Liam Togher – the Republic of Ireland, 1988
England’s 1966 World Cup winner Jack Charlton was the man who guided the Republic of Ireland to their first major tournament, the 1988 European Championships, and destiny would decree that the Irish would make their debut on the big stage by taking on his native country.
Ireland were rank outsiders against the England of Gary Lineker, Bryan Robson and John Barnes. The deadlock was broken on six minutes – except Peter Shilton and not Packie Bonner was the goalkeeper glumly retrieving the ball from the back of his net.
Kenny Sansom’s sliced clearance fell nicely for John Aldridge to nod it on to Ray Houghton, who promptly looped a header over Shilton and into the net to give Ireland a shock lead. As a favourite chant of Irish football fans goes: “Who put the ball in the English net? Houghton, Houghton!” Ireland held out comfortably until half-time, but the second half saw an onslaught towards Bonner Luckily for Charlton’s side, Lineker was uncharacteristically fluffing chances left, right and centre.
The Irish held firm for a victory that, 32 years on, is still treasured as perhaps its second finest football moment, trumped only by reaching the quarter-finals of their first World Cup two years later.
Pete Spencer – Denmark, 1992
It would’ve made a great film. A team at the start of a competition, dreaming of success, only to find their dreams dashed at the last. But just as they feared it was all over, a late reprieve sees them get to the finals. They go onto win it. Nice story but would never happen in real life. Oh yeah?
October 1990 and Denmark had a new generation as they embarked on qualifying for Euro ’92. No Olsen’s, Lerby or Elkjaer, but they had the Laudrup brothers. In qualifying, they finished a point behind Yugoslavia, a draw in Belfast ultimately costing them.
Ten days before the tournament was due to kick-off, UEFA banned Yugoslavia from competitive football. The Danish players had to be dragged from the beach to get ready for a tournament they’d long believed they would play no part in. 27 days later they shocked the world by lifting the trophy.
They only won two matches, in normal time, but the most important one was the Final against overwhelming favourites, Germany. Goals from John Jensen and Kim Vilfort went down in folklore and the legend will live on forever.
Rob Fletcher – France, 2000
France had not hit full flow in Euro 2000. Second in the group to the imperious Netherlands, they managed to qualify for the final. Facing Italy, who had stifled the Dutch, the World Cup holders found themselves a goal down in the second half. By the 92nd minute, the Italians were ready to celebrate. Substitute Sylvain Wiltord saw to that, as his shot squirmed underneath Francesco Toldo. Extra time loomed.
The Italians, defending resolutely, struggled to hold on. As time ticked towards half time in extra time, a defensive mix up allowed the ball to squirm to Robert Pires. Pires dummied one challenge and hurdled another as he drove towards the box. He got to the byline and lifted in a great cross. David Trezeguet was waiting.
The number 20 made himself a yard in the box. The ball bounced towards him. He lifted his left leg for the half volley. It flew into the back of the net past the despairing Toldo. France victorious. France had confirmed their status as the best team in the world and the first to win the World Cup and the European Championships back to back since the indomitable West Germany side of 1974.
Dan Clubbe – Wales, 2016
When Wales qualified for their first European Championships in 2016, nobody would have anticipated what was to come during a magical two weeks across France. A squad made up primarily of League One and Championship players, sprinkled with star quality in the shape of Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, almost achieved the impossible. Not since Greece in 2004 have such an underestimated collective of players come so close to Euro glory.
After defeat at the hands of the enemy from across the border in the group stages, the Wales team never looked back. Under the stewardship of Chris Coleman, they created a culture of unity and enjoyment, taking thousands of patriotic Welsh supporters along for the ride.
The spirit within the group carried them all the way to a semi-final, where they were finally eliminated by eventual winners Portugal. A 3-1 win over much-fancied Belgium in the quarter-final, will be the pinnacle of some of this squads careers. When Hal Robson Kanu turned inside the Belgian penalty area, in doing so sent Marouane Fellaini and Thomas Meunier for a copy of L’equipe, a nation rejoiced. This moment epitomised a truly remarkable fortnight, memories made that the players and fans will never forget.
David Nesbit – Antonin Panenka, 1976
Not many players get a specific move named after them but perhaps one of the most obvious exceptions is Antonin Panenka. In 1976, Panenka was playing his club football for Bohemians Praha while appearing as a regular in the Czechoslovakian national side. Czechoslovakia qualified for the final stages of the European Championships where they beat the Soviet Union in the quarter-finals and the Netherlands in the semi-finals.
The final saw a match-up with West Germany in Belgrade, and after a 2-2 draw the first-ever penalty shoot-out to decide a European Championship was required. The first seven kicks were converted and then something amazing happened – A German player missed from the spot! This left Panenka just needing to convert to win the trophy for the Czechs.
Rather than attempting to either blast the kick or else place it in a corner as is kind of traditional, Panenka strode up to the ball, let West Germany’s ‘keeper, Sepp Maier, ever-so-slightly commit himself, and then simply chipped the ball softly down the middle.A legend was thus born. Many have attempted the same since – some have been quite successful and others not so much – but Panenka’s name lives on in legend.
James Young – Turkey, 2008
When you think of the greatest moments of the Euros, the same ones always get talked about. I feel like I have seen Paul Gascoigne’s goal against Scotland so many times I was there, and the same applies to Stuart Pearce’s penalty against Spain. Euro 96′ was good but can we please stop talking about it – please.
One Euro tournament that England didn’t qualify for was Euro 2008, and a side that often gets forgotten about that did extraordinarily well in that version of the Euros was Turkey. The Turks were unfancied going into their third ever Euros, and a poor start after a 2-0 defeat in their first game of the group to Portugal looked as if they would be going out at the first hurdle. A tough group that contained co-hosts Switzerland and a strong Czech Republic side would be a difficult challenge. However, Turkey managed to see off both of those sides with goals in added time to go through to the quarter-final where they would face Croatia.
This where things start to get a bit mad. After a boring and stale 90 minutes, the game headed to extra time and in the 119th minute, Croatia took the lead through a goalkeeping mistake from Rüştü Reçber. Surely that would be Turkey out? No. Incredibly, literally straight from kick-off, seconds after Croatia had scored they conceded a free-kick deep inside Turkey’s half. Reçber sent the ball long into the Croatia half and it bounced into the path of Semih Şentürk who sent the game to penalties with the last kick of the game with a volley. Incredible. Turkey ended up winning the shoot-out in one of the most dramatic games in Euro history. They would lose to Germany in the semi-finals but their run is remembered fondly by Turkish football fans
James Bolam – Gazza, 1996
For me, the mid-nineties was a great time. I was in my teens and had left school. The political world seemed to be changing for the better. After years of Tory rule, a Labour government looked a formality. Music was good too. Britpop was in full swing and the charts were full of great music for a change. Oasis were the biggest band in Britain and by far the best in the world at the time. A wave of optimism prevailed.
On top of the above, there was also a European Championship in 1996 and it was at home. It’s easy to fall into the trap of romanticising this tournament. England’s relative success aside, it wasn’t a vintage championship. Stadiums were rarely full with interest outside of England and Scotland sparse. The empty seats in the stadiums highlighted that. But if you were English, the greatest European Championship moment came against Scotland at Wembley.
Scotland got a penalty that if it had gone in, England may well have struggled to get out the group. Seaman saved and what happened next was one of the greatest goals the championships have ever seen. Gazza picked up a pass and flicked it over Colin Hendry’s head and hit it on the volley past Goram. It was a superb piece of skill and perfect in its execution. The kind of goal only he could score. As he lay on the pitch as water was sprayed into his mouth to stick two fingers up to the tabloids, a 17-year-old me went crazy in the pub. It was a great time to be alive. It was coming home.
Rodney McCain – The Netherlands, 1988
Holland is a small country in north-west Europe that had no football pedigree at all, until a visionary by the name of Rinus Michels introduced the world to “Total Football” in the early 1970s. A pass-heavy tactical plan, which depended on every player in the team being technically gifted enough to be both comfortable in possession of the football, and comfortable in every position on the pitch.
Led by the genius of Ajax master Johan Cruyff, the “Oranje” dominated international football for eight years- but crucially failed to win a major tournament to underline their total superiority on the park. That unhappy statistic was erased in West Germany at Euro 1988. Having failed to even qualify for a major tournament since losing the 1978 World Cup Final to hosts Argentina, the Dutch took the 1988 European Championships by storm, fittingly led by Michels once more. With players of the calibre of Ronald Koeman, Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard and lethal hitman Marco van Basten in the side, the Dutch swept all before them, despite losing their opening Group game to the Soviet Union.
The crunch game came in the semi-final, where Michels’ men met the Germans. Trailing a Lothar Matthaus penalty with 15 minutes remaining, an equalising penalty by Koeman and a last-gasp winner from van Basten carried Oranje into the decider… against the Soviets! Could they avenge that earlier defeat?
The answer was emphatic, against possibly the strongest team the Soviets ever possessed. Gullit gave the Dutch a deserved lead on the half-hour mark, but the enduring memory of that entire tournament will forever be van Basten’s spectacular volley from the right edge of the penalty area into the opposite corner of Rinat Dasayev’s net; one of the greatest goals of all time. A wrong had been righted. The Dutch were kings of Europe at last.
Elliott Brennan – Iceland, 2016
On 27th June 2016, Iceland shocked Europe after they inflicted a stinging 2-1 defeat on England to reach the quarter-finals for the first time. It was a momentous achievement for a country that had a population of no more than 350,000 at the time. In the build-up to Iceland’s greatest moment in their football history, they came second in a group which consisted of Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal, Marco Arnautović’s and David Alaba’s Austria and a surprisingly resilient Hungary team. UEFA’s revamped group algorithm meant Iceland would also face second-placed England in the last 16.
A core element to Iceland’s unexpected triumph was their ability to win through strength in numbers. Upon entering their last 16 showdown with England, they had four different goal scorers – Birkir Bjarnason, Gylfi Sigurðsson, Jón Daði Böðvarsson and Arnór Ingvi Traustason. This expanded to six, with Ragnar Sigurðsson and Kolbeinn Sigþórsson scoring the two goals that overcame their opponents.
Their remarkable story was eventually halted by hosts France, however. The Les Blues did not repeat England’s mistake and France comfortably ended Iceland’s Euro 2016 in a 5-2 victory.
Iceland returned home to a hero’s welcome. Their trademark Icelandic ‘Viking Thunder Clap’, which roared throughout their campaign, erupted on the streets of Reykjavik. While they did not have had a trophy to flaunt at their celebratory parade, they had undoubtedly united a country together.
Liam Baxter – Henrik Larsson, 2004
Arguments will always be had over the greatest small joy in football – a dog on the pitch; an outfield player going in goal; the brief moment of calm between a goalkeeper parrying a shot and an incoming striker smashing home the rebound. For me, there is nothing more breathtaking than watching a clinically executed diving header play out in real-time.
Voted goal of the tournament, Henrik Larsson notched a brace in Sweden’s 5-0 rout of Bulgaria at Euro 2004. The first, a textbook demonstration of precise body control, quick thinking and a cultured first touch. In this Shaolin Soccer-esque exhibition of footballing wizardry, Larsson flew as if suspended by stunt wires, and connected with an Erik Edman cross to dispatch the ball low and authoritatively past the helpless Bulgarian keeper. Two years on from international retirement, Henrik Larsson’s bullet header – both novel and sublime – was the spectacular culmination of 140,000 petition signatures and a Prime Ministerial request to return reimbursed in one fell swoop.
Watching back sixteen years later evokes this sense of childlike glee within me, vividly recalling as I sat cross-legged on my Star Wars duvet covers glued to the BBC coverage, inhaling Skips.
Roddy Cairns – Greece, 2004
Greece were only supposed to be at Euro 2004 to make up the numbers. Rank outsiders appearing at only their second ever European Championships, few expected the Ethniki to get out of a group of death that contained Spain, Russia and hosts Portugal.
The Greeks spoiled the party by defeating Portugal 2-1 in the curtain-raiser, then squeaked through their group on goal difference with 4 points. Wins against holders France and the Czech Republic’s golden generation followed, before a fittingly stodgy 1-0 victory against the Portuguese in the final sealed a Herculean triumph. The real joy of Greece’s success was that it was achieved with a very ordinary squad, perfectly drilled by the veteran German coach Otto Rehhagel. Their heroes that summer were the likes of captain Theo Zagorakis (who had struggled to get a game for Leicester), Stelios Giannakopoulos (part of Allardyce’s army of castoffs at Bolton Wanderers), and Angelos Charisteas (who had scored just 4 games for Werder Bremen that season).
Their football could be industrial, pragmatic and just downright ugly, but they successfully outlasted the combined talents of Torres, Zidane, Nedved and Ronaldo. In doing so, they gave hope to all of Europe’s lesser lights that major trophies were not (quite) impossible.