For the armchair viewer the tournament has been a mixture of pain and pleasure
4 July ~ On Thursday June 9, I doubted I had the stamina for another televised summer finals. By Thursday June 23, in the break after the group games, I doubted I could endure two whole days without live European Championship football.
The stadiums were already familiar friends. Those mountainous seated slopes to the rollercoaster roof of Marseille’s Vélodrome, the compact tower block stands of the Stade de Lyon and the concrete intimacy of Paris’ old Parc des Princes. I was giddily anticipating the foibles of each ITV and BBC pundit. Were Lothar Matthaus’s teeth more real than his hair? Was Thierry Henry’s untucked shirt a tribute to the terracing styles of Euro 96? And as every day provided a different species of eagle on the team shirts, the Energy of Azerbaijan trackside advert flashed endlessly across my subconscious to the Irish lilt of “Will Grigg’s on fire”.
But I craved the break after the round of 16. I’m now thankful just three games remain. Expanding the tournament to 24 teams suited Hungary, Sweden and UEFA. But it’s killing us armchair anal-retentives. And the unofficial fan anthem, “Don’t take me home”, has nothing on the Argentina fans’ version of Bad Moon Rising in Brazil two years ago.
Lionel Messi has just retired from international football, at 29, after captaining Argentina to their third major final in as many years. I might join him. By Sunday I will have watched over 40 live internationals for the second summer in three. At 47 I will have 20 major tournaments under my psychological belt, Argentina 78 being the first I remember. And the expanded Euros are no longer a rarefied warm-down between World Cups.
I’m ashamed to say the only tournament I now find truly relaxing is the Rugby World Cup. It lets me behave like those fans waving on the stadium screen during the Euros – ie someone blissfully clueless about the team, tournament or sport they’re following. Euro 96 was my most comprehensive attendance of any tournament – six group games, two quarters, a semi and the final.
Yet, travelling between English cities and my Scottish home, I missed most live screenings of the 21 games I wasn’t actually attending. Part of me finds that negligent. As France and Romania came down the Stade de France tunnel for the opener I maintained I couldn’t face another sofa-based month. But addicts quickly surrender. Long before Bogdan Stancu equalised from the penalty spot I was engulfed by nostalgia.
Horst Hrubesch’s German head beating Belgium in Rome in the 1980 final; John Motson’s falsetto during BBC highlights of France’s epic 1984 semi-final against Portugal; Scotland brutally besieging Germany in Norrkoping but losing 2-0 to depart Euro 92; ten-man Italy beating hosts Holland on penalties in the 2000 semi-final, the greatest 0-0 ever. So the elation around Dimitri Payet’s spectacular Paris winner felt apposite. I’d rediscovered a trippy nirvana on my Glasgow sofa.
By Saturday June 25, I was ravenous for round two. Yet two hours of Poland v Switzerland featured one overhead kick and a terrible penalty. Northern Ireland v Wales was intensely dour. And Croatia v Portugal was the polar opposite of what it connotes. A football festival had become cabin fever – my third straight Saturday without a movie, day trip, meal out or sustained alcohol consumption. Had the Republic of Ireland not scored in the first seconds against France the next day, I would have walked – right over to my DVD collection via the off-licence.
After that historic win over Northern Ireland, one middle-aged Welsh fan interviewed by Radio 5 Live maintained “Wales always do it”, before averring “we might reach the finals now”. Finals. She didn’t even understand the format. Once I would have rolled my eyes. Now I’m jealous of her innocent, easy joy. Too much emotional and intellectual investment rips the pleasure from anything. Casual, passing interest in tournaments is fun – and sustainable. And it’s why Wales, on Wednesday, could go further in Euro 2016 than they ever have in the Rugby World Cup. Alex Anderson