In a summer without major sporting events, we must not forget what a positive effect they can have
I have been watching replays on the BBC of notable matches from Euro 96, which was the first major football tournament to be held in England since the 1966 World Cup. The matches were being repeated because this summer the Euros should have returned to England as part of a transnational tournament; Wembley was set to host the semi-finals and final.
But the pandemic ended that dream and, with the Tokyo Olympics also postponed, what should have been a glorious sporting summer was replaced by the grim spectacle of top-level football matches taking place in empty stadiums and golf tournaments being played without galleries.
I don’t usually watch reruns of old sporting contests: the thrill of fandom surely lies in anticipation, in not knowing what will happen next. And what interested me about the rerun of Euro 96 was less the football itself than observing the mood of the time.
What were we like back then, and what did we want?
One match was of particular fascination: England v Scotland on Saturday 15 June 1996. I was in the crowd at the old Wembley that hot, febrile afternoon, and the Scots fans were massed quite close to where I was sitting. What was most striking to me then – apart from the exuberance of the opposing fans – was the ubiquity of the flag of St George.
If you look back at footage of England’s 1966 World Cup final victory at Wembley, the supporters are waving Union Jacks and the tournament’s official mascot, a bear called World Cup Willie, wore a Union Jack vest.
But this was Euro 96, less than a year before New Labour’s landslide victory, and the devolution settlement and the Good Friday Agreement that followed soon after it, and the cracks in the unity of the United Kingdom were already widening as a greater sense of national self-consciousness stirred among the English and Scots.
When did England football fans embrace the flag of St George? In the late Seventies and into the Eighties, when I was at school, the English flag was grimly associated with far-right thuggery and English football had a hooligan problem.
By the time of Euro 96, however, the image of England fans had softened in the era of the Premier League and the embourgeoisement of the people’s game. This Blair-era flourishing of a new, softer English nationalism felt quite different from the anger and disenchantment I remembered from the Seventies.
A country at ease with itself as New Labour prepared for power? It didn’t quite turn out as some of us hoped, as today the culture wars rage around us. Yet during this strange, haunted, virus-blighted summer, I’ve been thinking about how nationalism and sport are so tightly intertwined. In the summer of 2006, I had the good fortune to be sent by the Observer to cover the World Cup in Germany.
I wasn’t a sports reporter as such, and as an essayist I was required to write only one long piece a week. I had a spacious two-floor apartment in Berlin – opposite the Adlon Hotel and a short walk from the Brandenburg Gate – which I was meant to share with other reporters. But they didn’t turn up until the day before the final, played at the Olympiastadion.
Until they were knocked out in the quarter-finals (after a botched penalty shoot-out, of course), England had been based in Baden-Baden (‘so good they named it twice’ was the gag). Victoria Beckham, Cheryl Cole and the other WAGs were in the spa town and the English press decamped to the Black Forest to track their every public movement.
But I was elsewhere, in Berlin, with a complimentary first-class rail pass in my pocket, a generous expense account and plenty of time to flâneur around. The weather was warm and settled and the mood in the city and much of the country was euphoric: that summer Germany experienced, bashfully at first and then with joyous abandon, a kind of patriotic reawakening as people embraced the flag.
Hosting a global football tournament somehow enabled many Germans to feel comfortable about being German again. It was quite something to witness. I travelled widely during the six weeks of the tournament, and even spent a night in Dresden, where no World Cup matches were played, because I wanted to see how the city had been restored after the devastation of the Second World War.
During my travels I encountered only a warm welcome and a sense of renewed hopefulness. World Cups and Euros (and indeed Olympic Games, as we discovered in London in 2012) have the rare capacity to unite us in fellowship and common interest, however fleetingly.
This sporting summer may have been defined by loss, but we should hold on to what can be unifying about sport even as we mourn its absence.
This article first appeared in issue 75 of Spear’s magazine. Click here to buy and subscribe