By Aidan Elder | chief sports writer
The pre-tournament friendlies were meant to clear up some of the questions we had going into it, but if it’s anything, now it’s murkier than Ryan Giggs’ love life. In a vain attempt to get a handle on how the next four weeks of football might go, it’s time to consult the history books.
It’s a look at the win percentages of some of the bigger football nations since the first European Championships in 1960. I think it’ll surprise. And not just because I’m doing Gareth Southgate jokes 16 years later.
For the purposes of this, wins on penalty-kicks and the tossing of a coin (it has happened) are counted as wins. Some places only count those as draws. That’s harsh. Success in spot-kicks takes bravery and nerve. Or being less crap at them than Gareth Southgate. Technically it’s not a win, but you’re heading to the next round and the other guys are packing away their dirty clothes for the journey home, so it’s a pretty realistic simulation of the feeling.
The Netherlands sitting on top of the pile (56%) is as predictable as someone making a gag about getting stoned any time someone mentions Amsterdam. They’ve only won the Euros once, but they’re an almost constant presence in the semi-finals and finals.
They almost always go into tournaments with high quality teams or at least with teams with big enough egos to convince everyone they’re high quality until they get found out. With a bit more luck and dubious refereeing, this generation of the Oranje have the pedigree to repeat the achievement of the 2010 World Cup with a run to the final.
Just like teenage pregnancies or John Terry, the numbers don’t reflect well on England. They’ve won just a smidgen under 35 per cent of all their games at the European Championships. In fact, they’ve won just eight games in their entire history at the Euros. They’ve underperformed on the European stage, certainly in contrast to better showings at World Cups.
France’s good record is built upon the wins of 1984 and 2000. In 1984 it was thanks to the brilliance of Michel Platini, whilst in 2000 it was thanks to their resilience and fighting spirit. And the ‘golden goal rule’ that was discontinued not long after. Despite their reputation for being a bit flaky, France’s win rate of nearly 54 per cent shows their general air of superiority is founded upon a good deal of actual superiority.
Much of Spain’s history has been associated with flopping. They developed a reputation as fluffing their lines on the big stage, but even in the bad old days, they tended to impress and win a few games before blowing everyone’s hopes. They’ve also been boosted by the swaggering victory in 2008, but overall, it’s a surprisingly healthy record.
Not dissimilar to England, Italy haven’t always shown their best stuff at the Euros. They seem to like it as much as someone saying ‘hey you, get your hands off my wife.’ They are dissimilar a couple of ways however. Firstly, they’ve actually won it and secondly, they’ve been involved in the latter stages far more often. Their win rate of 48 per cent has benefitted from the coin toss used to decide the semi-final of the 1968 tournament instead of a penalty shoot-out, but it’s still not too shabby.
Instinct and a lifetime of national stereotypes might have you thinking Germany would be the most ruthless of the European nations. The ‘never write them off’ cliché comes from somewhere and it’s based on their ability to grind out a performance when they need it most – even if they’re looking as slick as socks with sandals.
You might think that the Czech Republic’s record has been inflated by the impressive record of Czechoslovakia, but it’s not. I’m far too culturally sensitive to attribute the success of that team entirely to the Czech element and ignore the Slovaks. Hooray for European diversity! Besides, their win rate of 44 per cent at the Euros actually drops to 42 per cent when lumping in Czechoslovakia’s history, so maybe the Czech and Slovaks weren’t that good together anyway.
The huge caveat that comes with this stats is that’s about winning at the right times. It’s all well and good hockeying everyone in your group, but you need some juice in the tank for the knockout stages. A 75 per cent win rate at a tournament could mean you win the trophy, but it also could mean you’re starting your summer holidays after a quarter-final exit. If you don’t get the timing right, high hopes can be destroyed faster than you can say ‘limply taken penalty’.