This feature is a part of RETEUROSPECTIVE
It was not the final that either General Tito or the nation had anticipated when Yugoslavia was chosen to host the finals of the 1976 European Championship. Two extra-time goals from Dieter Muller had crushed the hopes of the home nation in the semi-final three days earlier.
A crowd of 50,652 watched that defeat and, as a result, a disappointing attendance of 30,796, the lowest ever at a European Championship final, assembled to watch Czechoslovakia take on West Germany to decide who would be crowned as European champions.
This was the first time that an Iron Curtain nation had been awarded a major footballing international tournament and Tito appeared to be deeply displeased that his charges had failed to make the final. Despite the annual displays of military might on the streets of Belgrade, once again Yugoslavia had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory on a football field.
The hopes of the Eastern Block were now carried on the shoulders of Czechoslovakia, the country whose Prague Spring uprising in 1968 had been crushed by the Soviet army.
The Czechs could not have chosen more difficult opponents in West Germany, World Cup Winners in 1974 and the current holders of the European title. The only glimmer of hope for the team coached by Václav Ježek was that their opponents were a team in transition. Since the 1974 World Cup victory, key players such as Gerd Muller, Paul Breitner and Wolfgang Overath had retired from international duty. Nevertheless, the core of that all-conquering team was still there as was the coach Helmut Schon.
On the other hand, the Czech team were at the peak of their powers. In their semi-final they had overcome the much-fancied Netherlands, beating them 3-1. Reports later emerged from the hotel where the West German team were staying that their players celebrated wildly as they feared facing the Dutch, who they considered to be their only serious rival, in the final. Sometimes you must be careful what you wish for.
Every game in these finals had needed extra time to produce a victor. The question was, would the final be the same? The other unknown factor at this stage was whether a replay would be scheduled if needed or a penalty shootout. It later emerged that the West Germans had been informed about the prospect of a penalty shootout but their opponents had not.
The Czech side started off like a whirlwind, determined not to let the opposition settle into playing their normal game. This approach clearly rattled the West Germans and a defensive calamity ensured that they conceded a goal after just eight minutes. Franz Beckenbauer overhit a pass to Berti Vogts in his own area, who made matters worse by inadvertently directing the ball towards Marián Masný.
His pass found Ján Švehlík, whose shot was parried by Sepp Maier but only to the feet of the unmarked Zdeněk Nehoda who fired a pass across the six-yard box. Anton Ondruš swung at the ball but missed, confusing his marker in the process. The ball now reached Švehlík who smashed his shot into the net.
Beckenbauer, whose mistake had set off this absurd chain of events, stood helplessly on the line as the ball sailed into the net. On the West German bench, Schon and his coaches shook their heads in disbelief.
The Czechs doubled their lead on 25 minutes when they were awarded a free-kick near the corner flag. Beckenbauer headed the ball clear but only to Karol Dobiaš on the edge of the box. The full-back took one touch and then unleashed a long-range shot which flew through a crowded penalty area into the corner of Sepp Maier’s net.
There is a well-known footballing refrain that “2-0 is the most dangerous lead in football”. West Germany had already proved this point with their comeback in the semi-final against the host nation. Within three minutes they had reduced the deficit. Herbert Wimmer surged down the right flank and switched the ball to Rainer Bonhof. He dinked a clever cross over the Czech defenders which found Muller totally unmarked with the goal in his sights. He twisted and smashed a volley into the back of the net. Gerd who, anybody?
The white shirts surged forward in search of an equaliser, but the red-shirted wall held firm until half time. The game was delicately balanced. The second half was a case of an increasingly fatigued Czechoslovakia desperately hanging on to their advantage as the West Germans increased the pressure. Nevertheless, with only 60 seconds remaining, UEFA officials were in the process of tying red ribbons to the Henri Delaunay trophy.
Some cynics have suggested another footballing adage: “The whistle is never blown until a West German team equalises”. Just ask Atlético Madrid fans. In the final minute, with the crowd urging the referee to blow for full time, Bonhof steadied himself to take a corner. He swung a high looping cross towards the near post where the hapless Ivo Viktor rose to punch the danger away – but he missed completely, allowing the ball to skim into the goal off the head of the unsuspecting Holzenbein. To compound the agony for the Czechs, the Spanish referee immediately blew for full time.
Extra time appeared to be a built-in requirement for this championship. Nevertheless, the West Germans were in the ascendancy and the red shirts would have to draw upon all their powers of mental and physical resilience to stay in the game. With both sides having now played 270 minutes of intensely high drama football in just three days, fatigue became the overriding factor.
When the final whistle blew, some of the Czech players were heading towards the tunnel, apparently unaware that a penalty shootout would decide the winner. This would be the first major international competition to be decided in such a manner. The tension and anticipation was almost unbearable.
Czechoslovakia took the first penalty through Masný, who scored. Both sides dispatched their spot-kicks with aplomb and, after six attempts, the teams were tied at 3-3. Showing nerves of steel, Ladislav Jurgemik smashed his side’s fourth penalty into Maier’s goal. Uli Hoeness stepped up to level the scores – except he wasted the opportunity, leaning back and ballooning the ball over the bar to send the crowd into ecstasy. Four-three to the Czechs.
Next up was Antonín Panenka. If he scored, his team would be champions. No pressure, then. He took a long run-up and Maier prepared himself to deal with a rocket of a shot. Except, Panenka chose this moment to deliver an unexpected coup de grace which turned into a tour de force.
He delicately stopped and, instead of firing a shot, chipped a ball which followed a parabola of perfection to land gently in the net. It was some way to win Europe’s most prestigious prize and a suitably fitting finale to end one of the best football matches of recent times.
The Berlin Wall had been breached, the Iron Curtain had delivered the decisive knock out punch, and the spirit of the Prague Spring was alive and well in Belgrade. Alexander Dubcek might have allowed himself a quiet bottle of Budvar in celebration.
By Paul Mc Parlan @paulmcparlan