We know at every tournament that Ireland’s fans will have the best craic, sing the best songs and make most friends, though the Welsh are giving it a good go this year.
We also know England will start full of false hope and crash out too soon, the early exit followed by recriminations, resignations and much navel-gazing.
And then there are the Germans. They are always there, three times as champions, three times as runners-up, and they have never failed to qualify for a European Championship since it became a proper tournament in the 1970s. They usually start unspectacularly, grinding out results here and there, just doing enough to get to the knockout stages. A smooth, stylish and efficient machine, like the cars they make.
As Gary Lineker put it famously: “Football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.”
If they need 120 minutes, they usually go the distance. And when it comes to penalties? No-one can get close to their record. Six shoot-outs in major tournaments, and five straight wins since they lost their first, to Czechoslovakia back in 1968. They had not even missed a spot-kick in a shoot-out since 1982, when they beat France to reach the World Cup final.
So what happened in Bordeaux on Saturday night was both entirely in keeping and also slightly out of character for the Germans, who manage to miss more penalties — three — in the space of 10 minutes than they had done in the previous 40 years.
But they are through, having defeated Italy for the first time in nine tournament matches, and who would bet against them adding the European Championship to the world crown they won in Brazil two years ago?
It was not a classic game in Bordeaux, perhaps unsurprisingly given the respective records of the two sides. Germany had not conceded a goal for five successive games, while Italy’s only blot was that Robbie Brady header in a match where Antonio Conte rested key players after his side had already qualified.
After an hour of a mostly forgettable stalemate, the game came alive in the 65th minute when Mesut Ozil clipped a perfect half-volley past Gianluigi Buffon. But Italy equalised from the penalty spot when Leonardo Bonucci got the better of Manuel Neuer in the 77th minute. He would not do so again, as the German goalkeeper went on to become his country’s hero with two outstanding saves in the shoot-out, from Bonucci and Matteo Darmian of Manchester United.
But there was not the usual German efficiency from 12 yards, as Thomas Muller, Ozil, and Bastian Schweinsteiger all failed from the spot. But Italy were worse, and Neuer was the hero, which did not surprise his Bayern Munich team-mate Muller.
“As a player, you never want a penalty shoot-out because it is a lottery, to some extent. You’d rather win in 90 minutes. But with Manuel in goal, we always have the advantage,” said the striker.
“He shows his quality in every game. He makes more saves (in penalties) than any other goalkeeper in the world, that’s a fact.”
Muller was grateful to Neuer, as his own barren spell continued with two missed chances and a missed penalty.
The man who hit nine goals in qualifying and was top scorer at the 2010 World Cup has yet to hit the net in France, even from the penalty spot, and has promised to practise his technique in case he is needed to step up again.
“I’ll revisit my penalty technique and come back stronger in a month or two. For now, I’ll leave it to others to take them. But if it comes to penalties again and someone is needed, I’m there.”
He says he is not bothered about his own goal drought as long as Germany keep winning. “It doesn’t matter if I score or not. I’ll keep trying, and if it happens, it happens. If we go on to win the final without a goal of mine, I’ll be happy with that.”
Germany have steadily grown stronger as the tournament has progressed, and Muller says they are playing ‘grown-up’ football. “We are playing like real men and deserved to beat Italy.
“We have been confident from the start that we can challenge for the title. We have a very talented group, and have now found the right structure. We play with passion but also with a cool head.” As world champions, Muller knows Germany are the team to beat. “Opponents always have respect for us. I am sure all the other teams in the semi-finals would have liked the Germans to go home — but it has not turned out like that.”
Antonio Conte was proud of his players after his final game as Italy coach before taking over at Chelsea. “The lads gave everything against a very strong side,” he said.
“Being beaten by Germany on penalties is no shame. The world champions changed their system for us. I had an incredible experience with these players, making Italy respected and feared by everyone. We made the players truly aware that it’s a privilege to wear the shirt.”
Neuer 9; Höwedes 6, Boateng 7, Hummels 8; Kimmich 7, Khedira 6 (Schweinsteger 16), Kroos 6, Özil 7, Hector 7; Müller 5, Gomez 6 (Draxler 72)
Buffon 7; Barzagli 8, Bonucci 8, Chiellini 8 (Zaza 119) ; Florenzi 6 (Darmian 86), Sturaro 6, Parolo 6, Giaccherini 7, De Sciglio 6; Pellè 6, Éder 6 (Insigne108)
Viktor Kassai (Hungary) 8