By Tom Victor
This is the first international match in our series and what a corker it is. A fary cry from the tedious tripe which was all too prevalent in South Africa, this one is a thrilling end-to-end affair. Admire the moves, the goals and some world-class saves from a match which literally had everything. You can follow Tom on Twitter @tomvictor and read more of his work at his Footy Matters column.
I have maintained for some time that the bulk of the criticism levelled at the 2010 World Cup came from the fact that we were spoiled so much by the three major tournaments which preceded it. Euro 2008 had the thrilling semi-final between Germany and Turkey, while two years earlier Jose Pekerman’s Argentina gave a footballing lesson to Serbia and Montenegro in one of the best attacking displays in recent memory. And these competitions were by no means defined by those single matches alone: in Germany and just across the border in Austria and Switzerland we saw a month-long display of top quality football, dismissing the myths that international tournaments did not represent the highest stage for a whole host of players.
2006 and 2008 were brilliant, but you have to go back a little further to find my favourite match.
A truly great game should be played out at breakneck speed, involve two well-matched teams without the rivals cancelling each other out, have controversial talking points, not to mention plenty of goalmouth action of the highest quality. Czech Republic v Holland at Euro 2004 had all of this and more.
After one match in the group of death, the Czechs had edged past outsiders Latvia while a late Ruud van Nistelrooy equaliser helped rescue a point for Dick Advocaat’s side against a Germany side for whom that 1-1 draw would prove a high-point.
Karel Bruckner’s squad took on the mantle of dark horses despite most observers beyond the mainstream media recognising them as far more than that. Jan Koller had finished the season with his best ever Bundesliga tally of 16 goals, Karel Poborsky was enjoying a renaissance at Sparta Prague, and Pavel Nedved was playing some of the best football of his career. There was also an intriguing side-plot set to develop, with Petr Cech lining up against Arjen Robben. The duo were set to join Chelsea after the competition as a parting gift from Claudio Ranieri, and their performances here would give a taste of things to come for the future English champions.
The Dutch may have lost out to Bruckner’s men in qualification, earning the Czechs a modicum of revenge for their Euro 2000 defear but a 6-1 playoff victory over Scotland demonstrated that there were goals in this side. Ruud van Nistelrooy had found the net 30 times for Manchester United in the season prior, and he was flanked by Robben and Internazionale winger Andy van der Meyde in an exciting front three.
The Czechs will have been well aware of their opponents’ firepower, but could hardly have expected the Oranje to get off to as fast and clinical a start as they did. Koller and Marek Jankulovski had already had time to miss a couple of presentable chances before Robben’s 4th-minute free-kick was headed in at the back post by an unmarked Wilfried Bouma.
And almost before their shell-shocked opponenents had time to settle, a controversial second followed. Van Nistelrooy was clearly beyond the last Czech defender when Edgar Davids found Robben with a precision through-ball, but took full advantage of the newly-implemented ‘separate phases’ element to the offside rule and ambled forward to tuck home his team-mate’s low cross as static defenders looked on dumbfounded.
Many teams might have given up when trailing the Dutch by two goals not twenty minutes into the game, opting for damage-limitation ahead of a winnable third tie against an aging German side, but the Czechs were in the mood for no such thing. Indeed the sense of injustice brought on by van Nistelrooy’s goal – whether warranted or not – may have been just what they needed to wake from their slumber.
Of course the comeback was helped by a misplaced pass from Gio van Bronckhorst a couple of minutes later. That error let in Milan Baros, the archetype of a player who saves his best performances for the big occasions, burst forward before keeping his cool with Edwin van der Sar closing in to feed Koller, and the lumbering striker slotted home to halve the deficit.
Some stunning saves from van der Sar and Cech followed, as both defences appeared to sit back and admire their respective opponents’ attacking flair, the pick of them from the former Rennes number one to tip over Johnny Heitinga’s rising 30-yard effort. There was even time for Davids to smack a low shot against the inside of Cech’s left-hand post before the half was up.
After the break Cech kept his side in it once more, denying van Nistelrooy with his feet, while at the other end Nedved and Poborsky were plugging away with plenty of skill but little reward. Not long later it was van der Sar’s turn, preventing a near-certain equaliser from Vladimir Smicer with a fingertip save. The two goalkeepers were as flamboyant as they were busy, and it would clearly take something special to add to the three goals the game had brought so far.
That special moment arrived with 20 minutes left on the clock, and epitomised everything Bruckner’s Czech Republic side were about. Nedved cut inside from the left to swing in an inch-perfect cross, Koller played a cushioned chest-pass of which Ronaldinho would be proud. It fell perfectly for the advancing Baros and the Liverpool striker rifled a shot into the top corner with such ferocity that even a parked bus could not have stopped it.
Even with the score tantalisingly poised at 2-2, tension was never going to overcome these two attacking powerhouses. A game of chicken ensued, with neither side prepared to sit back and let the opposition come on to them, which of course was an absolute treat to everyone watching.
The pace was too much for Heitinga, who picked up his second yellow for a shove on Nedved as the winger burst forward, after which the Dutch threat was restricted somewhat and the Juve man came inches away from a winner when his 35-yard shot came back off the woodwork, but it took until the 88th minute for the dramatic winner which a game of this calibre richly deserved.
Van Bronckhorst surrendered possession in the Czech half, setting up a lightning break made even more remarkable by the energy-sapping 87 minutes which had come before it. Marek Heinz’s low shot towards the bottom corner was parried out as far as Poborsky, who proceeded to demonstrate the phenomenal calmness under pressure which saw him net the goal of the tournament at Euro 96 and a £4m move to Old Trafford that same summer.
With the winger five yards from goal and with a chance of glory, it would have been easy for Poborsky to close his eyes and hope his effort snuck past the advancing van der Sar. However, with the Dutch goalkeeper rising from sleeping lion to Schmeichel-esque star-jump in a split second, the veteran looked up and calmly squared the ball for Smicer to tap into the empty net.
The final whistle was greeted by tears of joy for the Czechs, dumbfounded shakes of the head from the Dutch, and a realisation from fans and neutrals alike that they had witnessed one of the greatest games in European Championship – if not football – history.
The statistics do not lie: 36 shots, 21 on target, and 90 minutes of end-to-end football. It was not just the excitement which makes this such a memorable game, but also the consistently-high level of football which has rarely been matched before or since.
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Much of it was made up of home grown players who are now household names such as: Danny Blind, Frank & Ronald de Boer, Patrick Kluivert, Edgar Davids, Marc Overmars, Clarence Seedorf, Edwin van der Sar etc there were also players acquired from abroad like Jari Litmanen, Finidi George and Nwankwo Kanu.