Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The European Championships - 1996

Time, then, to debunk a couple of old myths about Euro 96. First of all, the tournament was not the stunning success that many of the history books would tell you that it was. It was certainly a success when compared with the worst, most doom-laden prophecies that the media could come up with, but there were vast numbers of empty seats at other matches with reports that the FA were over-stating the figures - a crowd that looked like about 5,000 at St James Park for the match between Romania and Bulgaria was reported as 19,000. Very few of the stadia were full for matches that didn't include England or Scotland. The perception of the tournament as a massive success has been overstated since 1996. Secondly, England were not an absolute revelation at Euro 96, playing exceptional football that swept all before them. Having played so badly since the 1990 World Cup finals, there were considerable concerns that England might not even get beyond the group stages of the competition. The team returned from a pre-tournament trip to Hong Kong in disgrace after the infamous "dentist's chair" incident, which led to calls in the press for Paul Gascoigne to be dropped. There were plenty of question marks over England's temperament and ability before it all started, and not all of these had been answered by the time that they were knocked out by Germany two and a half weeks later.

They started with a nervy 1-1 draw against Switzerland at Wembley, in which they failed to settle after taking a first half lead through a goal from Alan Shearer. A late Swiss penalty levelled things up. Scotland, meanwhile, were unable to break the Dutch down in a 0-0 draw at Villa Park. The second match was loaded with historical significance - England vs Scotland, the oldest international fixture there is, in the finals of a major tournament for the first time. It was a disappointing first half, with Scotland having the better of the play. Eight minutes into the second half, however, Shearer headed England in front, but England were still largely unable to impose their will on the game, and with twelve minutes to play, Scotland won a penalty. McAllister's penalty, however, was saved by Seaman's elbow, England broke quickly, and Gascoigne scored a brilliant goal to finish the game off. The Dutch, meanwhile, had beaten Switzerland by the same score. The final match left England requiring a draw against the Dutch to guarantee their place in the next round. It was a very even first half, punctuated by another Shearer penalty, and with the English glad to hear the half-time whistle after a strong finish by the Dutch. No-one could have been prepared for the second half performance, however. Two goals from Teddy Sheringham and a second from Shearer put them 4-0 up, and with Scotland leading the Swiss 1-0, it looked as if both Home Nations would go through, before a late Dutch consolation by Patrick Kluivert sent the Scots out on goal difference.

The other three groups went largely to type, with the biggest surprise coming in Group C, where Italy failed to qualify. They lost 2-1 against the Czech Republic, and could only draw 0-0 against the Germans in their final match, with Gianfranco Zola missing a penalty. All the excitement came in the other group match between the Czech Republic and Russia. The Czechs raced into a 2-0 lead inside the first twenty minutes, but the Russians pulled it back to 2-2 and took a 3-2 lead with five minutes to play, before an equalizer from Vladimir Smicer with two minutes to play put them through and sent the Italians home. France qualified comfortably as the winners of Group B, with the Spanish scrambling through in second place after a late goal from Guillermo Amor gave them a 2-1 win against Romania. In Group D, Portugal (in their first finals since 1984) and Croatia (in their first tournament finals) qualified at the expense of the holders, Denmark, and Turkey.

The first quarter-final between England and Spain was a disappointing match, which ended in a fortunate 0-0 draw and a penalty shoot-out. In open play, the chances were few and far between. Spain had a goal incorrectly ruled out for offside and Alan Shearer should have scored from a couple of yards out but put the ball over the crossbar. The penalty shoot-out started badly for Spain, with Hierro hitting the crossbar after Shearer had put them in front. The cathartic moment came with England's third penalty, when Stuart Pearce's exorcism of his 1990 demons was almost disturbing to watch. After Gascoigne gave them a 4-2 lead, Miguel Angel Nadal's shot was saved by Seaman and England were through. The second quarter-final saw Holland and France draw 0-0, with the Dutch continuing their penalty nightmare after Clarence Seedorf missed, allowing Laurent Blanc to send an unexceptional French side through. After two such disappointing matches, Germany beat Croatia 2-1 to get through, with the Czechs managing the goal of the tournament - their goal, a spectacular lob from Karel Poborksy being enough to win their match against Portugal.

The first semi-final, between France and the Czech Republic, finished in yet another 0-0 draw, and this time the French luck run out. Reynald Pedros missed with the final penalty for France, and Miroslav Kadlec put the Czechs through. The second semi-final, between England and Germany, was a national event, played in atmosphere of considerable tension following a surprisingly ill-advised front page in the Daily Mirror, which summed up all of the worst traits of the tabloid press in shouting "Achtung! Surrender!" at the German team. Shearer headed England in front after just three minutes, but a German equalizer from Stefan Kuntz cancelled it out. England were the better team throughout the remainder of normal time and extra time. Shearer headed inches wide just before half-time, and in the first period of extra time, Darren Anderton hit the post from six yards out when he should really have scored. Five minutes later, Germany had a goal from Kuntz disallowed for pushing, and then Shearer shot across goal and Gascoigne couldn't quite get on the end of a shot across the penalty area. It was thrilling stuff, worthy of the final itself, but the teams couldn't be separated and it went to penalties again. This time, England's luck ran out and, after both teams had scored their first five penalties, Gareth Southgate missed, and Andreas Moller put the Germans through.

Against this background, and from a purely English perspective, the final was a massive non-event. The Germans and the Czechs had already met once, with the Germans having won 2-0 at Old Trafford in their opening match. It was a disappointing match, with the Czechs taking the lead just before the hour with a Patrick Berger penalty. Germany equalized a quarter-final of an hour later, when Bierhoff headed in unmarked from a free-kick. The Germans then won the match with the first "Golden Goal" of the tournament, when Bierhoff's shot was spilled by the Czech goalkeeper and dribbled over the line. The truth of the matter is that there was there was practically nothing to choose between the German and English teams, and since they were the ones that had got lucky in the semi-finals, they deserved their win at Euro 96. For England, who rode their luck and wore out the nerves of the watching public on the way, one suspects that it might just be the last time that they get this far in the finals of a major tournament.

England vs Netherlands

England vs Scotland


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