By the mid 1970s the balance of power in world football had firmly shifted away from South America to Europe.
West Germany were the reigning world and European Champions and a vibrant and hugely innovative Dutch team had emerged, boasting the likes of Cruyff, Rep, Neeskens and Rensenbrink.
Qualifying for the 1976 Championship had shown just how strong the European nations had become, with several high-profile absences.
England had failed to beat Portugal, either at home or away, and so lost their place to Czechoslovakia. It was also the end of an era for Hungary, who found themselves runners up to a quite magnificent Wales side.
Scotland’s inability to convert chances had meant they had finished two points behind Spain in Group 4, while Italy were high-profile victims of the newly unleashed Dutch fluidity. France were humbled by Belgium.
Still, there were more traditional victors as well. West Germany coasted through qualification, which included an 8-0 demolition of Malta. Yugoslavia topped a group which contained Northern Ireland, Sweden and Norway, while the Soviet Union just pipped the Republic of Ireland.
While this meant that there were some new faces amongst the playoff round, the dominant forces of Yugoslavia and West Germany soon ended the hopes of Wales and Spain.
There was a politically intriguing clash between the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia in the playoffs. In the mid-60s, under Alexander Dubcek, Czechoslovakia had started to become distinctly more liberal than some of the states under the influence of the Soviet Union. There was a relaxation of censorship laws, a greater encouragement of creativity, art and self expression and dissolution of the secret police within the country.
While this was generally welcomed by the population of Czechoslovakia, it was seen as highly dangerous by the Kremlin and several other nations which had signed up to the Warsaw pact. Could this be the start of a defection? As a result of these fears, Leonid Brezhnev ordered the military invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.
Within days the Soviets had seized control of the country, but rather than strengthening their ideological grip, more and more people began to turn against the occupying communist army. In 1969 there were riots against the Soviet military when the Czechs beat the Soviet Union in the World Ice Hockey championships. Such flare-ups were harshly dealt with, and so the population increasingly turned to sport to show their unique nationalism.
One such occasion was in April 1976 when Czechoslovakia defeated the Soviet Union 2-0. A month later, and the Czechs managed a 2-2 draw with the Soviets in Kiev, and qualified for the finals properly.
The final qualifier pitted the Belgian side which had finished third in the previous tournament against George Knobel’s Dutch side. The latter had come tantalisingly close to winning the 1974 World Cup, only to be defeated by a mixture of misfortune, lack of discipline and a clinical West Germany team. Belgium felt the full force of Dutch frustration, losing 7-1 on aggregate.
The finals themselves would be the first to feature the now ubiquitous penalty shoot out. If teams were level after 120 minutes of football, then kicks from the penalty mark would decide the winner.
West Germany and Yugoslavia very nearly had to settle their semi-final in such a manner. Danilo Popivoda and Dragan Dzagic had given the Yugoslavs a half-time lead, but Heinz Flohe and Dieter Muller forced extra time. With five minutes of the additional period remaining, Muller scored a crucial third, completing his hat-trick in the final minutes to send West Germany into the final, and giving them the chance to win an unprecedented three competitions in a row.
There was even more drama in the other semi-final when Czechoslovakia took all the seemingly invincible Dutch. There had been an immediate levelling effect when the weather in Zagreb took a turn for the worse. Three solid days of rain meant that the pitch was heavy and sodden, putting the brakes on the high-octane Dutch game.
Anton Ondrus had headed Czechoslovakia ahead from an Antonin Panenka free-kick after just 19 minutes, and immediately the Czechs started the second part of their plan. They had quite obviously targeted Johan Cruyff; singling out the Dutch playmaker for particularly rough treatment. To the growing frustration of the Dutch players, this roughhousing was largely ignored by Welsh referee, Clive Thomas.
On the hour mark Jaroslav Pollak was finally shown a red card for his part in the scenes, but the Netherlands’ Johan Neeskens followed 15 minutes later for losing his temper in the midst of another niggling Czech foul. That might have been it, but Ondrus scored in his own net from a Ruud Greels cross, taking the match to extra time and a whole new level of controversy.
Johan Cruyff looked as if he was fouled while in possession of the ball, but Thomas waved play on. From the resulting break, Zdenek Nehoda headed the Czechs ahead. Infuriated with the decision, Wim van Hanegem demanded council with the referee in the strongest possible terms, and he too was sent off for his remonstrations. From there the Dutch completely lost their discipline, and Frantisek Vesely added comprehension to the scoreline by rounding the goalkeeper in the final minute. Czechoslovakia were in the final.
If West Germany were intending on showing their dominance, they began doing so very poorly. Slack defensive play from Berti Vogts allowed Jan Svehlik to score after just eight minutes. After 25 minutes it got even worse for the Germans, Karol Dobias adding a second.
However, West Germany were not World Champions for nothing, and Dieter Muller immediately found a reply. It seemed there would be no chance for an equaliser until the dying seconds when Eintracht’s Bernd Holzenbein took the match into extra time. There was still no winner after the additional 30 minutes, and the 1976 Championships would be the first to be decided by penalties.
The first three penalties were successfully converted by both sides, but when Uli Hoeness missed, Antonin Panenka was given the opportunity to win the tournament if he could keep his cool. What followed was one of the most composed and iconic finishes in the history of the game, as the Czech forward calmly chipped the ball down the middle, with the goalkeeper diving to his right.
It may have been a tournament that was often won with less than beautiful tactics, but the final kick will be remembered as one of the most awe inspiring moments of any vintage.
- The 1972 European Championships: The dawning of a new era in Europe
- The 1968 European Championships: Italy triumph in a tournament of firsts
- The 1964 European Championships: Spain victorious in battle of ideologies
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