First XI

European Championship heroes

The players who lit up previous tournaments

Robin Hackett

Lev Yashin is rated as one of the finest goalkeepers of all time

As Euro 2012 approaches, we pick out a selection of heroes from previous tournaments.

Lev Yashin (Soviet Union, 1960 and 1964)

Many have hailed him as the greatest goalkeeper of all time and, though he rose to prominence after the 1956 Olympics and particularly the 1958 World Cup, the best performances of his career came in the European Championship.

He was the leading light in the final as Soviet Union won the first edition of the competition in 1960. They saw off Czechoslovakia 3-0 in the semi-finals and, in the final, Yashin excelled as they saw off a previously free-scoring Yugoslavia side 2-1.

Soviet Union returned to the final in 1964, where they faced Spain. The Spaniards had refused to play the Soviets in the quarter-finals in 1960 - General Franco had ordered it due to political reasons - but, when they did finally meet four years later, Yashin was powerless to stop a young Spain side winning 2-1.

Gerd Muller (West Germany, 1972)

In 1972, the European Championship finals still contained only four teams, and Muller - the scorer of ten goals at the 1970 World Cup - was the leading star in Belgium. He scored both goals in a 2-1 victory over the hosts in the semi-finals, and then netted twice in the 3-0 victory over Soviet Union in the final.

Muller, who ended his international career with 68 goals in 62 international appearances after winning the 1974 World Cup, finished joint-second in the 1972 Ballon d’Or award which was dominated by the triumphant German side and won by Franz Beckebauer.

Antonin Panenka (Czechoslovakia, 1976 and 1980)

The 1976 finals saw a major tournament decided by a penalty shootout for the first time, and Panenka seized the opportunity to become a hero.

West Germany found themselves 2-0 up inside 25 minutes, but they battled back, and Bernd Holzenbein scored an equaliser in the 89th minute.

With no further goals in extra-time, the match went to penalties, and the Czechs were leading 4-3 when Uli Hoeness blazed over the bar. Panenka, an industrious Bohemians Praha midfielder, had the chance to win it and, to everyone’s astonishment, coolly chipped the ball into the net as goalkeeper Sepp Maier lay helpless.

Panenka said he had developed the idea in training with his club. “After each training session I used to stay behind after a game with our goalkeeper and take penalties - we would play for a bar of chocolate or a glass of beer,” he later told UEFA’s website. “I got the idea that if I delayed the kick and just lightly chipped it, a goalkeeper who dived to the corner of the goal could not jump back up into the air. I don't think Sepp Maier took it very well. I never wished to make him look ridiculous, though.”

Panenka also played in the 1980 tournament, scoring in the third-place play-off shootout as the Czechs defeated Italy.

Horst Hrubesch (West Germany, 1980)

Hamburg forward Hrubesch scored two goals at Euro 1980, and both came in the 2-1 victory over Belgium in the final.

Hrubesch had looked set for a disappointing summer. He came into form towards the end of the season, and made his international debut in April at the age of 28, but he suffered an ankle injury ahead of his club side’s European Cup final loss to Nottingham Forest in May. He had not been expected to feature for West Germany at the European Championship until Klaus Fischer broke his leg, and was given his chance.

He failed to score in the first three games of the tournament, but Jupp Derwall kept faith for the final. “My place was in danger,” he later told UEFA. “If Derwall hadn't selected me, I couldn't have argued but, looking back, he made the right choice.” Hrubesch - known as “the Header Beast” - fired home an opener on ten minutes and then, with the score at 1-1 in the 88th minute, headed home a corner to win the tournament.

Michel Platini (France, 1984)

Michel Platini celebrates scoring against Yugoslavia© Getty Images

Les Bleus finally ended their long wait for a major international trophy in 1984 when they won the European Championship, a competition conceived by Frenchman Henri Delaunay in 1927, in a final in the French capital. It was the inspirational Platini’s goals that steered them to glory.

At the start of the tournament, he was exceptional, scoring seven goals in the group stage, including “perfect” hat-tricks against both Belgium and Yugoslavia, as France finished with a perfect record. In the knockout rounds, he was unable to maintain his form but still provided decisive interventions with a dramatic extra-time winner against Portugal in the semi-finals and the opener in a 2-0 win over Spain in the final.

Marco van Basten (Netherlands, 1988 and 1992)

Having been cruelly denied in two World Cup finals in the 1970s, Netherlands finally won first major international trophy in 1988 as they lifted the European Championship in West Germany. That they also defeated the West Germans - their bitter rivals and vanquishers in the 1974 World Cup - in the semi-finals, made victory all the sweeter.

Van Basten was the hero, but he had nearly not travelled to the tournament. Having joined AC Milan the previous summer, he underwent two ankle operations, making only 11 appearances in his debut season in Italy, and even after he had travelled to the tournament Netherlands boss Rinus Michels had warned him he would be third-choice striker. However, he hit the bar when he came on as a substitute in the 1-0 defeat to Soviet Union in the country’s opener and then hit a hat-trick when he started in a 3-1 victory over England.

In the knockout rounds, he netted a late winner in the 2-1 win over West Germany and then sealed his hero status in the final against Soviet Union: having set up Ruud Gullit’s opener, he sealed the 2-0 win with a sublime volley from Arnold Muhren’s cross. “You couldn’t write a script for a goal like that,” Michels said afterwards.

Van Basten also played at Euro 1992, though it was his missed penalty in the semi-finals that condemned Netherlands to defeat.

Henrik Larsen (Denmark, 1992 and 1996)

Having failed to qualify for the 1992 finals in Sweden, Denmark were handed a reprieve when Yugoslavia were barred on security grounds as the civil war broke out in the country. Even so, the team had appeared in disarray. Coach Richard Moller Nielsen had fallen out with several key players including Michael Laudrup, Brian Laudrup and Jan Molby, while goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel had criticised his tactics in a book published towards the end of the qualifiers; of that quartet, only Brian Laudrup and Schmeichel went to the tournament.

However, after a slow start in which they took one point from their opening two games, Denmark took full advantage of their lifeline and finished ahead of France and England to reach the knockout stage. Pisa midfielder Larsen had scored a spectacular opener in the 2-1 win against France and, in the semi-finals against Netherlands, he netted both goals in a 2-2 draw before converting a penalty in the shootout victory. For a player who had scored only once in 18 previous internationals, it was quite a feat.

He did not score in the shock 2-0 win over Germany in the final, but his three goals saw him finish joint top scorer for the tournament, and all of the strikes had played a vital part in his country’s progress. He also played for Denmark at Euro ’96 as they finished third in their group.

Oliver Biefhoff (Germany, 1996 and 2000)

Having only made his international debut in February 1996, Udinese striker Biefhoff could hardly have expected to make the impact he did at Euro ’96. By the time the final rolled around, his expectations must have been significantly lower: he had made only one start, without scoring, and failed to play at all in the semi-final with England despite both Jurgen Klinsmann and Fredi Bobic being ruled out through injury.

When Germany were trailing Czech Republic 1-0 in the 69th minute of the final, though, manager Berti Vogts sent Bierhoff into the attack alongside Klinsmann and Stefan Kuntz. Four minutes later, Bierfhoff connected with a Christian Ziege free-kick to equalise. Four and a half minutes into extra-time, he fired a golden goal past Petr Kouba to give the reunified Germany its first trophy.

Zinedine Zidane (France, 1996, 2000 and 2004)

Zidane had broken into the French side ahead of Euro ’96 and had been inspirational as France won the World Cup for the first time in 1998. When Les Bleus were crowned continental kings at Euro 2000, he was named UEFA’s player of the tournament.

He scored two goals at the finals, helping his side to a 2-1 win over Spain in the last eight with a sublime free-kick before booking their place in the final with a golden goal against Portugal from the penalty spot. With two major titles, Zidane had arguably surpassed Michel Platini as France’s greatest hero, though the 1984 winner was measured in his praise after the success: "Zidane does some extraordinary things, it's true, but you have to put everything in context. What Zidane does with a ball, Maradona could do with an orange."  

Zidane then scored three times at Euro 2004 - including both goals in a 2-1 win over England - only for France to suffer a shock 1-0 defeat to Greece in the quarter-finals.

Theodoros Zagorakis (Greece, 2004)

For many, Otto Rehhagel was the true hero of 2004. Greece, who had previously played in only two major tournaments in their history, upset the odds to secure glory with a reliance on organisation and defensive strength.

It was very much a team effort, but in their hard-working captain Zagorakis, they had a standard bearer in the midfield as they built on their shock victory over hosts Portugal in the opener before beating France, Czech Republic and Portugal again to lift the trophy. He was later named UEFA’s player of the tournament, though as he recalled: “Once we had scored, it was difficult for the opposition to beat 11 players who passionately defended what they had achieved. That was the Greek team. Whoever got to play fought tooth and nail for the team.”

Xavi (Spain, 2004 and 2008)

Xavi was named UEFA's star man at Euro 2008© AP Images

For some time, Xavi, who had represented Spain at the 2002 World Cup, Euro 2004 and 2006 World Cup, had played the role of the unsung hero. Having gone without a trophy since winning the second edition of the tournament in 1964, Spain won Euro 2008 with a 1-0 victory over Germany in the final, and a number of players earned a place in the spotlight. David Villa finished as top scorer, Fernando Torres scored the only goal of the final, and Iker Casillas helped Spain to a penalty shootout success against Italy in the quarter-finals.

Xavi’s metronomic passing, though, had laid the foundation for Spain’s success, and that much was recognised as UEFA voted him its player of the tournament. He also finished fifth in the Ballon d’Or voting that year and while some were slow to appreciate his contribution - the Daily Mail in England memorably headlined an article ‘The best players in the world (and Xavi)’ - his efforts would soon receive their rightful recognition.

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