Football Features

From Zidane to Shearer: A combined XI of tournament debutants at Euro ’96

By Ben Green

From Zidane to Shearer- A combined XI of tournament debutants at Euro '96

Published: 8:40, 13 August 2022

Ah, Euro 96. What a time to be alive. The competition where football so nearly came home remains one of the most iconic in recent memory (in England at least) and exactly 26 years on everyone still gets all misty-eyed just thinking about it. 

You may think that the English have been reminiscing about Euro 96 with rose-tinted spectacles firmly on, but a glance at the squads from the tournament proves that it really was a majestic occasion for plenty other teams involved.

That is because the number of players who cut their international teeth at Euro 96 is quite simply a who’s who of European football’s greatest talents over the last three decades or so.

Don’t believe us? Here is a combined XI of the players who made their international tournament debuts all those years ago. Given the plethora of talent that applies to that criteria, we don’t expect you to agree with all our selections but just bear in mind this lot accumulated 1,124 international appearances between them. Oh, and five of them won the World Cup later on in the careers.

As you were.

Goalkeeper: Edwin van der Sar (Netherlands)

International apps: 130

Major tournaments: Six

Fun fact: Van der Sar is the Netherlands’ second all-time appearance maker to this day.

Honourable mentions: David Seaman, Francesco Toldo, Vitor Baia

Despite being named in Netherlands’ squad for the 1994 World Cup, Edwin van der Sar had a watching brief and it wasn’t until two years later that he was able to truly usurp the old Chelsea favourite Ed de Goey between the sticks.

The Dutch didn’t enjoy the greatest of tournaments in ’96 as rumours of rifts within the squad and a heavy 4-1 defeat to England undermined their campaign, but if one positive came of it, they stumbled upon their first choice ‘keeper for the next 12 years.

Right Back: Gary Neville (England)

International apps: 85

Major tournaments: Five

Fun fact: Gary and his brother Phil were capped 142 times by England, more than any other brothers for the Three Lions.

Honourable mentions: Markus Babbel

A regular in the right-wing back role in Terry Venables’ favoured 3-5-2 system for the first four games of the tournament, Neville was suspended for the semi-final defeat against Germany.

Despite missing out on that occasion, the 20-year-old Neville had demonstrated his capability at international level and he went on to earn 85 full caps for the national team.

Centre Back: Marcel Desailly (France)

International apps: 116

Major tournaments: Five

Fun fact: Desailly opened the scoring in France’s biggest ever international win, a 10-0 defeat of Azerbaijan in 1995.

Honourable mentions: Fernando Couto, Gareth Southgate

Surprisingly given his vast success at club level with Marseille and Milan, Marcel Desailly had to wait until he was 27 for his first taste of a major international tournament, slotting in alongside Laurent Blanc at the heart of the French defence.

Although Les Bleus crashed out on penalties in the semi-finals, they only conceded twice in five games at the tournament and that defensive resilience stood them in good stead to win the tournament four years later at Euro 2000.

Centre Back: Lillian Thuram (France)

International apps: 142

Major tournaments: Seven

Fun fact: Only 14 European players past and present can better Thuram’s 142 international caps.

Although he was marauding right-back in his early international days, Lilian Thuram makes it into this team in his more natural position of centre back, where he ended his illustrious career.

Like so many players at Euro 96, Thuram caught the eye enough to secure a lucrative move abroad, joining a number of other cult heroes at Parma (Buffon, Cannavaro and Veron, to name a few) after spending his entire career to date previously with Monaco.

Left Back: Bixente Lizarazu (France)

International apps: 97

Major tournaments: Five

Fun fact: Lizarazu became a European champion in two different sports, after becoming a blue belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in 2009.

Honourable mentions: Christian Ziege, Robert Jarni

Clearly Aime Jacquet was building a team with the World Cup on home soil two years later firmly in mind, as Bixente Lizarazu was another inexperienced member of the France squad who would go on to become a mainstay in the side.

Lizarazu played sufficiently well in his four appearances at Euro 96 to secure his place in the side over the best part of the next decade and he ended an exceptional career just shy of a century caps.

Defensive Midfield: Edgar Davids (Netherlands)

International apps: 74

Major tournaments: Four

Fun Fact: Davids scored one brace during his international career… in a 5-5 draw against Belgium in 1999.

Honourable mentions: Paul Ince, Philip Cocu, Christophe Karembeu, Paulo Sousa

Having played a big part in Ajax reaching successive Champions League finals in ’95 and ’96, Edgar Davids (pre-goggle days) was rewarded with a place in Guus Hiddink’s squad for the Euro’s.

The fiery midfielder didn’t stick around too long, though, as he was sent home in disgrace after an explosive outburst on radio in which he suggested that Hiddink had his head in ‘some of the players asses’. So that’s where Roy Keane got the idea from in 2002….

Attacking Midfield: Zinedine Zidane (France)

International apps: 108

Major tournaments: Six

Fun Fact: Zidane became the seventh coach to win the Champions League with the same club as a manager and player following Real Madrid’s triumph over Atletico Madrid in 2016.

Honourable mentions: Rui Costa, Youri Djorkaef, Clarence Seedorf, Zvonimir Boban

Just look at that head of hair… Despite being 23 in Euro 96, Zizou was handed the No.10 shirt by Aime Jacquet, who was clearly moulding him into his side’s talisman just in time for the 1998 World Cup two years later (a strategy that worked pretty well).

Zidane, still playing for Bordeaux at the time, wasn’t at his mesmeric, pirouetting best in ’96 but he displayed he had the appetite for the big occasion by scoring in both of France’s shootouts in the quarter and semi-finals. A move to Juventus beckoned shortly afterwards.

Right Wing: Luis Figo (Portugal)

International apps: 127

Major tournaments: Five

Fun Fact: Figo is one of three Portuguese players to have won the Ballon d’Or, the others are Eusebio and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Honourable mentions: Steve McManaman, Karel Poborsky

As far as Portugal kits go, their effort in Euro 96 certainly wasn’t a classic.

Nevertheless, that tournament was the first time the wider footballing audience had a chance to witness their ‘golden generation’ spearheaded by the brilliant Luis Figo.

At 23, Figo had already established himself as a starter for his country and was playing for Barcelona at the time. He enhanced an already burgeoning reputation by scoring in a 3-0 win over Croatia to help send his side through to the last eight.

Left Wing: Pavel Nedved (Czech Republic)

International Apps: 91

Major tournaments: Four

Fun fact: Nedved won the Czech Golden Ball (given to the country’s best player) on six separate occasions.

Honourable mentions: Patrick Berger

Nobody expected the Czech Republic to do much at Euro 96, however, Pavel Nedved and co nearly went and won the thing after seeing off the challenge of Portugal and then France in the knockout rounds before eventually finding Germany too difficult to conquer in the final.

Nedved himself was one of most inexperienced members of the squad but by the time he had hung up his boots in 2006, he had become his country’s most decorated player of all time.

Striker: Alessandro Del Piero (Italy)

International apps: 91

Major tournaments: Seven

Fun fact: Del Piero is Juventus’ leading appearance maker (705) and record goalscorer (290).

Alessandro Del Piero hardly lit up the tournament at Euro 96, making just one substitute appearance, but it was the starting point for what would be an eventful international career which was capped by a World Cup win in 2006.

Juventus’ most decorated son went on from Euro 96 to enjoy a truly remarkable career, picking up honours regularly in Turin as well as becoming one of the most respected players of his generation.

Striker: Alan Shearer (England)

International apps: 63

Major tournaments: Three

Fun fact: Shearer is the all-time Premier League top goalscorer (260). He has 52 more than Wayne Rooney in second place.

Honourable mentions: Teddy Sheringham, Davor Suker, Oliver Bierhoff, Patrick Kluivert

Prior to the tournament, Shearer was under huge pressure to deliver after going 12 games without scoring for his country but he responded emphatically, top scoring at the competition with five as well as netting in both shootouts.

Newcastle’s iconic former captain so nearly provided a match-winning assist in the semi-final against Germany too, as his cross-shot just evaded Gazza’s studs by a matter of inches leaving us all to ponder for the rest of time ‘what if’.