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EURO 1996: Football comes home
- Updated: 5 June, 2012
The European Championships of 1996 saw Uefa expand their flag ship international tournament from eight to 16 nations, as the governing body looked to address a number of key issues that had arisen over the preceding five years.
Foremost Uefa sought to host a tournament which was closer in size to the Fifa World Cup, which at that stage still featured 24 teams as opposed to 32 who made the trip to South Africa two years ago, and England was viewed as the perfect host for the event following the major redevelopment many its stadia had undergone following the Taylor report of 1989.
The decision to enlarge the format of the competition was also in part due to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the break-up of Yugoslavia soon after. Some of the former Soviet states had competed together as the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) at the 1992 tournament in Sweden, however five years on from the breakup it was thought time had come for those former Soviet states to become more integrated into Europe, and one of these ways was through football. The expansion enabled Russia, the Czech Republic and Croatia to compete at the tournament for the first time as separate states, alongside another former Communist state Bulgaria, who were taking part in their first European Championships.
The new 16 team format was the same as it will be for this years competition in Poland and Ukraine; four groups of four, with group winner and runner-up qualifying for the knockout stage. Uefa seeded the teams to give the groups some balance and Spain were seeded in pot 1 along with hosts England, defending champions Denmark and the always dangerous, and now unified, Germany. Despite not qualifying for the tournament in 1992, Spain gained their high seeding after an strong 1994 World Cup and a highly impressive qualifying campaign which saw them travel to England on the back of a 16 game unbeaten run.
Javier Clemente’s side were eventually drawn in Group B, with debutants Bulgaria, Romania – who boasted the talented midfield pair of Dan Petrescu and Georghe Hagi among their ranks, and a dangerous French side which included many of the players who would go onto lift the 1998 World Cup -, including a 23-year-old Zinedine Zidane.
Elland Road played host to Spain’s first match of the tournament against a Bulgarian side featuring former Barcelona striker Hristo Stoichkov. After a cagey and uneventful first period the game sprang to life after half time as Stoichkov struck one of the greatest Euro goals seen, only for it to be ruled wrongly offside. El Pistolero wasn’t to be denied however and he finally opened the goalscoring from the penalty spot soon after.
What followed was an intense 10 minute period that saw both sides reduced to 10 men with a Spanish equaliser sandwiched in the middle. Peter Hubschev was sent off for the Bulgarians with 18 minutes remaining and the game was level less than two minutes later as Alfonso Perez reacted well following a free kick. The game then saw its second red card as Tenerife striker Pizzi was given his marching orders to level up the numbers before the encounter drifted to its conclusion and a 1-1 stalemate.
Next up for Spain were the French. As tends to be the case when two big international sides meet, both teams played very tentatively and reserved. But that did not stop France taking the lead just after half-time as talismanic striker Youri Djorkaeff fired past Andoni Zubizarreta.
However Jose Luis Caminero earnt Clemente’s side a point with a strike five minuted from time to to leave the fate of group B hanging in the balance with one game to play. Going into the last round of fixtures France, Bulgaria and Spain all found themselves in with a chance of qualifying, with Spain trailing Bulgaria and France by two points. However with Spain to play the pointless Romanians they had to be considered favourites to make the knockout stages.
Spain went into the game knowing that only a win would give them a chance of qualification and as France and Bulgaria had only managed 1-0 wins over Romania a two goal winning margin would guarantee qualification.
The Spanish began strongly and ceased the initiative when Javier Manjarin netted after 11 minutes. It was the first time la Roja had led a match all tournament however it didn’t last long as Florin Raducioiu equalised on the half hour mark after latching onto a through-ball from the impressive Hagi.
Spain knew they had to score and spent much of the second half pressurising the Romanians. As the game went into the final 10 minutes Spain look to be on the brink of an early exit, however there was set to be a grandstand finish when substitute Guillermo Amor headed home six minutes from time to give the Spanish hope. The game finished 2-1 and news soon came through that the French had defeated Bulgaria at St James’ Park to send Spain through to the knockout stages of the tournament for the first time since 1984.
Spain would face hosts England in the quarter-finals. The hosts were led by former Barcelona coach Terry Venables and were a match for any team at the tournament.
The game proved to be an open encounter and was end-to-end from start to finish. Both teams squandered big chances, specifically Teddy Sheringham and Alan Shearer for England. Spain had two big penalty shouts turned down in the game while the English also had a claim waved away by the referee. Unsettled after 120 minutes of football the match went to the lottery of a penalty shoot-out.
In front of a naturally partisan crowd Alan Shearer smashed home the first penalty to give England the upper hand. Next up was Hierro for Spain who’s powerful effort had Seaman well beaten but cracked back off the crossbar. It would be an uphill battle for the Spaniards now, and it proved to be too much.
David Platt, Paul Gascoigne and Stuart Pearce all scored to give England a perfect record and as Seaman dived to his right to palm away Nadal’s effort the stadium and the country erupted in celebration. Unfortunately for Spain they had come up short in a major tournament yet again, despite being one of the form teams during the qualification stages.
In truth they were fortunate to escape their group, but they were also very unfortunate to not get two penalties against England. The 1996 European Championships was yet another tournament to forget for the under performing Spanish who were by now truly living up to their title of football’s biggest underachievers.
Euro 96 proved to be a tournament of penalty shoot-outs as half of the knockout stage games, including both semi-finals were decided in this manner – eventual winners Germany also put out the English in a shoot-out yet again.
The shock of the tournament however was the success of the impressive Czech Republic side. They stunned everyone by qualifying from their group at the expense of a strong Italian side and then reached the final by defeating France and Portugal. Even against Germany they held their own to take the lead, however an equaliser from Oliver Bierhoff took the game to extra time and it was Bierhoff again who scored the golden goal to win the trophy for Germany.Follow @icentrocampista