The Joy of Six: great European Championship performances

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From Kim Vilforts remarkable show of mental strenth to Francesco Toldos psychological war on penalty takers half a dozen sensational displays

1) Jean-Franois Domergue (France v Portugal, 1984)

Despite memorable efforts by Basile Boli and Zinedine Zidane, Manuel Amoros is the perpetrator of the greatest head-butt in the history of Les Bleus. Because when Amoros reacted to being felled by Denmarks Jesper Olsen in Frances opening group game at Euro 84 by trying to hurl a ball at the winger and then sticking a loaf on him, he copped a suspension that led to Jean-Franois Domergues first international start. Domergue was respected domestically his dynamism from left-back was one of the few highlights of Lyons season in 1983 and convinced Toulouse to sign him when Lyon were relegated but the extent of his international action prior to Euro 84 consisted of one half in a pre-tournament friendly against West Germany. But he came on as a substitute for Yvon Le Roux against Denmark and, following Amoross red card, kept his place for the remainder of the tournament. In the semi-final against Portugal he made an indelible impact on the European Championship, illuminating a classic match with the highlight of his career.

Michel Platini is remembered as the outstanding individual of Euro 84 and rightly so, for he was magnificent. And Domergue played upon that fact to make his own mark. When France were awarded a free-kick at the edge of the area in the 24th minute of the semi-final, the Portuguese goalkeeper, Bento, along with the entire watching world, expected Platini to unleash a shot. Frances captain had already scored seven goals in the tournament and could do almost anything he wanted from free-kicks. But I saw a little opening and asked Michel if I could hit it and he said: OK, go on, explained Domergue afterwards, accounting for the fact that he stepped up and walloped the free-kick into the top corner with the outside of his left foot, barely bringing a movement from the stunned Bento. France created many chances to extend their lead after that, with Domergue hurtling down the left with thrilling regularity, but Portugal drew level through Jordo in the 74th minute and then took the lead early in extra time, thanks to a volley by the same player. It was as if our whole world was falling in but we sort of said to each other: if were going to do anything, now is the time to do it and I think everyone just went for it, Domergue said.

Six minutes from full time, he mounted yet another raid down the left and pinged the ball into Le Roux near the Portuguese penalty spot. Le Rouxs shot was blocked and the ball rolled to Platini, who collapsed under a challenge by a defender. Before anyone could appeal for a penalty, Domergue strode forth and lashed the breaking ball past the outrushing Bento and into the roof of the net. Platini, inevitably, scored the winner in the 119th minute. Domergue never scored again for his country and, indeed, finished his career with only nine caps. But hell always have Portugal. PD

2) Ivo Viktor (Czechoslovakia v West Germany, 1976)

There were only four matches at Euro 76 but every one was a belter and we may, at various points over the next few weeks, find ourselves pining for a such a concentration of quality. West Germanys Dieter Mller gave a particularly condensed demonstration of excellence, coming off the bench to make his international debut in the 74th minute of West Germanys semi-final against Yugoslavia and then scoring with his first touch before adding two more goals to crown a 4-2 win. Jaroslav Pollak crammed so much brilliance into the other semi-final, Czechoslovakias 3-1 win over Holland, that he was named in the team of the tournament, despite only gracing it for 60 minutes. His exhibition reached an abrupt end when he was sent off a brutal foul on Johan Neeskens (who would later be sent off for an even more violent tackle as some Dutchmen apparently decided to go down with an almighty kicking spree, an attitude Tottenham Hotspur would invoke many years later during a memorable outing to Stamford Bridge). But despite Pollaks midfield splendour and a superb defence marshaled by Anton Ondrus, Czechoslovakia would never have been crowned European champions if not for two magnificent performances by their goalkeeper, Ivo Viktor. After excelling against Holland, the 34-year-old Dukla Prague keeper was outstanding in the final against West Germany, who, as against Yugoslavia, recovered from two goals down but this time could not go on and win, largely because Viktor showed exceptional agility to turn away shots by Erich Beer, Rainer Bonhof and Bernd Hlzenbein. Without those saves Antonin Panenka would never have got to take his now legendary spot-kick and Viktor might only be remembered as the guy who, in 1970, was made to scurry backwards in fearful panic as Pel tried to lob him from beyond the halfway line. PD

3) Bernd Schuster (West Germany v Holland, 1980)

After gaining a measure of revenge for their defeat in the 1976 final by beating Czechoslovakia 1-0 in their opening group game four years later, West Germany made an inspiring change for their next match. Their manager, Jupp Derwall, plumped for a more adventurous approach, switching from a 4-4-2 to 4-3-3 and giving a start to Bernd Schuster against the Germans fiercest rivals, Holland. Klaus Allofs scored an excellent hat-trick in a 3-2 victory but most of the acclaim was reserved for Schuster, who was instrumental in each of his teams goals and in almost everything else they did well.

Schuster conducted his teams play with a thrilling range of passing and powerful bursts from midfield. The Dutch hardly got a touch in the first 20 minutes and it was no surprise when the Germans opened the scoring, Allofs converting the rebound after a ferocious Schuster shot crashed back off a post. The Dutch could not cope with West Germanys superior technique, speed and strength, particularly that of Schuster, who bestrode midfield with almost nonchalant imperiousness. Schuster created his sides second goal by winning possession in midfield and passing to Hansi Mller, who cut the ball back for Allofs. And he teed up the third by seizing the ball in the Dutch box, dashing past a defender and playing a reverse pass that seemed practically unfeasible at the speed he was running, and the angle he was at, presenting Allofs with a chance to make it 3-0. Holland fought back to 3-2 but West Germany won.

A yellow card was the only blemish on Schusters performance and Derwall decided to omit him from the last group game lest he be suspended for the final. Reintroduced to the starting lineup for that final, he pulled West Germanys strings again and led them to victory over Belgium. He was only 20 years old and seemingly destined to be one of the stars of international football for the next decade or more. But Schuster wasnt a man to bow to expectations, nor to authority or social conventions. He never played in another international tournament owing to a variety of fallings out, notably with Derwall. At 24, he retired from international football, saving his best for Barcelona and Real Madrid instead. PD

4) Henrik Larsen and Kim Vilfort (Denmark v Holland, 1992)

Henrik Larsen celebrates Denmarks stunning triumph in 1992. Photograph: Shaun, Botterill/ALLSPORT

Denmarks remarkable triumph in 1992 is well thumbed: given just over a week to prepare for a tournament they had not qualified for, Denmark entered the group stage owing to the last-minute withdrawal of war-devastated Yugoslavia. A month later, without their best player, Michael Laudrup who quit the team before the tournament because he disagreed with the manager Richard Moller Nielsens style of play Denmark became champions of Europe, beating the holders Holland in the semi-finals and the World Cup winners Germany in the final.

The midfielder Henrik Larsen had began the tournament on the bench, failing to feature against England in their opening 0-0 draw and only getting less than half an hour in Denmarks defeat by Sweden. However, after Kim Vilfort was called away to visit his young daughter Line, who was fighting leukaemia, Larsen got his chance to start against France, and scored within eight minutes to set up a 2-1 win, squeezing Denmark through to the knockout stage.

Having been told before the tournament that her condition was improving, Line Vilfort continued to deteriorate as the tournament progressed and Kim was faced with an agonising decision over whether to rejoin the squad, which could also possibly disrupt a team who had beaten France without him. But Vilforts family insisted that he did return and Moller Nielsen included both Vilfort and Larsen in midfield to face Holland in the semi-finals.

It was a huge gamble but both were inspired. Larsen stole the headlines, and rightly so, with his two ruthlessly taken goals the first a stooping header at the back post after a tricky run from Brian Laudrup down the right, the second a first-time drive from the edge of the penalty box. But Vilforts contribution alongside Larsen was equally as impressive and no less important.

The most advanced of a three-man midfield, Vilfort traditionally an attacking-minded player was outnumbered against their Dutch counterparts, which included Frank Rijkaard and the captain, Ruud Gullit. The physical battle was huge: running, tackling and heading for 120 minutes against some of the giants of European football. Yet it was the mental battle that won the day and how Vilfort kept his emotions in check, while carrying out Nielsons tactical instructions to the letter, is beyond belief. Often Dennis Bergkamp would drop deep to receive the ball but Vilfort and Larsen (and John Jensen) formed a resolute barrier in front of their five-man defence and it was only a scrappy goal conceded from a set piece four minutes from time that prevented the Danish from winning in normal time.

Instead, with the scores at 2-2, the match went to penalties, and with Laudrup substituted, it was Larsen who stepped up first. His transformation from bench-warmer to talisman of Denmark was complete, squeezing his spot-kick past Hans van Breukelen in the Dutch goal. Vilfort, mentally and physically exhausted, would not shy away from his responsibility either, coolly tucking his penalty away, with Martin Tyler noting on the commentary that it was a penalty that got the biggest cheer of all. Knowing that his family are watching back in Denmark, that is a brilliant moment for Vilfort, whatever happens.

What did happen, of course, is that Denmark won the shootout Marco van Basten (who after his 1988 heroics had not scored all tournament) seeing his penalty saved by Peter Schmeichel. After, Vilfort would again leave the squad to see his daughter, again he was sent back by his family to play in the final and he would score the second goal in a 2-0 shock win over Germany, his socks around his ankles, a smile plastered across a well-moustached face.

But rather than that individual moment, and Larsens goals in the semi-final, it was their efforts as part of a collective team against Holland that paved the way for Denmarks triumph. Ten of the players we had in the squad either played for or had previously played for Brondby, Vilfort later said. A year before the Euros, Brondby had got to the semi-finals of the Uefa Cup that was a big thing for a Danish club. We didnt have the best players but we had the best team.

Larsen finished joint top scorer at Euro 1992. Tragically, Line would die after the tournament. Yet, Vilfort played on and he and Larsen would retire from international football at Euro 1996, together. MB

5) Francesco Toldo (Holland v Italy, 2000)

Such was the embarrassment of riches for Italy between the sticks during the 1990s, despite being one of the best goalkeepers of his generation, Francesco Toldo had earned only eight caps for Italy by the time Euro 2000 rolled around. The dominance of Gianluca Pagliuca and Angelo Peruzzi in the early years of the decade, and the emergence of a young Gianluigi Buffon later on, meant that Toldo was never seen as first choice on the international stage.

Yet when Peruzzi withdrew himself from selection after refusing to be back-up to Buffon, and Buffon broke his hand in Italys final warm-up game before Euro 2000, the 28-year-old Toldo was thrust into the starting lineup for his countrys opening group game against Turkey. However, after Antonio Conte had given Italy the lead with a magnificent overhead kick, Toldo made a serious misjudgment and came flapping for a cross but got nowhere near it, leaving Okan Buruk to head the ball into an empty net. A late Filippo Inzaghi penalty saved Toldos blushes to give Italy the win but the keeper was heartbroken over his performance and fully expected his manager (and idol growing up) Dino Zoff to replace him with Christian Abbiati for the second game against Belgium.

Zoff stuck by Toldo and it proved an inspired decision as Italy won their remaining two matches to top the group and beat Romania in the quarter-finals to set up a scorching semi-final with the hosts, Holland, at the Amsterdam Arena. After beating the World Cup winners France to top Group D, and thrashing Yugoslavia 6-1 in their quarter-final, Holland were widely seen as favourites to beat Italy and win the tournament on home turf, with Dennis Bergkamp and Patrick Kluivert forming a formidable attack.

What happened next was one of the great defensive displays in international football. When Gianluca Zambrotta was sent off for a second bookable offence in the 34th minute, Italian hearts sunk. Holland were awarded the softest of penalties for a foul on Kluivert moments later and the inevitable looked certain. But, as Frank de Boer smashed an excellent spot-kick low just inside the left post, Toldo extended his 6ft 5in frame and somehow tipped his effort wide, before leaping in the air in celebration as though he himself had scored. It was a beautiful save. Shortly after the break, Holland were awarded another penalty. Again, they missed: Kluivert crashing his effort against the post.

Frustration in the Holland camp grew during the second half, as each time they crossed the ball, Toldo collected it cleanly. It was his voice that could be heard above those of Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Nesta and Fabio Cannavaro in front of him as the game moved into extra time. Pinned back, Italy withstood wave after wave of attacks, with Toldo making another excellent stop from Clarence Seedorf. I dont know how I stopped those shots, Toldo would later admit upon picking up his man-of-the-match award. But it would be the penalty shootout where the former waiter would make himself a hero, again saving from De Boer and then from Paul Bosvelt the latter a particularly spectacular stop low to his right while Jaap Stam blazed another well over the bar. Exhausted but jubilant, Italy were somehow through to the final.

Of the five penalties Holland took against Toldo that day, they scored only one, but whether they were saved or missed, Toldo had played his part, shouting and goading De Boer and Stam prior to their misses. Penalties are psychological things, wars between you and the attacker, Toldo explained afterwards. You have to try to unsettle your opponent. Thats why Stam missed. The script for this match was written before kick-off. They could have played for an entire day taking shots at our goal and they would never have scored.

Italy would come within a minute of beating France in the final before an injury-time equaliser from Sylvain Wiltord and an extra-time golden goal from David Trezeguet would spoil the party. But even after Italy returned home as runners up, their third-choice goalkeeper was held up as a national hero. Toldo is a giant, proclaimed the Corriere newspaper, declaring him Il nuovo Yashin. Toldo: super-goalkeeper! roared Gazzetta dello Sport. Yet, it would have been a more understated tribute that meant the most. I want to say a big thank you to Toldo, said Zoff. He did a great job. MB

6) Theodoros Zagorakis (Greece v Portugal, 2004 final)

Euro 2004 ended how it had started. Greece, the perennial underdogs, beat Portugal by a single goal in the final the same opponents they had defeated 2-1 in the tournament opener in Group A. Theodoros Zagorakis didnt provide any assists or score any goals in either game but was man of the match in both and was duly named as the Uefa player of the tournament afterwards. Save for a beautiful assist against France, in which he skipped around Bixente Lizarazu and put it on a plate for Angelo Charisteas, the former Leicester City man contributed little goal threat but was a colossus in midfield. Greece did not win the European Championship because of Zagorakis they won it because of their tactics but their captain was their best proponent of this, barking instructions at every juncture and keeping the defensive shape designed by Otto Rehhagel. Greeces run was no fluke, they had topped their qualifying group, ahead of Spain, and had a simple, effective way of playing: a strong, physical defence, a hard-working three-man midfield and a tall strike partnership, capable of making the most from set pieces.

The final was a dreadful game. Greece took the lead shortly after half-time, Charisteas nodding in a corner. From there on in, Zagorakis tore around the pitch like a man possessed, snapping at the heels of Deco, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lus Figo. The Portuguese would have only two golden chances, squandered by Figo and Ronaldo, but Greece would not be denied. Team spirit is not something that can be defined easily but in every underdog story it is there in spades. We proved once again that the Greek soul is, and always will be, our strength. It is the greatest gift that God ever gave us, Zagorakis said, fighting back tears. MB

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