Beginning our European Championship reports from writers in Portugal, Philip Cornwall offers an upbeat assessment of the England experience, where expectations were met on the pitch and exceeded off it - even if the portents for 2006 are shakier
C autious optimism, last month’s WSC editorial suggested, was in order on and off the pitch for England at Euro 2004. I should have paid attention. Ten minutes from time against Portugal I was edging nervously past caution and starting to dream. Then again, what happened next was a long, long way from the England nightmares of the past. The national team have won two European quarter-finals: in 1968 against Spain in a home-and-away tie, and against the same opponents in 1996 when, as hosts, they won on penalties after the opposition had had a goal disallowed controversially. Any sensible analysis of England’s exit has to have this context: it rarely gets any better than this and could so easily have done so.
Sven-Göran Eriksson has been criticised for being too cautious, but to my eyes it was the team that were driven to this by collective shortcomings over which the coach had little control: the lack of ingrained technical skill under pressure. At the start of the second half, following the team talk, England’s midfield took up positions five to ten yards inside the Portugal half when out of possession. But they were soon forced back, creating an all but unbridgeable gap to the forwards. The loss of Wayne Rooney had hit confidence, too. You can debate substitutions, but in the end we were eight minutes, a crossbar’s width, a different decision or a better shoot-out from the semi-finals. Though again, in the shoot-out, the placement of the successful Portugal penalties revealed a greater technical confidence.
Hanging over England at the start of the tournament was the possibility of a unique exit, perhaps simultaneously from this and a future tournament in one night. Though Eriksson’s men settled in their par position, the England support far exceeded widespread expectations. There’s expressing fears and there’s surrender; some leant towards the latter. Calling for a ban on all England fans, “similar to the one put in place for the game against Turkey in Istanbul”, Brian Glanville wrote: “Otherwise it is as inevitable as the sun rising in the east that we shall see a repeat of what happened in Charleroi, Marseille and Sunderland when Turkey played there.”
Instead, even with the most dramatic and – to many – contentious of exits, the thousands in a perhaps uniquely unsegregated crowd accepted defeat largely with, if not grace, then at least dignity. More so than the papers back home, the Sun sinking to a new low by bringing down death threats on Urs Meier for denying Sol Campbell a winner. Sometimes at a tournament you feel left out of the national story, as experienced by millions rather than a few thousand; I feel cleaner to have been abroad during this tawdry campaign.
To me it was a contentious decision but one that could have gone either way. I know that few would have complained or even acknowledged any doubt had the decision been at the other end and gone in England’s favour. So I got over it and I was not alone. The largely stoical response to defeat was combined with the sheer mass of England’s support, the most numerous not only at their own games but highly visible at 20-odd other matches. There was even an “England” chant as France slipped out the next night, from handfuls in every corner of the Alvalade; a chorus of “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” went up in the queue at the final. This was a tournament won hands down by the men and women carrying the cross of St George. I look forward to reading Glanville’s apology.
There were, of course, people at England games who carried on the previous traditions, the drinking and the irrelevant political chanting, with the aggressive manner that comes with them. But they seemed largely cowed, at last, by the swathe of banning orders in place. They were also badly outnumbered and retired, perhaps sensing that they would attract disgust rather than support from your average 2004 England fan. There was no appetite for misguided revenge after the tragic murder of one fan by a pickpocket, just more of a sense of the need for peace. For the first time at a major tournament large numbers of non-white England fans were visible.
It would be a mistake, though, to imagine this is the end of the story. Some of the circumstances that contributed to the success of Portugal 2004 were unique – not least the generally warm relations between the English and their hosts. The next tournament is, of course, the World Cup in Germany and if England qualify there will surely be a far greater froideur between visitors and hosts than in Portugal. The addition in recent months of the “ten German bombers” chant to the slim, repellent catalogue of England standards does not bode well for 2006. Too many England fans laugh with rather than at Basil Fawlty; mentioning the war is as natural as ordering a beer. Germans are not going to want to refight that conflict. This is a year in which the current chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, could go to Normandy on June 6 to commemorate the fallen of both sides and to celebrate the beginning of the liberation of his country from Hitler’s regime. This chant’s underlying assumption that German equals Nazi is as offensive as it is soft-headed and ignorant.
Then there is the lack of an Albufeira, so to speak – both the good and bad sides. On the one hand, England do attract some who, with no expectation of tickets, come along for the ride and a fight. This time, rather than going to the venue cities, some at least stayed on the Algarve. I can offer no opinion on the cases of fans prosecuted, but I was not surprised that the idiocies I read about back home in Croydon, Thetford, Jersey, Wakefield et al had their echoes here in the places where some come to drink and do little else.
Then again, the positive side of the resort country was that more than ever, no doubt to headteachers’ displeasure, this was a family holiday tournament. Germany will offer far less on that front. Of much less impact, too, during qualifiers if not Germany itself, will be the cultural events, the work done by fans’ groups and the British Council in getting English supporters into Portuguese schools and communities. Not only were the hooligans neutralised, but a positive alternative was offered. What we need, I guess, is more of the same. More banning orders, more support for fans’ groups. More crackdowns on chanting, more education about what the hosts are really like. A more mixed England support. And, on the pitch, a bit more luck and a positive attitude to match that of the best of the best fans at Euro 2004.
From WSC 210 August 2004. What was happening this month