Summer of 2000

All football tournaments are memorable in their own ways, but to this day, I think Euro 2000, held in Belgium and the Netherlands, will take some toppling as the greatest tournament of all time.

Qualifying

Northern Ireland had a tough task against Germany and Turkey, but perhaps should have done much better than one win out of their 8 games, including two draws against Moldova. Ireland were a 90th-minute Macedonian equaliser away from beating Yugoslavia to qualification, but had to make do with a playoff spot. Scotland finished a distant second to the Czechs in their group, including a 1-1 draw in the Faroe Islands, while England, under Kevin Keegan after Glenn Hoddle was sacked, struggled to pip Poland to second place behind Sweden in their group.

The playoffs threw up the oldest game of them all: Scotland lost 2-0 to England at Hampden before a brilliant goalkeeping display by David Seaman at Wembley helped England hobble through to the finals by only losing 1-0. Ireland, meanwhile, found Turkey to be too much and lost out on away goals.

Other qualifying highlights saw little Slovenia make their first-ever finals, and Spain score an impressive 42 goals over 8 games, including a 9-0 win over Austria, whose radio commentator was forced to remind their audience that “ladies and gentlemen, please remember this is football and not skittles”.

Finals

S Club 7 were reaching for the stars and Dre was chastising us for selective amnesia when Euro 2000 kicked off: meanwhile, I had the more pressing matter of GCSEs to worry about. It was quite fortunate, then, that all the subjects I didn’t  enjoy (English, Music, Business Studies, basically anything where there wasn’t a right answer) were done by the time Belgium kicked off against Sweden on June 10th.

It wasn’t a bad start, as the Belgians won 2-1 despite their goalkeeper Filipe de Wilde’s best efforts (he tripped on a ball allowing Johan Mjallby a tap in: worse was to come for him): two days later, England kicked off their campaign against Portugal.

I’d supported England in Euro ’96 and the ’98 World Cup, but I’d become dismayed at the fact the press had gone to great lengths to get Glenn Hoddle sacked after England’s dismal start to the qualifying campaign. With the FA not inclined to sack him, they set up an interview with him where he confessed to believing that disabled people were paying for sins in a previous life. On balance, this is not a thing an England manager should be saying and sacking him was probably correct, but it felt to me like a total stitch-up and from then on I felt I couldn’t support England in tournaments.

They started well enough, racing into a two-goal lead thanks to Scholes and McManaman, but Portugal simply had too much quality for them, Figo scoring a screamer, Pinto with a cheeky header and Nuno Gomes with the winner.

After my Latin exam, I was hoping to see Spain, the team I wanted to win, teach Norway a lesson: they lost 1-0, with what turned out to be Norway’s only shot on target in the whole tournament. A few exams later, and England were up against Germany once again. I watched this at the church organist’s house where I was in a minority wanting Germany to won. Any arguments I may have made for my position were rendered moot by Alan Shearer’s headed winner, but England’s victory turned out to be somewhat pyrrhic.

The final round of group games saw Filip de Wilde at it again, this time pole-axing Turkey’s Arif while through on goal. They went down 2-0 and out.

The next day, England faced Romania missing David Seaman through injury: Nigel Martyn, his replacement, had a day to forget as first Christian Chivu had put Romania ahead, and then after Shearer and Owen had put England in front, weakly punched the ball out of the box, allowing Munteanu to fire in. He escaping a scapegoating, however, as Phil Neville fouled Moldovan in the penalty area, and Ganea converted the resulting penalty, sending England home. This is thus far Romania’s only ever win in a Euro championship finals, and was also Alan Shearer’s last ever England game.

One of the greatest games you’ll ever see took place the day after this as Spain, needing a win, went into injury time 3-2 down to Yugoslavia. Mendieta’s penalty brought things level after 94 minutes, and as Spain packed forward, Alonso popped up with a winner with the last kick of the game to send Norway out (and few tears were shed outside Scandinavia after that one). Slovenia held the Norwegians to a 0-0 draw, after holding Yugoslavia 3-3, acquitting themselves well on their international debut.

Yugoslavia’s fortunes did not get much better as they were routed 6-1 by the dutch in their quarter final, while Spain went down 2-1 to France, Raul missing a late penalty, and Urzaiz missing an even later headed sitter. Portugal and Italy both coasted past Turkey and Romania  2-0, the latter being notable for Romanian great Gheorghe Hagi’s last ever game… and he was sent off for his trouble. You can’t keep a good man down.

My last exam was “Add Maz” (a subject unique to Northern Ireland in both content and pronunciation) and mum got me a set of football posts to congratulate me on completion. Frankly, I was a little bit sad it was over as I’d got into a good routine of revision and football by then, but all good things must come to an end.

As it did for Portugal , who proved themselves more than capable in this tournament. Nuno Gomes gave them an early lead against France in that day’s semi final before Thierry Henry scored a well-taken equaliser. Both sides had chances to win it in normal time, but to extra time it went. It was surprisingly open for a golden goal extra time period, but the deciding moment came when Sylvain Wiltord’s cross hit Abel Xavier’s hand in the penalty area. Zinedine Zidane out away the resulting golden goal penalty, putting France in the final.

The next day, with Spain out, I was hopeful that the Netherlands, another team I loved to watch, faced Italy. A 0-0 draw was out of character for the way both these sides had gone about the tournament so far, but after Frank de Boer and Patrick Kluivert both missed penalties in normal time, it was time for the tournament’s only penalty shoot-out. Until they beat Costa Rica in the last World Cup, the dutch were the only team to have had a worse record than England in penalty shoot-outs, and 2000 was bang on form for them. Jaap Stam’s penalty, I believe, is still in near-earth orbit, and Paul Bosvelt was a tad unfortunate to be the one that decided the whole affair. Italy marched on.

Unlike ’96, I was able to watch this final, as we were on holiday in England in a flat with a TV (for the first time, without my older brother who’d taken a summer job at McDonald’s). For a final, it really wasn’t bad- Italy took the lead through a close-range Delvecchio strike and Italy looked set to win, until Sylvain Wiltord hit a low, agonisingly slow shot that just evaded Toldo’s grasp and trundled into the net.

Extra time, then, and a fantastic golden goal winner: Robert Pires crossed in from the left, but it looked mishit, landing behind Trezeguet who was at the near post, but Trezeguet was able to angle his body in such a way as to still hit the ball high into the next at 50mph and with that, it was all over. France were World and European champions at the same time, prompting Des Lynam to put them into Room 101, but worthy winners nonetheless. Four years later, Europe would be turned on its head and beautiful football would give way to pragmatism.

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