Czech Republic 1-0 Portugal at Euro 96: the evening of Karel Poborský’s legendary lob

Czech Republic 1-0 Portugal at Euro 96: the evening of Karel Poborský’s legendary lob

This feature is a part of RETEUROSPECTIVE

Scoop, lob, chip, dink: no, not the fuzzy-costumed line-up of an early 2000s children’s television series, but some of the most visually pleasing sights in football. Few spectacles are as gratifying as a well-executed lift over a red-faced goalkeeper. Matthew Le Tissier against Manchester United, Lionel Messi against Real Betis, and John O’Shea (John O’Shea!) against Arsenal are all classics of the genre. 

There’s definitely an element of schadenfreude in their appeal. It’s a ‘gotcha’ moment, and perhaps the archetypal ‘gotcha goal’ was delivered by a shovel of Karel Poborsky’s right boot against Portugal at Villa Park on June 23, 1996. 

As years go, 1996 was pretty special for Poborsky, the Czech Republic’s most capped outfield player. He scored a career record 13 goals for Slavia Prague as they won the Czech First League for the first time in just shy of half a century. Slavia also enjoyed their greatest ever season in Europe, reaching the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup.

Poborsky – one of the stars of the European campaign – would sign for Manchester United in the summer, but not before his side came within 17 minutes of winning the European Championship. 

On their way to the final, they came up against Portugal, the sparkling side anointed purveyors of “sexy football” by Ruud Gullit. His colourful assessment, made in the BBC’s coverage of the quarter-finals, drew a raised eyebrow from Des Lynam, but it was a serviceable characterisation.

Portugal played flowery, perfumed football, the kind that felt like it had been lifted directly from the white-sanded beaches of the Algarve. In Paulo Sousa and Fernando Couto there was a flash of the obstinacy and slipperiness that would come to define the Portuguese sides of the 2000s and 2010s. But at Euro 96, Portugal wore their polyester shirts like silk nightgowns. 

Yet it was the Czech Republic who produced the sexiest moment of the match – and perhaps of the entire tournament, though they would have to wait until the second half. In the first 45, they threatened through the fiery movement of the two strikers – Sá Pinto and João Pinto – as well as the set pieces of Luis Figo, but a clear chance to break the deadlock never materialised. 

The Czechs’ pace on the counter-attack was a lurking source of anxiety for Portugal, but they were hamstrung by the absence of Pavel Nedvěd (suspension) and Patrik Berger (illness), the two main creators in the team.

The vacuum they left turned the midfield into a bit of a mosh pit – 11 cards, ten yellow and one red were handed out as the two nations crashed and bounced off one another in the middle of the park. As John Motson so eloquently put it after the final whistle, “the Bohemian rhapsody has a few muffled notes tonight”: four Czech players were suspended for the semi-final.

After Lubos Kubik was introduced at the break, they momentarily calmed things down, but pulses were set a-racing again barely five minutes after the restart. 

If you freeze-frame the exact moment Poborsky received the ball, you’d think that only a moment of genius or a special kind of defensive ineptitude could lead to it ending up in the back of the net not five seconds later. As it turned out, it was a combination of the two. Forty yards from goal, Poborsky was immediately swarmed by three Portuguese defenders, with a fourth on the way. His touch ricocheted off a pair of them before he somehow emerged from the tangled mess with the ball 25 yards from goal. 

Presumably spurred on by the fact that the cosmos was smiling on him that day, Poborsky accelerated towards goal, his long blonde hair billowing behind him in the Birmingham breeze. The shot that followed was christened the “Poborsky Lob”. But it wasn’t a lob at all. It was a scoop; the kind of technique you’d use if you wanted to get a ball into a basketball net from two feet away.

His strides got smaller as Villa Park held its collective breath in anticipation of a blast on goal. Even Vítor Baía – the Portugal goalkeeper – was expecting it, rushing off his line in a futile attempt to narrow the angle. But the smash didn’t come.

Instead, Poborsky squeezed his foot under the ball and lifted it heavenward. It rose so high that, in the pitch-side camera’s shot, it actually went out of frame for a couple of seconds. Baía turned around just in time to see the ball fall – in nightmarish slow motion – out of the sky and over the line. 

And that, it transpired, was that. There were a few more moments of note. Eight minutes from time, Látal was dismissed after a late tackle on Dimas earned him a second yellow, and Cadete had a chance to take the match to extra time with a glancing header, but a goal worthy of winning any game did indeed win the game. 

Davor Šuker had scored an impossibly good goal in similar fashion against Denmark a week earlier, though his was more of a dink. For sheer uniqueness, Poborsky’s was probably just about the better of the two. It was one of just nine goals scored in the knockout stages and it was certainly the pick of the bunch.

He would later score an almost identical goal against the same keeper while playing for Benfica, then another over Edwin van der Sar in a European Championship qualifier. Though Poborsky was never a free-scoring player, the scoop became his signature brushstroke.  

By Adam Williams @Adam___Williams

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