BY JOE CARROLL
There’s uncertainty in Europe. Britain will go to the polls at the end of June to vote in an in-out referendum, the outcome of which is currently impossible to predict.
Meanwhile the winners of the forthcoming European Championships are just as difficult to identify, with few nations so far able to make a convincing case for themselves.
In many ways the tournament -due in part to its relatively condensed format- is all-too predictable. Three time winners Germany have made six of the 14 finals in the championship’s history, making two other semi-final appearances. And we know that home advantage counts, with the host nations failing to make the semi-finals on just two occasions (incidentally, this was at the last two championships in Poland & Ukraine and Austria & Switzerland).
The team that scores the most goals in the tournament is more often than not the team lifting the Henri Delaunay trophy (9/14) while the recipient of the Golden Boot has found himself with a winners medal in nine championships.
But while there are certainly front runners for the top scorer award and teams we’re confident will find themselves in the latter stages of the competition (either through sheer will or the utter hopelessness of our home nations), there would be few teams or players you’d wager your mortgage on to clean up.
Rather than paint a rather dour image of a tournament that should act as a celebration of Europe’s finest footballers, we should look ahead to France 2016 with relish, even more so considering the expansion from 16 teams to 24 and the resulting extra knock-out round which will make things even harder to predict.
As pattern seeking creatures, we only need to look into our past to see that an odds-defying underdog success story may just be worth a few quid. Let’s go back to where it all started, which is incidentally where it will all end this summer: France. In 1960 the USSR repelled a free-scoring Yugoslavia (much fancied to lift the inaugural trophy after a thrilling 5-4 win over the hosts) with legendary keeper Lev Yashin denying the Yugoslavs again and again. Not quite a Roy of the Rovers story, but unexpected all the same.
The proceeding two championships introduced the theme of host nations making full use of their home advantage, as Spain and Italy brought it home in 64′ and 68′.
While Belgium claimed a respectable third place on home soil in 72′ West Germany decided it was time to restore some pride on the continent, starting a run of three consecutive appearances in European Championship finals, winning twice in 72′ and 80′.
Considering their fine reputation for tournament football, the amazing thing about the 88′ competition was the Germans’ absence from the final. It’s bad enough that they didn’t win it, but not even to make it to the final! And on home soil too! Just two years before the demolition of the Berlin wall changed the face of European politics, so too did Germany’s absence from their own Munich final seem to disturb the once certain future of the Euros and its tendency to yield host-winners. Or at least, German winners.
The reunified Germans suffered the greatest shock in European Championship history (to date) four years later, when they were beaten 2-0 in the final by a team that couldn’t even qualify. Denmark were simply expected to make up the numbers when they were drafted in with two weeks’ preparation, in place of a Yugoslavia embroiled in Balkan conflict. The tournament, and the final in particular, made household names of John Jensen, Kim Vilfort and -perhaps you’ve heard of him- Peter Schmeichel. A feat surely, never to be beaten…
1988-2000 continued the trend in which the host nations progressed to at least the semi-final stage. Germany surprised no one with their 96′ Wembley triumph while one of the best ever French sides -hot off the heels of their first World Cup triomphe in 98′- clinched Euro glory in 2000. David Trezequet won it with the second trophy-winning golden goal in as many finals; Oliver Bierhoff taking advantage of the brief but exciting new rule against the Czechs two years earlier.
But while no one batted an eyelid at those outcomes, the following tournament brought us one of the greatest European Championship upsets in its history. Greece’s extraordinary triumph over host nation Portugal in 2004 was on par with Denmark’s success 12 years earlier. The stage was set for the golden boy and Eusebio-reincarnate, Christiano Ronaldo to lead his nation to its first ever Henri Delaunay, on home turf. But the Greek’s pragmatism, stern rearguard and the head of Angelos Charisteas were all too much for Portugal’s flair.
So what are the chances of history repeating? Spain continue to reign on the club front in Europe. Real Madrid beat city rivals Athletico in the Champions League final, while Seville made the impossible a reality, clinching their third Europa League title in as many years. Could the nation follow suit?
With the likes of Germany, France and Italy all busy re-building ageing squads come 2008, Spain took their opportunity to impose their own brand of possession based football, mixed with youth, skill and frightening pace. Despite the nations of Europe expecting the same trick in 2012, the Spaniards (led by Xavi, Iniesta, Puyol, Casillas, et al, and fresh off the back of a World Cup win in 2010) made history, becoming the first nation to win successive tournaments. And they did it in some style too; a 4-0 thrashing of Italy in Kiev.
Despite the obvious talents of players such as Morata, Silva, Fabregas and Busquets, there is an acknowledgement following their embarrassment in Brazil two years ago that this Spain side is a far cry from the age of tiki-taka; a 32-year old Iniesta a beautiful yet crumbling relic of that golden era.
Which gives this summer’s championships in France an air of unpredictability. 24 teams. 4 home nations. The last time a single nation will host the tournament, before 2020’s pan-European experiment. Whether England, Wales, Northern Ireland (and maybe Scotland) will be there to join them as members of the EU is as uncertain now as the nation who’ll be celebrating in Paris on 10th July.