That's enough hurt – why watching Euro 2016 as a neutral could save England fans a whole heap of pain
English football fans might enjoy the sporting extravaganza a bit more if they forget about national allegiances and try and enjoy the dazzling sportsmanship, says Ben Dowell
I have been there for most of England’s footballing highs and lows over the past 35 years. My first memory was the 1982 World Cup, when Bryan Robson’s dazzling 27-second opening goal in England’s first game against France was the prelude to…more disappointment. We won every game in our first group, only to exit our second after two goalless draws.
Then there was the Maradona Hand of God in 1986, Gazza’s tears and the Germany penalties in the 1990 World Cup (followed by Southgate’s tears and the German penalties in the 1996 Euros). The noughties and beyond brought England Michael Owen, David Beckham, Frank Lampard et al who flattered to deceive and never got further than the quarter finals of a major tournament.
Yes, you’ve heard all this before. You’ve probably lived it yourself if you’re an England supporter. But I have a solution – try and watch as a neutral with all the laid-back devil-may-care sophistication, say, of this native of the Euro 2016 host nation.
If you don’t invest in any of the England games then you won’t be disappointed is my logic. England, let’s face it, are not likely to win the tournament (though I’d be glad to be proved wrong) so save yourself the pain from the outset.
Off course this probably doesn’t apply to fans of Wales or Northern Ireland whose patchy qualification record over the years means that they haven’t had all the upsets we England fans have suffered. They should go for it. But for those with the Three Lions on their shirts, why not give neutrality a go?
It worked in the 2008 Euros when England didn’t qualify and fans really took to the tournament.
UK broadcasters bought up hours of primetime football but, with no home nation teams in the tournament, a ratings disaster was predicted. They were wrong. Euro 2008 was a competition where, after an admittedly slow start, British football fans really got stuck in.
A thrilling Holland v Italy game drew more than six million viewers to ITV's live match coverage and even less glamorous group games were watched avidly – Turkey's thrilling 3-2 victory over the Czech Republic was viewed by an average of nearly five million viewers.
A whopping eight million tuned into the Russia v Holland quarter final, meanwhile the Italy v Spain quarter peaked at 9.3 million viewers before a final was watched by more than 10 million. The usual pattern – a big audience for home nations' games which tails off when they get knocked out – wasn’t repeated. Fans seemed to really enjoy watching without the heartache.
Euro 2016 brings with it plenty of familiar faces for fans of English domestic football. We can expect 60 Premier League players competing in the squads of other nations, with an additional five in the Northern Ireland squad and 13 in the Welsh line-up – and that’s not including superstars like Wales’ Gareth Bale who plays for Real Madrid in the Spain.
So my advice for England fans? Stay neutral – and just enjoy the football without the tears.
Euro 2016 coverage begins tonight with the France v Romania Group A: kick-off 8pm live on ITV. Wales v Slovakia starts at 4pm on BBC1 on Saturday June 11. England v Russia coverage begins at 7pm on ITV1 later that evening