The West Germany of 1976 was impeccably-dressed. Reigning world and European champions, they were still led on the touchline by the brilliant mind of Helmut Schön and directed on the pitch by the legendary Franz Beckenbauer. They had ambled absent-minded yet unbeaten through the group stages of qualifying for the 1976 European Championship, before navigating a more difficult path past Spain during the two-legged quarter-finals.
With the aggregate score even, the second leg was a game where the usually reliable Quini contrived to hit the underside of the West German crossbar from two yards out as an unimpressed Muhammad Ali watched on from the stands of Munich’s Olympiastadion, just four days before facing Englishman Richard Dunn at the Olimpiahalle next door.
In Yugoslavia, at the fifth and final four-team European Championship finals, the world had tuned into the tournament fully expecting a repeat of the 1974 World Cup final between West Germany and the Netherlands. It was meant to be Johan Cruyff’s revenge.
Instead, a spanner had been thrown into the works. While West Germany did their part in dispatching the host nation in the second semi-final in Belgrade, 24-hours earlier in Zagreb, the Netherlands had been caught off-guard, losing their semi-final in extra-time against the largely unconsidered Czechoslovakia.
Czechoslovakia had twice been beaten World Cup finalists, in 1934 and 1962, and had reached the semi-finals of the very first European Championship in 1960. A decade-and-a-half on from those latter two peaks in achievement, this new appearance at the business end of a major international tournament was most unexpected.
Failure to qualify for all major tournaments beyond the 1962 World Cup, apart from Mexico 70, where Czechoslovakia played three and lost three, had left them looking ineffectual as a football-playing nation. In fact, after becoming European champions in 1976, they would revert to recent type and fail to qualify for the 1978 World Cup. It all made their success of 1976 seem like a mirage.
A 3-0 defeat to England at Wembley had provided Czechoslovakia with a sombre start to their qualifying campaign. It was a game that lulled Don Revie’s England into a false sense of security, however, and they would win only two further games, both against the group minnows, Cyprus. When the two nations faced one another in Bratislava, exactly a year to the day of England’s emphatic victory in London, the tide had turned. Czechoslovakia came from a goal down to win 2-1 and the advantage was now theirs.
Like Czechoslovakia, England suffered only one defeat in the qualifiers for the 1976 European Championship, but the group was eventually won and lost on their comparative results against Portugal. The draw for the quarter-finals pitted Czechoslovakia against the Soviet Union. It was the classic Eastern Bloc face-off. The more day-to-day life in Bratislava and Prague was directed from offices in Moscow, the more Czechoslovakia wanted to bloody the noses of those pulling the long communist strings. The Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 was still very fresh in the mind.
It was a symbolic 2-0 victory that Czechoslovakia obtained in Bratislava during the first leg and a defiant 2-2 draw in Kyiv during the second that took them to the finals in Yugoslavia. Jozef Móder was the hero of the piece, scoring the opening goal in the first game and both of Czechoslovakia’s efforts in the return.
They would have been forgiven had they hit the wall against the Netherlands. The energy and emotion spent on progressing beyond the Soviet Union, and having muscled their way past England in the group stages, would have been immense. So, to take to the pitch for the semi-final, only to find Cruyff waiting for them alongside Johan Neeskens, Rob Rensenbrink, Johnny Rep and a litany of other Dutch masters, it really should have provoked a rabbit in the headlights scenario for Czechoslovakia.
A 3-1 win saw them into the final, however, with Czechoslovakia even scoring the Netherlands’ one and only goal of the game. Was it a case of Dutch nonchalance gone wrong again, or Czechoslovak organisation and determination definitively winning the day? On a rainy evening in Zagreb, it was quite probably a helping of both as, while Czechoslovakia were an increasingly potent force, Oranje were within the grips of one of their finest ever tournament meltdowns.
With a Cruyff versus the rest of the squad battle unfolding, resulting in the Netherlands captain suggesting that in the event of them qualifying, he would only go to Argentina 78 separately from the rest of the squad, travelling instead with his family, head coach George Knobel resigned from his post on the morning of the game.
Getting on the end of an Antonín Panenka free-kick, Anton Ondruš, the Czechoslovak sweeper, opened the scoring with a beautifully directed first-half header. However, he then levelled the game for the Netherlands in the second half with a disastrously graceful side-footed volley, which found the top corner of his own goal.
Again, the underestimated character of Czechoslovakia flooded through, as the game drifted into extra-time. With a penalty shoot-out looming into view, František Veselý powered down the right, before arcing over a cross to the back post, where it was met by the head of the long-striding Zdeněk Nehoda. The punch-drunk Netherlands were then caught for a third time with less than two minutes remaining when, with an almost Cruyfian flourish, Veselý rounded Piet Schrijvers to make it 3-1.
In what was an eventful game, Jaroslav Pollák was sent off on the hour mark for Czechoslovakia after mistiming a sliding tackle on the saturated turf. Within 16 minutes the Netherlands had thrown that advantage away, however, when Neeskens received a straight red card for a crude challenge on Nehoda.
Having been gifted their equaliser only three minutes earlier, this is where the Netherlands hit the self-destruct button. Just for good measure, they hit it again in the wake of Czechoslovakia reclaiming the lead at 2-1, when Willem van Hanegem was invited to leave the pitch for dissent.
Despite these flashpoints, it hadn’t been a cynical game. It had been a game played with a great sense of skill and style in torrential conditions. This was confirmed when both sets of players embraced one another upon the final whistle. The respect was there for all to see. Under the officiation of the often-controversial Clive Thomas, it was game that might have ended with 22 players had it been refereed by somebody else.
The West German squad must have been watching on from their team hotel within an air of jubilation. The following day, with a little over 25 minutes of their semi-final against Yugoslavia remaining, however, die Mannschaft were trailing 2-0. Despite dramatically turning the game around for a 4-2 victory after extra-time, West Germany had communicated several weaknesses to Václav Jezek, the Czechoslovakia head coach.
Just as Yugoslavia had in the semi-final, Czechoslovakia burst into an early 2-0 lead in the final. The opening goal was scored, after a comedy of mutual errors, by Ján Švehlík, who had been brought in as the replacement for the suspended Pollák. A low, subtly bobbling effort from just outside the West German penalty area from Karol Dobiaš made it 2-0 on 25 minutes.
Whereas Yugoslavia had nursed their 2-0 lead over West Germany for a third of the initial 90 minutes of the semi-final, Czechoslovakia were pegged back to 2-1 within just three minutes of having gained their two-goal advantage. Dieter Müller, volleying home, cut the West German deficit and focused Czech minds, which may have already been drifting towards lifting the Henri Delaunay trophy.
It had seemed that Czechoslovakia were set to win the game within the 90 minutes, until Bernd Hölzenbein equalised with a close-range header from a Rainer Bonhof corner. In a contemporary setting the goal wouldn’t have been given, as Hölzenbein led with his arm across Ivo Viktor, the Czech goalkeeper.
While an impudently brazen chipped penalty would scorch itself upon the psyche of football as the decisive kick of the ball in Euro 76 final, Viktor was the man responsible for creating the opportunity for immortality to fall Panenka’s way. He pulled off half-a-dozen world-class saves from Bonhof and Erich Beer, before saving in the shoot-out from Uli Hoeneß, clearing the stage for Panenka to ascend to greatness. Czechoslovakia had achieved the impossible.
It was what appeared to be the classic spike of random success, but it was, in fact, the eye of the perfect storm. Václav Jezek had drawn together a team of all-talents, each of whom were at the peak of their powers in Zagreb and Belgrade in June 1976. They also produced quite possibly the European Championship’s most iconic moment and one of football’s most joyous of improbable triumphs.
By Steven Scragg @Scraggy_74