European Championship — Out of the blue

Sportstar lists three great surprise results of the European Championships.

Members of the Greece team celebrate with coach Otto Rehhagel (centre) after defeating Portugal 1-0 in the final of the Euro Championships in 2004.   -  Getty Images

1. Euro 76: The Czechs win, with arguably the most famous spot-kick of all-time

Euro 76 was the last edition to feature only four teams in the finals, but the size of the field must not detract from the achievements of Czechoslovakia. Next to the world champion West Germany, the host Yugoslavia, and a Dutch side captained by Johan Cruyff that had reached the final of the 1974 World Cup, the Czechs appeared definitely inferior.

In the semifinals — the first stage, given it was a four-team tournament — 10-man Czechoslovakia needed extra-time to overcome the Dutch, reduced to nine late on. The captain, Anton Ondrus, scored at both ends on a wet Maksimir Stadium before, in extra-time, Zdenek Nehoda and substitute Frantisek Vesely found the net.


In the final, the Czechs took a shock 2-0 lead inside 25 minutes before West Germany’s Dieter Muller pulled one back. Then, a minute from time, Bernd Holzenbein levelled for the West Germans to send the tie into extra-time and then penalties. In the shoot-out, both teams converted their first three chances before the Czechs slotted in the fourth too. Uli Hoeness skied West Germany’s fourth, leaving Antonin Panenka with the chance to grab victory. He ran up cautiously, but paused for a fraction of a second as Sepp Maier dived to his left. Panenka’s kick was more a gentle chip down the middle. Maier flailed at the ball agonisingly even as he fell, but it floated past his right hand.

“After each training session I used to stay behind with our goalkeeper and take penalties — we would play for a bar of chocolate or a glass of beer,” Panenka told the UEFA website a few years ago. “Since he was a very good goalkeeper it became an expensive proposition for me. So, sometimes before going to sleep I tried to think of ways of getting the better of him, to recoup my losses. 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, and this became the basis of my philosophy. I started slowly to test it and apply it in practice. As a side effect I started to gain weight, because I was winning the bets.”

Panenka, after whom the move is now named, reflected on Czechoslovakia’s triumph. “When we left for the European Championship we were basically outsiders and nobody expected us to achieve any success there. Yet, the fact is that the composition of the team was outstanding, made up of outstanding individuals. We had a great balance; we had some real tough fighters, a few creators and a few finishers; the combination and range were ideal,” he said.

Little is remembered of that Czech team but Panenka’s name lives on in history.

2. Euro 92: Danish dynamite stuns Europe

Denmark was not even supposed to be at Euro 92. But Yugoslavia’s disqualification a week before the tournament, because the country was in a state of civil war, meant that the Danes were invited to take part. Placed alongside France, England and the host, Sweden, Denmark finished second in Group 1 after a nail-biting 2-1 victory in the final pool game over France. In the semifinals (it was an eight-team tournament), Denmark came up against the Netherlands, favourite to claim the title.

The Dutch had the combined talents of Dennis Bergkamp, Frank Rijkaard, Ronald Koeman, Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten — little wonder they were favourites — at their disposal. But Henrik Larsen scored either side of Bergkamp’s 23rd minute strike to put Denmark 2-1 up. It stayed that way till the 86th minute, when Rijkaard found the equaliser. With no goals in extra-time, the game went to penalties. Denmark may not have had the attacking riches of its opponent, but it had a certain Peter Schmeichel in goal. Marco van Basten, the hero for the Dutch four years earlier, had his spot kick saved, while Denmark went five out of five from the spot.

It sent the team into the final against Germany, the reigning world champion. A series of fine saves from Schmeichel denied Germany early on before the Danes took a shock lead in the 18th minute, via a fine strike by John Jensen from the edge of the area. The Germans pressed desperately for an equaliser but the Danes held firm. With 12 minutes to go, Kim Vilfort rushed into the area, cut past two defenders, and fired his shot into the net to put the result beyond doubt.


“We couldn’t fail because there were no expectations,” Vilfort said later. “If we lost 5-0 three times (in the group stages) then that would not have mattered.” He told the BBC that there had been no tension ahead of the must-win France game. “We played without nerves because we thought we’d be going home.” In the final, Vilfort felt his side’s superior spirit had seen it through. “We had fantastic spirit. The team wanted to win and that’s a very good thing when you’re at the highest level. When we were under pressure against Germany, it was the spirit that helped us. We didn’t have the best players, but we had the best team.”

3. Euro 2004: Greece produces the mother of all shocks

Until Leicester City stunned the world this year, Greece’s Euro 2004 win had few challengers as the greatest shock in football history. A nation that had failed to win a single game at a major tournament was not expected to get out of its own group — also featuring Portugal, Spain, and Russia — leave alone go anywhere close to the trophy. One player later admitted that the target for Greece was to return home with one win — one single game.

Otto Rehhagel, who was appointed as coach in 2001, had managed to improve the side a great deal in the lead up to the tournament. Greece had qualified (for its second ever European Championships) as the winner of Group 6, with an away victory over Spain en route. Rehhagel, a no-nonsense coach who had made his name with Werder Bremen in his native Germany, had a simple philosophy. He realised he did not possess the attacking talents of other nations. So he built an organised, disciplined, solid and hard-working team. In some eyes, Greece was dour and negative, worried more about stifling its opponents’ creativity and preventing goals than scoring itself. It made for painful, unattractive viewing. It’s safe to say that Greece did not win over many neutrals.

But none of that mattered to Rehhagel or his men. Having defeated Portugal in the tournament’s opening game, Greece drew with Spain before losing to Russia. However, thanks to Portugal’s defeat of Spain in their encounter, Greece sneaked through to the quarterfinals. There awaited the France of Zidane, Henry, Pires, Trezeguet, Vieira, Makelele, Thuram, Gallas and Lizarazu — arguably one of the finest national teams of all time. Few gave the Greeks a chance but an Angelos Charisteas header from a Theo Zagorakis cross (captain and later named Player of the Tournament) gave the side a 1-0 win. Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet were man-marked to within an inch of their lives. It was a pattern of play that would be repeated to great success. “I want to know the aftershave used by every player in Europe,” Rehhagel was quoted as telling his players.

In the semifinals, a fluid, attacking Czech team, inspired by the great Pavel Nedved, and playing perhaps the best football at the tournament, came undone. Tomas Rosicky hit the post while Nedved limped off with an injury in the first-half. It took a header from Traianos Dellas in ‘Silver Time’ — a concept that was used for the first and last time at a tournament — to deliver the Greeks victory.

In the final against the host nation, Greece kept Portugal goalless for 57 minutes before Charisteas headed in a corner — his side’s first. Portugal tried but failed to break down the rival defence, marshalled excellently all along by Dellas, as Greece recorded one of the most remarkable triumphs in all sport.

“We proved once again that the Greek soul is, and always will be, our strength,” Zagorakis later said. “It is the greatest gift God ever gave us. We have given the Greek people more than joy with the moment. It will be our pride forever.”

Rehhagel, who was later serenaded with chants of ‘God is German’ when the team arrived back in Greece, said: “The Greeks have made football history. It’s a sensation. There are always surprises. Remember North Korea beat Italy in the 1966 World Cup in England. This time we are the surprise.”

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