It’s a strange thing, to win a European Championship.
That’s not to speak from personal experience. But as children, it is predominantly the World Cup that fans and footballers dream of winning for their country. As a young boy, did Andrés Iniesta lie on a duvet imprinted with Spain’s national team badge, in a bedroom adorned with La Roja wallpaper and posters of his footballing idols, dreaming of winning the Euros specifically?
Likely not, but as careers play out it becomes evident that winning any silverware for your country is a significant feat, whether that be on a global stage or continental one. International honours are rarer, partly due to the two-year gaps between each competition, whereas the Champions League and domestic tournaments – prestigious as they can be – are inherently more routine.
When it comes to international football, there are also greater trends in players succumbing to frailties of the psyche – ones that sometimes span generations. England, as much as any other nation, understand that plague well. With only one trophy in their footballing history, the Three Lions’ sole success back in 1966 has made the absence of silverware in the decades since even more haunting.
Iniesta knows that spectre, a shadow clinging to the wall of a young child’s bedroom – perhaps even to their national team wallpaper. Spain’s only triumph at a major tournament had come at the 1964 Euros, until Iniesta and his teammates banished that ghost in 2008 at the European Championship.
“It was something special,” Iniesta tells The Independent. “Very special, because it had been many years since the Spanish national team had won a title. And for each and every one of us it was something spectacular.
“We lived that European Championship with Luis Aragonés, who was a fundamental person in the building of the team,” Iniesta says of Spain’s coach at the time, who also represented the country as a player – his first cap coming one year after the national team’s 1964 Euros win.
“As soon as the final against Germany was over, I got to enjoy a sensation I had never felt before.”
It was a sensation he would feel again, however. When Spain thrashed Italy to win Euro 2012 and complete a stunning hat-trick of trophies – which included their 2010 World Cup victory – the then Barcelona midfielder was somewhat more accustomed to the ecstasy of holding silverware with Spain.
But he was not numb to it. “You never get used to success," says Iniesta, now 37 and playing for Vissel Kobe in Japan. “If you get used to it, you stop appreciating what each title means. Everything is exciting. And it’s simply because it involves a lot of work after each title.
“You have to give each victory the value it deserves. That’s why it’s not good to treat it as a routine. Quite the opposite: You have to take it as a challenge, to face it with the maximum possible energy to achieve triumphs that, in the end, lead you to the final success.”
Iniesta, given his involvement in Spain’s World Cup title win in South Africa, is in the rare position of being able to compare – or refrain from comparing – the feeling of winning the Euros to the sensation attached to becoming a world champion.
“The World Cup win was an indescribable emotion,” he tells The Independent. “There are no words to express what I felt when I heard the referee blow the final whistle in Johannesburg. It’s something unique. Magical. Unrepeatable.
“But not only for me, but for all the players who had the privilege of playing in the final and winning it. And, of course, for all the fans. And the whole country.
“There are so many different emotions. 2008 represented the highest of those emotions. In 2010, even more, of course. They’re different, but each one has a special value. I can’t compare them, nor do I want to. Each one was the best at that moment.
“Although, logically, the World Cup is unreal, so was the European Championship before it.”
Iniesta was man of the match in the 2012 triumph in Kyiv, but the midfielder was equally decisive in Johannesburg, scoring the sole goal of Spain’s World Cup final victory over Netherlands to settle the tie in extra time.
“The first thing I thought was: ‘Am I offside?’ It was a very long shot and I was caught in attack, as the most advanced player, as if I were the striker. But I acted on instinct.
“In all those kinds of plays you have to act as you feel in the moment, by instinct, and understanding what the game was asking of me at that moment when Cesc [Fàbregas] gave me the pass.”
Had Iniesta dreamt up such a moment in the wake of the Euro 2008 final in Vienna? Had his mind immediately turned to the thought of becoming a world champion, as well as a champion of Europe?
“In those moments you can’t help but to only think about what you have just achieved together with your colleagues,” Iniesta insists. “You don’t have time to go beyond that. Besides, the World Cup was two years away. You never know what might happen the next day, so you can’t think two years ahead.
“So you don’t think about winning the World Cup. But then, as the years go by, you see that without that 2008 Euros, nothing that came after that would have happened in the first place.”
In a conversation with The Independent in 2020, former Germany striker Stefan Kuntz put forward a similar sentiment about remaining in the moment and appreciating a European title for what it is.
“I had been in the Germany squad in America for the 1994 World Cup but only got a little bit of game time, and we were eliminated early on,” Kuntz said. “At that tournament I was surrounded by talented individuals, but we weren’t a team.
“In ‘96, it was completely different. By then I was already 34 years old, and I was just unbelievably happy to be there. The World Cup didn’t cross my mind at all.”
Jürgen Klinsmann, a teammate of Kuntz in 1994 and at Euro 96, not only captained Germany to the trophy in the latter tournament but – before their failure in America – won the World Cup with die Mannschaft in 1990.
On comparing a Euros win to that of a World Cup triumph, he tells The Independent: “I think it might be a little bit related to what stage in your career you are at. I was one of the younger players in the World Cup, and you really have difficulty comprehending what’s just happened, then you just join the group and party, and think: ‘This is just the coolest thing in life.’
“At the Euros, I was kind of at the senior stage of my career, almost the ending, and you comprehend it much better: the volume of what is happening to you and your role in that. By that time obviously I was captain of the team.
“Maybe in the World Cup [as a youngster] you think: ‘Okay, I scored a couple of goals, how cool is this?’ You see it mainly from your own perspective. In the Euros, later on, when I had the honour to be captain, you think more of other people. You just hope that everyone is okay and enjoys the moment. You have a different picture of things.”
The Euro 96 victory was certainly appreciated by Klinsmann and Kuntz’s compatriots as though it were not too dissimilar from a world title.
“We had a funny experience when we were flying back to Frankfurt after the final,” Klinsmann says. “Suddenly, two fighter jets were alongside our aircraft. I screamed to my wife: ‘Look outside the window!’ The fighter pilots were waving at us from the cockpit, they were so close! They gave us an escort into the airport. That is something you never forget.”
And how does a fan perceive a European title?
Portugal are yet to win a World Cup, but Ricardo de Almeida Gomes has seen his nation lose a Euros final – against Greece in 2004 – and win one – beating France in 2016 for their first and so far only major trophy.
“I was 11 years old during the 2004 final and I got very lucky to watch the game live,” he tells The Independent. “My grandpa had two tickets for every Portugal match as well as all the knockouts.
“As I was the youngest in the family, he asked me first which match I would be interested in watching. My answer was right off the bat, ‘the final!’ I remember him telling me, ‘well, Portugal might not make it,’ but I couldn’t care less.
“I remember going to the newly-built Estadio da Luz dressed in a Portugal shirt and face fully-painted in red, green and yellow.
“I remember we had many more opportunities than Greece, but sadly that is not enough to win. When it was half-time, I do recall saying to my grandpa that we would lose. We had many more chances on goal, but the header from [Angelos] Charisteas killed us.
“Despite the World Cup having more ‘fame’, I truly believe winning a Euros is harder. Taking out the European teams, the only ones that may compete at a World Cup are Brazil or Argentina.”
De Almeida Gomes attended Portugal’s second group game at Euro 2016, against Austria in Paris. It ended 0-0, and Portugal would in fact reach the knockouts with three draws from the first round. Against all odds, they defeated hosts France 1-0 in the final after extra time.
“The final, I remember watching it in our living room in Portugal with a lot of family members,” De Almeida Gomes says. “We were easily 20 people cramped in, watching on a small TV. It was a nerve-wracking match to watch.
“When Eder scored, I cannot remember jumping and screaming with joy so much in my life. Finally, when the match concluded, the whole family in my living room and the city of Lisbon was going nuts!”
If England are to beat Italy at Wembley Stadium on Sunday, London – and living rooms all over the country – will surely erupt in similar fashion.
It may be a strange thing to win a European Championship, but in its immediate aftermath, there is nothing but ecstasy.
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