This feature is a part of RETEUROSPECTIVE
Football is a simple game – 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end … well, you know the rest by now.
Gary Lineker’s famous aphorism was built on an understanding of that German whatchamacallit, the intangible quality which seems to steer them towards glory every time they take the field at a major tournament. They are composed, they are unrelenting, they are almost always superior. Lineker was an expert on the subject, having experienced it first hand at Italia 90. In his lifetime, he’s watched them reach 19 semi-finals out of a possible 27, winning 13 of them.
On paper, Euro 96 was more of the same. Another dominant but restrained group stage, another hope-quashing victory over a team on the up in the first knockout round, another shootout victory over England. But while they would overcome the Czech Republic in the final, Germany’s conquest was a far cry from the bourgeois romp to which we’ve become so accustomed. Instead, it was one built on defiance, grit and a touch of serendipity.
The bulk of their good fortune came in the semi-final against the hosts. Within the first ten minutes of extra-time, Darren Anderton and Paul Gascoigne were both millimetres away from scoring the golden goal which would have earnt England a first appearance in a final since 1966.
But Germany had their fair share of bad luck too. Berti Vogts’ side were brought to their knees by injuries and further weakened by suspensions. Vice-captain Jürgen Kohler’s tournament was ended in the first match, and Steffan Freund and Fredi Bobic were injured for the final.
Skipper, icon and goalscorer Jürgen Klinsmann was out for the semi-final and faced a classic will-he-won’t-he race for fitness ahead of the championship decider – he made it, but only just. To add insult to injury, both Andreas Möller and Stefan Reuter were suspended after yellows against England.
Matthias Sammer – the beating heart of the Germany team in the libero role – was not fully fit, nor was centre-half Thomas Helmer. Given the extent of Vogts’ problems (reserve goalkeepers Oliver Kahn and Oliver Reck reportedly had outfield shirts printed up just in case), they really had no choice but to struggle manfully on.
Their opponents, the Czech Republic, had soon-to-be household names like Pavel Nedvěd, Karel Poborský and Patrik Berger. They arrived at Wembley on 30 June tired after creeping past France in the other semi-final after 120 minutes and penalties, but otherwise with a clean bill of health.
Not only was the meeting between the two teams a rematch of the 1976 European Championship final (when the Czech Republic was still part of Czechoslovakia), but it was also a repeat of the opening fixture of Group C. Germany won 2-0 on that occasion in a match that yielded ten yellow cards.
And while the final was less overtly belligerent than the opener, it was still fought in the spirit of blood and thunder appropriate for such an occasion. In the first half, Germany had a credible penalty appeal turned down when Mehmet Scholl took down a bouncing ball, sold Karel Rada a dummy, and cut inside only to be brought to the floor by the defender’s trailing leg.
As the game grew older, the technically superior Germans saw more of the ball, though the Czech Republic looked eager to flash forward whenever the German machine short-circuited and the chance to counter presented itself. This had been their game plan throughout the tournament, the pace of Poborský being the main focus of their strike back. Indeed, it was the medium by which the Czechs would get the opportunity to score their only goal of the game, though it wouldn’t come until 30 minutes from time.
Before then, Steffan Kuntz – scorer of Germany’s only goal against England four days earlier – came closest to breaking the deadlock. His shot ricocheted off the Czech goalkeeper, looped into the air and looked to be falling over the line before Karel Rada made an acrobatic clearance. In doing so, he kept alive the Czech Republic’s hopes of becoming underdog champions just as Denmark had done four years earlier.
The back-pass rule was introduced in 1992; otherwise, they might have mirrored the Danish strategy and back-passed their way to glory once Berger had given them the lead on 59 minutes.
Released by Pavel Kuka’s header, Poborský thundered towards the German goal. He poked the ball beyond Sammer whose desperate attempt to stop him brought Poborský to the deck. Berger – employed by Borussia Dortmund – resisted the urge to attempt a cheeky dink down the middle from the resultant spot-kick as his countrymen Antonín Panenka did on the same stage 22 years before. Instead, he opted for brute force, thwacking the penalty home – though Andreas Köpke in the German goal ought to have done better.
The decisive moment, it transpired, came ten minutes later when Vogts brought on Oliver Bierhoff. The Udinese striker nodded in after Ziege swung in a free-kick. Thus, the match went to extra-time with both teams knowing that a single goal would win them the championship.
Just five minutes into the additional 30, Bierhoff received the ball with his back to goal. He did well to spin and get his shot away, but that it went in was a minor miracle. A huge deflection off Michal Horňák bamboozled Czech goalkeeper Petr Kouba. He couldn’t keep it out. Aesthetically, it was the least golden of golden goals – not that it mattered to the Germans fans. “It’s coming home” they sang as Klinsmann lifted the trophy.
Euro 96 is perhaps the least celebrated of Germany’s seven tournament wins. Why isn’t exactly clear. After all, it was their first as a reunified country. It righted the wrong of losing to Denmark in the 1992 final, and it was payback for the World Cup final defeat in the same stadium in 1966. So too was it for the defeat to Czechoslovakia in 1974.
Perhaps, then, it has something to with the fact that Vogts’ side were not the commanding, immovable force that world football has witnessed so often over the years. And yet still they got the job done. In that sense, it was both the most German and the least German of their many triumphs.
By Adam Williams @Adam___Williams