In football, there are some teams who, when they are due to play each other, will generate excitement and anticipation amongst football fans.
England v Germany on Sunday is one such match. When you think of England and Germany, you inevitably think of 1990, of 1996, and even, of 1966.
The added spice to Sunday’s game, is how early in the competition it is. There’s nothing better in cup football, than a heavyweight clash in the early stages of the competition, between two sides who believe they can win the competition, but know they face an opponent capable of giving them an early exit.
For me, the clash between the two sides that I remember most is the European Championship Semi-Final in 1996, the 14th anniversary of which will come the day before the sides meet in Bloemfontein.
Looking back, Euro 96 was a competition and time I remember fondly. In 1996, i’d just turned 13, and had just had my first full season watching Linfield every week with my mates, and having a laugh, which I suppose you had to do, as Trevor Anderson’s bunch of expensively assembled misfits limped into mid-table obscurity.
Euro 96 was the first European Championship which had 16 teams competing in 4 groups of 4, meaning that you wouldn’t have major nations missing out like you did in the 8 team format.
There were two matches each day, with the first one kicking-off not long after four (can’t remember if it was quarter-past or half-past), meaning a quick run home from school to watch the first game, dinner, homework (I went to a school where the teachers gave you homework in June) and then watch the evening match with friends.
A combination of growing up but still being young, what felt like endless sunny days and what felt like the charts being dominated by acts like Oasis, Blur, Pulp, Space and Suede (Despite the fact that, in reality, the two biggest selling acts of 1996 were Spice Girls and Robson & Jerome) will forever have the summer of 1996, and it’s major football tournament fondly remembered in my mind.
Perhaps it is my mind playing tricks on me by remembering this event fondly? Maybe if I was 10 years older, i’d be fondly reminiscing about the 1986 World Cup? 10 years younger, and perhaps i’d be fondly remembering the 2006 World Cup?
There’s no denying that Euro 96 is an event which benefits generously from a rewriting of history. Outside of Wembley, and group games at Old Trafford and Villa Park, a lot of the games were played in half-empty stadiums.
I suppose this rewriting of history is a good example of how the English media cover international tournaments, where it’s all about England and nobody else matters, so consumed were they with what was happening in London, they didn’t even notice the empty seats in the North of the country.
With the tournament taking place during the school year, there was never any hope of me going over to this, and I really wanted to go.
Northern Ireland’s campaign was a spectacularly heroic failure, managing to finish unbeaten away from home, but out of the qualifying positions due to home defeats to Latvia, and most devastatingly, Republic of Ireland.
Despite that, me and a friend sat in front of the TV one Sunday afternoon in December 1995 for the draw, and gasped in disbelief as England and Scotland were paired together. Switzerland and Holland didn’t even get a mention as all the hype of the tournament centred around this game.
As with every international tournament, the morning of the opening game always makes me feel like an excitable child on christmas eve, counting down the hours and minutes until kick-off.
I watched the opening game of Euro 96, England v Switzerland, in the company of a half-Swiss friend, as England stuttered to a 1-1 draw against the Swiss.
Finally, the tournament was up and running and football had truly come home.
The following Saturday, was the big one, England v Scotland. Both teams were level on one point, and knew that a win would virtually guarantee qualifivation for the Quarter-Finals.
I watched it as a neutral, not really caring who won, just enjoying the fact that two British teams were going at each other, to put one over the other and retain local pride, for their fans, unaware that they were taking part in a major international competition, as ‘putting one over the other lot’ was all that mattered.
With England leading 1-0 with 15 minutes to go, Scotland win a penalty. Gary McAllister saw his shot saved by David Seaman, the resulting corner was cleared upfield, and the England counter-attack saw Paul Gascoigne make it 2-0 for England.
From having a chance to draw level, to going two goals down (or, from almost being pegged back level to going tow goals up, in the space of a minute) in the space of a minute, that’s how football can just mess with your emotions. That’s why people love it and hate it in equal measure.
Thankfully, being neither English or Scottish, I just sat and watched non-plussed.
Come Tuesday night, England were actually out-Dutching the Dutch and allowing a way back in for Scotland, as England’s 4-0 lead, combined with Scotland’s 1-0 lead over Switzerland saw Scotland in a position where they could qualify from a group stage for the first time in their history.
It was too good to be true, and it was, as a Patrick Kluivert goal for Holland swung the race for second place in their favour.
COME ON ENGLAND!!!!!!!! COME ON SCOTLAND!!!!!! I screamed at the TV, wishing one of the two would score a goal that would send Scotland through. It didn’t come.
England advanced to a Quarter-Final against Spain, where they triumphed, whisper it, on a penalty shoot-out. It’s strange, that when the media bring up England’s record in a penalty shoot-out, they never mention this game.
Germany had been very German in their progress, ruthlessly disposing of Czech Republic and Russia before grinding out a draw against Italy, a result which saw the Italians eliminated at the group stage.
In that match against Russia, the Russian manager came up with a brilliant excuse for his teams underperforming, that the home crowd at each ground they played at was against them.
Against Germany at Old Trafford, he claimed that United fans came out to cheer for Germany in protest against Andrei Kanchelskis sour transfer to Everton the previous year.
For their remaining matches at Anfield, he claimed Liverpool fans were cheering for the opposition partly because Kanchelskis was an Everton player, but mainly, because he was an ex United player.
France, also faced a hostile crowd in their matches at Newcastle, by Geordies angry at local favourite David Ginola being left out of the French squad.
After beating Croatia at Old Trafford, Germany had set up a Semi-Final meeting with England at Wembley.
You can tell how big a football match is, by how many people are talking about it, especially people who don’t usually follow or talk about football. In class that day, even the teachers were talking about the game.
The tournament organisers had arranged for both Semi-Finals to take place on the same day, one in the afternoon, another in the evening.
The first Semi-Final was a non-event as far as the English media were concerned, a mere warm-up to the main event.
To be fair, the game between France and Czech Republic hardly inspired the BBC pundits, sat in Wembley three hours before kick-off.
To the BBC’s annoyance, the game at Old Trafford went to extra-time, then penalties, then sudden death penalties, which the Czechs eventually won.
From there, it was a case of well done Czech Republic, almost dismissively, as their prize was to be runners-up to England in the Euro 96 Final.
The Germans couldn’t win, could they?
In truth, it would be very ungerman if they didn’t win. They always seem to have a knack of beating host nations and media darling teams.
It’s why I have a sneaky admiration for the German football team. Supporting Man United and Linfield, you get used to supporting “The bad guys”, the team everybody loves to see lose, which would perhaps explain my admiration for Germany.
The match kicked-off with clear skies over London. As the teams walked out in daylight, they knew that by the time the match would finish and that the sun would set, and the sky turn dark. For one of them, the sun would set on Euro 96.
I watched the game with friends, with excitement, not really caring who won, but just wanting it to be a memorable occasion.
England started on the front foot, and scored within three minutes. Alan Shearer, who else.
With 80,000 roaring them on at Wembley, and millions more in front of their TV, most teams would have crumbled under the wave of England pressure. Not Germany.
It was quite ironic that the scorer of the German equaliser be Steffan Kuntz (pronounced Koontz) whose name had made him the butt of David Baddiel and Frank Skinner’s jokes, should score the equaliser against the team riding on a crest of a wave soundtracked by Baddiel and Skinner.
At 90 minutes, it was 1-1, cue anything between 1 and 30 minutes of extra-time. Euro 96 was the first tournament to have the ‘Golden Goal’ rule in extra-time. It was basically goal the winner. A rule, from the school playground, was now being used to decide a European Championship Semi-final.
The two Quarter-Finals that used this were dour encounters, with both teams settling for a penalty shoot-out when the final whistle blew at 90 minutes, and shut up shop for half an hour, to make sure they got to penalties, and to conserve their energy for the shoot-out.
This one was different, as both teams went for it, to try and end it there and then. Both teams tried, but were just unable to.
As Gascoigne was unable to reach out enough to divert a cross-shot into the net, it was hard not to think about how all those England fans who’d mocked Carlton Palmer were thinking, as if it was his long legs reaching out for that cross, history would have been rewritten.
As the game went to penalties, there was an inevitability about the outcome.
Despite England scoring all of their penalties, the Germans did likewise. To expect the Germans to even miss just one penalty appeared to be asking too much. When England missed, the Germans were never going to let them out of jail.
We sat in front of the TV, just drained by the 120 minutes of football we had just witnessed. It was games like that which was he we had kickabouts in the street (and sometimes climbing into a local school), dreaming that we migth play in (and win) a match of that magnitude. None of us ever did.
In school the next day, was the same as the previous day, as the football dominated the conversation. The day before it was excitement of the match ahead, today, it was analysis and reaction of the match just passed.
At the end of that week, another school year was done and dusted, and a long summer awaited.
Was 1996 the summer that football came home?
Maybe not, it was just a line in a song which caught the mood of a period in time. But, my word, what a period in time.