At the 1988 European Championships there was a very, very clear favourite.
The tournament was being hosted in West Germany, and the nation was in the midst of a sustained period of domination. How could anyone challenge?
Only the genius of Diego Maradona had denied the Germans a World Cup in 1986, and with players of the calibre of Lothar Matthaeus, Juergen Kohler, Juergen Klinsmann and Andreas Brehme.
There is a very good case to suggest that the 1988 tournament was the zenith of the European Championships. Each of the teams which entered were not only represented by a host of world-class stars, but many were managed by legendary figures as well.
England, under Bobby Robson, had romped through qualifying, defeating Turkey 8-0 in the process. Jack Charlton’s Republic of Ireland had also made it, winning a group that contained Scotland.
Valeri Lobanovsky had taken the USSR to the finals, Miguel Munoz was in charge of the Spanish side which had qualified and Franz Beckenbauer was the boss of West Germany.
The Danish team which had reached the World Cup semi-finals had won through a group which contained Wales and Czechoslovakia, while Italy bested Sweden and Portugal to take their place.
And then there was the Dutch. Football in the Netherlands had been in a period of mourning following the death of the Total Football project in the early 1980s. The Dutch had failed to qualify for the 1982 World Cup and the 1984 European Championships, then missed out on the 1986 World Cup in an away goals defeat. To Belgium.
By 1988 there was an entirely new generation of players emerging under Rinus Michels. Aron Winter, John van’t Schip, John Bosman, Frank Rijkaard and Marco van Basten had graduated through the Ajax youth academy, winning the 1987 UEFA Cup and with van Basten joining Ruud Gullit at AC Milan. PSV had just emerged as the victors of the 1988 European Cup, and alumni Hans van Breukelen, Ronald Koeman and Wim Kieft were among the Dutch squad for the finals.
West Germany, Spain, Italy and Denmark were drawn together in Group A, with England, the Netherlands, Ireland and the Soviet Union in Group B.
Italy and the Germans drew 1-1 in their opening match, with Spain surviving a scare from Denmark to win 3-2. Juergen Klinsmann and Olaf Thon were on target in West Germany’s 2-0 win over Denmark, while Italy beat Spain 1-0 thanks to a goal from Gianluca Vialli.
A Rudi Voller double against Spain meant that West Germany qualified as group winners, while Italy beat Denmark 2-0 to ensure their progress as runners-up.
England and the Netherlands were favourites to qualify from Group B, but both were on the end of surprise results in their openers. Ray Houghton’s goal was enough to give Ireland a shock win over England, while Vasyl Rats helped the Soviet Union defeat the Netherlands.
England and the Dutch met three days later, knowing that the match was effectively a knockout game. Marco van Basten gave the Netherlands the lead just before half-time, but Bryan Robson managed an equaliser shortly after the restart.
Marco van Basten was arguably the greatest all-round goalscorer of his generation. Athletic, acrobatic and capable of creating space for himself in the most ridiculous of angles, he was at the peak of his powers in 1988. Between 1983 and 1987 he scored an incredible 143 goals in 148 games for Ajax, before moving to Milan that summer.
It was the Dutch master who owned the second half. His first goal had been a triumph of innovation and quick-thinking: trapping a Gullit cross, turning sharply over the ball and dinking it past Peter Shilton. His second was again provided by his AC Milan team-mate, this time playing him in to drive the ball across Shilton with his left foot. He completed his hat-trick by latching on to a near-post flick on and hammering home from six yards.
Meanwhile, Ronnie Whelan’s spectacular goal had give Ireland a fighting chance against the Soviet Union, only for Oleh Protasov to snatch a late equaliser. Still, the Irish would progress if they could avoid defeat against the Netherlands, with Group winners the Soviet Union facing the already eliminated English. The latter beat the former 3-1, with Alexei Mikhailichenko amongst the goals.
Ireland held firm against the Dutch for 82 minutes. Paul McGrath had hit the post and somehow Ireland had failed to score as the ball dropped on to the line and then spun out of play. Generally, Jack Charlton’s men had coped well with the threat of the Oranje attack. It took a goal of ridiculous fortune/misfortune from the Dutch to steal the victory.
With the Netherlands piling on the pressure McGrath thumped a header clear. It fell to Ronald Koeman, whose mis-hit shot skidded up off the turf and into the box. Wim Kieft, who may well have been offside, launched himself upwards at the ball but made only the faintest of contact, sending the ball top-spinning towards Pat Bonner’s far post. Agonisingly for the Irish, it dropped into the far corner. The Netherlands were through.
The semi-finals brought together Italy and the Soviet Union and West Germany and the Netherlands. The Soviet side had been growing in confidence throughout, and emerged 2-0 victors.
The other semi was a battle between old enemies. Not only had the West Germans stopped the Dutch from winning the 1974 tournament, but they had beaten them in the 1980 European Championships as well. The Dutch had only beaten West Germany once in their history, back in 1956.
Things seemed to be going according to the script when Lothar Matthäus converted a slightly soft penalty in the 55th minute, however the Dutch were awarded one of their own 20 minutes later, Koeman restoring parity. With extra time looming, van Basten was given the most slender of chances and somehow managed to find the net from an acute angle.
The final would be remembered for that van Basten goal, but it was Gullit who gave the Dutch the lead, heading in van Basten’s pass while the Soviets pleaded for offside. Shortly after the break van Basten created his legacy, with what must surely be the single greatest goal scored in a top-level final.
In David Winner’s exceptional book Brilliant Orange, he discusses the Dutch love of curves, whether in architecture, art or in football, hypothesising that the flat landscape of the Netherlands had created a common love of more shapely lines. If this is true then van Basten’s goal was a work of art.
Arnold Muehren played a deep cross into the box, aiming for the far post and the onrushing van Basten. The striker let the ball drop parallel with the six yard box and volleyed the ball up and over the goalkeeper into the opposite corner, from the tightest of angles.
There was even time for the Soviets to miss a penalty, van Breukelen redeeming himself for giving away the spot-kick with a trademark save from Igor Belanov. It would be the first, and to date only, victory for the Dutch in a major tournament.
- The 1984 European Championships: Platini leads France to glory
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