Two years after the disappointment of Saint-Etienne in 1998, the nine-year-old version of myself fell in love once again with tournament football during the summer heat of 2000. Where Euro ’96 in my backyard came slightly too early to appreciate, France ‘98 is the first tournament I was really cognoscente of. I can recall hazy vignettes of the month-long football extravaganza – eleven bleach blonde Romanians, Michael Owen’s mazy run and chipped finish against Argentina in the last-16, David Beckham’s petulant kick later that evening, and France’s steamrollering of Brazil in the final.
The World Cup in 1998 was the first time I found myself caught up in the wave of nationalistic pride and optimism that accompanies the announcement of every fresh England squad. In my mind’s eye, I’m sitting cross-legged on my aunt’s brown leather couch, eyes glued to the big CRT television in the corner of the living room, forlornly looking on as a limp David Batty penalty sees England’s World Cup hopes to go up in flames like an effigy of David Beckham.
The 1998 World Cup was less an appreciation of football, more an appreciation of the shared experience that football can cultivate. Suddenly, my entire family would be gathered in front of a television screen in a way I’d never seen before, all wishing and hoping for the same outcome. We’d cheer in unison; we’d despair in unison; my uncle would scream words I’d never heard before at a referee 300 miles away. The atmosphere was palpable in a way that Christmas dinners or birthday parties weren’t. I knew I was experiencing something magnificent.
But with that David Batty penalty miss, the party dispersed. There would be no more England games that summer. As Argentina progressed to the quarter-final, the gatherings around me dissipated. The excitement expired. At seven years old I lacked a true appreciation for the game itself but revelled in its ability to bring together my family and friends; whether at home or in a pub garden.
Euro 2000, however, was where I learned to cherish the game on the pitch, without a care as to which two teams were involved. In Eindhoven; and Amsterdam; and Brugge; and Brussels, the likes of Rául, Nuno Gomes, Zinedine Zidane, Edgar Davids, Paulo Maldini, and Georghi Hagi orchestrated play with that alluring silver and white Adidas Terrestra Silverstream. The four-week show-piece in the summer of 2000 sowed a seed in my brain that would sprout into a blossoming devotion of the beautiful game.
To this day, I adore anything and everything about that summer’s European Championships. From the awkwardly positioned triangular figure on the tournament’s logo that looks as if it’s attempting to bunny hop the ball forward in a Claude Makelele style ‘tackle dribble’, to the supplementary Playstation One game scored by Paul Oakenfold – Euro 2000 had everything from the novel to the sublime.
Whether attempting to outwit Neo Cortex on Crash Bandicoot: Warped, refusing to miss an episode of Keenan and Kel on Nickelodeon, or consistently falling off my neon-green Raleigh bike, my English summers and the accompanying warm weather were spent trying to make the most out of the days outside the confines of the school gates. By this point, I was somewhat invested in club football – Manchester United’s dramatic treble-winning season had already seen to that – but I wasn’t one of the lucky ones to have a Sky Sports subscription, meaning I was limited to Champions League and FA Cup games.
International football hadn’t gripped me thus far. There is only so much interest an eight-year-old can muster up for a 0-0 home draw against Poland in a qualifier. However, during a summer when Stephen Gately’s solo work was nestled comfortably in the UK Top 40 – alongside early noughties pop icons Daphne & Celeste, S Club 7 and Richard Blackwood – the bright colours of the Belgian hosts in red and Swedish visitors in yellow and blue seized my attention on the telly after school. Bart Goor and Emile Mpenza got Belgium off to a great start in the opening game of the tournament and with those first ninety minutes, I was sold. I came for the familiar faces of Freddy Ljungberg and Henrik Larsson but stayed for the plaster on Emile Mpenza’s nose.
England’s effort that summer was short-lived. A topsy-turvy loss to the Portuguese in game one – which saw David Beckham provide two magnificent assists with the Adidas Predators I so desperately craved at the time. An Alan Shearer bullet header saw off the Germans in a morale-boosting penultimate win, before another 3-2 loss – this time to Romania – saw the Three Lions crash out after just three games. The memory of Phil Neville’s distraught facial expression after he’d given away the decisive penalty remains seared into my brain to this day.
In Group C, a 4-3 thriller between Spain and Yugoslavia provided some of the most blisteringly enjoyable football I’ve ever seen. The Yugoslavians scored seven times in three games, with former Aston Villa poacher Savo Milosevic getting himself on the score sheet four times in the group stages alone. The sides exchanged a pair of goals in the first half and a second pair after the break before Slavisa Jokanovic found himself on the wrong end of two yellow cards in the 63rd minute. Yugoslavia grabbed an unlikely third despise being a man shy, and Pep Guardiola would have scored a delicate chip from just outside of the eighteen-yard box had it not been for the outstretched hand of Ivica Kralj. It looked like the three points were going home with Yugoslavia and Spain were just going home. Nevertheless, in the final two minutes, the result turned on its head. First, a penalty confidently dispatched by Gaizka Mendieta – which would have sealed the point needed for Spain to progress – then a rifling half-volley from Alfonso, his second of the game, gave the Spaniards the win and first place in the group.
Group D was where I found true joy. Reigning world champions France, with a relatively unchanged squad from those that went all the way on home soil two years previous, made easy work of the Danes in a confidence-boosting 3-0 win, while the Dutch kept the Czechs at bay with a fairly simple 1-0 triumph in Amsterdam, courtesy of a Frank de Boer penalty.
At eight years of age, I was extremely easily influenced when it came to which football teams to follow. Growing up outside Glasgow, I was a Rangers fan as a toddler – before harbouring a faint affinity towards Manchester United after I moved south of the border to Kent, having witnessed their European exploits in 1999. During my early teens, I made multiple trips to Loftus Road and unfortunately fall in love with the club who’d pay real English pounds Sterling to have an impotent Samuel Di Carmine and an ageing Damiano Tomassi on their books – Queens Park Rangers. All this to explain that during the opening stages of Euro 2000 I was effortlessly encouraged by my uncle to back the Dutch – undoubtedly due to the likes of Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Arthur Numan, Ronald de Boer, and their Glasgow Rangers connections.
From their opening game against the Czechs, I fell in love with the Oranje – so much so that I had my mum buy me the home shirt for my birthday later that June even though the only size all:Sports had in stock was an XXL. I still own that shirt to this day. The likes of Patrick Kluivert, Marc Overmars, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Edwin Van Der Sar, and the De Boer twins composed a strong spine convincing pundits and fans alike they could go all the way. Kluivert and co. made easy work of their group, dishing out a further three goals without reply when facing the Danes before flexing their muscles against Les Bleus – coming back from a goal down not once but twice to triumph 3-2.
The knock-out stages were during the height of the golden goal era – a next-goal-wins method of determining a winner after 90 minutes. The golden goal shared such similarities to the way the game was played in the park on weekends it made the professional game feel almost accessible. As you read this you’ll have a faint memory of that one seemingly neverending game you played that one summer. The sun is fading behind the perimeter of trees on the edge of the park, you know your dinner is probably ready. The game you’ve been playing since midday is 64-58, but you’re not entirely sure which team is winning as players have been switching side all afternoon. No referee is checking their watch in the park, so whoever brought the scraped and battered size 5 ball takes it upon themselves to scream “Next goal wins!”. You receive a pass nine yards from goal and slot one past the boy a year older than you, just inside the left jumper acting as a goalpost. You run home. Your potato waffles are getting colder with every stride.
Attempting to recall that European Championship, it seemed like every game at Euro 2000 ended with a winner after 90 minutes – when in fact only the French, during both their semi-final and final victories, reaped the benefits of arguably FIFA’s most charming brainwave.
The Dutch put the Yugoslavians to the sword in the quarter-finals with a 6-1 rout featuring a Kluivert hat-trick. With each strike that hit the back of the net, the man’s grip on my heart clasped ever tighter. The Dutch played with such positivity, such elegance, such creativity, that them losing on home soil seemed unthinkable. Step forward the Italians.
En route to the semi-final, Totti and co had topped their group and dispatched Romania comfortably with two first-half goals in the last eight. They were yet to face a real test. The 90-minutes between the Azurri and the Oranje in Amsterdam remains one of the finest displays of defensive rigidity in international football to this day. Tasked with keeping the likes of Patrick Kluivert, Dennis Bergkamp and Marc Overmars quiet, the Italian job became even harder on the half-hour mark when Gianluca Zambrotta upended Boudewijn Zenden and received his marching orders. The Azzurri packed the defence, dropped Del Piero into midfield, and left Pippo Inzaghi flying solo upfront in an attempt to stifle the hosts.
The second half would prove fruitless for both sides, as would the thirty-minutes of extra time – and so fans were treated to the first penalty shoot-out of the summer. A tale of two Francescos. First, Inter Milan shot-stopper Francesco Toldo palmed away a tame penalty from the usually reliable Frank de Boer before observing as Jaap Stam ballooned his effort wide of the mark and onto the balcony of a neighbouring brothel. A second Francesco, of the Totti variety, stepped up for Italy a minute later. The icon of the eternal city displayed the ice in his veins by calmly chipping his effort straight down the middle as he watched van der Sar helplessly lunge to his right. All Dutch hopes rested on Paul Bosvelt’s shoulders which proved too heavy as his final strike was easily parried by Toldo, thus sending Italy through to the final against the French. The French had scraped past Portugal the previous evening with the help of a golden goal from the talismanic Zinedine Zidane.
The final of Euro 2000 was 103 minutes of football that would transform my enjoyment of the game into an unconditional obsession. I was infatuated with the kits, the players, the fans, the ambience.
Italy, and their all-white Kappa ensemble, took the lead through a Marco Delvecchio goal orchestrated in two parts. First by Francesco Totti – yes, again – who outwitted both Bixente Lizerazu and Zinedine Zidane with a brazen backheel into the path of Gianluca Pessotto down the right-wing. Pessotto subsequently found Delvecchio with a whipped cross and the Roma forward nestled the ball beyond Fabien Barthez. Les Bleus equalized in the dying moments of injury time after forty minutes of resolute Italian defending when Sylvain WIltord rifled a left-footed shot that skimmed the turf and nestled under the squirming body of Francesco Toldo.
The golden goal would once again prove fatal in favour of the French. The ball found itself at the feet of Lizerazu who floated in a cross that evaded two Italian defenders but managed to reach David Trezeguet left of the penalty spot. Trezeguet adjusted his feet, took aim, and smashed the ball into the roof of the net. Seconds later he was tearing his shirt off in celebration. The game was over.
Euro 2000, aided by the golden goal rule, went out with a roaring crescendo. The final took flight with the Italian opener before looking like it might peter out with a drab 1-0 scoreline. Instead, the tournament ended with the most glorious climax – an incredibly romantic and poetic final kick of the game. A month of football soaked in high drama culminated with the most theatrical of conclusions. From the moment the ball left Trezeguet’s foot I pretended to be him. In my garden whipping a Shoot 5 against the wall of the kitchen. In the park blasting a battered old Mitre through rusted-white goal posts. In the car park behind the doctor’s surgery, slamming that same scruffy Mitre against the bottle banks. I was David Trezeguet. I was Patrick Kluivert. I was Francesco Totti. The summer of Euro 2000 transformed everything.