England left behind at the starting gate

The European Championship has grown from unpromising beginnings into an event second only to the World Cup. Ken Jones reports
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The Independent Online
Shortly before England and West Germany met in Berlin for a place in the 1972 European Championship semi-finals, Helmut Schon learned to his disappointment that Alf Ramsey was characteristically unmoved by a clamour for new faces.

Reflecting on the advantage of a 3-1 victory in the first leg at Wembley two weeks earlier, West Germany's manager said, "Of course, I thought it unlikely, but if Ramsey had chosen a team to attack us, the one I'm told England newspapers have been demanding, we would have won easily, maybe scored four or five goals."

A 0-0 draw left Ramsey facing the ridiculous charge of being concerned solely with saving face, the atmosphere afterwards so bitter that a couple of England players had to be restrained from aiming blows at reporters.

If time was running out for Ramsey, who lost his job after failing to qualify England for the 1974 World Cup finals, Schon was approaching the zenith of his career. Inspired by Franz Beckenbauer's imaginative sorties out of defence and with Gunther Netzer, however briefly, in peak form, West Germany beat the Soviet Union 3-0 in the final, and won the World Cup in their homeland two years later. "Winning the World Cup was my greatest thrill," Schon would say in retirement, "but I think the team of 1972 was the best I ever sent out, fulfilling all my expectations with that marvellous win at Wembley."

In view of England's unimpressive record in major tournaments - apart from 1966 they have only once got as far as the last four in the World Cup and never contested a European Championship final - it is interesting to recall that the Germans feared them. "I suppose we had grown up with the idea of England being a great power in football and that was strengthened when they beat us in 1966. I remember vividly how we felt in 1972, sitting in the dressing-room before the game, thinking that we would be extremely fortunate to win against such a powerful team."

That year saw the beginning of Germany's rise to pre-eminence in European football. They reached the next two finals, losing on penalties to Czechoslovakia in 1976 and defeating Belgium 2-1 four years later. Surprisingly, they squandered home advantage in 1988 but reached the final again in 1992 when they lost to Denmark.

Launched in 1958 as the European Nations Cup - typically, England were not among the 17 countries who entered (the Republic of Ireland were put out by Czechoslovakia in a preliminary round), the European Championship was won first by the Soviet Union, who had the great Lev Yashin in goal when they defeated Yugoslavia 2-1 after extra time in Paris.

It was not the most auspicious of starts. Held in France in July, the latter stage of the championship excited no great interest, the final played under floodlights at the Parc des Princes attracting only 17,966 spectators. British newspapers practically ignored it.

England were among the 29 nations who entered for the next championship, beginning in 1962, but were more or less on their way out when Alf Ramsey took over shortly after they had been held to a 1-1 draw by France in Sheffield. A new manager, but for England the same old story - a 5-2 defeat when the teams met again in Paris.

Although the Dutch were not yet a power in the game, their elimination by Luxembourg was the championship's first sensation. Having agreed to play both matches on Dutch soil, Luxembourg drew 1-1 in Amsterdam and proved it was no fluke by winning 2-1 in Rotterdam a month later.

Making the second of four appearances in the final, the Soviet Union were fancied to defeat Spain in Madrid when Marcelino sent a diving header past Yashin with only five minutes of normal time left.

In attempting to qualify for the 1968 finals, the four British teams were allowed to play all in the same group, simultaneously with the British Championship. A new set of regulations split entrants into eight groups. The eight group winners would then contest the quarter-finals in four two-leg ties, with four winners going forward to the final tournament in Italy.

Back-to-back victories over Spain suggested that England would add the European crown to their world championship but the warm-up that brought their first ever defeat by West Germany proved a bad omen.

Seven members of the World Cup-winning team turned out against Yugoslavia in Florence but England lost a bitterly contested match when Dragan Dzajic outjumped Bobby Moore to head the only goal shortly before half- time. And with two minutes left, Alan Mullery became the first England player to be sent off at senior level.

Italy defeated Yugoslavia 2-0 in a replayed final and it would be 22 years before England again got as close to winning a major championship.

A dubious second-half penalty awarded to Yugoslavia prevented Wales from reaching the semi-finals in 1976, where probably they would have faced the eventual runners-up, West Germany.

West Germany further strengthened their reputation in 1980 when making a third consecutive appearance in the final, Horst Hrubesch's two goals securing a 2-1 victory over Belgium. England, who finished third in their final group behind Belgium and Italy, were left only with the embarrassment caused when gangs of their supporters rioted in Turin.

In the 1984 championship, one name stood out. Michel Platini. He led France with guile and style, saving his best appropriately for the final against Spain in Paris, scoring one of the goals in a 2-0 victory. If Bobby Robson's failure to qualify England was a miserable experience for the new manager worse was to follow four years later.

By then the European Championship had grown to match even the World Cup in importance, attracting large crowds to Germany's stadiums and extensive television coverage. The Netherlands had a team to compare with that which reached two consecutive World Cup finals in the Seventies. Now there was Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit, Ronald Koeman and Frank Rijkaard.

Having outplayed England in Group Two of the final tournament, they met West Germany in the semi- finals and gained a joyfully received 2-1 victory that avenged a loss to their neighbours in the 1974 World Cup final. The Soviet Union had impressed with their craft and pace but proved no match for the Dutch in the final.

Pilloried in newspapers and on television after England lost all three of their matches, Robson thought seriously about resigning but remained, almost reaching the 1990 World Cup final.

Two years later Denmark staged the most remarkable campaign in European Championship history. Replacing Yugoslavia at the last minute, Denmark had to summon players back from holiday and had no time for concentrated preparation. Three points in Group One got them through to the semi-finals, where they kept their nerve to defeat the Netherlands in a penalty shoot- out. Even so, few imagined them capable of the 2-0 defeat they inflicted on Germany in the final.

For England it was another disaster, the criticism Graham Taylor had to endure hinting he would serve but briefly as national team manager.