EURO 96 Part One is the first of a three-part series on Nischal’s Blog, reflecting on Switzerland’s first European Championship appearance in 1996.
On this day in 1996, football came home.
England were hosting the 10th European Championship, affectionately known as EURO 96. The Three Lions were holding their first tournament in 30 years, and Baddiel, Skinner & Lightning Seeds were flying high in the charts. Terry Venables’ side reached the semi-finals, before being knocked out by Germany on penalties. Football didn’t come home.
But everyone has heard that story.
Everyone knows about Paul Gascoigne’s brilliant goal against Scotland, the famous ‘Dentist’s chair’ celebration and poor Gareth Southgate missing that decisive penalty. After all, it was a memorable summer for England, one that lives strong in the memory of a generation.
Yet, when England emerged from Wembley Stadium on 8th June 1996, there was another story coming into motion.
Switzerland had the honour of contesting the opening game, making the famous walk down the Wembley tunnel. Not only was it their first game at EURO 96, but it was the Schweizer Nati’s first ever game at the European Championship. Eight straight failures to qualify for Europe’s showpiece event was over: 36 years of waiting was complete.
Going into the tournament, Switzerland were ranked 21st in the world. They had just reached their first World Cup in 28 years, making it to the round of 16 at USA ’94. Two major tournaments in two years was unprecedented, but this was a unique era for the Swiss.
There’s no doubt that Switzerland wouldn’t have reached EURO 96 – let alone the heights that they did – without the guidance of an Englishman from Croydon.
Roy Hodgson became manager in 1992, assuming the reigns from Uli Stielike. The German had failed to qualify for the 1990 World Cup, overseeing the worst qualification campaign in 12 years. Hodgson completely revolutionised the Nati, and within a year had taken them to 3rd in the world– their highest ever ranking to this day.
After taking them to the World Cup, Hodgson repeated his success by qualifying for EURO 96. But immediately after sealing their EUROs spot, he left to join Italian giants Inter Milan. His departure seven months before the tournament was detrimental, and a huge blow for the Swiss.
With Hodgson gone, trust was placed in Portuguese Artur Jorge to lead Switzerland at their first European Championship. Hodgson’s boots were not easy ones to fill, but Jorge didn’t help boost his own popularity. He changed the Nati’s successful formation and tactics upon his arrival, and left out star players Adrian Knup and Alain Sutter from the final squad.
Fast forward to June 1996, and the moment had arrived. Switzerland were ready for their European Championship debut, and what better way to mark it against the hosts in front of 76,000 Wembley fans. The atmosphere was electric, excitement was high, and the eyes of the continent were watching: it was time to face the music.
Switzerland lined up in a 4-3-1-2 formation, a midfield moderation from Hodgson’s traditional yet successful 4-4-2. Marco Grassi and Kubilay Türkyilmaz formed a two-man strikeforce up top, with Christophe Bonvin just in behind to complete the attacking trio.
Alongside defensive partner Stéphane Henchoz, centre-back Ramon Vega was one of those to start in London. Vega spoke exclusively to Nischal’s Blog recently, with the full interview coming out this June. He recalled that afternoon at Wembley, and what it was like to play in the Nati’s European Championship debut.
“Personally, it was a great experience, great honour,” Vega said. “You’re playing at Wembley Stadium- you can’t have a better iconic stadium to play in, in terms of history. You’re coming to the home of football, we as a small Swiss nation to play against the hosts, big England.”
That being said, Switzerland were actually ranked higher than England going into their Group A clash. While the Three Lions were three places lower in the world rankings, the odds were overwhelmingly in the hosts’ favour. There was huge expectation for Venables’ squad, and they needed to start with a win.
Vega added, “It was very nerve-wracking of course; I couldn’t even sleep the night before the game! To play against England, we had a great game as well on that day- actually we should’ve won to be honest with you!”
While Switzerland did have a great game at Wembley, they didn’t get off to the best start.
With 23 minutes gone, Paul Ince played a piercing pass through the Swiss defence, cutting them open with a deft through ball. Alan Shearer broke free, and hit a first-time shot as sweetly as they come. Marco Pascolo had little chance in goal, facing a one-on-one shot at close range from the eventual tournament top scorer.
Shearer’s shot rippled in the back of the net, met by an incredible Wembley roar. Switzerland were wounded, but far from out of it.
They could’ve conceded far more than the one, where it not for some heroic defending. Pascolo pulled off a string of fantastic saves, and Sébastien Jeanneret made a brilliant last-ditch clearance on the line, as Switzerland hung on. The Nati weren’t going to give in without a fight, and finally got their just rewards seven minutes from time.
The decision remains controversial, but Spanish referee Manuel Díaz Vega awarded the Swiss a penalty for a Stuart Pearce handball. English fans will argue to this day that it wasn’t a penalty, and Pearce was simply protecting his face. But it’s clear that it the handball changed the ball’s direction and stopped it in its track, and therefore a penalty.
Türkyilmaz took responsibility, the hopes of a nation resting on the striker’s shoulders. In ice-cool fashion, he sent David Seaman the wrong way, hitting the ball deep into the bottom right corner and perfectly inside the post. Switzerland had equalised, and the celebrations showed just how much it meant to the Nati.
The passion of Türkyilmaz. The delight of the travelling Swiss fans. The joy of the players. It may just have been one kick from 12 yards out, but it was one of the most important in Swiss football history. Switzerland had announced themselves on the European stage, to the delight of millions of people across the nation.
Switzerland’s first ever European Championship goal was a momentous one, stealing a point at the expense of England in a historic 1-1 draw. Of course the Swiss could’ve won it, but to earn a draw on their debut against one of the strongest powers in Europe was a remarkable achievement for Jorge’s men.
It was a decent way to open their European Championship account, and to start Group A with a point. They were playing their first game against an England team playing their 12th. Yet, against all the odds, this small plucky nation from central Europe had got a draw in their first game.
EURO 96 had begun, and while England left the pitch disappointed, Switzerland couldn’t help but walk off with pride. The Nati’s European Championship journey had begun.
EURO 96 Part Two will be out on Saturday 13th June, focusing on Switzerland’s second Group A match against the Netherlands.
Read more of my Swiss national team articles here
Group A: Assessing Switzerland’s EURO 2020 opponents
How English pride has become problematic in 21st century Britain
Four Swiss starlets to watch out for in the future