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What makes a EURO winner?

UEFA.com attempts to pin down what separates the best from the rest, a journey that takes in spousal advice, emboldening metaphors, incarceration, cobras, Scorpios, stones and cones.

What makes a EURO winner?
What makes a EURO winner? ©Getty Images

Any psychologist will tell you that while sport is played with the body, it is won through the mind, so we examine what gave past UEFA European Championship victors the edge.

AT UEFA EURO 2004, Greek newspaper Ta Nea ran a candid diary from defender Traianos Dellas – reviewing it is like tracking the birth, formation and realisation of a dream. His pre-tournament entries are circumspect, almost distancing himself from relaying coach Otto Rehhagel's belief that the squad was on the verge of greatness. "Rehhagel is speaking to us constantly, trying to convey the message that we are not going to Portugal as tourists, that this is our chance."

Gradually, through flattery ("Rehhagel calls me the Colossus of Rhodes"), a commitment to metaphors that would make Shakespeare balk ("Rehhagel said, 'Once upon a time, a renowned world boxing champion was up against a modest rival…'") and impressive results, "he" became "we". Preparing for the final against the hosts, Dellas' words carried a distinctive cadence. "This team is like a cobra – it strikes once and it's over," the centre-back said. After victory he added, "When Angelos Charisteas scored, I was thinking just one thing: 'It's ours now'."

Dellas' thoughts are resonant of other former EURO winners. They all had their own problems, their own crosses to bear, and their own methods of accepting or overcoming them. What unites the 13 teams, though, is a commitment to a driven coach, clear directions and a common destination. Iker Casillas recalls that four years ago the calm assurance of Luis Aragonés was infectious. "A month before the finals, the coach had everything sorted in his mind – how to manage the squad and precisely what he wanted from the tournament. It was key."

Not that victorious managers are impervious to outside opinions and advice. One of the most important decisions Berti Vogts made amid Germany's run to EURO '96 glory happened aboard a gondola in Venice, as he ruminated loudly about who to select as his fourth striker. "Take Oliver Bierhoff," came the sagacious (perhaps bored) reply from his wife Monika, "he will repay you." Bierhoff came off the bench in the final and cancelled out the Czech Republic's lead before hitting a golden goal winner.

The hunch – that certainty you cannot explain, cannot substantiate, cannot ignore. When Sandro Mazzola learned he had been left out of the 1968 final against Yugoslavia, he started packing his bags. It took team-mates Tarcisio Burgnich and Giorgio Ferrini locking him in his room and a phone call to his wife to persuade him to stay. "I'm a Scorpio," he explained. "I have a peculiar character." He watched as Italy drew 1-1, meaning a replay 48 hours later. Coach Ferruggio Valcareggi was expected to ignore Mazzola after his outburst but instead drafted him into the side – the playmaker was pivotal as Italy won 2-0.

As many important decisions are made off the pitch as on it. Whoever lifts the Henri Delaunay Cup in Kyiv will have spent over 40 days in the company of 22 other squad members plus the coaching staff. They will possibly play eight games, friendlies included – for the rest of the time they will be on a repetitive treadmill of hotel, training, team discussions and managing expectations. A five-star incarceration; largely confined to your cell, allowed out only for meals, time in the exercise yard or an all too familiar recreation room.

How do you fill that time? As the likes of Dellas have shown, it can be used for personal endeavor, but mostly it is an opportunity to further bind the group; for inclusion rather than exclusion. Indeed, Dellas was an enthusiastic participant in Greece's backgammon tournaments. In 1992 Denmark bonded over clandestine (if coach-endorsed) trips to McDonald's, while Czechoslovakia warmed up for the 1976 showpiece with a trip to a cinema to watch a Western they barely understood. All rather tame compared to 1988 when captain Ruud Gullit dragged the Netherlands to a pre-final Whitney Houston concert.

Casillas speaks more generally about Spain's 2008 base "being a place of great happiness". He adds: "There was this feeling that we were living through a wonderful period. We all got on excellently together and the squad was really happy with our coach." That man again. It seems the orchestra is only ever as good as the conductor. Spain's only previous EURO success, in 1964, was largely credited to boss José Villalonga, who ignored some big names to select a squad far stronger than the sum of its parts.

Understandably, on the morning of the final against holders the Soviet Union, the nerves among his youthful players were palpable. They stalked their base at La Berzosa with the same haunted resignation as the game Franco used to hunt in its grounds. Villalonga announced they were going for a walk. Halting in the shade of an olive tree, he bent down and drew a pitch in the parched soil. The late Chus Pereda recalled: "He took some stones and said, 'These represent us while our opponents are these pine cones. What are stronger, stones or cones?" Mr Rehhagel, eat your heart out.

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