Euro 2008 - The Forgotten Tournament | @Alfieeswilson

The Euros/UEFA European Championships are always a pretty special competitions. Each tournament has significant European footballing stories to tell, but 2008 is often a forgotten summer. @Alfieeswilson has decided to re-explore UEFA Euro 2008 as Austria & Switzerland hosted...

As the ball squirmed through Scott Carson’s arms on that sodden night at Wembley in 2007, thousands of fans’ flights to Austria went down the drain. England had failed to qualify for a major tournament for the first time since the World Cup in 1994, going out to Russia and their already-qualified opponents that day, Croatia. Little did they know that Euro 2008, co-hosted by Switzerland and Austria, would match both Euro 2000 and 2004 as a fantastic tournament and perhaps even surpass it.  

The reason why it is a forgotten tournament is quite simple - not only did England themselves not qualify, but, to diminish interest further, there were no representatives from the British Isles (I know Irish people hate this term, but there seems to be no alternative, apologies) at a tournament for the first time since Euro '84, with the Republic of Ireland being the representatives at the World Cup in 1994. At least World Cups in 1994, but also 1974 and ’78 with Scotland’s qualification, are much more widely remembered in England, at least in part due to home representation. 

However, if one does indeed have few memories of Euro 2008, or didn’t watch it out of spite, then they will have missed out on a tournament which had all of the classic brilliant ingredients - great games, standout performances, comebacks, and, most importantly, goals. Lots of goals. Hopefully, this article serves as a comprehensive summary of it. 

The first fun bit of the tournament was a remarkable anomaly in the tournament draw - each team from Pot 2 was drawn into 2nd position in a group, each side from Pot 3 into 3rd position in a group and the same with Pot 4, the chance of this occurrence was 1/96. The group stages themselves were brilliant affairs. Arranged in the much more fan-friendly, paired-venues format, the pairs of Basel and Geneva, Vienna and Klagenfurt, Zürich and Berne and Innsbruck and Salzburg were no more than three hours apart by car, with all of the pairs facilitated by fast and easy direct train routes typical of the Alpine nations. Lapping up gorgeous lager in the fresh and lush alpine scenery, it surely will have been a tournament to remember to all fans that travelled. 

Group A had the comebacks. Going down to Czech Republic in the opener, with star forward Alexander Frei going off due to injury, Switzerland took the lead in their must-not-lose encounter vs Turkey, in a match dubbed the 'Bath of Basel', due to the incessant rain, after Hakan Yakin stabbed home after a cutback stopped in its tracks due to the sodden pitch. Turkey however, in a satisfyingly turquoise-heavy away kit, levelled in the second half before Arda Turan delivered a 92nd minute winner, with a deflected shot looping over the helpless Diego Benaglio. With Portugal winning an evenly matched group, this led to a showdown for 2nd place between Czech Republic and Turkey in Geneva, a game again affected by intense thunderstorms butchering the pitch. The two sides went into the game with an identical record; thus, a draw would’ve led to the first penalty shootout decider in a group stage encounter at a Euros. With the Czechs 2-0 with 15 minutes remaining, legendary keeper Petr Čech made two uncharacteristic errors in the 75th and  87th minute, the latter dropping a cross into the feet of captain Nihat Kahveci to level home. The game look destined for penalties before a threaded pass and failed offside trap by the Czech defence allowed Nihat to slam home a finish off the bar and in, causing bedlam in the Turkish end. It would not be the last of their late comebacks at the tournament. 

The 'Bath of Basel' shown here

Group B had the surprises. Germany and Croatia comfortably saw off Poland and a valiant Austria, the latter with some of their own fans calling for them to boycott the tournament due to the potential drubbings they may have suffered. They ended with a respectable goal difference of -2 and 1 point. In the encounter between Die Mannschaft and the Vatreni in Klagenfurt, a Slaven Bilić inspired Croatian side shocked the tournament favourites and ran out 2-1 winners, one of the goals admittedly coming off a clanger from Jens Lehmann. Croatia would thus meet Turkey, and Germany would meet Portugal in their respective quarter finals. 

Group C was the graveyard of the fallen giants. Rightfully labelled the Group of Death going into the tournament, containing the two 2006 World Cup finalists in Italy and France, alongside a rejuvenated Dutch side and a Romania side who finished above the Netherlands in their qualifying group, beating the Oranje 1-0 in Constanța. France were dire in their opener against Romania, drawing 0-0, meanwhile a Dutch side in full flow under coach Marco van Basten tore Italy to shreds in Berne to win 3-0, spearheaded by inspired performances from Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart. The Dutch then proceeded to destroy France in the next encounter, picking off a shambolic defence on the counter with Raymond Domenech helpless to stop it, including a glorious dipping long ranger from Wesley Sneijder to round off a 4-1 win. Italy scraped a 1-1 draw against Romania in another apathetic display and were lucky not to lose entirely after Adrian Mutu’s penalty was saved by Gigi Buffon. The Netherlands again ran out comfortable winners in the final group match against Romania, and with 3 emphatic wins from 3 looked like strong contenders to win the tournament. Two set piece goals from the Azzurri got them past France in Zürich to finish in 2nd behind the Dutch. 

Robben, Sneijder and van Bronckhorst celebrate the win

Group D was the crucible of emerging contenders. Holders Greece were undone by a Zlatan Ibrahimović worldie in their opener, meanwhile Spain, under the stewardship of the demanding and charismatic Luis Aragonés, battered Russia - David Villa scoring the first hat-trick at a Euros since Patrick Kluivert against FR Yugoslavia in 2000. A late winner from the same player saw off Sweden in the 92nd minute before a rotated side comfortably dispatched Greece to make it 3 wins from 3. Russia, learning from their defensive mistakes against Spain, beat Sweden 2-0 in the 2nd place decider in Salzburg to meet the Dutch in the quarters, meanwhile Spain faced old foes Italy, a side they had never beaten at a major tournament. 

The knockout stage was unlike previous editions. Firstly, teams in groups A and B were separated from teams in groups C and D until the final, meaning that teams from the same group could meet again in the semis. Further, only two venues were used - St. Jakob Park in Basel and the Ernst Happel Stadion in Vienna, leading to even worse pitch surfaces as the tournament progressed, the former having to be re-laid in between groups and knockouts as it was so bad. 

In the quarters, Portugal and Germany played out another classic in Basel, Die Mannschaft running out 3-2 despite the fresh pitch turning into a quagmire as the game wore on. Two goals from two teasing set pieces, which lured out Ricardo for Klose and Ballack to prod home into an empty net sealed the win, in a performace featuring all of Germany’s best elements under Joachim Löw; explosiveness from Podolski supported by creativity from Ballack and Schweinsteiger who joined the forward line. In the other Basel quarter, another romp, an end to end game between the Dutch and Russia finished 1-1 at full time, but with the Dutch late equaliser buoying them on to attack recklessly, a savvy Russia led by a Dutchman in Guus Hiddink pounced on two chances on the counter, both coming from poor errors from stalwart goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar, giving them a surprise 3-1 victory. 

Over the border in Vienna, Turkey and Croatia played out a turgid 0-0 for 115 minutes before the game exploded. Rüştü Reçber, the Turkish backup goalkeeper who came in for Volkan Demirel (suspended during a brawl which broke out in injury time vs Czech Republic) inexplicably wandered out of his goal to close down Luka Modrić on the right side of the box, whose dinked ball into the penalty area allowed Ivan Klasnić to nod into an empty net. With 119 minutes on the clock, this seemed to be the end of it. Croatian substitutes were on the pitch celebrating when Turkey launched one final Hail Mary into the box in the 122nd minute, and with the ball ricocheting off the three panicked Croatian players who went for the same header, the ball fell to super-sub Semih Şentürk to rifle home into the top corner. Shocked by the late goal, Croatia fell apart in the shootout, converting only one of their four penalties as Turkey produced another improbable victory, with Reçber going from zero to hero saving Mladen Petrić’s penalty. 

Two days later, Spain and Italy played out another tense encounter. Deadlock after 120 minutes. Dani Güiza, the winner of the pichichi in the 07/08 season (the 1st Spanish winner since 2002) missed the chance to give Spain match point with the 4th penalty- “don’t worry Dani - don’t worry, I’ll save the next one for you!” roars Casillas as Güiza headed back to the group. Save from Di Natale he did, leaving Cesc Fàbregas to fire them into the semis. Spain, for the first time in history, beat Italy at a major tournament, broke their quarter final curse for the first time since 1984, and won a penalty shootout for the first time at a Euros since 1984. They got the monkey off their back in many aspects. 
Spain players swarm penalty hero Casillas

Basel was then host to yet another classic in the semi, and yet another 3-2. The brutal storms returned to cause the TV signal to be lost for 20 minutes, wreaking havoc in the International Broadcast Centre. On the pitch, another Lehmann howler gifted Turkey the lead, but a glorious flicked finish from Schweinsteiger levelled the scores before the break. Klose scored a near carbon copy of his goal vs Portugal, with a deep, flat, floated cross from Lahm luring out Reçber for Klose to prod home into an empty net. Semih Şentürk looked to have took the game to extra time at 2-2 with a stabbed finish at the near post, after a cross which bobbled on the meeting point of two grass panels. But a surging run from Philipp Lahm, finding the energy out of nowhere, after a one-two with Simon Rolfes, with a needle-threading second pass to find the onrushing Lahm, swiped the ball home into the top corner in the 90th minute. 

In the other semi, Russia ran out of steam and were eventually wore down by an electric Spain, playing off superstitions about their change colour of yellow (Aragonés was said to have sent players home from training camps if they turned up in yellow) - Xavi, Dani Güiza and David Silva getting the goals in a convincing 3-0 win. La Roja were sumptuous to watch and started to find the edge at just the right time. 

Lahm wheels away in celebration after firing Die Mannschaft into the final 

In the final, the game was dominated by half chances in the opening half hour, the closest a goal came was from a clipped ball toward the far post which Fernando Torres powered down onto the base of the post, as well as a dubious hand ball decision against Joan Capdevila being turned down. The deadlock was broken in the 33rd minute after a through ball from Xavi, whose pass was heavily controlled by Torres. Lehmann, with another error of judgement, came out to try and swipe the ball clear, but a youthful and pacey Torres got to the ball ahead of him, dinking the ball over a sprawling Lehmann which just crept into the far corner. Spain continued to play with attacking verve in the second half - if any side came close to getting another goal it was them. But in their origins of Tiki Taka, Germany couldn’t get near a Spain side to whom possession of the ball was food and drink. To quote Graham Hunter, “Spain kept the ball like a personal secret”. 

Spain lift the trophy aloft

A first trophy since 1964 for the Spanish, and their first without the shade of Francoist controversy clouding the achievement. For them, and for a brilliant, memorable tournament, it was one more round of belting out the Verdi’s triumphal March on another rain-soaked pitch, and goodnight Vienna... 

Graham Hunters ‘Spain- The inside story of La Roja’s historic treble’ is a great book for more fun stories on the tournament.

This piece was written for @TFHBs by Alfie Wilson, find him here: @alfieeswilson 

Our book is available to buy here!

©The Football History Boys, 2020
(All pictured borrowed kindly & not owned by TFHB)


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