||ESPNsoccernet: Euro 2008
Thursday, May 1, 2008
ESPNsoccernet: May 6, 4:06 PM UK
Host nation: West Germany
Here was a tournament in which another team ended its long exile in the trophy-winning wilderness. The Dutch had lit up the 1970s with their 'Total Football' but finished potless.
Much of the 1980s had been spent in turmoil after successive failures to qualify for major tournaments. A rebuilding period had begun during that time and Holland had found a new generation which was to dominate European club football for some years to come.
This would perhaps be the sole time the Dutch pulled together as a unit, for their age-old problem of in-fighting would stop this great team dominating the international scene. But they would burn brightly in Germany, where they were to gain revenge for their defeat in the 1974 World Cup Final.
They had waltzed through the qualifying rounds, even surviving having to replay a home game with Cyprus because of crowd trouble. They won the initial game 8-0 but the replay a mere 4-0. In their finals group they faced England, under Bobby Robson, who had stormed their qualifiers with stars like Lineker, Hoddle and Robson in full flow. Sadly for England, only Robson of the three would perform at any level at all in the finals.
Italy had a burgeoning side with young stars like Gianluca Vialli and Roberto Mancini while the Russians were strong, featuring the 1986 European Player of the Year Igor Belanov alongside Alexander Zavarov and striker Igor Protasov. Both had qualified with ease. Spain, Denmark and the Republic of Ireland, in their first major championship, had harder progress but all made it.
France, whose ageing team had largely retired after the Mexico World Cup, could only finish third in their group behind the Russians and East Germany. They were to enter their own wilderness period.
The tournament began with the hosts playing Italy and an Andreas Brehme strike was needed to cancel out a Mancini goal. The Dutch began in poor fashion and were beaten by the Soviet Union and a great strike from Vasili Rats. Their next game was with England, themselves nursing the embarassment of losing to Ireland. A Ray Houghton header was never answered by England, for whom Gary Lineker, later diagnosed with hepatitis was noticeably off form.
The Dutch simply blew away England. The Milan trio of Ruud Gullit, Marco Van Basten and Frank Rijkaard were at their very best. Van Basten, before that game never really sure of his place in Rinus Michel's starting eleven, scored one of the best hat-tricks in living memory while Bryan Robson's brave goal was all England had to celebrate. Russia, in Frankfurt, completed the misery as England were again beaten 3-1.
Ireland's draw with the Soviets came after a great volley from Ronnie Whelan was cancelled out by a Protasov strike from a Belanov assist. It was between the Irish and the Dutch, the latter of whom needed a win. Ireland looked to have their draw until a fluke stepped in their way. Koeman's volley looped off substitute Wim Kieft and keeper Packie Bonner was powerless.
The Italians and Germans had qualified on equal points from the other group. The Danes were a shadow of the 1984 vintage and Spain could only beat the Scandinavians as players like Butragueño and Michel failed to find form.
Italy's youth counted against them in the semi with the USSR. Mancini and Vialli flopped badly and even old stager Alessandro Altobelli couldn't find the net. Two ruthless finishes in three minutes from both Sergiy Litovchenko and Protasov finished off the Italians, whose sights were perhaps more firmly set on success in the World Cup they would host in two years.
For the Dutch, the other semi was a mission of vengeance in both historical and footballing terms as goalkeeper Hans Van Breukelen would later admit. It was a bitty first half, littered niggling fouls and attempts to dupe the referee. But the second period was lit up by two penalties, one for Lothar Matthaeus and another equalising one for Ronald Koeman.
Then, with extra time lurking in the background, Van Basten wrapped his leg around a Jan Wouters through ball to direct the ball past Eike Immel. In the stadium, and at home in Holland, there was an amazing outpouring of emotion. It was felt that wrongs, both in football and in other, more political affairs, had been righted for the moment.
It was a final between clearly the best teams in the tournament. And the Soviets looked the stronger side in the opening salvos. But a well-worked corner saw Van Basten nod across to Gullit whose header powered past Rinat Dassaev.
Next came the image the championships will be forever remembered for. Arnold Muhren's looping ball from the left bypassed everyone, save for Van Basten, in what seemed too tight an angle.
But the Milan man's eye was in and he looped a volley of pace, direction and power over Dassaev. It remains one of the best goals in any game in football. Van Basten's fire may have burned for not too long but he will be forever associated with one of the best instances of the striker's art.
The Soviets were not done yet and Dutch keeper Van Breukelen conceded a penalty for fouling Serguei Gotsmanov. But it was to be Holland's day as he saved Belanov's resulting spot-kick. The rest was plainsailing and a celebration as Holland's beautiful game finally succeeded at the highest level.