During an unprecedented time in all our lives, the significance of football has been placed firmly into perspective. Despite various 24-hour news channels releasing the latest numbers of those infected in the manner of Sky Sports News announcing Arsenal’s net transfer spend, the gravity of the current situation cannot be understated.
However, the current break from football is an ideal opportunity to wallow in the game’s nostalgia. Finally dipping into their extensive archive, the BBC recently broadcasted their full coverage of England’s 4-2 win over Croatia at Euro 2004.
There was much here to delight the senses; a sun-draped Estadio da Luz in Lisbon, the atmosphere created by 40,000 England fans (the majority the colour of boiled lobsters), John Motson’s commentary and the punditry of Alan Hansen. All this ensured an afternoon basking in the warm glow of a time where life’s existential questions centred around the decision to play Paul Scholes on the left of midfield.
The broadcast was accompanied by countless posts on social media lamenting how England’s ‘golden generation’ line-up failed to win an international tournament. These were usually made by people in their twenties – fans who would not have even started secondary school during Euro 2004 flummoxed by the inability of a line-up full of Premier League legends failing to progress past the quarter-finals. Inevitably, the truth is more nuanced.
In fairness, there is an argument that Euro 2004 was the tournament that got away. Traditional giants Germany and Italy failed to make it out of the group stages. Spain, pre-Tika Taka, also flopped in the first round while favourites France were knocked out in the quarter-finals.
Above all, this was a tournament won by a Greek team that seemed to solely consist of balding and slow journeymen but actually produced three tactically perfect performances in the knockout rounds. Looking back, an open tournament and underdog winner meant many nations departed with feelings of regret.
However, claiming that England should have won the tournament requires a significant amount of revisionism. Reports at the time, while stressing the heart-breaking nature of the defeat to Portugal, also raised mitigating factors that demonstrate that England were further away from glory than received wisdom now suggests.
For example, the tactics of Sven Goran Eriksson came in for significant criticism. The game against France, which saw England clinging on to the lead with a desperation not seen since David Brent’s Comic Relief dance, was more reminiscent of a mismatched FA Cup tie. It certainly unnerved ITV commentator Clive Tyldesley, who proclaimed midway through the second half that ‘Arsenal are making a substitution’ when Robert Pires was withdrawn.
While Eriksson had enjoyed an extended honeymoon in the England job, serious questions were being asked by 2004. Rob Smyth wrote in The Guardian that an underlying negative philosophy defined England’s performances in Portugal which ‘marked Eriksson’s reign as England coach’. Lillian Thuram, centre-back in the French team, said he could not believe how negatively England had played against his country. Against Switzerland, England produced their worst football of the tournament when 1-0 ahead. In the quarter-final, there seemed to be no attacking impetus after Wayne Rooney limped off injured.
Therefore, the Croatia match demonstrated a selective illusion about England’s performances at Euro 2004. Trailing to an early Robert Kovac goal, the team could not afford to grimly defend a narrow advantage for extended periods. When Saturday Comes archly noted in their tournament review that the game saw ‘all tactics abandoned, with both teams steaming up and down the field trying to score goals’. While this made for an enthralling match, it does indicate a team without the tactical maturity to pace themselves through an international tournament.
Also, for a team focused on defence, the observation in When Saturday Comes that England’s defending was ‘so haphazard that they never inspired confidence’ is telling. Greece kept three successive clean sheets on their way to the title.
The main reason some look back on Euro 2004 as a missed opportunity for England is primarily the quality of the individual talent at their disposal. While the team did possess some world-class players, others were not quite the finished article in 2004. Consequently, people looking back may not realise that this team was less than its sum of parts.
Take John Terry for instance. Undeniably a Chelsea legend and a player who was excellent for England in the 2006 World Cup. However, two years previously Terry lacked experience at international level. Scott Murray wrote that, despite Terry possessing obvious talent, his performance in the Champions League semi-final defeat to Monaco that year meant that his selection was questionable. In truth, England missed the banned Rio Ferdinand in this tournament, although missing a random drugs test does demonstrate a level of forgetfulness undesired in a centre back.
The two established world-class players in the Euro 2004 side were David Beckham and Michael Owen. Time has diminished the assessment of both player’s ability – Beckham’s profile means it is sometimes forgotten how talented he was as a footballer while Owen’s injury record and lampooned punditry render his goal record somewhat overlooked.
Neither shone at this tournament. While Owen scored an excellent poacher’s goal against Portugal, he was overshadowed by the performances of strike partner Wayne Rooney. The reason he escaped more scrutiny was because Beckham was adjudged to have played even worse. The BBC declared him England’s biggest disappointment, observing he looked ‘lightweight and jaded’ and performed poorly when it mattered. Carlos Queiroz, his manager during his debut season at Real Madrid, said Beckham’s lack of fitness was the player’s own fault.
Beckham missed two penalties in Portugal; one against France that left England vulnerable to their eventual late defeat and one skied over the bar in the quarter-final shootout. Peter Reid, working as a pundit for the BBC, said Beckham should have been substituted against Portugal rather than Steven Gerrard. It can be argued that England stood no chance of winning Euro 2004 while their underperforming captain and star player was indulged in the starting line-up.
This is not to say some England players did not have outstanding tournaments. It is impossible to talk about Euro 2004 and not mention Wayne Rooney, the competition’s outstanding young player. Scoring four goals in the group stage, while also terrorising France in the opening game, it was Rooney’s performances that engineered such hope that England had the momentum all tournament winners need.
Frank Lampard, years before his name on the team sheet provoked nothing but weariness, scored three goals in Portugal and had his best tournament in an England shirt. Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole were brilliant in defence – Cole’s success man-marking Cristiano Ronaldo against Portugal was labelled one of the best ever individual international performances by his teammates.
However, the defining image of England’s tournament came in injury time against France. Reeling from Zinedine Zidane’s equaliser, the correct thing to do would have been to keep the game tight, minimise individual mistakes and ensure the team took something from the game. In this context, Gerrard’s suicidal back pass to Thierry Henry (who was bought down by David James for the game’s decisive penalty) reveals much about this England team. Liable to panic under pressure, this was a team who did not just shoot themselves in the foot but hacked it off with a rusty chainsaw.
To win an international tournament, you need the ability to think calmly under pressure. Perhaps because English players in this era were poorly coached from birth and were not quite as accomplished as the Premier League hype made out, the team did not have the ability to do so. For example, the game against Switzerland was marked in the words of one reporter by ‘scores of misplaced passes and total lack of movement’ despite the 3-0 victory. Evidence indicates that this England team were significant steps away from glory.
Maybe the belief that England should have won Euro 2004 comes from the fact that this was as good as it got for Sven and the Golden Generation. At the 2002 World Cup, a tournament where England acquitted themselves well and performed above expectations, the team contained many players below international class (Danny Mills, Trevor Sinclair, Emile Heskey). At Germany 2006, the height of the Golden Generation hype, England’s performances were welcomed with the enthusiasm of finding a dead slug in your sandwich.
In 2004, the team did not play objectively badly but were still not quite as good as received wisdom would now have it.
Besides, there were other teams who would regard the tournament as a missed opportunity. Sweden’s strong side was also edged out in a quarter-final penalty shootout. Hosts Portugal, bolstered by members of Porto’s Champions League-winning team, grew stronger as the competition progressed and were crestfallen to be beaten in the final by Greece.
However, an excellent Czech Republic team have the most reason to be wistful about Euro 2004. Containing the competition’s leading goalscorer Milan Baros, a midfield containing Pavel Nedved, Tomas Rosicky and Karel Poborsky and a young Petr Cech in goal, the Czechs were the most attractive side in the tournament. Their group stage win over Holland was a strong contender for the best international game this century. Alas, they were another team squeezed out by the Greeks – victims of international football’s only ‘silver goal’.
Not that any of this detracted from an enjoyably diverting Saturday afternoon. Although, while many people look at England’s line-up and question how the team never won Euro 2004, a closer look at the team’s performances show that England possessed neither the tactical astuteness nor the coolness under pressure to succeed in international football.
Every now and then, the football gods like to remind us why we love this game so much. And...