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May 1, 2008

Euro '96

Host nation: England
Winners: Germany

It was given a trite catchphrase - 'It's coming home'. And the trophy did - in the sense that it returned to Germany, the nation that had largely dominated the tournament since 1972. Though that said it was to be England's best performance at the championships and they played a quality of football rarely expected of them.

This was an expanded finals tournament, with 16 teams now taking part. While often remembered on British shores as an epochal moment of the nation coming together in a festival of football, many of the games saw aching gaps of empty seats and only the English and Scottish games saw full capacities.

The hosts got underway with a Wembley fixture against the Swiss, and Alan Shearer, much criticised before the tournament for a 12 game England goal drought, gave England the lead by crashing home in typical style. But a nation's hope of happy beginnings were dashed by Switzerland's enterprising play. Grassi missed an open net before veteran Stuart Pearce handled in the box. Up stepped Kubilay Türkyilmaz to equalise with just seven minutes to go.

Holland, England's expected rivals for top place, were held 0-0 by the Scots and the stage was set for a meeting between the Auld enemies. And England were given a run for their money by the Scots.

Shearer's goal from a Gary Neville cross seemed likely to be cancelled out by a penalty awarded for a foul on Gordon Durie. But Gary McAllister's kick, not helped by the ball moving just before he kicked it, was saved by David Seaman. And once Jamie Redknapp came on for a brief but effective cameo, England started to dominate. Paul Gascoigne delivered the killer blow with a flick over Colin Hendry, sweetly-struck volley past Andy Goram and famous 'dentist's chair' celebration.

Holland, who in typical style, had sent home Edgar Davids after an internal dispute, beat the Swiss 2-0 with goals from Jordi Cruyff and Dennis Bergkmap. Cruyff Jnr was no substitute for his dad but made an impression which he would henceforth fail to live up to.

So England and Holland were to fight it out for Group 1. And, in truth, it was to be no contest as England's best showing in a major tournament in memoriam saw them destroy the Dutch. Shearer and strike partner Teddy Sheringham grabbed two each as wingers Darren Anderton and Steve McManaman made hay.

The Dutch were demoralised yet a late goal from Patrick Kluivert was enough to see them through to the last eight. Even better for England, it denied the Scots, despite their win over the Swiss.

Germany, as expected, made the quarters with some ease, after beating the Czech Republic and Russia at a canter. Italy, the other expected qualifiers, had started well with a win over Russia but had lost to the Czechs after Luigi Apolloni was sent off and Gianfranco Zola had missed a last minute chance to equalise.

When they could only draw with Germany and the Czechs got a 3-3 draw with the Russians, Italy continued their poor record in the finals since that victory in 1968.

France, starring the rising talent of Zinedine Zidane and Youri Djorkaeff, made it through too, at the expense of Romania and Bulgaria, both of whom failed to capitalise on great World Cup 94 performances. Spain, solid rather than spectacular, joined the French.

Holders Denmark perished in the first round despite drawing with Portugal and beating Turkey, who were the tournament's whipping boy in their first finals appearance.

Portugal, its own 'Golden Generation' of Luis Figo, Joao Pinto and Sa Pinto playing flowing football, finished top of the group after beating Croatia, a new nation making its own tournament debut. The Croats were inspired by Davor Suker, Zvonimir Boban and Robert Prosinecki and Suker's amazing chip over Schmeichel in the Danish goal signalled his true striking talent.

But in the last eight, both Portugal and Croatia were to exit. Portugal could not find the net against the Czechs and were beaten by a lob from Karel Poborsky that was either fluke or pure skill. It was his only goal for the Czechs and would remain so for years. Someone should have told Alex Ferguson.

Croatia matched the Germans until they lost Igor Stimac for a foul on Mattias Sammer, the man rapidly becoming man of the tournament for his Beckenbauer-esque sweeper play. Suker's consumate skill in dribbling round Andreas Köpke cancelled out a Klinsmann penalty but Sammer won it in dubious fashion when a push in the box gave him two chances to head in the winner. Croatia began to lash out but they failed to equalise and were, somewhat unluckily, out.

The other two quarters were matches won on spot-kicks. England rode their luck against Spain. The Spaniards had goals from Kiko and Salinas chalked off and two clear penalty claims turned down.

England had been outplayed for much of the game but won the shoot-out with outstanding contributions from goalkeeper David Seaman and Stuart Pearce, who buried the ghosts of Turin 1990 with a thumped kick past Zubizarreta and followed it with a maniacal celebration that will forever warm the hearts of beer-bellied, skin-headed England shirt wearers everywhere.

Seaman saved Miguel Angel Nadal's kick and England had their first ever penalty shoot-out win. Holland shared Spain's pain as a terrible match ended in spot-kick notoriety for Clarence Seedorf as France went into the semis.

There, they would suffer that same bitter medicine as the Czechs continued their unheralded progress. Zidane, dog-tired after a season in which he had inspired Bordeaux to the UEFA Cup Final all the way from the Intertoto, flopped as the Czechs stayed resolute. Reynald Pedros was this game's fall guy as Petr Kouba saved his kick. Miroslav Kadlec, the sixth Czech to take a kick though Kubik had wanted another go after scoring the first, beat Bernard Lama and the Euros had another surprise finallist.

Who can forget the other semi? Probably not Gareth Southgate. England matched the Germans punch for punch, even taking the lead through an Alan Shearer header in the third minute. The name Stefan Kuntz would stand out for England fans, not least because he scored the equaliser just 13 minutes later. A game of effort and commitment followed as all of England chewed its nails.

Like that semi in 1990, extra-time was full of chances. Anderton, playing the game of his life, struck a post. Gascoigne, playing perhaps the last meaningful football of his career, failed to reach a cross by the narrowest of margins. Kuntz had a goal disallowed for a push too. Then came the dreaded shoot-out. England went first and were successful with all their first five. But so too were the Germans.

Then came the bit no-one wanted. The men who didn't want to take a kick were next. Paul Ince, a man of experience, turned down the chance to take one. Up stepped Gareth Southgate, a quiet success all competition as a sweeper alongside the stopping mastery of Tony Adams. His mother knew he'd miss it. So did most of England. And judging by his kick so did he. Köpke had no trouble saving.

Andy Möller wasn't going to miss. His bizarre goose-step celebration was laughable. England's latest heartbreak wasn't - that song about '30 years of hurt' would have to be updated.

And so all England became Czechs fans. Could the Czechs repeat 1976?

Klinsmann, who had missed the semis with an injury sustained against the Croats, was forced to play while still injured and Germany were seriously under strength. And when Patrik Berger stroked in a penalty awarded for a foul by Sammer on Poborsky, it seemed the Germans had run out of the luck many accused them of having.

But German coach Berti Vogts threw on Oliver Bierhoff, who had been pulling up trees in Serie A for Udinese all season but was rarely used by his national team. According to legend, he had been picked by Vogts on Mrs Vogts' advice. Four minutes after coming on, Bierhoff powered a header past Kouba to take the final into its first 'Golden Goal' period.

There Bierhoff would become the golden boy. After just five minutes, he turned to hit a low shot that Kouba allowed to dribble past him and in off a post. Germany had won the tournament for a third time. Not the most popular victory but one well-deserved by a German side for whom Sammer in particular was a cut above the rest.