Dan Hodges: This English team is pants, but as an Englishman I am still determined to enjoy Euro 2012
AT long last, the waiting is almost over. Tomorrow the Euro 2012 football championships open, with the titanic clash between co-hosts Poland and 2004 winners Greece. The match the neutrals have been praying for.
I can’t remember the last time the start of a major football tournament filled me with less enthusiasm. Come to think of it, I was more excited by Euro 2008, and that’s despite Scott Carson and the Wally with the Brolly ensuring England didn’t even qualify.
Part of my antipathy is a product of the choice of venue. For reasons best known to themselves, European football’s governing body have opted to hold their showcase tournament in a part of the continent so riddled with racism that ethnic minority supporters have been advised not to travel there. “Make us dream,” said UEFA President Michel Platini yesterday, in a statement that jarred a touch with Sol Campbell’s rather starker entreaty to "stay at home. Watch it on TV. Don't risk it, because you could find yourself coming back in a coffin.” Advice, incidentally, that the families of at least two black England players have heeded.
But then it’s hard to criticise Uefa for their lack of anti-racist rigour when the England squad have just jetted off with a player currently charged under a racially aggravated public order offence, leaving the alleged victim’s brother to sit at home and watch the whole thing on the telly. I’d be interested to know how FA officials explained that one to Zigi Shipper, who gave the team a talk about his experiences in the Nazi concentration camps before they departed for the base in Krakow, and a planned visit to Auschwitz. “Players are role models. They have to understand what happened at Auschwitz and to speak out against intolerance. Look what happened to them in Spain in 2004 when they were abused. We have to stop that,” said Shipper. Quite.
Then there are the on-field issues. Injuries: the perennial problem of how to play Steven Gerrard alongside Frank Lampard has now been resolved; Lampard’s crocked. Suspensions: Wayne Rooney will be unavailable for the opening two games, though he will be eligible for the clash against Ukraine, where the nation can only pray he replicates the form he showed in 2004 in Portugal. Or at least manages to avoid the form he’s shown in the past two World Cups.
Finally, there is the realisation that, injuries and suspensions aside, this England team is pants. Or, if not quite that bad, certainly on paper the weakest side to represent the country in a major finals since Ron Greenwood took Trevor Cherry, Mick Mills and co off to get tear-gassed in Turin in 1980. “I don’t think we are in a situation where at the moment as a country we can go out there and outplay too many teams,” admitted Gareth Southgate in yesterday's Telegraph. Which is a bit troubling, given he’s set to become the FA’s new technical director. “We rarely out-possess other countries, so we’ve got to think logically about how we set up and the best way to get results,” Southgate added, a touch cryptically.
But you know what; sod it. We are where we are. Once we had the Golden Generation, and look where that got us. This is set to be a tournament, and England team, for the times. No more golden football. We will be playing Austerity Football.
Screw eastern Europe’s plastic fascists. Screw the UEFA and FA bureaucrats. Screw John Terry. I’m going to enjoy Euro 2012 if it kills me.
I’ve had enough of seeing my hopes dashed on the rocks of yet another penalty shoot-out. This time I know there is no hope. Ours is not a team of world beaters, or even Euro beaters. We are a ragtag bunch of kids, has-beens and never-were-going-to-bes.
I know Andy Caroll has a Heskey-like eye for goal. That Theo Walcott cannot turn left when he reaches the byline. That Ashley Cole no longer has the pace to outrun a Chelsea pensioner. It doesn’t matter. Freed from the shackles of expectation I can embrace them, warts, lack of defensive cohesion and all.
Plus there’s Roy Hodgson. The new gaffer reads Philip Roth and John Updike, loves Georges Bizet's The Pearl Fishers and speaks Korean. Hell, the man even speaks English.
These next three weeks are going to be my Glastonbury, my Jubilee and Olympics all rolled into one. After the semi-final of Euro '96 I ended up in tears sitting in the middle of Trafalgar Square, and nearly got carted off by the riot police. When Michael Owen scored his famous goal against Argentina I momentarily passed out. Not this time. I shall be giving the boys my all, but with joy, not fear, in my heart.
For once there can be no disappointments or recriminations. Hope does not spring eternal, but instead will be spending its time planted rigidly within a makeshift flat back four. Phil Jagielka, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jack Butland and I are off on an unforgettable journey. Come join us.