As the European Championships draw ever closer I’ve started to feel rather nostalgic, as it was this very tournament that made me fall in love with football, 16 years ago.
I was a bit of a late starter when it came to having an interest in this sport. I wasn’t dragged to matches as a small child, I wasn’t bought kits that I didn’t ask for and I wasn’t forced along to school football trials. When I turned 10 years old in 1996, I had effectively no interest in the game of football.
Then all that changed.
Many people will recall the rough period in time when they found an interest in the sport, or the player who they first idolised. But I can actually not only remember the precise match, but also the very moment when I suddenly fell in love with the beautiful game.
Oddly enough, it wasn’t the most beautiful of games.
I recall my dad telling me to keep an eye on Scotland against Holland in the opening match of Euro 96, as he was working and wouldn’t be able to watch it. It all seemed rather dull, Scotland defending diligently without creating anything of note at the other end (some things never change). But then, in one fleeting moment, Gary McAllister, I think, struck a shot from a free kick, I think, which Edwin van der Sar palmed away. I jumped up in excitement. What was this odd feeling? Maybe this game wasn’t so dull after all!
Of course the match ended in a respectable goalless draw for the Scots, and although it was hardly the greatest advert for flowing football, I was hooked. Before my dad knew what happened I had my own Panini sticker book, and was busy filling it with the faces of Jürgen Klinsmann, Karel Poborsky, Davor Šuker, Dennis Bergkamp, Peter Schmeichel and many, many more.
Countries which I probably barely even knew existed up until that point were all of a sudden a key interest in my daily life. In all honesty I can’t really remember how good the tournament was as a whole, and looking back, from what I’ve heard and read, it maybe wasn’t the greatest. But at the time it all seemed so exciting, and new. I even went to the shop and bought myself a ‘floater’, as we liked to call them. A near useless plastic football which sat somewhere between a balloon and a proper leather ball, and I began wasting away countless hours in the garden kicking it around, commentating on my own manoeuvres as I did so.
So, with Euro 2012 fast approaching, I managed to get hold of a Euro 96 DVD, showing all of the goals from the tournament. Unfortunately that first match obviously didn’t make the cut, since we didn’t see the back of the net rustle at any point. Nonetheless, it was enjoyable to look back.
It reminded me of the stars who first found their way into my footballing dreams. Hristo Stoichkov, the Bulgarian talisman, dancing through the Romanian defence and scoring a sublime solo effort.
Poborsky lifting a fantastic lob over the Portugese keeper to grab his first international goal.
Davor Šuker scoring an equally brilliant chip against Denmark, making one of the best goalkeepers around, Schmeichel, look rather silly.
And then there was the tension of the penalty kicks. France beating Holland. England beating Spain. Germany beating England. I even caught a glimpse of future Hearts star Vincent Guérin, who dispatched his penalties with aplomb for the French.
Other than the heartache for Scotland, what really stands out in my memory is the performance of the Czech Republic at Euro 96. It was their first appearance at the competition (since the break up of Czechoslovakia) and they were 66/1 outsiders with the bookies going into it. They even lost their opening match, albeit to Germany.
But a sensational win against the giants of Italy, helped by a goal from a young Pavel Nedvěd, set them on their way. An incredible game against Russia in the final group match edged them into the knockout phase. Having been in front 2-0, the Czechs found themselves 3-2 behind with just minutes remaining, until they were saved by future Liverpool star Vladimír Šmicer. The 3-3 draw was enough to seal second place in the group behind Germany.
Although I didn’t really have much in the way of team affiliations at the time, other than Scotland, I found myself entranced by this underdog, upsetting the odds on a fairytale march to the final. I must admit I did immediately take a disliking to England (I guess that must be genetics?), and remember feeling rather chuffed when they crashed out – and desperately disappointed when they turned us over at Wembley.
It was to end in ultimate heartache for the Czechs, as they lost to the cruel ‘golden goal’ (what a rubbish idea that was by the way) against Germany in the final. To make it even worse, Oliver Bierhoff’s winning strike took a horrible deflection off a Czech defender, and was then fumbled by the goalkeeper, before eventually crossing the line.
Fast forward to Euro 2012, and with no Scotland at this tournament I’ve made the decision to once again back the underdogs from the Czech Republic. They are probably one of, if not the, worst team at the finals this year, but I don’t care. They will be MY team (Yes, I’ve forgiven them for cheating Scotland at Hampden!)
OK, I confess. It’s not just nostalgia or rooting for the underdog that have persuaded me to back the Czechs. It’s Rudi Skácel . But surely that’s as good a reason as any?
My love for football has certainly grown since that Summer of 96, and it’s players like Skácel who keep that feeling alive. I even decided to purchase myself a lovely Czech Republic shirt, with the Hearts legend’s name printed on the back.
But all in all I just want to see an exciting and entertaining tournament. One with goals, saves, surprises, tension, nerves, emotion, and hopefully England getting trounced in every match!
Roll on Euro 2012!