Philip Barker

In a exactly week’s time, Turkey and Italy are set to finally begin the 60th anniversary European Football Championship in Rome.

Even a year late, Euro 2020 will still have a suitably international flavour to satisfy former UEFA President Michel Platini's original "zany but good" idea.

Though the tournament is spread across venues throughout the continent, all roads will eventually converge on Wembley Stadium, the heart of the tournament, just as it was a quarter of a century ago.

Football Association (FA) chairman Sir Bert Millichip claimed it was "the most successful European Football Championship ever".

Euro 96 was notable for many reasons. It was the first to feature 16 teams and the first to be decided by a "golden goal".

The tournament was won by Germany, the first nation to lift the Henri Delaunay Trophy three times, though this was the first since unification. UEFA President Lennart Johansson insisted the tournament "would go down in the glorious history of football". He praised the "high technical and tactical standard of European Football".

It also represented the emergence from a dark time in the host nation.

Oliver Bierhoff's golden goal won Germany the European crown ©Getty Images
Oliver Bierhoff's golden goal won Germany the European crown ©Getty Images

When the bid had taken shape, England had only recently emerged from a five-year ban from playing in European club competitions. This had been imposed after horrific events before the 1985 European Cup final at Heysel Stadium in Brussels. Thirty-nine fans died after a riot involving Liverpool supporters caused the collapse of a wall. Most of those who perished were supporters of Juventus.

By a twist of fate, Belgium’s own chances of staging Euro 96 had been blocked by UEFA because of what had happened that night.

At the time football hooliganism was known as the "English disease".

England’s national team had not been banned but violence from England followers at the 1980 and 1988 European Championships and disturbances at the 1990 World Cup did not help the cause.

In May 1992, UEFA met to make their decision in Lisbon, and England’s FA saw off interest from Austria, Greece, The Netherlands and Portugal.

"I’m overjoyed especially as I believe the UEFA decision was unanimous," said FA chief executive Graham Kelly.

"City for city England has the best stadia in the world" concluded UEFA’s Stadia Committee chairman Ernie Walker.

In those days, European Championship final tournaments were contested by eight teams, but by 1992 the old Soviet Union had collapsed and Yugoslavia was disintegrating in a brutal war.

To accommodate what UEFA described as "a rapidly increasing number of Football Associations" the 1996 tournament was enlarged to include 16 teams.

By a curious twist of fate, a tragedy in 1989 had accelerated changes which made English football well placed to accommodate the increase. Ninety-six Liverpool fans died in a crowd crush at Hillsborough in Sheffield before an FA Cup semi-final.

In the aftermath, Lord Justice Taylor’s inquiry recommended the introduction of seats to all major English grounds by 1994.

The modernisation meant that it was even possible to use Hillsborough for Euro 96. The teams that played there were keen to offer their own tributes during the tournament.

"England’s post Hillsborough grounds are now among the best in Europe, an astonishing turnaround since the dark days of the 1980s. England can justly claim to have more modernised stadiums than any other member of UEFA", wrote stadium expert Simon Inglis.

England qualified as host nation, though new coach Terry Venables had much to do after their failure to qualify for the 1994 World Cup.

The other 47 European nations including defending champions Denmark were obliged to qualify. Their group had contained the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Armenia, two of the new nations.

The author's ticket for the final ©Philip Barker
The author's ticket for the final ©Philip Barker

The Czechs and Slovaks had also split. The Czech Republic won their qualification group.

Portugal were in for the first time since 1984 with a "golden generation" which had won successive FIFA World Youth Championships. Luis Figo, a winner in 1991 said: "This time all the best teams will be present, that makes it even more difficult to win than the World Cup."

The draw at Birmingham’s International Convention Centre produced some potentially tantalising matches, particularly in the north-west, where Group C featured Germany, Italy, the Czech Republic and Russia.

"It is a long time since I felt so positive," said Germany’s captain Jürgen Klinsmann, unfazed by what was instantly dubbed the "Group of Death". Even the official tournament programme asked in an article about the Germans - "What makes them so good?"

As the promotional campaign hit full throttle, Euro 96 director Glen Kirton claimed that "We haven’t developed the 'Football Comes Home' slogan without just reason. Because of our tremendous football history, there has always been an enormous interest in English football."

That season Newcastle United and Manchester United were locked in a bitter race for the Premier League title. Manchester United prevailed but not before Newcastle boss Kevin Keegan had harangued Sir Alex Ferguson in a famous television interview.

A Euro 96 poster showed them smiling together with the catchline "United for the Cup!"

The official song of the tournament was called We’re in This Together, performed by Manchester United fan Mick Hucknall of Simply Red, with the mass Shekinah Choir.

"Its anthemic melody together with lyrics that are moving and inspirational made the song an ideal choice," claimed organisers. It is now simply forgotten.

Tournament organisers belatedly hit the right musical note at the closing when the international cast of Les Miserables belted out Do you Hear the People Sing? before star singer Colm Wilkinson led a performance of a Rodgers and Hammerstein hit from Carousel forever associated with football. You’ll Never Walk Alone.

By this time the official England song had become the real musical hit. Three Lions was written by Ian Broudie of the Lightning Seeds and performed with comedians Frank Skinner and David Baddiel, a duo who also presented a television programme called Fantasy Football offering an irreverent view of the game.

The Dutch also had musical accompaniment, bands called Half a Pint of Lager and Orange Hooters who exalted a team which included the magical name of Cruyff. Johan’s son Jordi even scored against Switzerland, but the Dutch lost heavily to England and were later eliminated altogether in the quarter-finals.

Many fretted about the possibility of hooliganism after 50 arrests during Germany’s match against the Dutch shortly before the tournament. A leaflet of "Police Advice to Supporters" was given to each spectator.

Portugal's "golden generation" were sent packing by the Czech Republic ©Getty Images

Printed in four languages, it warned of pickpockets and ticket touts, and threatened arrest for racist abuse, taking drugs and drunkenness. Alcohol was banned from grounds even though Heineken was a tournament sponsor.

"Do not invade the pitch or throw objects", said the leaflet.

Attendances were sometimes disappointing. "The world can only watch but you can experience it for real" ran official adverts and bulletins from the organisers promised "a unique ticketing system".

World Soccer, a respected football magazine estimated that only 80 per cent of tickets sold had been actually used. This was because each federation had been dispatched tickets on a no-return basis. So although the computer insisted they had been sold, television pictures beamed to 194 countries sometimes showed swathes of empty seats.

Even an exhilarating 3-3 draw between the Czech Republic and Russia in Liverpool, a footballing hotbed, attracted only 21,128.

There were no empty spaces visible at Wembley when England met Scotland and Paul Gascoigne sealed victory with a moment of sublime brilliance that sadly was too rare across the tournament.

In the knockout phase, teams became ever more cautious. The golden goal rule had been introduced in extra time. Put simply it was the "next goal is the winner" dictum of the schoolyard but remained theoretical rather than practical.

Four quarter-finals produced only four goals in match play. One was the superb lob by Karel Poborský to give the Czechs victory against Portugal. Two matches went to penalties.

In the semi-finals, the Czech Republic needed a shoot-out against France and Germany also beat England on spot kicks, albeit after one of the most compelling matches in the entire tournament.

The Czechs had started as 66-to-one outsiders. This explains why midfielder Vladimir Šmicer had felt safe planning his wedding in Prague for the day after the semi-finals. Team sponsors scrambled to rush him back to London after the nuptials for the final.

It was 1-1 after 90 minutes.

Five minutes into extra time, Oliver Bierhoff stole in to score for Germany. It was the first major final to be decided by golden goal.

The Czechs believed Stefan Kuntz was offside and goalkeeper Petr Kouba complained "if the flag was up the referee should have disallowed the goal. The referee allowed himself to be influenced by the German celebrations."

When the Germans returned home, they made the obligatory balcony appearance in front of their fans in Frankfurt where Klinsmann led the team in a rendition of "Football’s Coming Home" which was unlikely to have won the Eurovision Song Contest.