2021 was a historic year for Italy: it won the two biggest prizes in European culture within one summer.
In May, Italy triumphed at Eurovision through glam-rock act Maneskin’s “Zitti E Buoni”, one of the most memorable winning songs in years. By a margin of 25 points, they beat French singer Barbara Pravi into second place — which ensured Italian revenge over France in Rotterdam, 21 years after David Trezeguet’s golden goal won Euro 2000 for France against Italy at Feyenoord’s ground, De Kuip.
It was only the third time Italy had triumphed at Eurovision, in part because they didn’t enter between 1998 and 2011, a 13-year gap, which at least served as some kind of preparation for their current suffering of a 12-year absence — at least — from World Cups.
Italy completed their double at Wembley less than two months later, defeating hosts England on penalties. It was a meeting between the winners of Eurovision and the country whose entrant James Newman (competing as the UK, of course, rather than England) finished last.
Italy’s double was an unprecedented success.
Eurovision has been running for four years longer than the European Championship, and therefore 1960 was the first opportunity to win both in the same calendar year.
But such an achievement was initially unlikely, because the 13 Eurovision entrants were all from western Europe or Scandinavia, while Euro 1960 was a fairly low-key event dominated by eastern European sides — the Soviet Union beat Yugoslavia in the final, with Czechoslovakia finishing third.
Only 17 teams had entered the first European Championship qualification phase, with Italy, England, West Germany and Holland declining to participate. Therefore, only Austria, Denmark, France and Norway entered Eurovision and the Euro 1960 qualifiers.
France won that year’s Eurovision, courtesy of Jacqueline Boyer. They fared less well at the European Championship, losing a thrilling semi-final 5-4 to Yugoslavia having been 4-2 ahead — but it still meant that, of the Eurovision nations, France recorded the best Euros performance simply by qualifying for the final tournament, which then featured only four sides.
By the end of the 1960s, there was a pattern — of sorts — emerging. Italy triumphed at Eurovision 1964 through 16-year-old Gigliola Cinquetti, while hosts Spain won Euro 1964 by defeating the Soviet Union. This was significant in a wider sense, as Spain had been disqualified from the 1960 qualifiers because the Spanish government ordered a boycott of the tie against the same opposition.
But in 1968, the first Eurovision to be broadcast in colour, there was role reversal. The European Championship was again won by the host nation, this time Italy, while Spain triumphed in Eurovision with Massiel’s “La La La”, another story that had political significance — Massiel was a late replacement for Barcelona-born Joan Manuel Serrat, who was withdrawn because the Spanish government didn’t want their entrant to sing in Catalan.
Italy and Spain had both triumphed in both competitions in both years, but the wrong way round for a “double”.
In fact, considering France didn’t win a game at Euro 1960, Italy didn’t qualify in 1964 and Spain didn’t qualify in 1968, the story from last year wasn’t simply that Italy became the first nation to win Eurovision and then the win the Euros, it was how rare it was for a Eurovision winner to even win a game.
The list of Eurovision-winning nations who didn’t qualify for the European Championship also includes Luxembourg in 1972, the UK in 1976 (or, in football terms, any of its four constituent parts), the Republic of Ireland in 1980, Sweden in 1984, Switzerland in 1988 (with Canada-born Celine Dion) and Ireland again in both 1992 and 1996. That’s despite the European Championship expanding to eight teams in 1980, and 16 in 1996.
Things didn’t get much better after the turn of the century. Denmark, Eurovision winners in 2000, qualified for Euro 2000 but recorded, in Eurovision terms, “nil points”, before Ukraine didn’t qualify for Euro 2004.
Then, there were a couple of exceptions. Russia won Eurovision in 2008 and enjoyed an excellent run to the Euro 2008 semi-finals, while Sweden triumphed at Eurovision in 2012 with Loreen’s excellent “Euphoria” — the most commercially successful Eurovision-winning song for decades. They did win a game at Euro 2012, against France, but only after they were mathematically already eliminated — they lost their first two matches to Ukraine and England.
In 2016, it was back to a familiar pattern — Ukraine won Eurovision and then didn’t manage a point at the Euros. In this light, Italy’s success in 2021 is all the more unusual.
But this is looking at things purely from a calendar-year perspective. It’s worth considering that Greece followed up their shock Euro 2004 success courtesy of three knockout stage 1-0s by winning the subsequent year’s Eurovision Song Contest with Helena Paparizou’s “My Number One”, presumably not a song about goalkeeper Antonis Nikopolidis. This was Greece’s first Eurovision victory.
The same thing happened 12 years later. Portugal finally won their first major tournament at Euro 2016 — despite winning only one of their seven matches in 90 minutes — then followed up that success with Salvador Sobral’s “Amar Pelos Dois” winning Eurovision the next year. This was also Portugal’s first Eurovision victory at the 53rd attempt, ending the longest winless streak in the history of the competition.
Therefore, both Greece and Portugal recorded their first European Championship victory and then their first Eurovision victory within the space of 12 months.
It’s also worth considering England’s only major tournament triumph (the World Cup in 1966), in those terms — the following year, the UK also recorded its first Eurovision win.
And although England and the UK are very much different things, those lifting the trophies were the rhyming duo of Bobby Moore and Sandie Shaw, who both hailed from east London — Barking and Dagenham respectively. As Chris West wrote in his history of the competition, titled Eurovision, “Shaw was representative of Swinging London, the new cultural revolution that was sweeping the city. Along with its music, British fashion, design and photography suddenly led the continent, and even the world.” You can add football to that list, too.
Norway’s remarkable performance in 1995 is also worth consideration. They won Eurovision in May with “Nocturne” by Secret Garden (a controversial song because it featured far more violin than vocals, and amounted to only 24 words), then won the Women’s World Cup in June with a 2-0 final win over Germany, before their men’s side reached second in the FIFA rankings in July, a remarkable placing for a nation with a population of only 4.5 million at the time.
This year, of course, offers the opportunity to win Eurovision and the men’s World Cup in the same year, which has never been achieved before. Several have come close, most obviously Germany, who won Eurovision in 1982 and reached the World Cup final, where they were defeated by Italy. In 1990, Italy won Eurovision and hosted the World Cup, then lost on penalties in the semi-final, then Lena’s memorable 2010 effort “Satellite” won Eurovision for Germany before they went on a storming run to the World Cup semi-final.
2010 was also notable for a rare Eurovision/World Cup crossover. France’s effort for the song competition was “Allez Ola Ole”, performed by French-Congolese singer Jessy Matador. The song itself was a reference to the album Music of the World Cup: Allez! Ola! Ole!, which was released to coincide with World Cup 1998, and served as France’s official song for World Cup 2010. Unfortunately, Matador finished only 12th, and France crashed out in the group stage.
And on the subject of Eurovision/football crossovers by singers of Congolese descent, this year’s contestant for Belgium, 21-year-old Jeremie Makiese, is a goalkeeper currently contracted to second-tier side Royal Excelsior Virton. “There are many similarities in the responsibility you feel playing football and the responsibility you feel here in Eurovision,” he explained this week. “It’s impossible for me to choose between music and football. Totally impossible. I love them both the same.”
Sam Ryder is representing the UK in tonight’s contest, being held in Turin, and will surely fare better than the UK’s last two entrants, who both finished in last place. Thirty-one years after England suffered World Cup semi-final heartbreak over at the Stadio delle Alpi, let’s hope Ryder doesn’t have reason to replicate Gazza’s tears in Turin.