Second only to the FIFA World Cup, the UEFA European Championship is the second biggest football event on the planet which, over the years, has managed to conjure up an equal number of iconic moments as its older sibling.
With another exciting tournament on the horizon, this time being hosted for the third time in France, I wanted to revisit some of those key moments that came to define this extraordinary competition. Moments that engraved themselves into the memories and embossed themselves onto the hearts of millions of football fans worldwide.
Greece shocks the entire world
Prior to 2004, the Greeks had only qualified for two major tournaments in their history. Regarded as rank outsiders, Greece were lucky to even make it to the finals having lost their first two games in the qualification stage. They eventually put a winning run together that saw them escape qualification but were then drawn in a difficult group that included the much fancied Spain and the host nation, Portugal.
Coached by German legend, Otto Rehhagel, Greece adopted a counter-attacking style that saw them use aerial advantage and set-pieces to nab goals against their opponents and then stubbornly defend their lead. A method which has, rather unflatteringly, been referred to since as “parking the bus”. It certainly wasn’t attractive for the neutral – prompting Barry Glendenning of The Guardian to write “the only underdogs in history that everyone wants to see get beaten” – but it was effective at getting the required results.
After scraping through the group stage on goal difference, they continued to defy expectations. They stunned the reigning champions, France, in the quarter-final, then beat the Czech Republic with a silver goal in the semi-final.
In the final, which no one could have ever envisioned Greece would appear in, they faced Portugal again in what was to be a repeat of the opening fixture of the tournament. On that occasion, the Greeks had spoiled Portugal’s celebrations as host nation by beating them 2-1.
Considering it unimaginable that lightning could strike twice, the Portuguese were hell bent on revenge. They had the home advantage, they had the marquee players, they had the motive and they had the unconditional backing of bookmakers around the world. Hell, even the people of Greece didn’t expect their national side to do anything in the final except accept defeat graciously. Everything was against them.
Yet, despite all of this, on 4 July 2004 at the Estádio da Luz in Lisbon, Angelos Charisteas struck the only goal of the game in the 57th minute, handing the Henri Delaunay trophy to a jubilant Greek side who had defied odds of 80-1 to win the game and the tournament. Unquestionably the biggest sporting upset in history and subsequently a story of the most remarkable achievement.
When talking about the great sporting upsets, people often cite examples of single events such as Japan beating South Africa in the 2015 Rugby World Cup or individual contests like Holly Holm knocking out Ronda Rousey in the UFC 193. But these are examples of games or matches that hinge on unexpected moments. A knockout punch in a fight can happen within a nanosecond.
In the case of Greece winning Euro 2004, what we witnessed wasn’t a lucky moment or a fortune goal, it was a long and arduous journey of insurmountable odds at every hurdle that were overcome time and time again. Their entire European Championship campaign began in defeat in September 2002 but ended with victory at the final almost two years later. The sort of stuff that Greek Olympian mythology was built on.
Player of the Tournament and Greek captain Theodoros Zagorakis reflecting on that most historic of all victories said: “Once we had scored, it was difficult for the opposition to beat 11 players who passionately defended what they had achieved. That was the Greek team. Whoever got to play fought tooth and nail for the team, the most important thing is that we didn’t panic.
Instead of getting tired, we started covering more ground and it became evident that we wanted the cup more. We were pressured, especially in the last minutes. But we didn’t surrender. And when the referee ended the match, it was as if the lights went out, another blank spot in my memory, the constant smile of an idiot on my face for I don’t know how many minutes … unbelievable moments.”
Gazza’s iconic goal and even more iconic celebration
After Paul Gascoigne burst onto the scene at the Italia 90 World Cup, his fortunes as the next white knight of English football where blighted by long-term injuries and highly-publicised personal problems occurring off the pitch.
Leading up to Euro 96, his professionalism had been questioned in the media amid accusations of late-night drinking sessions during the pre-tournament tour in Hong Kong. With hosts England facing their local and historic rivals, Scotland, during a group match, the scene was set for someone to emerge as a hero. Gazza had the natural born talent to fulfil that role, but question marks hung over his attitude and state of mind.
With a little over ten minutes remaining, England clung to a fragile one goal advantage. A foul inside their box by Tony Adams gifted the Scots a chance to level. A tame spot-kick from Gary McAllister was beaten away by England goalkeeper David Seaman and within 30 seconds, Gazza netted his most iconic goal to give his side a 2-0 victory.
With the ball played into him deep in the Scottish half, Gazza used his left boot to lift the ball over a hapless Colin Hendry with a deftness of touch that defied the laws of physics, before volleying the ball crisply with his right foot into Andy Goram’s near post. He celebrated with the famous “dentist’s chair” mimic, a response to suggestions in the press that teammates had poured alcohol into his mouth whilst he was lying in a dentist’s chair.
It was a fleeting moment of brilliance followed by a cheeky celebration that came to tragically define everything about his career. Maverick, jester and troubled genius.
The Van Basten volley
The Euro 1988 final saw the USSR pitted against a Dutch side who had dazzled with their “total football” displays throughout the tournament. With the Dutch already a goal to the good, their midfield player Arnold Muhren floated a cross-field ball into the USSR penalty area in the 54th minute which was met with an audacious volley from the tightest of angles by Marco Van Basten. The ball looped over the goalkeeper Rinat Dasaev who could only watch as it nestled snugly in the top corner of the net.
Without a doubt, the finest goal ever scored in a major international football final and the icing on the cake for Van Basten who had already bagged a superb hat-trick against England earlier in the tournament and scored a late winner in the semi-final to knock out the tournament hosts, West Germany. He was named as the player of the tournament and finished as its top scorer. Watching his wonder goal in the final again today, the brilliance of the technique in the Dutch master’s strike remains as breath-taking as it did 25 years ago.
The guts and the glory of Psycho’s penalty
The tough-tackling no-nonsense style of England’s hard-man left-back Stuart Pearce earned him the moniker “Psycho”. Considered a fearless leader who wore his heart on his sleeve and who embodied the spirit and the values of the Three Lions crest on his national shirt, the entire country was surprised when this pillar of strength was reduced to heartbreak and tears during Italia 90. Facing a penalty shootout against fierce rivals Germany in the World Cup semi-final, Pearce’s spot kick was saved and led to England being knocked out of the tournament in the cruellest fashion possible.
Fast forward six years and England found themselves facing another penalty shootout after a quarter-final game against Spain in Euro 96, a tournament England were hosting, ended in a stalemate.
Pearce demanded to be one of the penalty takers leaving anxious supporters and commentators to question whether the decision was borne out of unshakable bravery or sheer madness. With the weight of baggage proving so heavy, Pearce was voluntarily exposing himself to all kinds of pressure. What if he missed again? In front of the England fans at Wembley Stadium, their national home. England had never won a penalty shootout in a major tournament before, surely it was wholly irresponsible to let Psycho take one?
Nevertheless, Pearce wouldn’t have it any other way, he wanted to do his duty for his country and wasn’t going to let anyone tell him otherwise. Marching forward with steely determination, Pearce didn’t try anything clever or cute, he belted the ball into the net with all the might of a gale force wind, firmly burying the ghost of Italia 90 in the process.
In the immediate aftermath of Pearce’s successful conversion, six years’ worth of anguish and torment was released in one of the most emotionally charged celebrations in football history. Fist pumping the air, screaming towards the fans, an absurd amalgamation of ecstasy and relief fighting for dominance on his contorted face. The Pearce penalty encapsulated in a single moment, everything that the man stood for. Passion, guts and glory.
The Panenka penalty is born
Having done the double of winning Euro 1972 and the 1974 World Cup, West Germany swept into the Euro 1976 final expecting to brush aside their Czechoslovakian opponents with consummate ease.
The Czechs obviously hadn’t read the script though, they stunned Germany by racing into a two-goal lead early on. The Germans fought back, reducing the deficit in the 29th minute through Dieter Müller before levelling the tie on the stroke of the 90th minute, taking the match into extra time. Another 30 minutes couldn’t separate the sides and they resigned themselves to a penalty shootout.
In the shootout, the Czechs found themselves 4-3 ahead before Uli Hoeneß ballooned Germany’s fourth penalty over the bar. Up stepped Antonin Panenka for the Czechs knowing that a successful conversion would hand his side the unlikeliest of victories. Was he nervous? Not a bit of it.
Running up to the ball with pace, Panenka feigned striking it which duped the German goalkeeper, Sepp Maier, into diving to his left. Panenka then dinked the cheekiest of chips into the centre of the goal giving the Czechs victory and simultaneously giving birth to one of the most outrageous techniques in world football.
It has been widely copied ever since, resulting in some of the most embarrassingly cringe-inducing moments when footballers get it horribly wrong. However, it has also evolved to become an almost mandatory requirement among elite players who cannot consider themselves among the greats unless they’ve attempted and pulled off a Panenka penalty at least once in their career.
One such example is as recent as April 2015, when Lionel Messi got a “Panenka penalty” spot on, excuse the pun, for Barcelona in a 6-0 drubbing of Getafe. The goal was hailed by Panenka himself as the greatest example of his own creation ever attempted.
“The execution was the best I’ve ever seen – not too powerful, central, good elevation,” he told radio station RAC1.
Trezeguet’s golden goal secures a French double
Having won the World Cup two years previously, France went into the Euro 2000 finals as strong tournament favourites. Securing their passage into the final, France were teetering on the brink of elimination as they trailed their Italian opponents by a goal to nil.
In desperate need of an equaliser, the French coach, Roger Lemerre, sent on subs David Trezeguet and Sylvain Wiltord to give his side a four-pronged attack. It turned out to be an inspired move.
As the clock moved into injury time at the end of the 90 minutes, Sylvain Wiltord struck to level the scores and take the game into extra time where the, now defunct, golden goal rule came into play.
Faced with the psychological burden of playing an additional 30 minutes of a game that they were seconds away from winning, Italy suddenly seemed more fatigued whereas the French, rejuvenated.
Started by a great move down the left, French winger, Robert Pirès, found himself dancing past Fabio Cannavaro before driving for the byline and sending a cross along the turf and into the Italian penalty area.
The ball was played behind Trezeguet who had made a move towards the near post. He quickly adjusted his body shape, swivelling his hips to wrap his left leg around the ball and fired a powerful first-time shot into the top corner of the goal handing the French an instantaneous golden goal victory and the Euro 2000 title.
Soviets become the first champions of Europe
The first UEFA European Championship was hosted in France with the Soviet Union facing Yugoslavia in the final. Widely regarded as their strongest ever national side, the Soviets, led by their inspirational captain, Igor Netto, came from behind in Paris to level the game through a goal from their legendary keeper, Lev Yashin.
Seven minutes before the end of extra time, a goal from 23-year-old Viktor Ponedelnik handed the USSR a 2-1 lead that they would hold onto gifting them the honour of being the first ever winners of a European Championship tournament.
Reflecting on that historic moment, Ponedelnik said: “No one can forget such moments of glory, be it the public, football fans or the players themselves. As for myself, the 113th-minute winner was the most important of my whole career.”
Denmark win a tournament they failed to qualify for
Having failed to qualify, Denmark were only invited to the finals of the 1992 European Championship to make up the numbers following the breakup of Yugoslavia. They had also failed to qualify for the same tournament four years prior and the World Cup in 1990, meaning that they came into Euro 92 as rank outsiders.
The tournament was famous for the emergence of the goalkeeper, Peter Schmeichel, as influential for Denmark as Pele or Maradona had been for Brazil and Argentina respectively in previous World Cup campaigns.
Denmark emerged from the group stages sacrificing both England and France in the process. In the semi-final, Peter Schmeichel saved Marco Van Basten’s penalty shootout spot-kick to knock the holders, Holland, out of the competition.
Progressing to the final, Schmeichel proved an inspiration and a rock at the rear-guard of the Danish defence. At the other end, goals from John Jensen and Kim Vilfort handed the Danes a 2-0 win over tournament favourites, Germany.