He was scoring goals for you and me, for L.F.C., Fernando
It was the anthem of a club, of a city and its people, united behind the goalscoring prowess of one man. A couplet for a striker who’d made the trip from the centre of Spain to one of the beating hearts of English football, and endeared himself overnight to the red half of its populace.
For this city built on trade, Fernando Torres’ arrival in Liverpool was undoubtedly a fruitful transaction; 65 goals in 102 appearances between 2007 and 2011 remains an unmoveable testament to that. 24 of those came between August 2007 and May 2008, in a remarkable first season in front of the Kop that was capped with major success at international level. His winning goal in the 2008 European Championship final showcased his raw speed, tenacity and sublime touch, as he devoured the two-yard head start enjoyed by Germany’s Philipp Lahm to round the fullback, meet the ball first and lift it delicately over the onrushing Jens Lehmann.
By the time the Euros came around again in 2012, Torres and his countrymen were on the verge of writing themselves into the history books as one of the greatest international teams of all time, having beaten Holland 1-0 to lift the World Cup in South Africa two years earlier.
It had been a memorable four years for Torres himself, having secured a £50 million move to Chelsea in 2011 on the back of three goal-laden seasons at Anfield. Like a rabbit caught in a Range Rover’s headlights on the King’s Road, however, he’d failed to make the same impact in the capital as he had on Merseyside, becoming the country’s most high-profile sufferer of Samson Syndrome in the process.
Yet even without his trademarked golden locks, he never really lost his knack for scoring at the right time: who can forget Gary Neville’s helium-assisted commentary from the gods at the Nou Camp as Torres rounded Victor Valdès and stroked Chelsea into a Champions League final that they would win in the most improbable of circumstances.
In that context, it’s hardly surprising that, having received a barrage of criticism from the English press, he should have turned up to the Olympic Stadium in Kiev on the night of the Euro 2012 final, and promptly walked away with a coolly-taken goal, a winner’s medal and the tournament’s Golden Boot.
Torres is a man who, in his last season in English football, gave the impression of being trapped, weighed down by his own thoughts. So perhaps it was, ultimately, a near-total lack of public expectation that allowed him to play so freely in Poland and Ukraine. Perhaps, on the other hand, it was just good fortune. Either way, as the old cliché goes, a footballer is a long time retired, and you suspect that, as Torres reflects on his career in years to come, it’ll be those trophy-winning goals, and not his infamous open-goal miss at Old Trafford, that will come to the fore.