Spirit of 96

Natasha Chahal

I don’t remember how I filled my time before I fell in love with football, but I know there was a significant gap between France 1998 and Brazil 2014. This isn’t uncommon for women of my generation (and perhaps other generations); to have felt forced to pick between a tomboyish devotion to the game and a shot at ever getting a boyfriend. I made my choice. Looking back, I should have stuck with Footix.

The big international tournaments in previous summers have been entirely unavoidable, but if you wanted to escape Euro 2020, my feeling is you probably could. My local streets are not lined with flags. I’ve only been to the pub (social distancing, masks) to watch one game so far. As I walked down the road in my England shirt, no cars hooted.

The opening ceremony at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome last Friday was distinctly evocative of the opening ceremony for Italia 90, a tournament England fans don’t like to be reminded of but also can’t stop talking about. The spectacle, the props, Andrea Bocelli doing his best to reprise Pavarotti’s performance of ‘Nessun Dorma’ – it’s the closest I’ll get to overseas travel this year.

‘He can look like God’s gift to the Union Jack soccer hooligan,’ Karl Miller wrote of Paul Gascoigne in July 1990, ‘and yet he can look sweet … He is sure to suffer from the intensified media build-up and cut down that awaits him. But at present, in his early twenties, he is magic, and fairy-tale magic at that.’ The LRB dedicated a front cover to Gascoigne’s tears in Turin in 1990. This year the England midfielder Phil Foden seemed to have dedicated an entire haircut to Gascoigne in an attempt to re-create his ‘Euro 96 vibes’. Foden claims it was inadvertent but doesn’t seem to mind the nickname ‘Stockport Gazza’. Gascoigne has reminded everyone that he was a better player ‘even when drunk’.

Amid the theatre we were neatly reminded that football is mostly about the money when a small, remote-controlled Volkswagen car delivered the ball in the inaugural match between Turkey and Italy. The company was soon trending on Twitter. During a press conference Cristiano Ronaldo knocked a few billion dollars off Coca-Cola’s market value by moving a Coke bottle out of shot and asking for ‘agua’. UEFA has asked players not to move drinks during press conferences, and the Ukrainian player Andriy Yarmolenko has asked Coke to get in touch, he at least is open for sponsorship. During France v. Germany on Tuesday, a Greenpeace stunt aimed at Volkswagen went wrong when a protester parachuting into the stadium ended up injuring two people.

Elsewhere on the pitch Hungary v. Portugal played to a stadium in Budapest at full capacity. The home crowd didn’t help the hosts: Portugal won 3-0 (and Ronaldo’s two goals made him the all-time top scorer at the Euros). Austria’s Marko Arnautović faced a one-match ban after an insulting outburst towards North Macedonia, despite his teammate David Alaba’s best efforts to force his mouth shut. And, in shocking scenes, Denmark’s Christian Eriksen suffered a cardiac arrest in their game against Finland. The BBC later issued an apology for continuing to broadcast as Eriksen was given CPR on the pitch, but also said they were not responsible for in-stadium coverage. Eriksen now appears to be making a good recovery though it’s unclear if he will ever return to football.

The most improved player of the contest so far has undoubtedly been VAR (the video assistant referee). Tested extensively during Russia 2018 and responsible for ruining Premier League matches ever since, VAR has become much more tolerable, thanks in part to the arrival of AVAR (the assistant video assistant referee).

Later today Scotland take on England at Wembley. In 1872 the two nations faced one another in Glasgow in the first ever international recognised by FIFA (a scoreless draw). There had been previous games but most of the Scotland players in those came from London. England are odds-on to win this evening. Scotland have already faced defeat this week, going down 2-0 to the Czech Republic, despite the best efforts of Liverpool’s left-back, Andy Robertson. The Scotland and Derby County goalkeeper, David Marshall, got caught in his own net after trying in vain not to concede Patrik Schick’s wonder goal.

‘I don’t think we need to be burdened by history,’ the England manager, Gareth Southgate, said in 2018. ‘We can use the past to inspire us and to learn from.’ He must have been thinking less of 1872 than Euro 96, when he missed a penalty against Germany which cost England their place in the final. Scotland may have that tournament on their minds, too: they lost 2-0 to England at Wembley in their second group match.

Heavy June rain is hitting my window as I write, and will be taking its toll on the Wembley grass. The game threatens to be a messy one, hard fought if the kilts that descended on Kings Cross Station last night are anything to go by. I only hope Phil Foden hasn’t cursed himself. The tournament seems haunted by the spirit of both 1990 and 1996. Soon we may be begging for some long-winded VAR action to remind us that it is indeed Euro 2020.


  • 20 June 2021 at 7:02pm
    Simon Wood says:
    Paul Gascoigne didn't mind making a fool of himself, in fact he was a traditional British comedian. Part of England's corporate style now is you don't do anything your mates might laugh at.