In 1996, England probably needed the European Championships far more than the tournament needed England.
A surprise semi-final at the 1990 World Cup had been the only high point in 30 years of waiting for a repeat of 1966, as the national side routinely struggled to progress in major tournaments.
English football also had its problems off the field. Hooliganism, particularly when travelling abroad, had been a widespread problem for well over a decade. In the 1980 European Championships, England were fined £8,000 for supporters rioting during a match with Belgium and 1985 had seen English clubs banned from European competition after the disaster at Heysel. An appeal against the ban was withdrawn in 1988 following more crowd trouble at the West German European Championships.
Hooligans in Sweden had caused damage to Malmo and Stockholm during the 1992 games, while there were high-profile incidents in the Netherlands in 1993 and in Ireland in 1995. As a result there were significant doubts as to whether England could host the games.
There had, however, been something of a revolution in the way that the English game was marketed. The advent of the Premiership in 1992/93 had brought unheard of riches, a wealth of foreign talent and lucrative TV exposure. On the pitch, the game was suddenly more cosmopolitan. All of this tied in to the notion that “football was coming home”.
The tournament was significantly expanded from previous games, with four groups of four now competing for the trophy. With England qualified as hosts, there were the usual omnipresent teams alongside them: Germany, Italy, Spain, France and Portugal. The Netherlands qualified by virtue of a 2-0 win over Ireland at Anfield, Romania won their group and Denmark returned to defend their title.
Scotland comfortably qualified for their second consecutive European Championships, finishing ahead of Greece, three points behind Russia, and boasting the second-best defensive record of any team in qualification.
There were also a host of new faces. Bulgaria, fresh from a run to the semi-finals of the 1994 World Cup, were joined by Turkey and Switzerland. There were also debuts from newly formed countries with fine pedigrees, such as a hugely talented Croatia team, the Czech Republic and Russia.
Group A opened with a 1-1 draw between England and Switzerland, while Scotland held on to a point against the Netherlands. The second round saw the Dutch beat the Swiss 2-0, while Scotland went down to the same scoreline against the Auld Enemy. To qualify, Scotland needed a minor miracle; beat Switzerland by enough to get a big swing in goal difference over England or the Netherlands.
Much to everyone’s surprise, England turned in one of their finest performances of recent decades, dominating the Dutch and racing to a 4-0 lead. Ally McCoist’s strike against the Swiss meant that if the scores stayed the same then Scotland would progress. With Craig Brown’s team unable to find a further goal to ensure progression, Patrick Kluivert pulled one back for the Netherlands and gave them a single goal advantage; enough for them to progess.
France won Group B, ahead of Spain, mainly thanks to the virtuoso displays of Youri Djorkaeff and Christophe Dugarry and brief interventions from a young Zinedine Zidane. Spain required a last-gasp winner against Romania to pip the Bulgarians to second spot.
Group C was seen as the ever-popular Group of Death, with Germany, Italy, Russia and the Czech Republic. The Germans started ominously, defeating the Czechs 2-0, while Italy beat Russia 2-1. Germany guaranteed their progress with a 3-0 win over the Russians, while there was a setback for Italy, beaten by goals from Pavel Nedved and Radek Bejbl. Italy needed to better the Czech Republic’s result against Russia when they faced Germany, but sadly for Italian fans they could only manage a 0-0 draw, while the Czechs drew 3-3 thanks to a last-minute goal from Vladimir Smicer.
Denmark opened their defence with a 1-1 draw with Portugal, while Croatia – who had finished above Italy in qualification – beat Turkey in their opener. A feast of forward play from Davor Suker helped the Croats beat Denmark 3-0 in the second match, while Fernando Couto scored the only goal of the game against Turkey.
Portugal’s “golden generation” beat Croatia 3-0 in the final group match to proceed as winners, while Denmark ended a disappointing campaign on a high, winning 3-0 against Turkey thanks to a Brian Laudrup double. Two of the four quarter-finals were decided on penalties, with France seeing off the challenge of the Netherlands after a 0-0 draw. England also advanced, beating Spain and freeing themselves from some of the stigma of the 1990 World Cup exit.
A wonder goal from Karel Poborsky was enough to beat Portugal, while Germany narrowly saw off the challenge of Croatia thanks, goals from Matthias Sammer and Juergen Klinsmann helping them to a 2-1 win.
The semi-finals paired France with the Czech Republic and England with their old foes the Germans. Again, both ties would be settled by penalties. France lost 6-5 after a 0-0 draw, while England were defeated in the most painful way possible. Paul Gascoigne failed by inches to connect with a crossed ball that would have won the game in extra time, but it was Gareth Southgate and Andreas Moeller who missed and scored the decisive penalties.
The final saw Patrick Berger give the Czech Republic a deserved lead. Surely the Germans wouldn’t fail to turn up for a second successive tournament? They answered their critics when Oliver Bierhoff equalised 15 minutes later, sending the game into extra time.
One of the features of the tournament had been the introduction of the “Golden Goal”, a way of encouraging teams in extra time to go all-out for a decisive winning goal. In reality it turned extra-time into a nervy, cautious pathway to penalties rather than a “next goal is the winner” period.
The exception to this was in the final, when Bierhoff’s sudden turn and shot slipped through the hands of Petr Kouba and into the corner of the net. Germany, united, would win their first tournament since the collapse of the Berlin wall.
There was also a lasting impression felt in England. The cleaning-up/gentrification (delete as you feel appropriate) of the game meant that there were sustained efforts to stop hooliganism, end racism from the terraces and generally create a more positive atmosphere at football matches. Hooliganism still reared its head in 1998 and 2000, but the problems gradually alleviated. Euro ’96 was a chance to show the continent that England had returned to the forefront of the continental game after a period of soul searching off it.
While there may not have been an end to the “30 years of hurt”, there was certainly a sea change in the attitude towards English football as a brand name. The success of the Premiership is further testimony to this.
- The 1992 European Championships: Denmark make up the numbers
- The 1988 European Championships: Dutch exorcise the demons of the 1970s
- The 1984 European Championships: Platini leads France to glory
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