Euro 2020 is fast approaching, and even though it feels like yesterday that Portugal beat France in Paris to win Euro 2016, in a few months 24 nations will battle it out once again to be crowned kings of Europe.
Following December’s draw, we now know the make-up of the groups, and we also know what the opening fixture will be: Turkey v Italy at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome. The opening game of any major international tournament is a great occasion and can set the tone for the whole event. With Euro 2020 marking the 60th anniversary of the competition, much will be expected of Italy and Turkey to provide a thrilling spectacle, and the match will go some way towards determining both sides’ chances in Euro 2020.
Let’s take a look at a few opening matches in the history of the European Championship that were defining moments in the context of the tournament.
Euro 96: England 1-1 Switzerland
The 1996 European Championships hold a special place in the memory of many England fans. During a summer defined by heatwaves and The Lightning Seeds, football came home as England hosted a major international tournament for the first time since the 1966 World Cup.
The Three Lions ultimately reached the semi-finals of the competition, cruelly losing to Germany on penalties. But the opening game proved to be an important moment for Terry Venables’ side. England were expected to win comfortably, and when Alan Shearer gave the hosts the lead early in the second half, it looked as though it would be a breeze.
But Switzerland had other ideas, and came back strongly at England, putting the hosts under immense pressure before a handball by Stuart Pearce gave the Swiss the chance to draw level. Kübilay Türkyilmaz duly converted to earn his side a share of the spoils.
The match was a timely reminder for England that they would need to up their game if they wished to enjoy success at their home tournament. Lessons were learned from the draw with Switzerland, and England went on to beat Scotland 2-0 and the Netherlands 4-1 to seal first place in the group standings.
Euro 2004: Portugal 1-2 Greece
Portugal v Greece proved to be both the opening and closing matches of Euro 2004, as the pair met in the final having also been drawn in the same group. Famously, Greece were victorious on both occasions, winning the tournament in one of the biggest shocks in European Championship history.
The opening match was seen by many as a formality for Portugal, but nerves seemed to affect the hosts in Porto and Greece manager Otto Rehhagel’s tactical masterclass proved too much. An early goal by Georgious Karagounis set the tone, and a penalty by Angelos Basinas in the second half gave Greece a two-goal cushion. Cristiano Ronaldo’s late strike was nothing but a mere consolation.
Having already defeated Portugal in the competition, Greece went into the final in a confident mood and won the tournament through Angelos Charisteas’ second-half header. The opening match played an important role in the eventual champions understanding their opposition and how to tactically outmanoeuvre Portugal.
Euro 2016: France 2-1 Romania
Hosts France required a late Dimitri Payet screamer to see off Romania in the opening game of Euro 2016. Olivier Giroud had given them the lead in the second half, but Bogdan Stancu’s penalty levelled the scores shortly afterwards. It looked like the hosts were going to be held to a draw, but Payet stepped up and unleashed a bullet into the top corner, sending the home fans into raptures.
While France came away with the win, the match highlighted frailties in the team which would be exposed at times later in the tournament. Switzerland held them to a draw later in the group stage, while Ireland led them for 58 minutes in the last 16. It was Portugal who ultimately took full advantage of the occasional lapses France had displayed since the opening game, beating them in the final to win the tournament.
Of course, France would go on to win the World Cup two years later, proof that manager Didier Deschamps learned from their shortcomings at the Euros.