Euro 96 and Brazil 2014: pickpockets, penalties and pressure

This is, ostensibly, a look at how two hosts of major tournaments – both of whom lost to Germany in memorable semi-finals – dealt with the pressure of playing in their own country. It’s also an account of my experiences of both competitions, as an 11-year-old watching Euro 96 at home and, 18 years later, as a tourist travelling around Brazil during the World Cup.

23rd June 2014, Brazil, Salvador: Brazil 4 – Cameroon 1

Wallet; nicked. Phone; taken. Mojito…well, not gone exactly, but finished. So, this is what a Salvador street party looks like. To the edge of the square, where it feels as though the entire city has congregated, salvation. Or a café that is merely full, as opposed to overwhelmed.

I push my way through the crowd, receive a disdainful ‘put your bag on your chest, mate’ shout from a backpacker (advice which would have been helpful before my encounter with the pickpockets) and make for the entrance. Just as I reach the door, Neymar scores. An eruption of noise, dancing and Brahma greets me.

8th June 1996, Wembley Way and Hampshire: England 1 – Switzerland 1

Alan Shearer wanders to the front of the coach and shuffles the CD player. He needn’t have bothered. The opening to ‘Three Lions’ is drowned out by the din outside. ‘It’s coming home, it’s coming home, it’s coming, football’s coming home!’

If this sounds like a passage from a book, it’s because it is. Darren Anderton’s wonderfully titled ‘Takenote!’ captures the team’s journey down Wembley Way in forensic detail, even down to Shearer’s turn ‘on the decks’ (if only he’d made it to Manumission).

The build-up to the game was rather less raucous for an 11-year-old watching Lynam, Gullit, Hansen and Hill from the comfort of his own bedroom. Alternating between the BBC’s pre-match punditry and my duties as Halifax Town coach (on Premier Manager 3) proved diverting enough, though.

When kick off came and thoughts of whether Georgi Kinkladze really was the man to sit at the top of high-flying Halifax’s midfield diamond were put to one side, a nervousness familiar to a young Spurs fan set in. Are we going to mess this up?

Shearer scores and wheels away with perhaps the only celebration uncool enough for kids not to imitate (I’d mimicked Chris Armstrong only a few months earlier, so I should know).

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But the second half is ponderous, in a way that will come to feel familiar, and Switzerland’s equaliser has a feeling of inevitability to it. Still, all is not lost. Kinkladze’s scored on his debut for Halifax.

24th June 2014, Brazil, Salvador: England 0 – Costa Rica 0

‘Phil Jon-es…Smalling…Phil Jon-es.’

Does the commentator’s decision to split Phil Jones’ surname into two syllables make him sound slightly more exotic? I mean, he’s still playing square passes to Chris Smalling (this isn’t exactly Baresi and Maldini), but it’s different.

It’s also a welcome diversion from the Brazilians in the bar who are laughing at us. To be fair, it’s difficult to object when you’re getting vaguely excited about the prospect of Ross Barkley creating an attacking overload in a game flatter than Salvador’s finest afternoon beer.

The torpor is halted by a shout from the group who are watching the Italy – Uruguay match. It’s difficult to make out exactly what’s happened from the confused faces and gesticulating, but Luis Suarez seems to be at the centre of whatever’s going on. The TV cuts to the replay of the incident. Has he bitten Chiellini? He’s bitten Chiellini.

‘Phil Jon-es!’

The spell is broken briefly by an excited blast from the other television, where Phil Jones has cut short a Costa Rica attack. We turn our chairs around to watch the Suarez investigation unfold.

18th June 1996, Hampshire: England 4 – Holland 1

The back garden is bathed in sun and the evening has a slightly hazy quality, broken only by ITV’s Euro 96 theme tune, a Casio keyboard-inspired remix of ‘Jerusalem’.

The opening game nerves have disappeared, swept away in a whirl of Gascoigne’s flick and finish, the sight of Colin Hendry groping at thin air and a celebration that every 11-year-old repeated.

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The third goal against the Dutch seems to happen in slow motion. Gazza dribbles towards the penalty area, hesitates and gives the ball to Sheringham. ‘Shoot!’ comes my family’s cry from the sofa, but Teddy has other ideas. The lay-off to Shearer is perfect, inviting the shot. Smash. Shearer wheels away. I run to the lounge window and let out a scream, to no-one in particular.

In ‘Takenote!’, Anderton recalls ‘probably the best performance of any team I’d played in. Everything clicked. Everything Terry had wanted us to do and had preached for two years, we did. Everything just fell into place…it was the stuff that dreams are made of.’

Revisionism tells us this game wasn’t the near perfect display of football which Anderton references, that England were fortunate to win by such a margin and that there were glimpses of what was to come. But when memories are that good, who cares?

28th June, Brazil, Recife: Brazil 1 – Chile 1 (Brazil win 3-2 on penalties)

Tears before kick off. Again. The emotion shown by Thiago Silva and co is captivating, but where’s Dunga when you need him?

My friends and I are stood in the middle of a packed fan park in Recife. No wallet or phone to worry about now, but the three half-empty Brahma’s we’re clasping are a concern: it took 30 minutes and some ‘jostling’ Tony Adams would have been proud of to get these drinks. And that was before the game started.

David Luiz scores, Alexis equalises, the sun beats down on the mass of bodies. Later, friends back home tell me the game is a classic, but it doesn’t feel that way. This is different to Cameroon. This is tense.

We reach penalties. ‘Julio Cesar, Julio Cesar!’ We’re screaming before he faces Jara’s spot-kick and I’ve almost lost my voice. He saves the penalty. Bedlam. We dance with Brazilians who have decidedly more rhythm than we do.

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Fireworks are set off and we find ourselves wandering away from the fan park to a part of Recife we probably shouldn’t be in. But it’s basically deserted. Everyone is out, celebrating, chanting the name of QPR’s reserve goalkeeper.  

27th June 1996, Hampshire: the day after England 1 – Germany 1 (Germany win 6-5 on penalties)

‘No, I’m Alan Shearer, so I stand at the front post and then run to the back post.’

There’s a heated debate about England’s corner-kick routine. Is Shearer meant to be stationed ahead of the near post, before the kick is taken, or is that Sheringham’s role?

We eventually settle on Shearer and the playground scuffle that had threatened to break out is quelled.

I’ve taken on Teddy’s mantle in this role-play, so I begin at the back post. As the kick is taken, I run towards the ball and flick it on, turning around to see an 11-year-old Alan Shearer (my friend Mark) nod the ball into the back of the net (or over the line drawn on the edge of the netball court).

The celebrations are manic, undimmed by what happened the night before, until someone points out that Tony Adams, rather than Sheringham, flicked the ball to Shearer.

There are calls for a re-run, but with Euro 96 over, as far as we’re concerned, club hostilities have been resumed. I refuse point blank to play the ‘Adams role’ and a delighted Arsenal fan steps in.

Back to reality

I left Brazil after the second round, watching the quarter-final against Colombia on TV.

Whilst it’s tough to make a case for predicting the semi-final capitulation against Germany, there were warning signs in this round. When players like Marcelo are acting like fans who’d been invited onto the pitch, punting the ball into the stands with almost 20 minutes to play, alarm bells ring.

The emotion the country showed during my short stay in 2014 was unforgettable and unmatched by anything I’ve seen at other games or major tournaments. But it also proved too much for the Brazilian team to handle.

In comparison, England’s Euro 96 campaign seemed lifted by the public fervour, even if feelings in mid-nineties Hampshire perhaps ran slightly lower than in Salvador during June 2014. It may not have ended in the way fans wanted it to and statistical analysis may throw some doubt on the tournament’s pedigree, but it’s hard not to look back to the summer of 1996 with a nostalgic romanticism.

So, here’s to Shearer, Sheringham and an 11-year-old struggling to understand exactly what ‘sexy football’ means.

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