You must have been spending your last couple of weeks within an old World War Two bunker if you haven’t by now realised that Euro 2016, second only to the World Cup in the list of major international football tournaments, is now well under way. With this year’s competition cited as having the potential to be one of the most unpredictable and exciting of the 15 instalments to date, we pay homage to the European Championships by looking back upon five of the tournament’s most memorable moments.
THAT Van Basten Volley
It is a travesty for Dutch football, especially with an extended tournament this time round, that the Netherlands failed to reach Euro 2016. It will leave Dutch fans yearning for the stars and great teams of old, none more so than the side which won Euro 1988. The final of that tournament was defined by a goal from Marco Van Basten that will be forever viewed as one of the greatest ever scored in an international match. When running away from goal the famous former Ajax and AC Milan player hit the ball on the volley from a seemingly impossible angle to beat the USSR goalkeeper with the kind of goal most mere mortals could barely even dream of let alone execute with sublime skill. Considering the stage it was on, it is perhaps the most famous goal in European Championship history.
The Brilliance of Gascoigne
When you think of Euro 1996 two things instantly come to mind – ignoring the semi-final penalty defeat to Germany. One is that celebrated Three Lions song from the Lightening Seeds. The other is the goal, and subsequent celebration, from Paul Gascoigne at the old Wembley in the crucial second group game against Scotland. After drawing their opening game, Terry Venables’s side desperately needed a win in front of an expectant home crowd. Seconds after Scotland had missed a penalty to level the scored at 1-1 with just over ten minutes to go, Gascoigne received the ball on the edge of the area, instantly flicking it over a flailing Colin Hendry with his left foot before hitting it on the volley with his right into the back of the net. Queue delirium and one of the most iconic football celebrations there has ever been. Of numerous memorable Gascoigne moments, this was his finest.
The Ultimate Underdogs
If you’d written a list of favourites to win Euro 2004 ahead of the tournament, Greece would have been nowhere near the top of it. In fact they would probably have been at the bottom. Yet, tournament football can sometimes make the predictions of fans and pundits alike look just a little silly. That was certainly the case for a Greece side who upset all the odds to win Euro 2004. What’s more, they did it by defeating hosts Portugal in the Final 1-0 thanks to a goal from one Angelos Charisteas. They were not the most aesthetically pleasing of sides, placing an emphasis on defensive solidity and organisation. Nevertheless, their achievement remains one of the most remarkable in international tournament history.
The Spanish Pinnacle
Forget their capitulation at the last World Cup. For three straight tournaments Spain were the best team on the planet; inspired by players at their peak such as Iniesta, Pique, Xavi and Villa to name but a few. It is easy to forget Spain are currently chasing a third straight European Championship, with stage two of what would be an unprecedented hat-trick occurring in the most spectacular of ways. Beating Italy in a Final is one thing. Putting 4 goals past Gianluigi Buffon and their experienced defence and playing the Azzuri off the park in such a way was mightily impressive, even for a Spanish side of such undoubted quality and experience. They were by far the most imposing team in the competition and confirmed it with their most comprehensive performance. Goals from Silva, Alba, Torres and Mata secured a third consecutive international tournament win. La Roja played with a style and panache rarely seen on such a significant stage.
Finally, we’re back to that memorable Euro 96. The penalty scored by England left-back Stuart Pearce didn’t in itself secure a rare shoot-out for England in their quarter-final against Spain. However, you will struggle to find a more emotional and significant personal moment for a player at a European Championship. Indeed Pearce was one of those whose spot-kick was had been saved in the defeat to Germany in the 1990 World Cup semi-final, a moment that had haunted him ever since. Yet Pearce showed his strength of character by volunteering to take a penalty again this time round and the whole nation held a collective breath as he smashed the ball into the bottom corner. Cue one of the most enduring images of the tournament as he turned and punched the air in angry celebration and pure joy and relief. Redemption for Pearce and years of hurt finally exorcised.