Dragons, dirges and the cheeseheads going bonkers

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The Independent Online
In the first of a series celebrating the big events of the summer, Jim White travels to Wembley to witness the opening of Euro 96

Much has been said over the years about England football fans, about their intolerance, their oafishness, their leaden insensitivity. But last Saturday afternoon, at about two o'clock at Wembley Stadium, no one could gainsay their judgement.

For the opening ceremony of Euro 96, a collection of former England players were summoned on to the pitch, in the manner of old champions called into the ring before a Don King promotion, their mere presence hoped to be enough to inspire the boys. There was Stanley Matthews, at 82 looking quicker round Wembley than many of the present team; there was Jimmy Greaves, a man smiling on despite the constant reminder that it is now nearly 30 years to the day since his greatest disappointment: being left out of the World Cup final; and there was Ray Wilkins, the snappiest dresser in football, showing that his time in Milan was spent mainly down the tailors.

Each of them received a warm and rousing welcome, as did every other player who trotted out. Except Emlyn Hughes, who, as he was booed to the rafters, performed a useful function for the first time in his life: he allowed the England crowd to prove one thing about themselves. That they know a prat when they see one.

On Saturday, they had plenty of practice spotting them. At Baker Street station earlier in the day, a dozen Swiss fans, in red shirts, faces painted and wearing baseball caps with large wedges of plastic cheese on the top, bounded on to a train from King's Cross already filled with beery lads from Portsmouth, Reading and Swindon bawling "no surrender to the IRA". For about 10 seconds, there was an odd stand-off as the Swiss climbed aboard, looking nervously at the occupants, until one of the lads started singing "The Birdie Song" by the Smurfs at them. Much guffawing, back-slapping and hand-shaking ensued.

This presumably constitutes a good, old-fashioned, warm English welcome: citizens of the richest nation on earth mocked as a bunch of gnomes. Not that the Swiss minded, maybe they didn't anticipate anything less while wearing wedges of plastic cheese on their heads.

Scenes like this must have been repeated all over town: the police reported only 15 arrests as the 5,000 Swiss cheerfully accepted the role ascribed to them by the English. The lads assumed the visitors were there to make up the numbers, to lie down in the first game, to give the hosts an easy route to the quarter-finals. No need to be too hard on them, then.

Goodness, once hostilities began in earnest, our boys didn't even boo the Swiss national anthem. Best to save the energy for next week and Scotland, to let the stadium reverberate to "we all hate Jocks and Jocks and Jocks". It probably wasn't just the police, incidentally, who noticed how badly the segregation had gone awry inside Wembley, how many Swiss were dotted among the English, even among those hard-core nationalists down in front of the Royal Box, who clench their fists in fervent salutes during "God Save The Queen".

But worries like that are for another time. Saturday was for showing the world what England does best: bad pageantry, turgid pomp, rock and palsied football. Intriguingly, since England is the nation that also gave the world Pink Floyd, Saturday's was an opening ceremony devoid of hi-tech, lasers or giant inflatables. Perhaps in deference to Europeans who would have been terrified at the prospect of vast British farmyard animals floating across the London sky, instead the performance was all low-tech, flag-waving and pantomime dragons.

In China, small children are sent virtually at birth to schools where they dedicate their lives to the art of holding up coloured cards in breath- stealingly complex patterns at the opening ceremonies of sporting events.

In England, for Euro 96, a few children from local schools were dispatched to their nearest sports shop, decked out in replica kits of the competing nations and told to jog round the Wembley pitch waving at the crowd.

Hardly inspiring, but this approach was not without its diversions. There was a nice irony in Croatia, for instance, a nation born of ferocious ethnic cleansing, being represented by an entirely Asian school. And the children dressed as Germans are probably now in counselling: their first appearance on a national stage and they were booed almost as ferociously as Emlyn Hughes. The booing was particularly intense, venomous even, as the poor, unfortunate ersatz Krauts trotted past the Swiss fans, who had turned one end of the stadium red. In this instance, the Germans are truly the only nation capable of uniting the rest of Europe.

After the children, after the jousting, after the appearance in the centre circle of a trophy so huge its lid would have been too big even for Alex Ferguson's head, came Mick Hucknall, ploughing his way through his dirge of an official anthem called "We're in this Together". Hucknall was backed up by a gospel choir, 100-strong and looking marvellous in black academic gowns. As a Manchester United fan, Hucknall should have known his own choice of outfit would be less effective than theirs: he merged hopelessly into the crowd in a suit of grey. Appropriate, though, for the forgettable aural wallpaper that is his song.

Even the Swiss, who as he began started clapping along with metronomic precision, had given up by the end, lulled into sleep by the dullness of it all. They were woken up only by a noisy fly-past by Britain's foremost precision flying corps, which closely followed 16 parachutists tumbling from a flutter of helicopters flapping above the stadium. Simply Red, the Red Arrows, the Red Devils: the Swiss must have realised it was their day.

They were not the only ones. From early in the second half it was clear England were a spent force, forlornly booting the ball skywards, perhaps in an attempt to bring down the television airship which was casting irritating shadows on the pitch throughout the match. The crowd, quickly spotting there would be little to distract them on the field, contented themselves with other diversions, such as spotting John Barnes in the television commentary box high up in the stadium roof, easily indentifiable by his custard-coloured trousers. How he of all analysts must have empathised, as 11 men in white shirts under-performed beneath his feet.

Afterwards, when it was over, as Gazza, Dazza, Sheri and Platty staggered, exhausted, towards the tunnel, the Swiss players lined up in front of their fans as if they had won the trophy itself, linking hands and taking bows, like divas on a curtain call.

In the stands, the bankers in plastic cheese hats went bonkers. That's one great thing about international sport, it always throws up the unexpected: until Saturday, the last term you would use about the Swiss was party animals. Meanwhile, the England lads trooped home to Portsmouth, Reading and Swindon, filling the tubes with the gloom of under-achievement, only occasionally rousing themselves to sing their song of anticipation. "We all hate Jocks and Jocks and Jocks."