When it came to European Championships there were no nations who had underperformed quite as much as France.
Since hosting the tournament in 1960, France had failed to make it to a single tournament in the following two decades.
During the 1960s it had been the strength of the Eastern Bloc countries which had routinely kept them from the latter stages. In the 1970s it had been their own failings, with two third-placed finishes and a runner-up spot behind Czechoslovakia in the qualification process. To change this, the French needed a talisman.
The 1984 tournament was held in France, and so the hosts were automatically placed into the draw for the championships. Spain narrowly pipped the Netherlands to qualification by virtue of scoring two more goals, West Germany and Yugoslavia were the usual suspects, but there were several nations cultivating their own remarkable projects.
Denmark’s team contained Michael Laudrup, Jan Molby and Jesper Olsen, and they qualified ahead of England. Romania would also make their debut, besting both Czechoslovakia and Italy, and offering the first glimpses of a precocious star by the name of Gheorghe Hagi. Portugal reached their first ever finals, while Scotland finished bottom of a group that was won by a hugely impressive Belgium.
The finals themselves had again been reorganised from their 1980 iteration. Rather than having a group stage which immediately provided the two finalists, the top two teams in each group would face each other in knockout semi-finals for a place in the showpiece event.
The hosts were placed in Group A, alongside Belgium, Denmark and Yugoslavia. After years of mediocrity there had been signs of greatness amongst the French side. The 1982 World Cup side had been desperately unlucky not to at least make the final, losing out to West Germany in a penalty shoot-out and suffering the infamous flying assault by Harald Schumacher on Patrick Battiston.
Key to this revival had been the advancement of a quartet of players in the centre of the pitch: Bordeaux duo Jean Tigana and Alain Giresse, Paris Saint-Germain's Luis Fernandez and the recipient of the 1983 and 1984 European Footballer of the Year awards, Michel Platini.
Platini was the fulcrum for everything that France did in attack, operating simultaneously as a traditional striker and as a deep-lying number ten. Most tournaments are remembered by which team won the tournament; 1984 is remembered as the Platini Championships.
In the opening match with Denmark he found a late winner when the match looked to be heading for a 0-0 draw. A hat-trick in a 5-0 thrashing of Belgium was followed by a second treble just three days later, this time in a 3-2 win over Czechoslovakia.
It wasn’t just the frequency of the goals that was worthy of praise, Platini scored such a variety. He could take up poachers’ positions, was pin-point accurate in the air, took charge at dead-ball situations, and worked with scraps in and around the box. Seven goals in the opening round remains a record that is unlikely to be beaten any time soon.
France were joined in the semi-final by a Denmark side that wouldn’t realise its full potential until the World Cup two years later. Still, the Danes were in lethal form, scoring five against Yugoslavia and then coming from two goals down to beat Belgium in the second-place decider.
Group B proved to be far tighter. Portugal and West Germany drew their opening fixture, as did Romania and Spain. The Germans were seen as being amongst the favourites for the tournament, and seemed to be back on track when a Rudi Voller double gave them a 2-1 win against Romania. The Iberian derby ended 1-1.
The group would be decided by the final matches, with West Germany needing to avoid defeat to clinch their semi-final place and Portugal needing to win against Romania to do the same. The latter was not confirmed until the final ten minutes, when Nene scored in a 1-0 win.
With seconds running out in the match between Spain and West Germany, the Germans were attempting to close out the match, knowing that the point would safely see them top the group. Spain needed to find a winner to have any hope of reaching the semi-final, particularly once Portugal scored their winning goal.
The Spanish had numerous chances, and were presented with the ideal opportunity to claim victory when Lobo Carrasco was given a penalty. However, Harald Schumacher saved the kick and that particular avenue was gone. With seconds remaining Spain were piling forward in numbers. A quickly taken free-kick found Juan Antonio Senor, who crossed to the unmarked Maceda at the back post and Spain found their winner. It would be only one of two occasions that West Germany would fail to reach at least the final in any major tournament between 1972 and 1986.
The first semi-final saw France take on Portugal in Marseille, and there were yet more dramatics. Things seemed to be going the way of the hosts when Jean-Francois Domergue gave them a 20th-minute lead from an unstoppable free-kick, but Jordao scored a looping header with 15 minutes to play.
Portugal continued to press and scored what looked to be a vital goal in extra time; Jordao scoring a brilliant volley into the top corner of the French net. However, when France needed inspiration they turned to Platini. Domergue got a scrappy equaliser when the Portuguese couldn’t clear their box and then, with just a minute before penalties, Platini rolled home a winner.
The second semi-final was even more closely contested. Soren Lerby put Denmark ahead after seven minutes, but Maceda’s equaliser took the game to extra time. When there was no score, it was penalties. Preben Elkjaer Larsen was the unfortunate who missed, allowing Bilbao’s Manuel Sarabia to put Spain into the final.
To cope with France, and particularly the creative duo of Platini and Tigana, Spain had to change their style. Early bookings for fouls on the French players signalled the intention to slow play down between the playmakers. The tactic unnerved the French, and they lacked their usual fluency.
Yet there is no accounting for the unaccountable. Platini hit an accurate but relatively tame free-kick at the Spanish goal, which somehow evaded the attention of Luis Arconada and crept over the line. It was Platini's ninth goal in just five European Championship matches. Despite losing Yvon Le Roux to a second yellow card, France continued to press for a second and got their reward in the final minute when Bruno Bellone chipped in the decisive goal.
France were champions of Europe, and Platini would go on to win an unprecedented third consecutive European Footballer of the Year award. Whatever happened to him, anyway?
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