Euro Champs Odyssey: 2008's Home Failure And Zurich's Broken Glass

Philip Cornwall returns to Switzerland and the scene of a host nation's misfortune and more Englishmen behaving badly. Do we have the right to be moralistic?

Last Updated: 05/06/12 at 14:04 Post Comment

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It all about anniversaries this week. Many, many years ago on Sunday, the Queen was crowned in Westminster Abbey; one year ago on Monday, England drew 2-2 with Switzerland at Wembley. I can still see Darren Bent's miss that afternoon, I can still feel the release of tension when Bulgaria's comeback had checked Montenegro that evening.

A sunshine-and-clouds June lunchtime and Basel is humming industriously; four years ago it was heaving joyously, the headquarters of a Swiss team about to kick off Euro 2008 as co-hosts. By the Friday, youths dressed as mountain farmhands paraded about ringing cowbells the size of Sepp Blatter's ego, celebrating the arrival of the European Championship in UEFA's and FIFA's homeland, along with their neighbours Austria.

Back then an Englishman at the tournament was a man without a team for the first time since USA 94 - a fate Roy Hodgson, as Switzerland's manager, avoided sharing with me in the States but from which there was no escape in 2008. Now that will apply to any Swiss - or for that matter Austrian - who makes the journey to Poland or Ukraine. Those that do travel may feel an unpleasant frisson of recognition.

There was an undercurrent of fear here in 2008, accompanying the excitement. All hosts worry how they will perform, except perhaps the USA in '94, when it was hard to find people who cared. The concern was different four years ago, as both hosts faced up to the prospect that they would be eliminated at the group stage. These concerns were entirely borne out.

Austria, who managed to lose a home friendly to Steve McClaren's England, would never have come close to qualifying if they were not staging the event and could realistically aim no higher than an exit with honour. They achieved that, too, thanks to a penalty for holding that ensures Howard Webb will get a heated rather than warm welcome in Poland. Austria fans had even campaigned for their side's place to go to someone more deserving, but the Swiss had an actual football team: they qualified for Euro 2004, won their group at the 2006 World Cup and two years on from hosting Euro 2008 would beat Spain before being eliminated at the group stage in South Africa. They had half-decent pretensions, despite being drawn against the Czech Republic, Turkey and Portugal.

Twelve years earlier at Wembley I rediscovered nailbiting as the Swiss came close to beating England in the Euro 96 opening game; now I observed the bad habit, with sound effects, in a Basel fanzone. There were shrieks of frustration at the missed chances; the sympathetic yelps at Alex Frei's knee injury, bad enough to put him out of the tournament inside half an hour; the silence that followed the Czechs taking the lead undeservedly; the pointless shouting at the big screen when Tomas Ujfalusi's handball was missed by the officials; the dull thump of feet sloping off at the final whistle.

Lose your opening game and you are on the brink; Turkey pushed them over it, five days into the tournament.

As it happens the Swiss - like the Austrians - took well to their duties as hosts. Their hopes, though real, were not so high they could not be shrugged off. That is a challenge the Poles and the Ukrainians, with less experience but more need to show off their countries in the best possible light, could soon be facing.

After all the problems in the build-up, the questions over the wisdom of picking these countries as the venue, what Michel Platini really needs now is wins for Poland against Greece on Friday and Ukraine against Sweden on Monday.

***

There are a couple of ways to get from Basel to Italy, the hosts of two European Championships, and for me the route across the Alps begins in Zurich.

Memories of England trips past are everywhere in Europe and journeying to the city of gnomes is to recall the Liechtenstein game of March 2003, and a night of broken glass for the Swiss city's Turkish kebab shops ahead of a Euro 2004 qualifier.

The proprietors' ethnic homeland were in the same group and would provide the opposition at the Stadium of Light the following midweek; feelings were still running high after the murder of Leeds fans in Istanbul for a UEFA Cup semi-final three years earlier (as discussed in the Brussels leg) and the consequent clashes in Copenhagen around Arsenal's subsequent final against Galatasaray, and at Euro 2000.

Zurich's was the closest airport to Liechtenstein and many England fans stayed a night here. The product of the hateful emotions they carried with them littered the streets the next day.

Many were travelling with no prospect of legitimately seeing a game for which the FA received only a couple of hundred tickets. On the Saturday afternoon a large number of ticketless fans forced a fence in order to get in to a match won 2-0, the same scoreline that was achieved against Turkey four days later. My view of the first game was restricted to a commentary-free screening in a bar in Vaduz's high street closed to the public but run by a friend of a friend; my view of the second was restricted by staying sat down when those around took to their feet to chant: "Stand up if you hate the Turks!" This cannot be excused as a mere football chant in light of its companion, "I'd rather be a Paki than a Turk."

After a tragically slow start English football has done much in the past two decades to tackle hooliganism and racism, and in many ways it does offer an example to others of how to tame their own problems. But last September England supporters responded to racist chants directed at Ashley Young from Bulgarians in Sofia with anti-Gypsy slurs, and when England won the last time I was in Basel - in the second game of the qualifying campaign - compatriots on a tram chorused at the Swiss: "If it wasn't for the Germans you'd be Pakis."

The positive response to the horrors of the 80s and to racism in the club game came initially from supporters, and the media and authorities would not dismiss or downplay incidents here if there were displays similar to those seen in recent reporting on Poland and Ukraine. But just as Liverpool were rightly criticised for failing to mount their own inquiry in the Luis Suarez case, the FA did not seek information from travelling supporters over events in Sofia. Or at least if they did, then, despite their ability to keep me up to date with England tickets, travel and merchandising by email, they could not hit 'send' on one soliciting my account of events that night.

I happen to think that the concerns about Poland and Ukraine are legitimate. But imagine how it must stick in the craw of the rest of Europe to have a moralistic England try to teach them a lesson.

Philip Cornwall

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