Friday 13 December 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: To the day I die I will remember the roar that went up at 2.36pm on June 12, 1988

‘Ronnie Whelan’s acrobatic shin kick against Russia transported us into even more wonderful realms of utter implausibility’ Photo: Sportsfile
‘Ronnie Whelan’s acrobatic shin kick against Russia transported us into even more wonderful realms of utter implausibility’ Photo: Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

It's not the World Cup. Or the Olympics. But what else is bigger than the European Championships? The Rugby World Cup? Please. All the teams in the European Championships can, after all, actually play football.

Our continent's tournament is not that diminished by comparison to the world competition. In terms of the business end of things you're just talking about the removal of Brazil and Argentina. And there are times when the European Championships have been the better of the two, perhaps because the smaller number of teams involved has provided a more concentrated and intense experience which lacks the pomp rock bloat of its grander cousin.

The Euros haven't always been such a big deal. While I can still vividly remember the details of many matches from the 1974 and 1978 World Cups, I have to admit that I have no memory of Czechoslovakia winning the 1976 European title. Back then the finals were pretty low-key. Only four teams participated and it took less than a week to wrap the whole thing up. The contrast with the World Cup was enormous.

But in 1980 UEFA decided to push the boat out and were rewarded with what remains, beyond dispute, the worst football tournament in history. Cesar Luis Menotti, the cadaverous chain-smoking boss of reigning world champs Argentina, nailed it with his comment: "Europa 80? They should have called it Europa 80 per cent. 80 per cent rubbish." He was probably 20 per cent too kind.

Those finals in Italy are the only ones where the goals-per-game average dipped below two. The spirit of the tournament was summed up by a remorselessly negative Belgian team who made the final after scoring three goals in three games and lost 2-1 to West Germany. The only real highlights were a sublime performance from that great eccentric genius of German football, Bernd Schuster, in his side's win over Holland and seeing the English hooligans get the mother of all tear-gassings from the Italian police.

The famine of 1980 was followed by the feast of 1984 which seemed like a European version of the 1970 World Cup. With the exception of Diego Maradona's tour de force in Mexico two years later, no individual has so completely dominated a tournament as Michel Platini did on his home turf. The great midfielder finished with nine goals from five games and a French team which was to the 1980s what Holland were to the '70s, a magnificent outfit who fell just short at the World Cup, were rewarded with a European crown.

France's semi-final victory over Portugal may well be the most thrilling of all European matches. 2-1 down with seven minutes left in extra-time, France conjured up two goals, Platini getting the winner at the death.

To the day I die I will remember the roar that went up at 2.36pm on June 12, 1988. I was watching the match on TV in a nurses' home in South London and as Ray Houghton's header dropped into the net shouts and cheers rang from every corner of the building. There followed 84 minutes of torture before one singular moment of ecstasy when the final whistle went.

Ronnie Whelan's acrobatic shin kick against Russia transported us into even more wonderful realms of utter implausibility before Wim Kieft's flukey header restored some reality to the scenario. But everything that has happened subsequently in terms of Irish sporting hysteria stems from that one moment in Stuttgart. Holland won the tournament and Marco van Basten scored a pretty good goal in the final apparently.

No doubt if I was Danish I'd have the same kind of special feeling about the 1992 tournament but in reality most of those finals in Sweden were pretty poor stuff. It began with seven goals in the first eight games and though things picked up a bit, you can understand why after this European finals the backpass was consigned to the dustbin of history. About the most interesting thing to happen in the first phase was Basile Boli's headbutt on Stuart Pearce.

Denmark prevented things from being a complete washout, the ball-at-the-end-of-a-string dribbling of Brian Laudrup and the goalkeeping of Peter Schmeichel being the key components of victory for the rank outsiders.

The Euros, like the World Cup, have long been a treasure trove for connoisseurs of English sporting disaster but it has to be admitted that our neighbours were the best team at the 1996 tournament. Which only makes their agonising demise at the hands of Germany in the semi-final all the more delightful, I mean heartbreaking.

England aside, there wasn't much to cheer about at this one. The Czech Republic's 0-0 semi-final draw with France is a good contender for most boring game in championship history and even though the Czechs won on penalties they were short about half their first-choice team for the final against Germany who still took a long time to beat them. Player of the tournament was veteran workhorse, midfielder Dieter Eilts of Werder Bremen, which says it all really.

But as had happened in 1984, a terrible tournament was succeeded by a great one, perhaps the greatest of them all. And once more it was France who triumphed, the world champions having to go to the pin of their collars to overcome first Portugal in the semis and then Italy in the final. It was a tournament of outstanding teams, the final four would easily have won the previous two competitions.

No-one had looked better than Holland whose 6-1 quarter-final victory over Yugoslavia matched anything from the great days of Cruyff and Neeskens. In the semi-final, a nine-man Italy's frustration of the Dutch matched anything from the great days of cattenacio. David Trezeguet's thumping finish for the goal that won the final was a fitting coda to a wonderful four weeks in the Lowlands.

Before Leicester City came along, Greece's victory, when ranked 15th out of 16 teams, in the 2004 championships in Portugal seemed the ultimate proof of football's unpredictability. Otto Rehhagel's team were not a particularly positive outfit but that didn't seem to matter because (a) the fairytale was so irresistible and (b) there was plenty of attacking football elsewhere. Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic announced their arrivals on the world stage, the Czechs, Milan Baros in particular, sparkled and the host nation's victories over Spain and Holland were the games of the tournament.

But in the end no-one could match the Greeks whose victory had come to seem fated even before they turned Portugal over in the final.

Then 2008 was another great one as Luis Aragones unveiled the Spanish team which would dominate world and European soccer for the next six years. Yet much of the drama was contributed by the two bottom sides in the seedings. A thrilling gutsy Turkish team beat Switzerland in the second minute of injury-time and scored twice in the last three minutes against the Czechs to make the knockout stages. In the quarter-final they equalised against Croatia in the second minute of injury-time in extra-time and beat them on penalties.

By now utterly banjaxed with injuries, they put up a tremendous battle against Germany in the semi before losing 3-2 to, inevitably, a last-minute goal. Russia's 3-1 quarter-final win over Holland saw one of the great individual finals performances from Andrei Arshavin who then hardly got a kick in the semi against Spain. Talk about foreshadowing the rest of your career.

After all the drama of the preceding three tournaments, 2012 was a slight let-down. My Ireland memory this time is of silence, the silence on the streets before the nation went indoors to watch our opener against Croatia, the silence afterwards as everyone went home early in a state of shock at just how far off the pace we were. The good was also knocked out of it a bit when neither of the two host nations, Poland and the Ukraine, made it out of the group stage.

Spain played their finest football ever to destroy Italy in the final, the Azzurri earlier having shocked Germany as Mario Balotelli, a kind of Mediterranean Arshavin, enjoyed his finest hour. The great also-rans of this tournament, Portugal, should have beaten their Iberian neighbours in the semi but let them off the hook and lost on penalties. England Brexited on penalties yet again and Nicholas Bendtner got fined €100,000 for revealing his sponsored underpants when he scored against Portugal. Say what you like about Paddy Power, they're optimists.

Now here we are again. If it's unlikely that it'll be as good as 2000, it's also certain that it won't be as bad as 1980. Maybe someone will mould the tournament in their own image a la Platini or maybe a team who've hardly been mentioned in the preamble will do a Greece on it. And maybe, just maybe, Ireland will do something to spark a revival of those wild communal celebrations from the Charlton years.

Above all, you'd hope that the name we remember after this tournament isn't that of some failed pickpocket who, even as we speak, is putting the finishing touches to an IED in thanks for the religious conversion he experienced during his last stint in jail.

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