In the early 1990's, when I was practicing long balls and slide tackles in the mud of England, continental Europe, with it's warm weather and cappuccino-glamour seemed a long, long way away. But one man brought it that little bit closer, and I'll always be grateful to him for it.
James Richardson presented a show on British Channel 4 television called Gazzetta Football Italia. He'd sit in the sunshine outside a café, usually in the shadow of famous Italian landmarks, slurping sophisticated-looking coffee and going through the colourful Italian sports newspapers. And he presented his show with a refreshing quick-witted sense of humour - a rare thing indeed for the football magazines of the laddish (a.k.a. boorish) 1990's.
With Richardson, football was fun - not a testosterone-fest.
I know this outs me as a bit of a country bumpkin, but, in the pre-Posh and Becks era, that one hour on Saturday, when I was immersed in the world of Roberto Baggio and the rest of the slick, elegant Italian players, was perhaps the most exotic journey I'd make all week.
"When I'm a big lad," I thought, "I'll go to Europe, sit in cafés and get paid for talking about football." I never did get all that big, but at least during the 3 weeks of these European Championships part of my dream has come true.*
Anyway, imagine my delight when I met the man who brightened up my youthful Saturday's at the FM4 EM-Quartier at the Vienna WUK. He's in Vienna, based in the Gösser Bierklinik, with his colleague Barry Glendenning, presenting what I think is one of the most refreshing magazine in the English language on these championships.
Check out their football-song karaoke singing video at the Künstlerhaus. And this cheesy one-line while looking through the local papers:
"The Austrian and Swiss teams have a mountain to climb. But they'll be used to that." Boom! Boom! Boom!
Anyway James and Barry were very complimentary about our fan base **, even after I ruined my hero's carefully created look, by thrusting my red-white-red Hawaiian laurel
over his neck.
And they were very complimentary about the Austrian team, which, to my delight, their colleague has described as "spunky".
And I think the players deserve the praise. In the foreign press, the Austrian team was widely ridiculed before the tournament, and although Hickersberger's players failed to satisfy their own ambitions over the past ten days, they also made a lot of critics eat their words. Ümit Korkmaz in particular was a real Euro revelation. I was in the stadium, when he was substituted on three-quarters into the Croatia game. It was like an injection of adrenaline.
Now the team has to build on the foundations they have created.The Austrian team will come out of this tournament much richer in big match experience, but still young in years. The next World Cup is in South Africa. It's a tantalising prospect, I think, and every qualification game should be treated like a cup final. The home euros need to be seen as a new beginning for Austrian football. If they are seen as a climax - the end of a particular road - that would be absolutely fatal.
Surely the ÖFB should be thinking about how it can capitalise on the public excitement, the momentum, created by this tournament. Instead, a day after 200,000 fans, mostly Austrian, took to the streets of Vienna, the ÖFB President Stickler was already talking about cutting costs.
That seems a big shame.
* apologies to radio licence payers.
** There's a cutting section of Evelyn Waugh's journalism satire 'scoop' about reporters running around interviewing each other. I know.
Listen to my meeting with James Richardson and Barry Glendenning on the Morning Show - Wednesday the 18th June.
p.s. As I send this off I'm just hearing the news that the injury that forced Frank Ribéry out of the France/Italy match could be a broken leg. That's bitterly, bitterly sour news for a great player. I hope the first diagnosis is wrong.