Every two years football fans of various countries see their hopes of winning a major trophy steadily rise as they approach either the World Cup, European Championships, or their regional equivalent. When England won the World Cup on home soil in 1966, fans would have found it difficult to believe that they would still be waiting for a second major trophy 50 years on. The World Cup in 1990 was seen as a near miss but with the 1996 European Championships to be held in England, surely they would have a great chance of winning their second major trophy.
The 1996 tournament was the first European Championships to be held with 16 competing nations, seeing the number of participants doubled from previous years. The English FA had focussed their energy on being chosen as the host nation by withdrawing their plans to bid for the 1998 World Cup, thus garnering extra support from other UEFA members. Following the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, English clubs had made upgrades to their stadia which meant that the country had enough all-seater venues to host an expanded tournament.
As with the 1966 World Cup, only one stadium located south of Birmingham would be used, Wembley. The majority of the tournament would be held in the North of England with the remaining seven venues being in Newcastle, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester, Nottingham and Birmingham. Despite this wide spread of venues there were a couple of unfortunate decisions made around the fixtures for fans of the home nations. Every single tie that England played throughout the tournament was held at Wembley, which, although it was the biggest stadium ahead of Old Trafford, did mean that the north of the country had to undertake long journeys to watch their potential heroes. Scotland fans can also have felt hard done by as their three fixtures during the tournament were held at the two most southern stadiums of the tournament, Wembley and Villa Park.
On the pitch there were plenty of moments that made the tournament special. The Czech Republic enjoyed what is still, to this day, their best ever showing at a major tournament. Armed with youngsters such as Pavel Nedved, Patrik Berger and Karel Poborsky, many people saw them as the surprise package as they defeated Italy, Portugal and France on their way to the final. Their underdog status was no match however for Germany who were the tournament winners. Germany did have to come back from a goal down in the final to force extra time where Oliver Bierhoff took advantage of the ‘Golden Goal’ rule in the 95th minute to win it.
Alan Shearer won the Golden Boot for the hosts with five goals in five games. After a disappointing opening result to Switzerland, England quickly found their groove and enjoyed a 2-0 win over Scotland followed by a 4-1 victory over the Netherlands. The Paul Gascoigne goal against Scotland remains one of the best goals ever scored by an Englishman at a major tournament and his celebration became equally famous. The 4-1 victory over a Dutch team that consisted of great names such as Dennis Bergkamp, Ronald De Boer and Clarence Seedorf instantly raised the expectations of England fans.
A 0-0 draw with Spain in the quarter final may not have been inspiring but Stuart Pearce ended six years of agony as he scored in the penalty shootout. He had missed a penalty at the 1990 World Cup against West Germany, along with Chris Waddle, as England were knocked out at the quarter final stage. In the semi-final of Euro 96, it would be Germany that were waiting for England yet again. As the match went to extra time, England quickly became in control. Darren Anderton struck the post and we saw Gascoigne slide in on a cross for a certain goal but could not quite stretch his leg far enough. England were defeated on penalties after Gareth Southgate had his effort saved. Germany had broken English hearts yet again.
Scotland fans were able to enjoy their nation competing in only the second European Championships of their history and would have reached the quarter finals had they managed to beat Switzerland by two goals in their final group match. They won 1-0. Switzerland, Turkey, Croatia and Bulgaria were present at a European Championships for the first time in their history that year with Croatia performing the best of all the debutants as they reached the quarter finals where they lost to the eventual champions.
Even as an England fan, having some of the worlds best players come to places like Sheffield and Newcastle was a joy to behold. With players such as Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, Paolo Maldini, Michael Laudrup and Rui Costa on show, every match was certain to have top drawer football on display. When you compare the tournament to Euro 2016, it does make you think that perhaps expanding the tournament to 24 teams was a poor decision. The extra eight teams don't necessarily increase the quality of football or the number of star names on display but on the other hand it can create stories such as Iceland. Although Czech Republic were the Iceland of '96.
Aside from the football the tournament was also remembered for a few other historical events, both good and bad. The song ‘Three Lions’ by the Lightning Seeds with Baddiel and Skinner became a UK number one single and was chanted in the stands by England fans at all of their games. The song is still well known today and is arguably the best England football song ever written, although interestingly, ‘Three Lions’ was not the official song of the tournament. That honour went to Simply Red.
Unfortunately the tournament did not go ahead without some controversies though. On June 15th, the day that England defeated Scotland, the IRA detonated a bomb in Manchester injuring more than 200 people. The scheduled match at Old Trafford on the next day went ahead as football showed that it would not be disrupted by terrorism. There was also rioting in Trafalgar Square following England’s defeat to Germany as tempers ran high in what seemed to be a brief return to the 1980’s.
As our wait to host a major tournament continued past the 20 year mark in 2016, the new generation of football fans cannot remember the magic of Euro 96. With the great memories of that Gascoigne goal against Scotland, England thumping a strong Dutch side and the ‘Three Lions’ anthem , who isn’t desperate to host another major tournament on these shores? Sure we had the heartbreak of Southgate’s penalty miss and Anderton hitting the post in extra time but our hearts were only broken because we knew that that England team was good enough to win.
‘96 remains our best showing at a major tournament since 1966 and perhaps that is why we remember it so fondly. We welcomed Europe to England and for the most part, we taught them how to play a bit too. Bierhoff may have won the cup for Germany in extra time but that is not the memory that lives with me because football came home in 1996, even if the trophy didn’t.
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