The 1996 European Championships in England were a renewal to European football in many ways. Firstly, it was the first European Championships where the new off-side rules and returning the ball to the keeper were applied. Also, a victory would now give three points instead of two, all aspects promoting a more attacking football style. Another reform was the introduction of “sudden-death” in the extra-time of matches, where first goal scored would end the match, and thus avoiding the apparent lottery of a penalty kicks decision.
Also, the tournament saw a significant expansion: between 1980 and 1992 the European Championships had featured eight teams in two groups of four, where the two winners went to semifinals. In 1996 16 teams participated in four groups, where the two winners of each group would go into quarterfinals. It was thus the biggest European Championship ever.
Germany entered the tournament hungry for success after their sensational defeat to Denmark in the 1992 Euro final, and their humiliating elimination to Bulgaria in the 1994 World Cup. The team had many starts, most of all Lothar Matthaus, who had nevertheless not been called up for the tournament by coach Berti Vogts. Germany did enter the tournament as favourites with a long list of fantastic players: in defense the experienced veterans from Borussia Dortmund, Jurgen Kohler and Stefan Reuter, played alongside Bayern Munich's Thomas Helmer; in midfied Mattias Sammer and Andreas Moller, both from Borussia Dortmund, formed a strong axis alongside the veteran Thomas Hassler from Karlsruher SC, and complemented by Bayern Munich's Mehmet Scholl and Christian Ziege. Up front Jurgen Klinsmann was the undisputed striker and captain of the team.
Although Germany entered the tournament as title contenders, doubt remained about the team's cohesion after the controversy surrounding Lothar Matthaus. However, the side also seemed to thrive in such a climate. In the first round of the tournament they had been in a difficult group with the Czech Republic, Russia and Italy. After defeating the first two countries 2-0 and 3-0 respectively, 0-0 against Italy was enough to put them in the quarterfinals, where they defeated Croatia 2-1. The Germans were surely as excited about the semi-final against England as the English were, hoping to get revenge for the defeat of 1966, which they felt very much had come thanks to an illegal goal. In an intense match Germany defeated England after penalty kicks, and were going to face the surprising Czechs in the final.
The Czech Republic were participating in their first international tournament after Czechoslovakia had split into the Czech Replublic and Slovakia in 1993. When part of Czechoslovakia, the country had a proud footballing tradition, winning a European title in 1976. In qualification the Czechs had won their group ahead of the Netherlands, but few people considered them by the time the tournament started, with their side of largely home-based players, but many of whom would become household names by the end of the tournament. The team captain was Kaiserslautern's veteran Miroslav Kadlec, who alongside him had some extremely talented young players: Slavia Prague's Karel Poborsky, Radek Bejbl, Vladimir Smicer and Pavel Novotny. Also, the young Patrik Berger from Borussia Dortmund and Pavel Nedved from Sparta Prague, the last who would go on to have an extraordinary career in Italy.
In the first round the Czechs had started by losing 0-2 to Germany but had then stunned Italy by winning 2-1. This had practically sealed their progress as Italy was unable to defeat Germany in their last match, and 3-3 against Russia had been enough for the Czechs. In the quarterfinals the Czechs had defeated Portugal 1-0 on a fantastic Karel Poborsky goal, and had in the semi-finals defeated France after penalty kicks. It had been a hard-fought tournament for the Czechs, but they were now eager to repeat Denmark's sensational victory of 1992. Also, the final came 20 years after Czechoslovakia had stunned West Germany in the 1976 European Championship final.
Although Germany were favourites, the side was plagued by injuries, with even Klinsmann playing with a calf injury, and this was also a hope for the Czechs, who knew to control Matthias Sammer, one of the tournament's great players. Although a tactically controlled first half, Germany had a couple of good chances that were cleared by the Czech defense, and on the other side the German defense looked a bit shaky although the Czechs did not have as clear chances as the Germans, except for a Pavel Kuka shot that he shot straight at goalkeeper Andreas Kopke. The Germans certainly had some problems controlling Karel Poborsky, who had become the best player of the tournament. 24 minutes into the second half Poborsky made one of his characteristic runs towards goal and Matthias Sammer brought him down at the edge of the German penalty area. While the foul had been outside the penalty area, the referee awarded the Czechs a penalty which Patrik Berger scored on.
The sensation was half an hour away, and Berti Vogts did not have many cards to play. With 20 minutes to go he brought in the Udineses striker Oliver Bierhoff for the creative Mehmet Scholl. Bierhoff had been a substitute throughout the tournament, but only four minutes after he entered the match he got ahead of the Czech defense after a Christian Ziege free-kick and equalized for Germany.
1-1 and the match had to go into extra time. It only took five minutes before Oliver Bierhoff became the hero for Germany: receiving the ball inside the Czech area he turned and shot between two defenders. The shot was not particularly hard, but it grazed a defender and went around Petr Kouba. First goal, first winner, and there was nothing more to play for.
Germany were champions.
Referee: Pierluigi Pairetto
Germany-Czech Republic 2-1 (aet)
Germany: Andreas Kopke; Thomas Helmer, Matthias Sammer, Mehmet Scholl (Oliver Bierhoff, 69), Thomas Hassler, Steffan Kuntz, Markus Babbel, Christian Ziege, Thomas Strunz, Jurgen Klinsmann (c), Dieter Ellis (Marco Bode, 46). Coach: Berti Vogts
Czech Republic: Petr Kouba; Jan Suchparek, Pavel Nedved, Miroslav Kadlec (c), Jiri Nemec, Karel Poborsky, Pavel Kuka, Radek Bejbl, Patrik Berger, Michal Hornak, Karel Rada. Coach: Dusan Uhrin.
1-0 Patrik Berger (59) (pen)
1-1 Oliver Bierhoff (73)
2-1 Oliver Bierhoff (95) (gg)
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