Saturday 7 June ~
The last time that England failed to reach a major tournament, the World Cup in 1994, football was far less ubiquitous than it is today. There was satellite coverage of the Premier League but there were relatively few subscribers and the internet was almost unheard of. So, as Graham Taylor said to his coaching staff as they watched England go a goal down in Norway in a 1993 World Cup qualifier, this is a test. Will the home of football tune in to Euro 2008?
A Guardian poll yesterday revealed that 58 per cent of respondents thought that Euro 2008 would be better without England, although they weren't asked if they would be watching. Other surveys have suggested that work productivity will improve significantly because fewer people will be sloping off home early to catch the latest England humiliation. Newspaper columnists have been offering advice on who to support or at least who to jeer and it has been assumed that most UK viewers will tacitly support countries who feature players from their own clubs. There is even an ethical guide on who to support.
But there is another sub-section of football supporters, albeit a minority among the replica shirt-wearing multitudes of the 21st century. That is people who will pretty much watch any game, even if it's a goalless grind. Indeed they might take pride in sitting through such a match in the same way horror buffs would enjoy every visceral moment in a gory film. A glance at the group fixtures suggests that they might have a fair bit to look forward to over the next week and a half. There aren't sixteen good 16 teams in Europe and standards are not going to rise if, as seems likely, the numbers are increased for future competitions.
People who pride themselves on watching very moment of each major tournament will have their stamina and patience tested as never before come 2012 – and there may also be some trials ahead over the next couple of days. One of today's teams, Switzerland, contributed manfully to the most boring match at the 2006 World Cup, their second round tie against Ukraine being settled by an appropriately inept penalty shootout. It has been suggessed that Swiss public will get behind their team in a major way only if they make a good start in the tournament. Today's opponents, the Czech Republic, are more talented team but a little fragile. A sedately paced draw should keep local interest chugging along. Portugal v Turkey could be one of the most bad tempered first-round encounters, though it’s an age-old rule of tournament football that anticipated bloodbaths are usually an anti-climax. Actually two 0-0 draws would be a magnificent start, not least because you'd almost be able to hear TV executives sobbing in the background.