Euro 96: Watching with the fans

It was the first major tournament on these isles in 30 years: you may recall that football was "coming home". The then FourFourTwo editor Paul Simpson set out to watch it with the fans…Can't cross. Can’t take a free-kick to save their lives. Always giving away free-kicks just outside the box. Can’t get a corner in the box and away from the keeper. This isn’t an assassination of any particular footballer, just an all-too-accurate description of too many of the teams who competed in the football fest that was Euro 96.

Somehow, by the end, it didn’t really matter. But for too much of the time fans watched games which were littered with mistakes which would have made any Endsleigh League Third Division coach wince.

Turkey v Croatia in Group D, which was my first in-the-flesh experience of Euro 96, was just such an encounter. Not for the first time, the fans were more impressive than the players. Some 19,000 Turkish fans and 700 Croats filled the City Ground with noise and banners (one of the Turks’ banners wished all the best to "Queen Elizabeth II, symbol of the British nation and to all good English gentleman").

They were briefly united when Queen’s We Will Rock You came over the PA and they all sang the chorus together. The Croats were so taken with the chorus that they sang it over and over in their fake American accents throughout the game. But then they’re a musical bunch: one of their squad is called Elvis Brajkovic, presumably named after the man who gave us Hound Dog and There’s No Room To Rhumba In A Sports Car.

The teams came out and the tension dropped. The Turks started brightly and faded, the Croats started dimly and faded. Zvonimir Boban got caught in possession more often in one game than some cat burglars do in their entire careers. The Turkish fans whistled whenever the Croats got the ball, but when the Turks got the ball, the Croats remained resolutely silent.

The Croats settled the issue in the 81st minute. Elvis didn’t come off the bench, not even to wiggle his hips, possibly because the Croats were still singing Queen songs. And that, as they say, is about as good as it gets. Both sides have excuses: the weather is foul (metal walls of water sweep across the pitch in the second half) and their eardrums were probably punctured by the non-stop whistling of 19,000 Turkish fans for 92 minutes.

Balkan celebrations (Simmo not pictured)

The weather soon improved but the football took a little longer to warm up, as did some of the fans. At St James’ Park for the Bulgaria-Romania derby I think I heard the Romanian fans cheer once, but they were drowned out by the sounds of the journalist next to me twiddling her thumbs.

Crosses continued to be ludicrously over-hit (it wasn’t just Steve McManaman who didn’t get many good crosses in) and free-kicks in allegedly dangerous positions continued to get ballooned over the bar. The only player who seemed to have a handle on how to strike a dead ball was Trifon Ivanov, who struck the ball so well you couldn’t help but wonder how accurate he’d be if he bothered to open both eyes when he was kicking the ball. With one eye half-closed and the other swivelling apparently on a separate axis both to his other eye and the rest of his head, Ivanov tried (successfully) to patrol the Bulgarian penalty area like a disgruntled werewolf.

His hairstyle helped. He looked as if he’d tried to save money by agreeing to have his hair cut by the first-year intake at the local hairdressers’ college in Vienna, where he plays his club football. But at least he hadn’t fallen for the Kevin Keegan Head Over Heels mid-1970s bubble-perm which too many of his team-mates, including Krassimir Balakov, obviously considered the height of fashion. The bubble-perm count when the Czechs took the field against the Russians was even higher.

Ivanov rubs Stoichkov's head, possibly for luck

You expect such patent unsophistication from eastern Europeans but the bubble perm also appears enduringly popular in Germany – possibly because of King Kev’s halcyon days at Hamburg. There was Andreas Moller, allegedly a flair player, who when he came out of the tunnel against the Czechs, bore a striking facial resemblance to Sir Cliff when he was forever failing to win the Eurovision Song Contest. Moller is a very cool talent who can't help the fact that he looks very uncool indeed. After banging away the winning penalty against England in the semi-final, he tried to impersonate Gazza’s crazed, celebratory strut but he simply ended up looking like Rowan Atkinson doing Mr Bean.

Moller, like many of his team-mates (particularly those who play for Bayern Munich), was rather too fond of falling over for my taste. And anyone who criticises the refereeing standards at Euro 96 should remember that because of the gamesmanship of some teams (the Germans were by no means the worst), referees were forced to make twice as many decisions as they needed to.

Hristo Stoichkov, who can swear at referees in more European languages than any other international footballer, was booked in his first game for suggesting that a Spanish player should be booked. This policy was then quietly dropped, possibly because the referee in the Spain v France game realised he might have to book all 10 Spanish players, all of whom were always suggesting that every time they went for a header they’d been elbowed by the nearest French player. At least that’s how I interpreted the continuous elbow gestures of the Spanish players, though it’s always possible that they were signalling to the team chief that they wanted Chicken Tonight again for dinner.

The inevitable result? More errors. And there were some wonderful errors in Euro 96: the Romanian goal that wasn’t, the Czech penalty that wasn’t, the German golden goal which was offside, the Spanish offside goal that was probably onside, the Stoichkov onside goal against Spain that was declared offside… The worst refereeing was in the Germany v Croatia quarter-final where the Swedish referee appeared to have forgotten the law banning violent conduct, possibly because the Swedes have studiously avoided any violent conduct for the last 400 years with their policy of complete neutrality.

So, as the tournament wore on, the refereeing grew worse and the crosses failed to get any better. As, sadly, did the Turks. I was particularly disappointed watching Hakan Sukur, to whom I paid particular attention against Portugal. My notes on ‘the Bull’ read as follows: "Hakan gesticulates to team-mate to move… Hakan shoots over the top... Hakan plays useless ball on the edge of box... Hakan penalised for tugging... Hakan is frowning again... Hakan mumbles an apology after missing a sitter."

Sukur spots a pen-wielding journalist

He wasn’t alone in his crisis of confidence. The rest of his team were suffering from the same inferiority complex, frustrating those like Graeme Souness who’d hoped they’d do more than just turn up and get stuffed. "I’ve been banging on about that for 18 months," he said, the day after their first defeat, while he was on the phone from Glasgow airport. "They’ve just got to believe in themselves."

But the Turks weren’t the only ones to face a crisis of confidence. The English had, within a few days of the Swiss game, sunk into a gloom from which only a victory against the Scots would lift them. I watched the Swiss game in my new local in Shepperton with two new-found drinking partners, Danny and Tom, who hailed from Terry Venables’ neck of the woods in Dagenham. ("We went to the same school as Tony Adams," Tom informed me proudly after his fifth pint of Guinness.)

Danny was the more voluble of the two and, before kick-off, had stood at the bar and declaimed: "I’m looking for a good performance from England today. I think it’ll be 2-0. And it will be a very strong and classy performance." Two hours, seven pints of Guinness and one peach schnapps later, he stood in the same spot trying to order a round and saying over and over: "I’m gutted. Absolutely gutted. Gutted. Gutted. Gutted."

The nation remained gutted until Shearer and Gazza gave us the tonic we needed. But nothing could prepare us for the Holland game. I watched that in a pub too – a Dutch one called De Hems, off Shaftesbury Avenue. Before the game the Dutch fans were sitting around drinking Oranjeboom and wearing T-shirts saying that Princess Diana was screwing up, they were in our pub and were going to win the Cup (they’d made them themselves, they told me proudly, when I asked).

That certainly was the pre-tournament expectation but upstairs I watched with a crowd of Dutch fans as the goals kept going in. At 3-0, a Dutch fan was sober enough to say that if England scored another, they were out. And then it happened. By this time, the whole experience was beginning to feel thoroughly unreal. Exhilaration isn’t one of the emotions with which you’re supposed to watch England. No, there’s all those other -ations: desperation, frustration, devastation, but a state of exhilaration bordering on rapture? Absolutely not.

I thought at this point of standing on my chair and shouting: "Johan Cruyff, Ruud Gullit, Vincent van Gogh, your boys have taken a hell of a beating!" but the Dutch fans were being so nice. Here they were, 4-0 down, going out of Euro 96, and were they laying waste to Central London? No, they were contenting themselves with aiming the occasional swear word at Paul Gascoigne and saying "Two pints of Oranjeboom please barman" in their mother tongue.

Dutch fans patiently wait to celebrate

Then Kluivert scored and they were back in. The Dutch woman next to me was complaining: "We don’t deserve to go through. We’re not good enough." I advised her not to be so silly, that the English had been celebrating undeserved victories for years and there was no need to feel guilty about it.

England 4 Holland 1 was the biggest shock of Euro 96 but there were plenty of after-tremors. Like the Czechs beating the Italians. I was especially surprised by that because I was listening to the last few minutes on Capital Gold on the way back from Turkey v Portugal. When Casiraghi went clean through, bloody Jonathan Pearce ran through every vowel in the alphabet and invented a few new ones, thereby convincing me the Italians had equalised. Eventually, after 30 seconds of vowel sounds, he gasped: "Missed!"

But the quarter-finalists were, Czechs apart, sadly predictable. I knew Spain were going to lose because I had touched an Orange ball on my TV screen the night before at the behest of Uri Geller – even though as I did so I wondered: if orange is such a powerful colour, how come the Dutch lost 4-1?

The least surprising part of the run-up to the semis came when Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan declared soccer war on Jerry. Fortunately he was dragged from the cockpit by his boss David Montgomery moments before he could lead a squadron of Lancasters on a dawn raid on Bayern Munich.

I wanted the Czechs to reach the final because all the commentators so obviously didn’t. Kevin Keegan liked the French, he made that very clear when they played Spain. But then the French, against Spain, played some fluent flowing football and threw away a 1-0 lead in the last five minutes. Now which Premier League team does that remind you of?

Berger consoles Djorkaeff after the French go out

The Czechs went through on penalties and so, after a lot of hope and grief, did the Germans. Everybody says penalty shoot-outs are a lottery. Not when you’re playing the Germans. There are few certainties in life. One is that life will eventually end. Another is that everyone hates Jeremy Beadle. And a third is that Germany will win a penalty shoot-out.

For England, the worry is that our destiny in international tournaments is to finish fourth after losing to the Germans on penalties, just as the Scots are destined to go out unluckily in the first round. So in 2002, Gareth Southgate will emulate Psycho and score from the spot but some other poor bugger will miss.

I went to Wembley on that last Sunday hoping that the Germans might blow the final by falling foul of the curse of the sixes: they’d lost the World Cup Final in 1966, lost the European Championships to the Czechs in 1976, and lost the World Cup final to Argentina in 1986. Could they break this 30-year-old curse?

A young Paul Simps… no, only joking

Stupid question. They weren’t the best German side I’d ever seen but it’s a mark of their quality that they won the thing without really having to play out of their skins. England pushed them but couldn’t make the pressure tell. And the Czechs, who has less pressure but created more clear-cut chances than the English, had them worried for a while.

So what, after all that, did Euro 96 prove? That England are no longer a joke, neither are Scottish goalkeepers (try telling the one about the Romanian goalie instead), that FIFA still haven’t got the referring right, and that a disturbing number of European football fans know the words to We Will Rock You. 

And just think how good the 1988 World Cup could be if a few of the players could cross the ball to one of their colleagues and get a free-kick on target. Still, as David Pleat said on Radio 5: "There’s seven trees to every person in this city." No, I don’t know what he was on about either. 

FEATURE Euro 96: England's Glory – FourFourTwo's contemporary reaction

See FourFourTwo.com every day this week for more features on Euro 96. And peruse the web's best football interview archive...

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