‘Thirty years of hurt,’ sang David Baddiel, Frank Skinner and the Lighting Seeds on Three Lions, which shot to number one on release in May 1996. ‘Never stopped me dreaming.’ Like most of the country at that time, they were gazing longingly back at the nineteen sixties; specifically, 1966, the year that the World Cup had arrived in swinging London. By sheer fortune, the 1996 European Championship arrived in England in the summer that Britpop peaked at Knebworth, during the nostalgic frenzy of Cool Britannia. In 1966 of course, England had won the tournament. The coincidence seemed too good to be true. Could it be again?
Many sugar-coated retrospectives of that competition would tell you that it should have been. The concertina effect of memory has distilled England’s run at their home tournament to a series of increasing peaks, right through to the semi-final against Germany. It really, really, really could have happened, were it not for bad luck and those Germans, with their peacock-strutting Andreas Möller.
Reality is another planet. England’s fortunes swung wildly throughout the tournament. After flatlining in the second half of their opening game draw with Switzerland, they struggled again in their second against Scotland. It was the biggest ever fixture between the oldest international rivals and an island of suffocating pressure in the first round. After David Seaman saved Gary McAllister’s penalty Paul Gascoigne, slaughtered by the media for his part in a pre-tournament jolly Hong Kong, then volleyed in the greatest goal of his career to seal the game a minute later.
England goalscorer Paul Gascoigne celebrates in the 'Dentists Chair' with Steve McManaman (l) Teddy Sherringham (obscured) and Jamie Redknapp during the 1996 European Championships group stage match against Scotland at Wembley Stadium on June 15, 1996 in
Image credit: Getty Images
It changed everything. A genuinely stunning 4-1 victory over the Netherlands followed and the piss-up, plus the circling of the wagons thereafter, suddenly became reinvented as team-building masterstroke by coach Terry Venables. Although it wasn’t quite the stuffing of urban legend it was a canny counter-attacking performance and a phenomenal result. England were suddenly on a roll and had hooked in millions of new followers, including several giddily jingoistic tabloid editors.
That euphoria helped to gloss over a quarterfinal against Spain in which England were comprehensively outplayed and should have lost. England landed butter side up on some questionable refereeing decisions and eventually scraped through after winning a penalty shootout. As a spectacle the game had been tense, defensive and low on excitement. It was a microcosm of Euro 96, which was on average the third lowest scoring European Championship in history. The knockout stages, the first in an international tournament to be played under ‘golden goal’ extra-time, yielded just nine goals in seven matches.
At least Wembley had been full. For many of the other matches, especially in the North, there were huge swathes of empty seats. Football might have come home, but it seemed that everyone was in the pub rather than at the match. The sense of event evident at the 2012 London Olympics, where Brits almost crashed the internet just to get a seat at the qualifying rounds of the Greco-Roman wrestling, was nowhere to be found.
One of the saving graces of the tournament was the semi-final between England and Germany. It was a genuinely titanic encounter between the two sides, comparable with anything between them before or since. The feeling that it was a de facto final wasn’t even an Anglocentric view; even Jürgen Klinsmann said as much. He missed the game through injury, and when England went ahead through Alan Shearer the chance to try and end three decades of disappointment was tantalisingly close. Opportunity knocked but England were in the bath. Stefan Kuntz equalised for Germany, and Darren Anderton then Gascoigne failed to convert golden goal chances by a matter of inches. It went to penalties. England had practiced for and scored their first five; Germany matched them, and when Gareth Southgate’s penalty was saved they won it with their sixth.
Germany returned to Wembley four days later to beat the Czech Republic and win their first championship as a unified nation. Berti Vogts’ squad had won the tournament almost from memory, after haemorrhaging so many players through injury and suspension that they had to prepare outfield shirts for their reserve goalkeepers ahead of the final. Their dignity also had to survive a kicking from the British media, with the chief protagonist Piers Morgan plumbing the first of many depths with his ‘Achtung! Surrender’ editorial in the Daily Mirror ahead of the semi-final. When the German squad returned home with the trophy, they sang ‘Three Lions’ on the Römer balcony in Frankfurt. Schadenfreude, like revenge, is a dish best served stone cold.
Beyond English borders Euro 96 was a largely forgettable tournament, which struggled to fill its dimensions as it accommodated sixteen teams for the first time. Italy went in absurdly over-confident and were soon knocked out, while the Dutch had an in-house row, and all fell out. A soon to be legendary French team were callow here and failed to score in four hours of football in their knockout matches. Franz Beckenbauer dismissed them as ‘lily-livered’. For the likes of Romania and Bulgaria it was a tournament too far after the 1994 World Cup, while a green Portuguese team knocked it around beautifully without the necessary whiff of menace in the final third.
Outside of England and Germany only two other teams can really take any fond memories from the tournament. The luxuriously talented Croats made their debut as an international side, emerging out of the horror of the Yugoslav Wars. They had the tournament smitten in their opening games before losing their heads and ultimately their quarter-final with Germany. The Czechs run to the final was the classic punching above your weight story of the underdog, dispatching Italy, Portugal and France while playing on the defensive. They even came within seventeen minutes of winning the tournament before they hit the same, familiar roadblock as England and Croatia before them.
Despite its shortcomings Euro 96 remains a cultural touchstone for the English. With Cool Britannia yet to combust via self-parody and Tony Blair on his quasi-messianic rise to power, the air of jaunty optimism for the eleven days between Gascoigne’s volley and Southgate’s penalty is perhaps the only time where the England team can claim to have genuinely caught the mood of the nation. It also took place off the back of one of the Premier League’s greatest seasons, during which the Bosman ruling came in to force and Sky doubled down on their 1992 investment with a whopping £743 million renewal deal. The globalisation of English football, in reach and make-up, kicked off in tandem with the tournament.
England player Gareth Southgate reacts after missing his penalty during the penalty shoot out, during the European Championship Finals semi final match between England and Germany at Wembley, on June 26, 1996 in London, England. Germany won the match on
Image credit: Getty Images
Euro 96 also changed England’s relationship with its national side. The days of England playing to echoes at a Wembley less than half full, as they did in most of Venables’ warm up games, were gone forever. A gentrification process started by Gascoigne’s tears in 1990 was suddenly accelerated, with incessant media coverage of the game required to satiate a slobbering new audience. Euro 96 was the last time England were simply knocked out of an international tournament. Southgate’s penalty miss was forgivable, at least until he made light of it in a Pizza Hut commercial months later. Most tournament exits since then has been accompanied by a similarly hysterical reaction, and the brutal scapegoating of individuals like David Beckham or Swiss referee Urs Meier. The England team quickly transmogrified into a reality TV show, mirroring the national obsession with celebrity culture, and reached an embarrassing nadir with the circus around the England camp at Baden-Baden in the 2006 World Cup.
The image of Gascoigne lunging at that chance of an open, golden goal in extra-time against Germany represents the moment where England were closest to reaching their first major tournament final since 1966, a window that opened and then closed in a heartbeat. Since that night England have banked an additional 24 years of hurt, a junk pile of missed penalties, mistakes and shattered dreams. Southgate is now in charge of the national side, and seemingly intent on tapping into his own international experiences to rebuild England’s approach both on and off the field. He has put together a vibrant and attacking young team, who seem less detached from their public than some teams that went before them. And yet, in their two semi-finals under Southgate to date, England wilted badly and fell to defeat in extra-time to Croatia at the 2018 World Cup and the Netherlands in the 2019 Nations League Finals
It seems an obvious enough choice to relive this particular tournament, given the psychological hold that Euro 96 still exerts on the country. Yet anyone under thirty will have no memory of that summer, so it will be interesting to see how the football is received when it is revisited away from the cultural context in which it originally took place. For everyone that does remember it, hoping and dreaming that something better might be possible, as people did in 1996, is a spirit worth tapping into right now.
This is a revised version of an article originally published in June 2016. When Football Came Home: England, the English and Euro 96 by Michael Gibbons can be purchased here.