ONE OF the most solemn sights I have ever seen at a football match was that of David Baddiel and Frank Skinner standing forlorn at Wembley after England had been beaten in a penalty shoot-out by Germany in the European Championship semi-final of 1996.
Baddiel and Skinner had set the narrative for a summer in which there seemed to be a little bit of destiny about the Euros – Terry Venables would lead us to triumph in the first tournament on home soil for 30 years.
And it was a good summer. Those of us who remembered 1966 but were far too young to play a part, were eager to see a game or two. England had a half decent team, too, with Alan Shearer in his prime, Teddy Sheringham linking up well with him and Gazza just about having enough fuel left in the tank. It was the last knockings of the Italia ’90 team and there was a feeling that home advantage just might count.
Baddiel and Skinner’s anthem, sung with Lightning Seeds leader Ian Broudie, echoed through the summer. “Jules Rimet still gleaming”. It was a masterstroke of a song.
The tournament kicked off with England hosting Switzerland and making a bit of a meal of a 1-1 draw at Wembley. I watched the game with a bunch of Danes, who visited me on the way to Sheffield where their country would be defending the title won in 1992. After the match, we piled into the local pub, where one of the Copenhagen party introduced himself: “Good evening…we are Swiss”, and within seconds a few provincial bully boys – Arsenal and England shirts aplenty – barged their way into the saloon bar. “Not really…we are Danish…the holders of the European Championship.”
The following day, Denmark began their campaign and as a colleague and I made our way to Sheffield, we were greeted by some England fans intent on causing trouble with the Danes. Fortunately, “the rooligans” were not interested and the Sheffield thugs went away disappointed that nobody wanted to take the bait. The local muggers were luckier, however, and a number of Danes were robbed during their stay in steel city, prompting some to take the first plane home.
Their team wasn’t far behind, for Denmark drew with Portugal and lost emphatically to Croatia. Davor Suker tore Denmark apart and cheekily lobbed Peter Schmeichel. He attempted a repeat, but the Manchester United keeper caught the ball, signalling to Suker that this time, he had got it!
Croatia’s fans, bedecked in chequer-board red and white, were some of the most passionate I have seen. They were also opportunistic. I gave two tickets away to Croatian fans who didn’t have a way into the game, only to find out, some months later, that they had sold them for a profit and the recipient had complained to UEFA. My tickets had come from the Danish FA.
England, though, improved as the tournament progressed, beating Scotland – thanks to a classic Gascoigne goal that ended with the prostrate Gazza having water squirted in his face. Then came a 4-1 win against the Dutch, a result that really signalled England’s intentions. They were in with a chance. Shearer, who ended as top scorer in the competition, recalls that this victory was “where the euphoria kicked in”.
The quarter-finalists were fairly predictable – Germany had come through their group with the Czech Republic leaving Italy a notable casualty. France and Spain had proved too good for the Balkan duo of Bulgaria and Romania. England had topped their group with the Netherlands in second place and Denmark finished third in a group won by Portugal and Croatia.
England’s quarter-final was against Spain and a tense goalless draw ended with the home team winning a penalty shoot-out. Stuart Pearce, who missed one of the Italia 90 penalties, netted against Andoni Zubizaretta and banished the demons that had haunted him since that fateful night in Turin.
France also came through a penalty contest, disposing of the Dutch. The Czechs beat the fancied Portuguese 1-0, thanks to a sublime lob from the long-haired Karel Poborsky. And Germany beat Croatia 2-1 in the other quarter-final at Old Trafford.
Also in Manchester, the Czech Republic faced France in the semi-final. The Czechs were badly hit by suspensions and injuries and played a defensive game to contain the French. It ended goalless but the Czechs won through on penalties.
Meanwhile, the game of the tournament took place at Wembley – England v Germany. Memories of 1990 dominated the occasion and there was a sense of the inevitable when Germany also won this tie on penalties. England could have secured the game and some might argue they deserved to, but Germany’s resilence and nerve won the day.
The mood in London after that defeat was one of collective deflation. We believed that after 30 years, England had a side that could look the Boys of ’66 in the eye. I recall one pundit complaining: “Each year, Germany tell us they have a lousy team and they end up winning the competition – somehow.”
And it was so true, for Germany did win, thanks to a “golden goal” from Oliver Bierhoff, giving them a 2-1 victory against the Czech Republic. You couldn’t help feel that it had all ended in anti-climax – tickets for the final were actually quite easy to get hold of in the days before the game. Even Jürgen Klinsmann had to admit that, “We fought all through the tournament and played really good football, even if we were not the best team. Italy were a bit better, England had a great team. But we had the best will”.
And that really summed it up. It still sums it up. The trophy might have been won by our old adversaries, but football had come home and it was great fun while it lasted. Certainly better than the over-hyped and over-rated Italia ’90. But it does show how little England have achieved since…
Report by Neil Jensen, Game of the People