This feature is a part of RETEUROSPECTIVE
Euro 2000 is, for many people, the greatest international tournament there has ever been. The incredible comebacks, the breathtaking goals, the scintillating football and all the drama and tension you come to expect from a European Championship were on show in Belgium and the Netherlands in the summer of 2000.
This final in Rotterdam perhaps didn’t quite stand up to the quality set by the tournament in the weeks before, but it was a stunning way to end a memorable summer; a grandstand finish for a group of players to stake their claim as one of the greatest international sides ever.
In many ways, this was a far superior French side that triumphed on home soil two years earlier. Aime Jacquet had managed to succeed without a world-class striker in his squad, relying on Stephane Guivarc’h to lead the line. Two years later, however, and his successor (and former assistant) Roger Lemerre had three to choose from: David Trezeguet, Nicolas Anelka and the irrepressible Theirry Henry.
In fact, the array of attacking talent Lemerre had to choose from borders on the absurd. Christophe Dugarry, Robert Pires, Sylvain Wiltord, Johan Micoud, Youri Djorkaeff and, of course, Zinedine Zidane must represent one of the strongest attacks to ever feature at a Euros. Les Bleus also had a reliably strong foundation to rest this talent on: a defence wrought from Lilian Thuram, Marcel Desailly, Bixente Lizarazu and the icon Laurent Blanc forming was every bit as formidable as the attacking quality on show.
There’s a sound argument that this could have been the most perfect squad to ever compete in a European Championship.
When you compare this French squad on paper with their Italian opposition, hardly a vintage Azzurri at that, the game looked like a foregone conclusion before kick-off. When the opposition is Italy, however, with their revolving door of gifted players and steely resolve, it was never going to be easy.
Managed by Dino Zoff, this Azzurri side was efficient and compact, staying true to the old-school Catenaccio tactics, having conceded only two goals so far in the tournament. They weren’t about to roll over for anyone.
Finals are often nervous affairs with neither side wanting to make an early mistake. The fear of losing can far outweigh the desire to win. Therefore, when finals are locked in a state of mutual assured destruction, it needs moments of brilliance or enforced mistakes to break the deadlock. Thankfully, this final was decided by flashes of the former.
The game started furiously. Italy, playing the unaccustomed role of underdogs, had plenty of early pressure with Roma’s Marco Delvecchio proving a nuisance up-front. Henry provided the French threat, unleashing a couple of trademark snapshots before being on the receiving end of several reducers from the Italian midfield, the chief culprit among them being Luigi Di Biagio.
But in truth, the final didn’t come alive until the second half when, in the 53rd minute, a moment of genius blew the final wide open.
Francesco Totti, Italy’s outstanding player on the day, executed a sparkling backheel to release Gianluca Pessotto on the right wing. The first time anyone had any real space in 54 minutes of football, Pessotto’s inch-perfect cross flew past a flailing Desailly and found Delvecchio who volleyed the ball home.
France were rattled and there for the taking. Totti was able to find more space and provide more chances for Delvecchio and Alessandro Del Piero, who both conspired to spurn glorious chances that would have sealed the victory for the Azzurri.
France seemingly had no creative answer with Guardian journalist David Lacey describing Zidane, the semi-final saviour, as being “reduced to the role of a disembodied brain in a laboratory, still able to think but unable to make things happen”.
Knowing that the game was slipping away from Les Bleus, Lemere needed to pull the proverbial rabbit out of the hat and so he turned to his bench. Bizarrely, his only previous managerial experience might have been with the French army, but in the history of the European Championship, has there ever been a more perfect and profound set of substitutions?
Wiltord and Pires, both soon to be Arsenal players, and Trezeguet entered the fray – and all three would be involved in turning the tide in French favour.
With the game inching agonisingly to its conclusion, Italy were still standing resolute while France were resorting to lumping the ball up-pitch. In the 93rd minute, Fabien Barthez launched the ball long. Trezeguet managed to beat Mark Iuliano to it, nodding to a free Wiltord, who chested the ball perfectly and drove it through Francesco Toldo and into the bottom left-hand corner.
It was harsh on Toldo, who had had an excellent game, and tough on Italy who had restricted the best side in the world, but for France, it was quite literally a golden opportunity.
Whereas the 90 minutes of normal time might have lacked a sense of adventure, the looming presence of a golden goal meant that extra-time was breathless. Clearly buoyed by Wiltord’s goal, suddenly it was France with all the possession and chances.
Pires, positively quivering with vibrancy since his introduction, collected the ball on the left, jinked past one defender and then another. He chipped the ball across to Trezeguet who swivelled and rifled a half volley into the history books.
For many, this was unfairly heralded as a victory of good over evil due to Zoff’s reliance on conservative tactics – ones that had been so successful in getting the Azzurri to the final. The Daily Telegraph, rather harshly, reported the next day, “Purists and Parisians alike would have dismayed had Italy prevailed.”
Conversely, this France squad was exciting, full of pace and technique, and this historic win wrote this group of players into the history books, alongside the great international sides like Brazil 1970, West Germany 1976 and Spain in 2012.
Many at the time believed this could be the dawn of a new international footballing dynasty, but for the French captain Didier Deschamps, there was no question: “It’s never going to get any better than this.”
By Matthew Gibbs @matthewleuan