All eyes turn to France this summer for the European Football Championship. Euro 2016 promises to be one of the most competitive and memorable tournaments yet seen.
Germany the World Champions will be hard to beat. Can Spain win an unprecedented third successive title? Is this, finally, England’s turn, with Roy Hodgson’s exciting young team? How will Northern Ireland and Wales perform on their biggest stage in generations? Whatever happens, and whoever wins in France, the memories and images will last far beyond the final match in St. Denis on July 10.
Some of the game’s most iconic moments, players and pictures have come out of this tournament. The Soviet Union’s greatest goalkeeper Lev Yashin - the original “Man In Black” - a winner of the inaugral “Nations Cup”, back in 1960. The European Championship is the competition that gave us “that” penalty, as Antonin Panenka chipped Sepp Maier to win Euro 1976 for Czechoslovakia. And has embarrassed many, many copycats ever since.
My own memories of the Euros begin with 1988. Marco van Basten’s impossible volley. Ruud Gullit’s majestic flowing dreadlocks. The tournament where the Dutch finally saw decades of potential come good. And England’s powder-puff capitulation in West Germany, a humiliation set in motion by Ray Houghton’s stuff-of-dreams winner for Big Jack’s Republic of Ireland in Stuttgart.
Denmark’s title in 1992. Not quite the “plucked off the beaches to victory” story it is sometimes painted, but one of the great stories in recent international football. Peter Schmeichel’s human wall goalkeeping. A win from nowhere, over Germany in the final, no less.
Four years later, football came home to England in a summer forever face-painted with a cross of St. George. And sound-tracked by Baddiel and Skinner. “Dentist’s Chairs”, Terry Venables, the night England forgot they were England and hammered the Dutch, the inevitability of glorious failure on penalties and an over-arching feeling of pride laced with patriotic What Might Have Been. Close your eyes and picture Paul Gascoigne stretching and not quite getting there to score against Germany in extra-time. As painful as the pizza commercial Gareth Southgate went on to make.
Almost impossible to believe but ‘That Summer’ was twenty years ago. In the intervening years the tournaments have been no less memorable. A Gallic golden goal to secure the new millenium’s first champions. Greece in 2004. Unfancied. Unattractive. But, nigh-on unbeatable.
And now recent history seems to make it Spain’s trophy to lose. Tiki-taka took Europe by storm in 2008. The world was mesmerised by it two years later. And even as a fading force, La Furia Roja won the European Championship again last time. Whether they can make it a hat-trick this time makes for a compelling narrative in France.
But then, so much does. An expanded tournament means some unfamiliar names. Northern Ireland. Wales. Iceland. The Netherlands not qualifying. France 2016 promises to be every bit as iconic and dramatic as the tournaments that have gone before.
Whoever lifts the trophy, the imagery from France, as with previous Euro tournaments, will be with us forever.
Words by Dan O’Hagan, Football Commentator and Broadcaster