Continuing my odyssey to previous editions of the European Football Championships, here’s my concluding post on Euro 96.
Eastern Europe Roars
Euro 96 was the first European Championships for which 16 teams could qualify, and also the first after them various Eastern bloc countries had properly sorted themselves out. From that part of the world, Romania and Bulgaria had qualified having had fantastic World Cups in 1994, but would fall far short of those standards in England. Russia meanwhile, having had a terrible World Cup, had a fairly terrible Euro 96 too.
Croatia and the Czech Republic, however, were quite. One country formed from a horrible civil war, the other from the “Velvet Divorce”. Both of their recently formed national sides had rather good tournaments.
The Croatians pretty much had me hooked the first time my 12-year-old saw their white and red draughtsboard shirt. Their match against Denmark was the clincher really – Davor Suker beautifully chipping Peter Schmeichel, and then trying to beat the Manchester United keeper from the halfway line. That he was the top scorer at France 98 was no real surprise.
Looking back at that Croatia side now, you see why they were quarter finalists in England and semi finalists in France. The starting line-up against Turkey in their first group game is full of fantastic players: Boban, Prosinecki, Stimac, Boksic, Stanic among many others. Unfortunately, eventual champions Germany stopped the red and white picnic blanket army, Mattias Sammer’s goal decisive in a 2-1 win at Old Trafford. The Croatians would have some revenge, of course, 2 years later.
The Czech Republic, meanwhile, were even better. Again, looking through their squad, the names leap out – Kouba, Kuka, Poborsky and Nedved some among a great squad. They started as you might expect the Czech Republic to – a 2-0 defeat to Germany. With Italy next, the odds appeared to be in favour of the Czechs taking a short flight back to a pre-stag-night-infestation Prague. Instead, they won 2-1 with a 24-year-old Nedved among the scorers. A 3-3 draw with Russia, thanks to an 88th minute equaliser from Vladimir Smicer, took one of Europe’s newer countries through to the quarters.
Where they would, of course, face Portugal. And where, 8 minutes into the second half in front of a mere 26,000 folk at Villa Park, Karel Poborsky, soon to join Manchester United, scored the goal of the tournament to win the match for the Czech Republic. Running through the Portuguese defence, he scooped the ball deliciously over Vitor Baia to score the game’s only goal. After navigating a penalty shoot-out win over the French in the semi-finals, it was to Wembley and the final the Czech Republic went, to face Germany.
A Patrik Berger penalty gave the Czechs the lead on 59 minutes. The game’s turning point, however, would be in the 69th minute when Oliver Bierhoff replaced Mehmet Scholl. Four minutes later, Bierhoff equalised. Then, with only 5 minutes of extra time played, he scored the first international golden goal to give Germany the trophy, Petr Kouba making a costly and unfortunate error in the Czech goal.
As much as it pains me to say as a Scot, England really did play well in those three weeks in June 1996. Though their performance against Switzerland was pedestrian, their second half against Scotland (which I’ve rewatched and was reannoyed by on the BBC website tonight) was something of a catalyst for the remainder of the tournament.
It was the 4-1 win over the Netherlands (the “1” still rankles) that was in retrospect their biggest success of that tournament, the Shearer and Sheringham combination working to perfection. David Seaman, having saved one penalty against Scotland, then saved some more in England’s shoot-out win against Spain (not quite so likely a result now) in the quarters.
England’s semi-final with Germany was by far the most entertaining of the two, the other being a 0-0 dirgefest between the aforementioned Czechs and the French. Shearer gave England a very, very early lead before Stefan Kuntz equalised. Despite Paul Gascoigne being millimetres away from a Golden Goal in extra time, we all know the story. Gareth Southgate missed his penalty, Andreas Moller scored his, and England lost.
But of course Euro 96 was also the springboard for further commercialisation in English football, to extend the brand a bit further out. It was, despite the odd low attendance (not something, I imagine, would happen now) and a bit of post-Germany-defeat trouble in central London, a tournament which showed England as a modern footballing powerhouse. That some of the tournament’s stars, players like Suker and Poborsky (and Jordi Cruyff…) would soon play in English football, laying the foundations for today’s multinational, multi-billion pound industry, is not something that should be forgotten. Oh and “Three Lions” by Skinner and Baddiel was decent too.
Euro 2000 next time.