France secured top spot in Group A on Sunday by playing out a soporific 0-0 draw with Switzerland in Lille, which gave them a point to add to the six they took off Romania and Albania in fortuitous fashion. Dimitri Payet’s ability to swerve balls round corners from distance aside, Les Bleus haven’t captured the imagination so far. Tom Simmonds is unsurprised – host nations almost never take their home tournaments by storm.
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Two books released to coincide with Euro 2016, Michael Gibbons’ When Football Came Home and Paul Rees’ When We Were Lions, both offer unsparing analysis of England’s Euro ‘96 campaign that contradicts the soft-focus glow we in England tend to cast on that tournament.
The famous 4-1 group stage win over the Netherlands and unlucky semi-final defeat to Germany aside, England didn’t play well in Euro ‘96. A nervy 1-1 draw with Switzerland and a tense encounter with Scotland which turned on Gary McAllister’s uncharacteristically poor penalty hitting David Seaman’s elbow preceded the Netherlands game. A quarter-final with Spain saw England really ride their luck. Outplayed all game and the beneficiaries of the decision to disallow two Spanish goals, at least one of which was legitimate, England managed to scrape through on penalties, a shoot-out which spawned Stuart Pearce’s famous celebratory scream.
Lest you think I’m picking on England, their experience in 1996 reflects of a recent trend in that teams hosting World Cups and European Championships tend to underwhelm. In the last 30 years only two teams – France in the 1998 World Cup and Portugal in the 2004 Euros – have reached the final of the tournament they hosted.
Portugal’s Euro 2004, bookended by defeats to Greece in the opening game and the final, wasn’t smooth sailing. Two wins over Russia and Spain after their opening loss were followed by a quarter-final against England which they won on penalties after a 2-2 draw that could have been a 2-1 defeat had Sol Campbell’s last minute header not been disallowed for pushing.
World Cup 1998, when France became the first hosts since Argentina in 1978 to win it, was facilitated by a brilliant generation of players peaking at the same time (Zidane, Thuram, Desailly, etc.) and a weak group helped them on their way. It got bumpier after that, as they bumbled their way to a 1-0 win over a defensive Paraguay in the second round before beating Italy on penalties after a 0-0 draw in the quarters. The 2-1 semi-final win over a brilliant Croatia side was the game in which they passed their definitive test of character before Ronaldo’s funny turn turned the final into a coronation for France.
There has been a litany of host nations not delivering what the home fans demand. Leaving aside those hosts not good enough to have realistic hopes of success (Austria in 2008, South Africa in 2010, Poland in 2012), we can split hosts who come up short into two categories. There are a small number of excellent sides who were unluckily beaten in the latter stages (Germany in the 2006 World Cup, the Netherlands in Euro 2000 and, OK, England in 1996).
Then come the fortuitous, most notably South Korea in the 2002 World Cup, who reached the semi-finals on the back of some disgraceful refereeing decisions in their favour in their second round and quarter-final games versus Italy and Spain respectively. Then we have Brazil who, before they were so comprehensively humiliated 7-1 by Germany in a 2014 World Cup semi-final they shouldn’t have reached, looked laboured and uninspired throughout.
This is not to say that France will flounder now. They have a formidable squad, and a manager who captained that 1998 World Cup winning side who can handle feverish expectation. I still expect them to get to the latter stages of the tournament, even if they are currently mirroring the dull progress of the Italian side of the 1990 World Cup, who bored their way to a semi-final with an equally negative Argentina which they unluckily lost on penalties.
Do you agree with Tom that hosting an international tournament isn’t really an advantage anymore?
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