It’s 8pm Saturday 21st May 2016. You’ve just watched the FA Cup final either as a neutral or, as a fan of either side and, if you’re a true football fan, whether you are in a pub dissecting the game with your friends or, if you are at home with a nice cold beverage chopping it up on WhatsApp you start to get that empty feeling. The first time I got it was after the FA Cup final in 2001, fondly remembered to me and my scouse brethin as the Michael Owen final. As I was in a North London pub with friends and family we walked up the road not being able to believe how it all went right but, then that empty feeling hit me. I went to buy myself a chicken burger but still, empty. I got home and ate some of my mum’s West African cooking. Still empty. It was then that it hit me.
The domestic season was over and my Saturday’s were going to be longer than Jimmy Hill’s chin. What would I do? As Xscape once beautifully sung, ‘who would I run to’? After watching Manchester United predictably labour to a win over Crystal Palace I got that feeling. Maybe it was the dire football on display, but luckily for me the feeling was only fleeting as I remembered that this year there would not be a 3 month wait for competitive football. No, now there was only a matter of weeks before the European Championships begun. The Euros, as it’s referred to amongst us football aficionados, 6 groups, 24 teams and four weeks of the crème de la crème of European football. Glorious!
The next major discussion point is the composition of the squad for each European nation to have qualified. Who is in? Who should be in? Who doesn’t deserve to be there? To be fair to England, I believe they have picked a lot of the players we would expect. It wasn’t like previous tournaments where there had been plenty of speculation over who was included and who was left out. What does that say about the pool of talent available to the England manager? Especially that the squad, as I mentioned before, was wholly predictable yet very underwhelming (I’m looking at you Henderson, Barkley, Smalling and Cahill).
What is interesting to me is some of the players available to other nations who have not been selected. Included in a quite astonishing list packed with quality that would walk into many other nations’ teams are:
- Karim Benzema, Alexander Lacazette and Hatem Ben Arfa for France
- Diego Costa, Juan Mata, Javi Martinez and Fernando Torres for Spain
- Andrea Pirlo for Italy (Fair enough he is 37, but still!)
For the three nations above, the chosen understudies will need to put in big performances for the managers to escape criticism (I’m looking at you Didier Deschamps).
To me as a youngster the allure of the European championships, or any international football tournament, is the differing football styles of each nation. The Italians have always had a resolute defence built on the reputation of stars like Nesta, Maldini, Cannavaro and the ever green Gianluigi Buffon (38 years of age and in the current squad). A narrow but creative midfield (I’m going to miss Pirlo) that kept possession well and a more than capable strike force; thoughts of Alessandro Del Piero, Gianluca Vialli and more recently the ‘colourful’ Mario Ballotelli affording the Italians the ability to snatch tight games 1-0.
Then there are the Spanish. Creative, flamboyant, almost mesmeric to watch. Especially over the last 3 or 4 tournaments. Boasting the talents of one of my all-time favourite footballers, Raul, and the seemingly never aging Iker Casillas. The legend that is Xavi and one of my favourite midfielders I think of all time, barring Zinadine Zidane and Pavel Nedved, Andreas Iniesta.
You also have the perennial tournament ready team Ze_Germans. They were always solid. I remember Lothar Mattheus strutting imperiously around the pitch, Rudi Voller and more recently Miroslav Klose, the now all-time leading goal scorer in tournament history. They now boast Bastian Schweinsteiger (Bobby to his mates) Mezut Ozil and one of the deadliest men to ever take to a football field, Thomas Muller among their squad. The Germans were/are a machine. With the results of friendly matches approaching a tournament having no bearing on how they would fare at an actual tournament. Once the tournament got started, so would they.
And then you had England. England has always had a more than capable goalkeeper with a well drilled defence. I don’t think I’ve even seen an England team heavily beaten at a major tournament. My issue with England’s ‘style’ is that for a while it had seemed like it was a punt by the keeper, flicked on by the big number 9 played out wide and crossed in for the big number 9 to finish it off. There was hardly any flair to their play. They always seemed so restricted and scared to express themselves. I would blame the press, but I think it is the same with any other nation who believe they have the talent to have a productive and successful tournament.
The team I used to always follow in major tournaments though were the Dutch. They had/have an amazing following. You always knew when the Dutch were playing because at the very least half of the stadium would be swathed in orange. They had enigmatic players. Their attacking or flair players were permitted to go out there and showcase their talent with an almost reckless abandonment. It was their ingrained philosophy born by Johan Cruyff in the 70s and continued on tournament after tournament. They weren’t as rigid as the Italians or Germans. They were a lot more disciplined than the Spanish and Portuguese and, most importantly, to me, they had so many great black men playing for them. Bonafide superstars afforded the opportunity to be national heroes and their names are almost a who’s who of European football. Clarence Seedorf (another one of my favourites) Edgar Davids, Patrick Kluivert and of course two men still credited, along with Marco Van Basten the tournament’s top goal scorer in 1988, for achieving European glory for Le Oranje, Frank Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit. For me as a young man finding his way in the world with few black male role models, seeing these two colossus’ with their dreadlocks, almost epitomising their blackness with their never say die attitude; I was mesmerised, inspired.
I always felt as though England never celebrated the wealth of talented black men at their disposal. John Barnes was always criticised for not replicating that goal against Brazil. Ian Wright, David Rocastle, Andy Cole, Jermaine Defoe and Darren Bent were all overlooked or underused for players I felt were nowhere near as good. That being said these tournaments aren’t about the colour of the player’s skin but the artistry they bring to the pitch. The enjoyment the players bring to the fans, to their respective nations for all the skill they display, the hunger, desire and passion they exhibit. These tournaments give all football fans the opportunity to see players who don’t play on our shores. We are able to see the new younger players making their way in the game. People still talk about the impact Wayne Rooney had on world football on his tournament debut in Euro 2004 and this year all English eyes will be on Marcus Rashford, all Spanish eyes on Alvaro Morata, all Swiss eyes will be on Breel Embolo. I personally can’t wait to see who will emerge as the star of the tournament. Be it a young player marking his mark on the international stage, or a seasoned professional bidding the international stage farewell, every tournament is a must watch for these reasons.
The aftermath of the tournament, after the tears for the beaten finalists, after the trophy is paraded by the triumphant team in front of the jubilant nation lucky enough to be alive when their national team carved their names into footballing history. After the resignation or disposal of national coaches will be the speculation regarding which players have earned themselves a big money move to a major football club. I have always found it weird that a footballer can have 7 good games then be signed on a long term contract! There have been hits and misses. Andrey Arshavin had a great tournament in 2008 and earned a move to Arsenal. After a promising start his impact on the team diminished and he was silently ushered out the back door to little disagreement from the Arsenal fans. Speaking of Arsenal there was John Jensen, scorer in one of the most dramatic European Championship finals ever and after obtaining cult status, scored one goal in near 100 games for the Gunners. Hit or miss? We’ll let the Gooners decide. And then there is Pavel Nedved whose Czech Republic side had an amazing Euro 96 alongside Patrik Berger and Karel Poborsky. He moved to Lazio that summer, 7 years later he joined Juventus and was crowned winner of the Ballon d’Or. A definite hit then.
This summer will be no different. An international tournament is the biggest shop window a footballer can be in. ‘A Fool And His Money Are Soon Parted’ is one phrase that comes to mind. Another is ‘Fortune Favours The Brave’ and yet another is to ‘To The Victor Go The Spoils’.
Written by Saffa Kallon
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