England and France, who meet in their opening Euro 2012 Group D match in Donetsk, Ukraine, today, have jousted in soccer duels for 90 years, but if England had by far the better of the earliest exchanges — they won the first six encounters, all on French soil, comfortably — it is Gallic fans who have enjoyed more recent fare — not least a smash-and-grab group success at Euro 2004.
England won the first game 4-1 in 1923 and it was not until eight years later that France got off the mark.
They would also hand Sir Alf Ramsey’s Three Lions a 5-2 defeat in a Euro 64 qualifier — but Ramsey would have his revenge during the victorious 1966 World Cup campaign, where two Roger Hunt goals — final hat-trick star Geoff Hurst was kept in reserve that day — secured top spot in the group, with France eliminated.
The next time the pair met in competition, in 1982, England again took the bragging rights as Bryan Robson scored the then-fastest goal in the history of World Cup finals, netting after only 27 seconds in a 3-1 group win — though both sides made it though the group phase.
France hoped they would have the last laugh as Germany eliminated England in the second phase, but Germany then squeezed them out on penalties in the semi-finals.
If Robson’s early birds got the worm, the boot was on the other foot at Euro 2004 when Frank Lampard looked to have secured an opening group stage win with a first-half goal. In stoppage-time, the mercurial Zinedine Zidane lashed home a free-kick and then still had time to net a penalty — though the tension even got to him as he was sick on the pitch before taking it — after Steven Gerrard’s misplaced pass saw Thierry Henry hare through, only to be upended by England goalkeeper David James.
A November 2010 friendly win for France at Wembley in the neighbors’ last meeting saw both sides striving for a return to form after calamitous World Cup showings in South Africa.
Since that match, England have swapped the stern, Italian-flavored approach of Fabio Capello for the well-traveled Roy Hodgson — rather than ebullient tabloid newspaper favorite Harry Redknapp.
Meanwhile, France have emerged solidly from their 2010 nightmare, rising to 14th in the UEFA rankings under Laurent Blanc, who has overseen a resurgence in their fortunes on the back of an unbeaten run of 21 games, which includes [friendly] wins over Brazil, Germany — and that win in England.
With a third of the France squad plying their trade in the English Premier League — that trend going back to the 1990s arrival of Eric Cantona at Leeds United, then Manchester United, but most particularly to the start of the reign of Arsene Wenger at Arsenal — the two nations know each other inside out.
Blanc says even under a new coach and without several established faces, he knows exactly what to expect — but denies that this is an advantage.
“It’s all well and good to say they’re weakened, but what concerns me is that England will play in a certain manner, based on their qualities and their philosophy,” Blanc said. “They’ll give everything because when the French are against the English, it raises the stakes. We’ll have to be strong. It will be difficult.”
Chelsea’s Florent Malouda echoed that.
“England will be ready and competitive. They won’t hide — that’s not the English culture,” he said.