It’s not quite 1996, but England can forge some advantage

EURO 2020 could be one of the most open competitions in recent memory. A combination of countries and clubs in transition, the pandemic, fatigue and just a little anxiety could mean the viewing public may be in for a surprise or two. Very few people expected Portugal to win in 2016, but in some ways, it provided Cristiano Ronaldo with an opportunity to sign-off in theatric style, only he didn’t. 

Five years on, we have seen the emergence of a very good French side, Belgium have still to rubber-stamp their status as the world’s most fancied, if not decorated team, and Germany appear to be a little troubled. England, who have been relatively quiet about their own chances, have a cluster of decent young players and unlike the past, half of the squad has been playing Champions League football in 2020-21.

There’s a very important element in this year’s competition that could seriously help England: home status. All of their group games are at Wembley and given their record in the European Championship, this should prove to be an advantage. They are not the only nation to benefit from this, the others include Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Germany, who will play all their group games on familiar turf. For England, there’s an added bonus – the semi-finals and final are at Wembley. If they can win their group, it will mean that all bar the quarter-final will be a home game.

Past records demonstrate this invariably suits England. In 1966, they won five of their six games and conceded just three goals, while in 1996, their only loss was on penalties against Germany in that semi-final. More importantly, since 2008 when they were eliminated in qualifying thanks to a 3-2 home defeat against Croatia, England have lost twice in European Championship action, once in the qualifiers against Czech Republic and a rather red-faced defeat at the hands of Iceland. Oh yes, there’s also that loss on penalties to Italy in 2012.

It has to be remembered, though, that qualifying results can be misleading as, in all reality, England will not face strong opposition until the finals.

Host status was once a guarantee of a good tournament, but that doesn’t ring so true anymore.  The World Cup, for example, had five host winners between 1930 and 1978, but has had one (France 1998) since. The European Championship has only had three, Spain in 1964, Italy four years later, and France in 1984. In the latter, France were definitely the best team around, with Michel Platini on fire in the eight-team finals.

Home advantage might not be so exclusive these days, but it also underlines how bizarre the 2020 format is. The pandemic would have scuppered any chance of having the “carnival” that characterised one-nation competitions such as the World Cup in 2006 and the Euros in France four years ago, so it’s all a bit academic now. But both UEFA and FIFA cannot resist making things more complicated, with multi-country structures and ever-increasing participants. 

More teams does not mean better teams, it usually means a dilution of quality, long drawn-out schedules that test the endurance levels of the fans, and a greater chance of fatigue. The European Championship is just about the least anticipated of recent major competitions, not because it doesn’t have credibility, but because the old complaint, “there’s too much football on TV” is just about right. We’ve been flooded with broadcasted football for 18 months and the novelty of wall-to-wall football has worn off. For once, I sympathise with the players, no sooner has the domestic season finished than we’re off with an intense, 24-team bun fight. We will, of course, watch avidly and the cross of St. George will suddenly, and rather ominously, appear all over town and on car aerials as expectation soars to unrealistic levels. 

So what can we expect to see? The last throes of CR7 in a group of death that includes the European champions, World Cup winners and hardy perennials Germany, will be fascinating. There should be goals from Harry Kane as he shop windows himself, but England will have to be wary of Czechs and Croatians bearing banana skins. Brave displays from Wales and Scotland? And how about this year’s surprise packages – Robert Lewandowski’s Poland? 

And then there’s Italy, who rarely claim they have a good side but know how to reach finals. It’s easy to look no further then France and Belgium, but this could be the latter’s last chance with its current roster. The Game of the People hopelessly inaccurate prediction (I am still reminded about my 1978 World Cup forecast of France v Hungary when both went out at the first call), is a shock win for the Italians and England to reach the last eight. Please don’t remember where you heard it first.

Photo: ALAMY

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