The 2016 European Championships kick off on June 10 in Paris, bringing with them the promise of the type of famous moments that the competition has rarely failed to deliver over the decades.
The Euros, perhaps even more than the World Cup, is where stunning performances and acts of brilliant improvisation through the years echo down to us in the modern age. Here are ten moments from the Euros that arguably changed the game forever.
It’s become old hat these days, but when Antonin Panenka stepped up for the deciding kick in a penalty shootout to determine the 1976 European champion in Belgrade, no one knew what was coming. The shootout was the first in the tournament’s history, coming after Czechoslovakia and West Germany had played to a 120-minute draw.
The Czech midfielder’s cheeky decision to softly lob the ball right down the middle as West German goalkeeper Sepp Maier helpfully dove to his right won Czechoslovakia the championship in the final four-team version of the Euros and earn Panenka himself an enduring role in soccer history.
To this day, chipping a penalty down the middle is called a “Panenka”, and video of the original version of the move is trotted out so as to explain its origin. It’s a thing that can only ever be done for the first time once. Panenka took a gamble when no one knew if it would work, giving his country (which would cease to exist 17 years later) it’s one and only European championship.
Way back in 1968, the Euro finals weren’t a multi-group affair featuring round after round of games across many venues in a host country or two. Back in ‘68, the Euros were still a small four-team event that served as the culmination of decentralized tournament in which the semifinalists would travel to a chosen location to play for the continent’s biggest international football prize.
Back in ‘68, the notion of penalties to decide a winner in knockout games hadn’t yet gained acceptance. Since no mechanism existed to break a tie after 120 minutes, two games in Italy would be decided by other means. First, after the hosts played to a goalless stalemate with Lev Yashin and the Soviet Union, a coin toss was used to decide who would move on to the final. Italy called correctly, and so moved on to face Yugoslavia, who had beaten England 1-0.
After that, it would take two tries to determine a European champion. Italy and Yugoslavia drew 1-1 after extra time as the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, requiring a replay of the final two days later. A crowd half the size of the first match’s showed up to see the Azzurri secure their first European title via a 2-0 win. It would be the last time a major international tournament would crown a champion with a replay.
France began playing international soccer way back in 1904, when the birth of FIFA within French borders prompted a need for a team to represent the country. Despite a wealth of talent and some strong tournament showings into the 50’s, France was nevertheless something of an underachiever during the nascent years of the World Cup and European Championships.
Then the 60s and 70s hit and France dropped off the international soccer map. It wasn’t until the early 80s when Les Bleus finally made some of their built-in advantages count. At the 1982 World Cup in Spain, the French announced they were for real with a supremely gifted midfield led by Michel Platini. That team made the semifinals, losing to West Germany on penalties in one of the most famous games in World Cup history.
By 1984’s European Championships, France was ready to ascend to their place atop the continental mountain. It just so happened they were also hosting the tournament, setting the stage for a ride to the final on the back of players like Platini, Alain Giresse, Jean Tigana, and Luis Fernandez—the famed “Magic Square.” The French championship in ‘84 set the standard that has held ever since that when France hosts a tournament, France wins the tournament.
They weren’t even supposed to be there. Denmark, a country with almost no success on the international stage, found themselves travelling to Euro ‘92 only because the disintegration of Yugoslavia made it impossible for that country to participate. Denmark was given just a week’s notice when UEFA made the decision—what happened next is the stuff fairytales only wish they could be made of.
Denmark’s tournament began slowly, with a goalless draw against a dour English team. A 1-0 loss to the host Sweden followed. The final group game against France became a must-win, and the Danes did exactly that: Henrik Larsson and Lars Elstrup scored in a 2-1 victory the belied the low-pressure atmosphere around the team. For Denmark, everything was gravy.
That attitude persisted into the semifinals, where Peter Schmeichel wrote his name in Euro lore with a penalty shootout save against Holland’s 1988 hero Marco van Basten. The save secured a trip to the final, where Denmark dispatched defending world champion Germany thanks again to some Schmeichel heroics. Denmark lifted the trophy, perhaps the unlikeliest champions the tournament had ever seen.
It’s easy to forget today, but it wasn’t all that long ago that the German National Football Team, the world famous Die Mannschaft, wasn’t very good. At Euro 2000, Germany suffered a humiliating last-place finish in the group stage. Against Romania, England, and Portugal the Germans earned just one point, gave up five goals, and exited the tournament in ignominious fashion.
It wasn’t all bad though; the seeds for German football supremacy were planted following that disastrous performance in Belgium and the Netherlands. In the aftermath of Euro 2000, the German football establishment took a good hard look at itself and decided some changes were in order.
New investment in player development and a commitment to teaching players a more technical way to play delivered Germany a wealth of world class talent just more than a decade on. Germany’s growth culminated with the World Cup title in 2014, and the side will be heavy favorites to go deep in this year’s European Championship…and all because they stunk up the joint at Euro 2000.
Nowadays, it’s taken for granted that knockout games at major tournaments will come down to penalties if a winner can’t be determined after 120 minutes. It’s an imperfect system, but it’s the best we got—and there doesn’t seem to be any real interest in finding a better solution.
That’s partly because football tried one of those better solutions, and it failed. The “Golden Goal”, essentially just sudden death overtime, was introduced by FIFA in 1993 as a way to improve the tie-breaking process. The thinking went that if they could win it in extra time, team’s would happily go for it, perhaps cutting down on drab extra time sessions.
That thinking didn’t necessarily hold, but the Golden Goal did have a brief period in the sun. Only twice did the rule help determine the champion of a major international tournament, and in both cases, it happened at the Euros, first in 1996 when Oliver Bierhoff scored in extra time to give Germany the title over the Czech Republic, and again—for the final time—at Euro 2000 when David Trezeguet made France European champions with a Golden Goal against Italy.
Ask anyone what the worst European Championships that they can remember was, and they’re bound to say Euro 2004. The reason why begins and ends with a certain defensive-minded outfit that shocked everyone by riding their bunker mentality and some quality set pieces all the way to a title at the tournament in Portugal.
That team was Greece, a nation that had never won a game—or scored a goal for that matter—at a major tournament. The Greeks sent a message early with a win over the hosts, then navigated a group stage that saw Spain, France, and Italy all crash out. The knockout rounds arrived, and the Greek strategy continued to pay dividends: defend in numbers (all of the numbers), and capitalize on free kicks and corner kicks. In three games on their march to a title, Greece won 1-0 and shutdown a superior attacking foe.
That Greece team is considered “boring”, and head coach Otto Rehhagel has taken more than his fair share of criticism for setting the game back with his regressive style, but the title they won is a testament to what’s possible when a team maximizes their talent and comes together at just the right moment. Let’s just hope it never happens again.
The national football team of the Netherlands is world renowned for the innovations they brought to the game with their great teams of the 70s. Johan Cruyff, Johan Neeskens, Johnny Rep, et al changed the sport by bringing Total Football to the world stage. Sadly, however, those great teams led by Rinus Michels were unable to turn their innovations into titles.
It wasn’t until 1988 that the Dutch managed to lift their first—and to this point, only—major international trophy. Cruyff and his cohorts were just memories by then, but the Netherlands had not stopped producing fantastic talent. Michels returned as coach to help return the team to its previous heights. Led by Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard and Marco van Basten, the Dutch defeated the Soviet Union 2-1 in the final.
It wasn’t just the Dutch winning that made 1988 remarkable. It was how they won, on a glorious full volley off the foot of van Basten. Van Basten’s goal came just after halftime, when he struck a looping long cross so perfectly back across goal that Soviet keeper Rinat Dasayev had no chance to save it. It’s a marvelous expression of skill and timing that will forever be celebrated both in Netherlands and across the football world.
Spain, like the Netherlands, had always managed to underachieve when it came to major tournaments. Prior to 2008, the country had triumphed as champions just once, at the 1964 European Nations’ Cup. That was back when what would later become the Euros consisted of just four teams—and since that tournament took place in Spain, it took some of the shine out of their achievement.
Forty-four years after their only title, Spain were kings of Europe with a championship at Euro 2008 that would begin of one of the most phenomenal runs international football has ever seen. In those finals, Spain crushed their opposition, rolling up a perfect record that saw them finish +9 in goal difference in just six games.
La Furia Roja would go on to claim victory at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and then repeat as European champions at Euro 2012 in Poland & Ukraine. No team in history had ever won three major tournaments in a row, and it’s possible we’ll never see a run like that again. Built on the back of Barcelona’s transcendent teams of the era, Spain finally lived up to their potential—and then some.
The unrelenting march of progress has had a considerable impact on the European Championships over the years. What was once a small event featuring a handful of games played over a few days has become a grand spectacle spread across month of the summer. From four teams, the tournament has grown and grown and grown: This year’s edition in France will feature 24 teams for the first time.
There’s a debate as to whether a bigger tournament is a better tournament, but what’s certain is that Euro 2012 in Poland & Ukraine was the fifth and final edition to feature a field of 16 teams. Since Euro ‘96 in England, the competition has involved four groups of four teams, a quarterfinal round, a semifinal round, and a final for a grand total of 31 matches. The quality showed through in part because only the best of Europe as proven by the qualification process made it through.
Poland-Ukraine 2012 was the tournament of Spain, who won their third consecutive major tournament—but also of individuals. Andrea Pirlo was masterful, conducting Italy all the way to the final. Cristiano Ronaldo was at his muscle-rippling best, crushing goals in for Portugal. Spain’s maestro, Andres Iniesta, marvelled everyone with his calmness and beauty in the center of the Spanish storm.