Euro 1996 – Why we shouldn’t pine for the summer that football came home
England’s last great run in a major international tournament garners more nostalgia with every subsequent exit, while other aspects of mid-nineties Britain have long since lost their lustre. Why is Euro 1996 so celebrated and does it deserve football fans’ goodwill? Bradford Watson looks beyond the hype to examine the legacy of the 1996 European Championship.
The English often hark back to some halcyon time of England which relates, explicitly or not, to empire and the influence the country wielded globally throughout previous centuries. A complex has been formed on a national scale, whether invented or stoked by the media, which is a kind of mix of wilful nostalgia for the past, boiling over into frustration at the perceived impotency and decline of the modern nation.
As this problem is so often synthesised by the media, so too was the short palliate period in the mid-nineties, known as Cool Britannia, a concoction of fila trackies, coke and Kula Shaker singles, pulled together by the hungry daily tabloid press and the burgeoning lad mag set. Cool Britannia was supposedly a time when Britons could feel proud again. The country was re-establishing itself as a monolith of culture and politics. Our music was flourishing, our art was renowned worldwide and selling for small fortunes, our films were breaking box office records and there was a fresh-faced Labour prime minister-elect waiting in the wings to usher this wave of optimism through to the new millennium. Many of the key figures from this time fell from grace pretty quickly, exposed by the sulphate glare, or have since been discredited. We took the promising, gave them too much attention, and nastily turned on them when they couldn’t live up to our archaic sense of elitism.
In the middle of the Cool Britannia period (roughly stretching from the release of Oasis’ Definitely Maybe to Lady Diana’s death) lay the European Championship, hosted by England over the course of June 1996. The semi-finalist England team is an anomaly to the backlash. In the twenty years that have since passed, the team has been canonised as one of the greatest bunch of boys to ever represent Queen and Country. The framing and reframing of this tournament and the England team is exemplar of papering over some very deep cracks, then wilfully exposing said cracks and whacking up the wallpaper once more.
Alan Shearer’s recent documentary is the latest in a long line of myopia that establishes him and his teammates as tragic heroes and the tournament as a glorious occasion. That’s not to say that all of the low points are glossed over, hence it is almost mandatory to begin with the Three Lions’ pre-tourney ‘team-bonding’ sash in Hong Kong. The dentists’ chair piss-up and ensuing damage caused on the flight back to Heathrow are used as evidence to highlight what a state our lads were in early doors, and to emphasise their transformation into heroes. We can have a good chuckle about it now, as it was just lads being lads at the dawning of lad culture (and anyway, it did them no harm on the field).
This was a kind of sterilized, glamour version of the macho culture that had engulfed English players for much of the 1980s. The tabloid media worked up a kind of faux outrage like they knew that pictures of the England players with shirts ripped, necking spirits in a club would boost circulation.
This was a kind of sterilized, glamour version of the macho culture that had engulfed English players for much of the 1980s. The tabloid media worked up a kind of faux outrage like they knew that pictures of the England players with shirts ripped, necking spirits in a club would boost circulation. As distasteful as the players’ behaviour was, it was also a tier removed from the hard-drinking culture of the previous decade and the beginning of the nineties that to all extents and purposes had been watered down.
Loaded’s lad culture had infantilized a generation of young men, encapsulated by the Peter Pan-esque Gazza, a man-child who refused to grow up. The result was that it made it easier to accept the smashed up Cathay Pacific plane as the high jinks of unreconstructed but lovable males, not professional footballers. So while the tabloids were quick to put the boot in, it was not heartfelt, rather it was manufactured to sell papers. The over-arching culture was in-step with the players, as we had seen the same behaviour with the Gallagher brothers, Damien Hirst etc. It was a glossed up kind of partying that occurred in in louche clubs and bars out of which we’d seen celebrities we so admired stumbling from, and that made it more acceptable.
That the Hong Kong snafu is even allowed a place in the Euro 1996 story is because it has been recast from shameful romp to ground zero for one of the finest international runs an England team has made since 1966. When myopia seeps into the fans conscious it can obscure an awful lot. This England team was certainly modern and flexible – very few other teams in the tournament utilised wingers, and those that did couldn’t match the calibre of Darren Anderton and Steve McManaman. Although without a heavy helping of luck (and Uri Geller’s, um, talents?) they may not have survived the group stages. Fortunate to escape Switzerland with a draw after Marco Grassi hit the crossbar, Scotland were as good as them for much of the game, and in the quarter-final another referee may not have called the offside for Spain’s legitimate goal. The quarter-final climaxed with that rarest of sights, an English penalty shootout triumph, further proof that the Three Lions were on a roll. This remains their solitary shootout victory in major tournaments.
But the summer of 1996 was no time for cynicism or close analysis of the subject. The results and restoring of national pride were what mattered and as the group stages drew to a close, the tabloid media were back on side in a big way. The emphatic 4-1 win over the Netherlands in the final group game seemed to galvanise the dailies out of their wilful nostalgia and into a nationalism that seeped uncomfortably into xenophobia, overlooking the poor calibre of the Dutch opposition that had failed to score against huge underdogs Scotland during their group stage encounter. As the knockout rounds ramped up, so too did the editorials in the Sun and the Mirror. Military rhetoric linking the England team to soldiers in war naturally demands an opponent or enemy and Piers Morgan, then editor of the Mirror, had an inexhaustible mine of stereotypes, listing the worst things Spain had given to the world, including the inquisition and carpet bombing, and doubling back to the war for the infamous ‘Achtung Surrender’ back page in the build up to the Germany semi-final.
It is difficult to tell if the Mirror thought they were capturing the mood of the nation or if they spurred the nation on. However, it is not a stretch to link the rioting that occurred during the tournament to this prevailing nationalistic streak. Prior to the England-Scotland game there were rumblings of trouble, which spilled out around Soho after the English prevailed. The worst would occur in Trafalgar Square with flag-draped fans attacking German brands of cars and clashing with riot police following their semi-final exit on penalties. A Russian man, mistaken as German, was stabbed in Sussex, and looting and violence took place in the West Midlands and other areas. Collective responsibility, the ubiquitous phrase from the beginning of the tournament, was missing at its death as the tabloid press refused to acknowledge their part in stoking the nationalist flames to the point of fever pitch.
This was the ugly side of British pride that had been cultivated under the Cool Britannia facade. A fragile peace had existed amongst the travelling England supporters. In February 1995 many fans were banned for life after the Landsdowne Road riots, organized by Combat 18, had forced a friendly with the Republic of Ireland to be stopped in the middle of the first half. That this called into question England’s hosting of the European Championship meant that a quick fix was needed to, if not root out the fascist hooligan firms, then at least ensure they did not appear on the television coverage of the tournament.
This called for something akin to the marketing smoke and mirrors used to great effect by Tony Blair’s budding New Labour brand. Just as their corporate-friendly policies and courting of Mondeo Man were seen as a land grab on Conservative territory, so too did the Football Association’s attempt to put a gloss on the supporters attending Euro 1996 games by implementing a complicated and expensive package system for purchasing tickets. ‘Look,’ they were shouting, ‘we’ve gotten rid of all the hoodlums and the down-at-heel so it’s definitely safe again.’
This was the ugly side of British pride that had been cultivated under the Cool Britannia facade. A fragile peace had existed amongst the travelling England supporters. In February 1995 many fans were banned for life after the Landsdowne Road riots, organized by Combat 18, had forced a friendly with the Republic of Ireland to be stopped in the middle of the first half.
Of course the England games were all sold out, with many of the tickets going to hospitality and corporate seats. It was a shoehorning in of the middle class to the game, pricing out previous generations of supporters to foster the allure of wholesome family day or somewhere to take your clients for some vol-au-vents and a Becks. As we have seen during the tournament, and since, the trouble still existed, maybe not as lustily as it had in Ireland, but the threat of violence was and still remains there, no matter how much the tickets cost. By narrowing the limitations, they managed to superficially airbrush out some of the problems, but not for long.
Many of the stands in the rest of the games were patchy at best, with UEFA doing their best to make some money by implementing a complicated and unappealing package system; you could watch your team play but you also had to purchase tickets for x,y and z games as well, to see teams that often weren’t even in the same group as your own. One of the few stand out games of the tournament, Czech Republic’s 3-3 draw with Russia, was watched by just 21,128 people at Anfield. If the dawning of the super-moneyed consumerist football culture was Sky’s entry into TV coverage in the early nineties, this was the first tangible sign that fans were being pushed to the margins to make way for money.
And, dear God, the football was poor. The English delusion spread to envelope the entire tournament, with the FA website calling it “a month of fantastic football,” which even the most optimistic could not repeat with a straight face. Formations were narrow, producing convoluted passages of play in which playmakers could not prosper. The knockout stage was one of the lowest scoring for an international tournament. The introduction of the golden goal rule, far from achieving its ambition of opening up games, lead to a lot of cagey football played by teams holding out for penalties. Of the seven knockout games that were played, three were goalless, four were decided by shootout and only nine goals were scored in total.
Established stars such as Hristo Stoichkov and Gheorghe Hagi shone briefly but were by and large unable to fulfil the hype. A lot of player of the tournament candidates going in – Jurgen Klinsmann, Michael Laudrup, Gianfranco Zola – were ageing, while the younger crop was not quite ready. Zinedine Zidane, who would blossom at the 1998 World Cup, played his first major tournament here, as did Luis Figo, while British attention focussed closer to home on Alan Shearer and Steve McManaman. European football was stuck in limbo, not quite ready to let the young talent take over, the past greats no longer fit to carry the mantle.
Paucity of talent elsewhere should have been sign enough that this England team, as was thought at the time, would not go on to compete for a couple more tournaments. Other teams regrouped and England hasn’t been as far in a tournament since. Like our bands, our art and politics from the era, this was a peak masquerading as the come-up. All of the hype, some of it true, most manufactured, amounted to little more than a fun summer. And that’s fine. But the nasty pervasive aspects of xenophobia, vacuous sloganeering and the injection of money into football has been overshadowed by nostalgia for 1996. Let’s keep our Fila trackies and Kula Shaker singles locked away where they belong.