Back in 2016, a FourFourTwo cover called the upcoming European Championship “the greatest show on Earth” with a small asterisk and the words, “Yes, even better than the World Cup”. A bold claim indeed - especially given the barmy and balmy Coupe de Monde festivals that sandwiched the 2016 tournament in France.
But you know what? We stand by the lavish backing of the Euros. It’s seen as the Phil Neville to the World Cup’s Gary - but maybe that’s what makes it great. While the World Cup is forever associated in your mind with Pele and Maradona, vuvuzelas and Diana Ross, the Euros is all about an improbable Czech Golden Boot winner, some mad Greek bloke who bent it like Beckham or a Welsh rebel without a clause. Hey - Will Grigg never went to a World Cup.
The Euros is unpolished. It’s still finding its niche, 60 years into its lifetime. It doesn’t have the exoticism of the Copa America or even the ballsiness to disrupt the domestic game like that AFCON does. It exists solely for one reason: to make immortal heroes of players who would never be appreciated elsewhere.
So here it is, the ultimate Cult Euros XI as picked from years of cheering on Latvia against the Germans and asking yourself whether Ukraine and Poland are close enough to co-host. Of course, we’ve gone for 3-3-1-3 formation. Only the maddest survives in this neck of the continent.
👐 Pick 1 current goalkeeper to take a penalty!🇵🇹 Ricardo's penalty heroics secured Portugal beat England in the shoot-out following a 2-2 draw at EURO 2004 #OTD!@selecaoportugal | @ricardo pic.twitter.com/bEe4t2nMknJune 24, 2020
Men are from Mars, women are from Venus, but no one quite knows where the goalkeeper resides. It’s a position unlike any other on the pitch and so the madmen and mavericks of the game have often been between the sticks - see Jens Lehmann, Jose Chilavert, Fabian Barthez, Rene Higuita and Patrick Kielty at Soccer Aid.
But in 2004, one keeper wrote his singular name in the pantheon of gaga goalies in a shootout against England. You know exactly the two moments that have got him into this XI: saving a penalty without his gloves on and scoring the deciding spot-kick for Portugal. It’s difficult to actually remember anything else he ever did in his career - perhaps he won Champions League after Champions League, only for our collective memories to wipe such moments, in favour of when he bamboozled Darius Vassell with a simple undress of his hands.
He’s a Euros legend for that shootout and that shootout only. He really should’ve saved the winner in the final of Euro 2004 - but we won’t hold that against him.
RCB: Birkir Mar Saevarsson
Things you do for the first time at the age of 31: buy a property, invest in a wine rack, take your pension a little more seriously. Things that Birkir Mar Saevarsson did: make his debut at an international football tournament. He must have thought the chance would never come - and frankly, we never thought we’d see Iceland there, either.
The defender didn’t just have a walk-on part, either. He not only kept Cristiano Ronaldo quiet for 90 minutes, he then repeated the feat against Raheem Sterling in the next round of the competition. In between, he even scored an own goal, threatening Iceland with extinction from the tournament early on, like a great big volcano emitting smoke over the team’s already slim chances.
It’s not just the bouncebackability that we admire from dear Birkir. It’s the ability to gravitate to the spotlight of a country’s big moment in front of the continent, like a drunk uncle at a wedding jumping into every photo. We can’t wait to see who plays the role for Finland this summer.
CB/SW: Matthias Sammer
If you’re under 30, there’s a chance that you’re not quite sure what a sweeper even is. Does he play ahead of the defence? Surely he can’t play behind it, given the offside law. Why aren’t sweepers used anymore? They’re fax machines of the sport, made obsolete by the Harry Maguire Hotmails and Virgil van WhatsApps of the modern world.
But not only did Matthias Sammer play as Germany’s sweeper at Euro 96, he won the Ballon bloody d’Or playing the role. They even made the decision in 1995 to open up the award to the rest of the world and not just Europe - only to take one look at Ronaldo slaloming through La Liga and declare, “Nope”, in favour of an understated ginger German, who mopped up in England over a summer of Britpop.
He was that good in that tournament, as the Germans conceded three goals overall and Sammer scored two. He’s the kind of player you just don’t see in the modern game - even if the whippersnappers among us still aren’t wholly sure where he played.
LCB: Stuart Pearce
If Graeme Le Saux hadn't broken his leg during the 1995/96 season, who knows if Stuart Pearce had even been on the plane (well, short bus rides) to Euro 96. It seems alien in the modern game: a 34-year-old former Wealdstone full-back being given the nod to pack his suitcase for one last trip with the lads.
But redemption comes in many different forms. Karma is a fickle fiend but it sometimes works in your favour. The enduring image of Stuart “Psycho” Pearce’s career is naturally one of him screaming his heart out - but he’s banishing demons while doing it. Pearce’s penno against Spain in Euro 96 didn’t quite reverse the heartache of Italia 90 but it must have felt cathartic.
Southgate himself evoked his defensive colleague in 2018, yelling his lungs up as England overcame Colombia on spot kicks. Pearce has been the posterman for ‘one more chance’ ever since that quarter-final. They might as well remodel the trophy in the image of him.
DM: Marcos Senna
Xavi could fool an entire defence into defending space that he had no intention of passing into. Andres Iniesta played football like the ball was stuck to his feet. David Villa and Fernando Torres were handsome matadors; Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique were Machiavellian antiheroes. Iker Casillas had an everyman charm and extraordinary command of a penalty area.
Spain’s golden generation was full of charisma and genius. They were so technically superior to anyone else they met that the Netherlands, the inventors of Total Football, decided to kick chunks out of them in the World Cup final instead of giving them a game. And yet of the 2008 and 2012 Spanish winners, it’s the underrated Marcos Senna who makes our Euros team. He was the screener of the first title: the leg work. The Villarreal man would tidy up everything in that midfield while the others did the pretty stuff.
He was the man who made it possible for everyone else to walk the ball into the net. Great teams are forged in fire: it’s the privilege of footballers like Senna to light the flame.
RCM: Andrea Pirlo
🔦 EURO Spotlight: 🇮🇹 Sum up Andrea Pirlo at EURO 2012 in 1 word! 🤯#EURO2020 | #EUROspotlight | @azzurri | @Pirlo_official pic.twitter.com/FADHQ3dkHcJune 3, 2021
Andrea Pirlo is that band that all of your friends told you to listen to sooner. He is a storm of hype that came about in 2012, despite being a freakishly good midfielder at elite European clubs for most of his life. He was a World Cup winner who had a breakout tournament six years later. He is proof that England is an insular nation, despite inventing the internet.
Because really, Andrea Pirlo’s masterful performance against England in 2012 turned him from Pirlo the sophisticated overseas long-passer, to Pirlo the hipster’s favourite midfielder. He ran just 4km that game, compared to the 10km that box-to-box mids manage. His effortless, trundling style of play made us all believe that it wasn’t too late for any of us. He may not have the medal in the cabinet like Theo Zagorakos or Michel Platini - but in many ways, what Andrea Pirlo gave to the world during Euro 2012 was bigger.
The cheeky panenka against Joe Hart sealed the status. Many sort of knew who he was; some had seen him countless times. But five-a-side team were never going to be without a Pirlo ever again.
CM: Renato Sanches
Who's the best young talent?🇵🇹 Renato Sanches, EURO 2016 Young Player of the Tournament, turns 23 today 🎈#HBD | @selecaoportugal | @renatosanches35 pic.twitter.com/NMDtUeOP46August 18, 2020
What a player Renato Sanches was for two weeks. Well, he’s not bad now. But during Euro 2016, he was something else.
The 18-year-old burst into Portugal’s midfield and burned over every blade of grass like a young(er) N’Golo Kante. He was astounding; naturally, stories leaked about him being older than we all thought and how he took a boat to training as a child - because there has to be a reason why a child is this good. But nothing was quite as amazing as seeing this technically-assured, supercharged midfielder run rings around players bigger and uglier than him.
His story since has merely multiplied the mystique. Sanches double-flopped, first at Bayern, then on a Welsh gap year in Swansea, where he sat in a midfield with moustachioed Roque Mesa. Now he’s a Ligue 1 winner with Lille. The mind boggles. His career could literally end up anywhere.
LCM: John Jensen
🇫🇷 7️⃣️ DAYS TO GO 7️⃣️ 🇫🇷 Jensen's thunderbolt rocked Germany in '92..._____ has the hardest shot at #EURO2016https://t.co/Ajzm8f7TlrJune 3, 2016
John Jensen pretty much invented the genre of “footballers signed off the back of one class moment at an international tournament”. When Jensen’s name flickered up on Ceefax as a new Arsenal buy, 90s fans were met with the unusual feeling of knowing who this wild overseas star was. Not that it helped his cause.
OK, so Jensen was bad in north London. But he’d have signed that in a contract clause with the devil for what he did for his country. His winning goal in 1992 - after Denmark infamously didn’t qualify for the tournament - is simply one of the most sumptuous goals a final has ever seen. In any competition.
It paved the way for this tournament having more than eight teams, for goodness sake. There was greatness to be found in a football Eurovision. And it came from John Jensen. Little did JJ know that he was a trendsetter when that goal went in. A goal good enough alone to earn him a place on this team.
ST: Wayne Rooney
THREAD: Wayne Rooney goals!1⃣🏴 Rooney's double against Croatia at EURO 2004 🤩@England | @WayneRooney https://t.co/zKdc3oapTu pic.twitter.com/yjKBAVk4sIFebruary 12, 2021
In a way, Euro 2004 ruined Wayne Rooney. Because for the goalscoring records with England and Manchester United, the longevity, the moments of brilliance that he provided along the way and the fact that technically, he was almost certainly the best footballer that this country ever produced… we will always hold him to the standard of what he produced over that summer.
Seriously, have you ever been that excited about an English teenager? He ran France ragged, despite coming out on the losing side, scored doubles against Switzerland and Croatia and displayed maturity, quality and intelligence in abundance. He looked like the perfect forward. This was before the days that Messi and Ronaldo were set to rule the world and yet this young scouse schemer looked better than both. When he went off injured against Portugal, England fell apart.
Rooney never again reached the mesmeric heights for England that he showed during Euro 2004. What a career he had - but what a few games he played for the Three Lions that year. And what joy and hope he gave to everyone about how bright the future looked.
ST: Milan Baros
🇨🇿 Milan Baroš fired the Czech Republic into the EURO 2004 semi-finals with two second-half goal against Denmark.#OTD | @ceskarepre_cz pic.twitter.com/bCFcGK9JtEJune 27, 2020
There’s plenty weird about Milan Baros. The fact that he wore the no.5 shirt and played up front. The fact that he won the Champions League with Liverpool and yet no one can remember a moment from him at club level. And the fact that for six weeks in 2004, he was pure world-class for some reason.
Baros was the Matt Lucas to Jan Koller’s David Walliams; shorter, sharper and everyone’s favourite if we’re being truly honest. But they worked so well as an odd couple - a little and large duo that no one saw coming - as Baros was the only man to score more goals than Wayne Rooney that year. The Czech Republic looked stupidly good; for a little while, with the tournament wide open, it looked like this guy might just fire them to the trophy.
Not even 2004 was mad enough for the Bonkers Baros Show to go all the way, though. The history books will speak of his role in Istanbul and his subsequent forgotten move to Aston Villa. Here, we’re more bothered about the goals he scored against Holland and Germany.
ST: Hal Robson-Kanu
😮 Wales will meet Belgium again in 2022 World Cup qualifying Group E...😱 Hal Robson-Kanu 🏴🆚🇧🇪 Throwback to a famous game at EURO 2016!#MondayMotivation | @Cymru pic.twitter.com/vfwiGCKiO6December 7, 2020
He had no right to be there. He had no right to command space in a penalty area alongside the likes of Alderweireld and Courtois. He certainly had no right to reinvent the Cruyff Turn.
West Brom boss Tony Pulis would later claim “he wasn’t one of my top targets” when he signed HRK. The man himself would later reveal, “I wouldn’t have had the career I’ve had without turmeric”. And it’s that kind of randomness that makes this beautiful moment even sweeter.
Hal Robson-Kanu was clubless at Euro 2016 but contributed just about the most memorable moment in Welsh football history during one gorgeous night in northern France. Just rewind and remember that for a second: Wales had the most expensive footballer of all time in their ranks - in Gareth Bale - yet a free agent scored that goal against Belgium. That's what this tournament is all about.
Thank you for reading 5 articles this month* Join now for unlimited access
Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1
*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription
Join now for unlimited access
Try first month for just £1 / $1 / €1