Euro 2012 and International Football Tournament Memories

 Indulge me for a moment, this is a long one. It’s also a personal one. I don’t post many so maybe you’ll enjoy it, maybe you’ll hate it. I just felt like writing something about Euro 2012, and to be honest, I tried to do some in-depth statistical analysis and discovered that I’d only be able to point out the obvious. So there’s this instead.

I adore international football tournaments. Ireland’s participation is welcome, but not essential. For the next few weeks I plan to watch every game, many of which will be dull, uneventful draws. I’ll enjoy them regardless.

Unless Spain are involved.

My love for the tournament began with Italia ’90. I was four years old and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of every player, every team and whatever else I could find out about in the Orbis sticker collection. To this day I still have the binder, the stickers are long gone.

I may never know as much about anything as I did the teams in Italia ’90. I was at the peak of my intellectual powers, cheering for obscure Egyptian substitutes because they looked interesting in their pictures. Wearing an Ireland jumper knitted by my mother (my teddy bear had one too, matching, naturally) I watched the group stages in their entirety.

At home I sat in a smoky sitting room, my Dad reading the newspaper and only half paying attention. He only sat up to admonish me for playing my ‘Give it a Lash Jack’ cassette repeatedly, and loudly. He claimed he couldn’t hear the commentary. I pointed out that it was pointless anyway, because you could still see what was going on and the song was better.

I lost that argument on a daily basis.

As the tournament progressed my love of football deepened until I suffered a broken heart at the hands of Toto Schillaci. I recovered quickly; there were semi-finals to enjoy. I cheered for Argentina and was let down again in the final, but at that point it was irrelevant, I was hooked on the highs and lows, the underdog wins and occasional moments of spectacular skill.

By 1994 I was even more excited. I don’t look back on USA ’94 with the same fondness as Italia ’90, but I still loved every second of it. I had the official mascot’s stuffed toy, who watched the games with me, taking a place of honour beside my trusty bear from 1990.

This time I was sucked in by the pageantry, perhaps that explains why I enjoy American Football now. The opening ceremony was such an event that it overshadowed the first few matches, until Roberto Baggio’s haircut began to overshadow everything else.

The group stages are always the most fun, and ’94 exemplifies this. Maradona’s face as he ran toward the camera after scoring his only goal is still clear in my mind. The many coughs playing for Bulgaria too, and the unexpected brilliance of that team. Group D in fact, was one of the highlights, with Daniel Amokachi leading an amazing Nigeria side to the top of that group.

Ireland, of course, were the real stars. That Houghton goal may be the greatest moment in Irish football history. I still remember the newspaper headline the next day: ‘The best pictures of the Italian Job’. Underneath was a photo of an Italian player being out jumped for the ball by, if memory serves, Jason McAteer, who came on as a substitute for Houghton.

The next match, against Mexico, is memorable for all the wrong reasons. I found it hard not to cheer for Mexico, because Jorge Campos was such a fantastic character, but I had to. The controversy in that game boils down to a single phrase for me. ‘You’re a f**king cheese’. In 1994 that’s what I heard John Aldridge say, and I genuinely thought that he had for many years after that.

The rest of the tournament, for whatever reason, feels a bit hazy. I did love the fact a turtle played for Brazil (Leonardo) and was mildly obsessed with Romario, so they had my support once Ireland went out. I cheered mightily when Baggio missed that penalty and Brazil lifted the trophy.

The best thing about USA ’94, however, happened outside the tournament. A friend in school had a world cup themed birthday party. It was brilliant; we played on a tiny pitch, two on two, in his back garden. His father worked for Aer Lingus and gave everyone a (now completely bizarre, but then brilliant) party bag with various pamphlets about travelling to the tournament.

The European Championships were never quite as enjoyable as the World Cup, and that may explain why I have no real memory of 1992. I hear Denmark won, but that seems very, very wrong. 1996 fares better. It was one of only two occasions I filled a sticker album, the other being 1990.

Of course, I mostly remember ‘Three Lions’ which, regardless of your feelings about England, is a classic. The year would close with me a massive Lightning Seeds fan. It didn’t last.

By 1998 I was soured on football, and fittingly Ireland failed to qualify. My second attempt to play for  a team was an unequivocal disaster, far worse than the first, which ended when I was running down the left wing and tripped over a masonry brick, injuring myself. I never went back.

A new team beckoned after USA ’94, and filled with hope and delusions of my own skill (I regularly beat the world’s top imaginary defenders alone in my garden) I signed up. I then spent a year playing three minutes a week, as did two other players on our team.

As far as I know children have to play at least a half now, which is great, because I cried every single week when I was nine over not getting to play. The only game I played a half in I played as goalkeeper. I wasn’t bad. I only let a goal in when a member of my own team booted me in the hand and I went down in a heap. I was subbed off immediately and my hand was swollen and throbbing.

A few weeks later I managed a goal; a beautifully struck lob which arced over the goalkeeper and dropped into the back of the net. The manager berated me for it. It was an own goal, scored against his son. The man already hated me, and that didn’t help. He seemed to take a perverse pleasure in screaming at myself and my fellow benchwarmers.

As you can imagine, that kind of childhood trauma made France ’98 less appealing. Until it started. I ended up getting the Playstation game, watching all the matches and cheering France the whole way, as well as underdogs Croatia, which made their semi-final slightly confusing.

That summer was also something of a last hurrah before six years of misery. I had no idea they were coming at the time, but I would despise secondary school. France ’98 was the end of an era, as friends drifted off and made other friends as they moved to new schools. Strange times; my parents fought throughout the tournament. They split up a couple of months later.

On the pitch that incredible French team blew me, and I think everyone away. The Brazilians had the hype of course, and Ronaldo who seemed unstoppable, but looking back, France were the better side. I’m not sure Brazil would have beaten Croatia.

Euro 2000 was all about the Dutch. In fact, that’s all I remember. Kluivert seemed like the greatest player on Earth there and then. How things change. The final had that horrible golden goal rule that stole the fans of penalties.

The pundits tell me it’s a lottery and no-one wants them, but I have never met a football fan who doesn’t love a penalty shootout. Nothing is quite as intense and exciting. Of course, Ireland has that collective memory of Packie Bonner’s save, so no wonder we love them.

In 2002 I was back to my football-obsessed self. I was desperate to go to the tournament, having spent the previous few years becoming engrossed in Japanese video games and movies. My mother told me that if I did something (can’t quite remember exactly) along the lines of a certain grade in my Junior Cert we could go.

I reached her target, but she just couldn’t afford it. She bought me a Japan jersey instead, which I still have. Everyone thinks it’s a France jersey, but it has that amazing crow with a talon on a football on the crest. The same year I took a book about Japanese football out from the library. It was called Japanese Rules and it’s excellent if you can find it.

Essentially I had returned to the over-informed child of 1990, and I couldn’t have been happier. I cheered Ireland; I didn’t care about Roy Keane all that much and I loved the underdog success. South Korea and Turkey made the tournament a classic, no matter what the Italians claim.

While the tournament was on I was doing work experience in RTE, so I was in high spirits. I thought the men working on sound for ‘Open House’ with Marty Whelan were the just so cool. They let me go home early to watch Ireland, then told me the following day that the sound room was boring and I should go down to the studio to watch them make Fair City.

Euro 2004. Greece. Boring. Leaving Cert. Let’s move on.

World Cup 2006 looked amazing in terms of atmosphere. It may have just been the media event that surrounded it, or that I was old enough to drink, but I was desperate to go to Germany to watch it. I never did, in the end, but the football wasn’t fantastic and I never got over Ghana being knocked out.

Euro 2008 was when the international tournament began to fall apart. I had just graduated from a Masters degree in sociology, and was in a part time library assistant job hoping to secure permanent work. I got it, after the tournament, but at the time of the football I was mostly stressed about the future and working while matches were played.

What really got to me though was Spain. Their brand of football is, for me, liking watching paint that’s already dried. It’s that dull. The fact they went on to win was immensely frustrating, especially when I was missing most of the matches. I got none of the fun of an international tournament; very disappointing.

At this point, I suppose, it’s becoming clear that the tournament was losing its appeal to me, but World Cup 2010 would be by far the worst. It wasn’t just the return of Spain, more disappointment waited soon after the tournament began.

I will admit, it started out well. I had some great snacks bought and in the fridge, pizza and those yogurts with the biscuit in a separate cup. Japan’s Keisuke Honda was singlehandedly entertaining me despite my finding out the score of the first game before I saw it. Even RTE came back to the rescue with their web player letting me watch games I missed while working.

And then, Murphy’s Law. My girlfriend and I had a massive falling out. It lasted for the entire tournament and I was utterly miserable. Not least because I’d convinced her that football was brilliant when she hadn’t cared before. We had been planning to watch it together.

As we finally reconciled in a North Dublin pub over a tiny bowl of chips, the tournament ended and Spain lifted the trophy. At least we were getting on again, but Spain won. Was it really too much to ask that it all end like a romantic comedy about football?

Now I stand on the precipice of another international tournament, desperate to reclaim my childhood love of the international tournament, hoping nothing goes horribly wrong and if nothing else, I at least get to enjoy the matches.

I should have asked my Mum for a custom-knit jumper.

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