Alan Shearer on the European Championship
It comes as no surprise that Alan Shearer has his eyes firmly fixed on the strikers at Euro 2008. As a former European Championship Golden Boot winner himself – top scorer at Euro 96 – and with 30 goals in his 63 caps for England, Alan earned his place as one of the world's great forwards and he's keen to see who will be knocking in the goals this time round.
"That's what I'll be looking forward to most, the strikers, having played in that position myself," he says. "But looking at the amount of talent that's going to be on show, your guess is as good as mine on who'll be top scorer. You can go through the teams and they all have at least one likely candidate, though my own favourites would probably be Spain's Fernando Torres, who's had a fabulous season with Liverpool, he's been a great success, and Nicolas Anelka of France."
He can't help but dwell on a few of the names who'll be missing from the tournament, though.
A loyal England fan, who captained his country 34 times (including at the World Cup in 1998 and in Euro 2000), he's devastated that the likes of Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen won't be on show in Austria and Switzerland.
"I'm bitterly disappointed that England didn't qualify," he says passionately. "We're all England fans at the end of the day and we so desperately wanted to go there. It was great to go to the last World Cup [which he also covered for BBC TV after hanging up his boots at the end of that season] knowing that England were involved – if I'm honest they're the games that you look forward to working on most. Also, having played for England myself, and played in major tournaments myself, you're aware of how the players are feeling and the buzz that's going on and we won't have that this time.
"And if we're disappointed going as supporters and to work there, you can imagine how the players must be feeling when the tournament's on."
Alan has first-hand experience of that, having missed out on the World Cup in 1994 when England failed to qualify. He says he was so upset that he found it difficult to take much interest in the tournament.
"It was very hard," he recalls. "I went on holiday, I went to Portugal for the whole time. We watched just one or two games on TV ... whether any players will do that this time I don't know, but it's a tough time. I don't think even for us the reality of England not being there will properly hit home until we're actually out there and haven't got an England game to look forward to."
Despite that he's still expecting to enjoy the tournament.
"There are going to be some wonderful footballers on the stage there so if you love the game of football then it'll still be exciting," he says.
Especially since he reckons it will be quite tense and hard to call, with several teams in with a great chance of winning.
Along with the usual suspects of France, Holland, Italy and Germany, he adds in Croatia – because "there'll always be a surprise package somewhere down the line, and Croatia were impressive when they beat England", and Portugal – because of the Ronaldo factor.
Just as Maradona was so influential in winning the World Cup for Argentina, Alan reckons Ronaldo can have a similar impact.
"I think he is without doubt the most exciting talent in the world at this minute," he says. "It's incredible the amount of goals he's scored this season. It's great for the fans all around England who are seeing him week in, week out. I know he gets booed and criticised but there's only one reason why that is – because teams fear him and they've got a great respect for him.
"He has wonderful ability but I think what people probably don't see is his mental strength. For him to come back from the stick and abuse he was getting from people after the World Cup, with England and the Wayne Rooney situation, for him to rise above all that and put in the performances that he has done over the past couple of years suggests that he's got great mental strength too."
That's something Alan realised you definitely need for international football way back in his very first tournament, Euro 92 in Sweden. He'd only made his senior England debut a few months previously and was still inexperienced when he played in the game against France.
"Basile Boli headbutted Stuart Pearce in that game and I remember him coming off with a big cut over his eye. I was thinking, blimey, is this what international football's all about! But Stuart stood there and took it – which was unlike him!"
Big tournaments are great for team building, says Alan: "You get to know each other very well because the most you spend together otherwise is three or four days throughout the year, whereas as soon as the season finishes it's England, England, England. You're away together for the best part of six weeks really.
"You can get bored now and again, obviously you miss your family and friends, but it's an exciting time as well because you've worked so hard over the past two years to get where you are that you just want the games to start. You need your rest and treatment for injuries but if you could you'd play a game every day."
He cites Euro 96 – held in England – as his favourite of the tournaments he played in.
"All of Euro 96 was great, it was a great occasion. Everyone seemed very happy – apart from the outcome of course, the penalties [England lost to Germany in a penalty shoot-out in the semi-final], but Euro 96 was a high without a doubt.
"At the beginning there was a bit of pressure on us as a home team – and on me personally as I hadn't scored for God knows how many games! – but once we got into the tournament and started to enjoy it and got the results the pressure went and it was great having our own fans in our own stadiums.
"There was probably more pressure on other teams coming to play at Wembley than for us. I just think everyone enjoyed it – players, staff and fans."
Although Alan took the prestigious Golden Boot award at Euro 96, he'd have given it up in a second for a winner's medal.
"Obviously finishing top scorer was a nice feeling, but it would have ranked a lot higher if we had won it," he says ruefully. "Individual rewards are all nice and pretty – but you're in it for team awards."