Football matches come, of course, in all shapes and sizes – the critically important and the relatively inconsequential, local derbies steeped in decades of mutual loathing and round-trips which measure thousands of miles and have never been undertaken before. Occasionally, though, context isn’t everything. Every once in a while, a match can suck an audience in entirely on its own merits and spit you out the other side with a grin the size of the Wembley arch. The presumed importance of the match in a broader sense becomes overwhelmed by the immediacy of the passion play of the moment, and these matches can stand tall, as exhibits of the intoxicating majesty that football can offer.
The European Championships of 1984 were presumed not to matter very much to a British television audience by the broadcasters. None of the home nations had qualified for it, and the commercial network ITV even decided to abandon all coverage of the tournament, while even the BBC restricted most of theirs to highlights shows. The previous tournament, held in Italy four years previously, had been a dismal affair, distinguished only by the efforts of English hooligans to create an even worse atmosphere than the football on offer could. The result of this was the British audience missed out on, amid everything else, a live broadcast of one of the most extraordinary football matches ever played.
This tournament was an opportunity for its host nation, France, to heal the psychological wounds inflicted upon them two years earlier when, in extra-time of the World Cup semi-final against West Germany, a two-goal lead evaporated in the energy-sapping midsummer heat of Seville, before a penalty shoot-out defeat – the first in a World Cup finals – had gone some way towards proving that no, the good guys don’t always win. Michel Hidalgo’s team of 1984 was a subtle improvement on this team, still based around the goals of Michel Platini and the trickery and guile of Alain Giresse, and it was a team firing on all cylinders – Platini scored hat-tricks in successive group matches. France were the hot favourites to beat Portugal in the semi-final match in Marseille. Portugal, after all, was playing in its first major tournament finals since the 1966 World Cup finals. This match, it was widely anticipated, would be the penultimate step towards a coronation in Paris the following week.
From a personal point of view, the summer of 1984 was the end period of transition. Two years previously our family had moved from a council estate in North London to the relative tranquility of a village in Hertfordshire and embraced the upwardly mobile, relatively middle class life that came with it enthusiastically. They had joined the village’s twinning association – the village was paired with a similarly sized one about thirty miles south of Paris – and in June of 1984, we stayed, for the first time, with our assigned family. It was this act of serendipity which meant that I was one of the few Britons to get as much as to see as the whole match live on the television. While British enthusiasts of European football were looking at the watches and cursing the BBC for their short-sightedness, then, I was sitting in a living room with my dad and a dozen or so middle-aged Frenchmen, who spent the duration of the match in a fug of red wine, Gitane smoke and gesticulation aimed at the television.
They had, perhaps, cause to gesticulate. The word “cauldron” is often overused when describing football stadia, but if there is one football stadium which deserves such a sobriquet it is Le Stade Velodrome in Marseille, and if there was a night upon which this gladiatorial arena lived up to its formidable reputation, it was this night. The teams took the field at sundown, to a riot of colour and noise, the blaring of horns and thousands of Tricolore flags. This was Marseille, the slightly chaotic, rough and ready port city and arguably the spiritual capital of the south of France and one of the undisputed capitals of French football, showing the arguably slightly too cool for football Paris what it could do.
Atmospheres such as this can have a strange effect upon football teams, though, and perhaps this evening it had a more profound effect on Portugal than on France. This magnificent French team were as they always were at the time: languid, elegant, looking as if they could win this match merely by being on the pitch. Almost too effortless. The Portuguese players, however, who could have been forgiven running to try and hide behind the corner flags, so intense was the atmosphere with Le Velodrome, but they dug in and obdurately denied France at every turn. The entire European press had this chalked up as an easy French victory, but they weren’t going to lie down and let the evening pass them by, and their performance that evening made this a night of pure, scintillating drama, a match that would come to transcend its tournament and take a rightful place amongst the greatest football matches of all time.
It took twenty-four minutes for France to break Portugal down. A foul on the edge of the Portuguese penalty area looked a little too centrally positioned to be easy, but Jean-Francois Domergue spotted a gap on on the end of the wall that goalkeeper Manuel Bento wouldn’t be able to reach. His shot needed to be perfect to the inch in order to squeeze inside the right-hand post. It was, of course, and Le Stade Velodrome – as well as the living room of a house about thirty miles south of Paris – exploded into rapturous (and, it seems fair to say a little relieved) celebration. The second France goal, however, wouldn’t come. If a Portuguese leg could get to a tackle, it would. Every smoothly-rolled attempt at a pass through to the talisman Platini was blocked, and if they managed to get past that little lot, they still had Bento, the Portuguese goalkeeper, to contend with.
Bento, whose floppy moustache and explosion of curly hair gave him the look of being the third, lost Mario Brother, formed a formidable barrier against the French attack, somehow managing to block everything that it could throw at him. Whether diving across the goal to single-handedly palm a free kick away or rushing at an incoming Didier Six to block the ball with some part – any part – of his body, before getting up, throwing himself at the rebound and seeing the ball deflect off, well, some part of him before looping up, over and then improbably down, onto the top of the crossbar and over. If earning ones luck isn’t too much of a contradiction in terms, Manuel Bento earned his that night.
For all that France threw at the Portuguese defence, though, the march wasn’t complete one way traffic, and the French goalkeeper Joel Bats had to be on his toes as well. With thirteen minutes left to play, though, his goal was breached. The goal came, in no small part, thanks to French defensive failings, a failure to clear the ball and a failure then to mark. Fernando Chalana’s cross from the left was met by Rui Jordao, who had previously been playing as if appearing in a promotional film for a scent called “Lummox For Men”, and his header arced agonisingly over Bats, whose vain attempt to get to the ball left him wrapped around his right-hand post in a style reminiscent of Fred Astaire dancing with a lamp post in “Singing In The Rain”, under the crossbar and in. Le Velodrome fell to a sudden, stunned silence. This, fifty-odd million French people may well have reckoned, was categorically not in the script, but it was no less than Portugal deserved. They had stayed in the game by their fingernails and, through what felt like sheer willpower alone, forced the match into extra-time.
If Marseille – and France – had been stopped in its tracks by Jordao’s equalising goal, the shock turned to disbelief seven minutes into extra-time Fernando Chalana, who had drifted across to the right-hand side, attempted a cross, only to see it charged down. His second attempt seemed at first glance to be a little too deep, but it found Jordao, who pulled from his bag of tricks one of the great fluke goals of all-time. He swung his foot at the ball, but mis-hit it to such an extent that it thudded into the ground, up and over a stranded Bats and into the top corner of the goal. From being at the point of their first appearance in the finals of a major international tournament, France were now staring down the battle of a gun. In the space of barely twenty minutes, the match had been turned on its head so completely that something which had seemed inconceivable now seemed likely to come to pass. The first period of extra time ended with Portugal still clinging on grimly to their paper-thin one goal lead.
Genius in football comes in many guises. Some make it look effortless, whilst others always seem to manage to pull something from the fire when they absolutely have to. This France team fell, unmistakably, into the latter of these two categories. With six minutes left to play, Yvon Le Roux tried to force his way through the Portuguese defence like a battering ram. His shot was charged down, but the ball fell to Platini. As he angled to shoot he was hauled to the ground, but the ball ran loose again and, with Bento rushing from his line to try and collect it, Domergue was the quickest to react and belted the ball into the roof of the net for 2-2. The goal had come just in time to save France and, for the first time in half an hour or so, the pendulum had swung back in their favour. This goal, however, was not a matter of a job done. Considering the trauma of two years earlier and Bento’s imperious form that evening, there was still plenty of reason for France to continue to pour forward, and with a minute of extra-time left to play, they pulled one final trick out of the hat.
It was as fitting a final act to such an evening of pure drama as one could imagine. Jean Tigana, the French midfielder, tried to push the ball through the centre of the Portuguese defence, only to see an outstretched Portuguese leg block it again. Tigana changed tack, collecting the ball and running again, but this time towards the right-hand corner flag. With Le Velodrome rising to a deafening, hysterical crescendo, he dragged the ball back to the edge of the six yard area to Platini. He could have swung at the ball first time. Other, lesser players, under the glare of the floodlights, after one hundred and nineteen minutes of energy-sapping exertion in the sweltering heat of a Mediterranean summer, might have kicked at thin air and seen the opportunity vanish into the night. Not Platini. With such coolness and poise that he might have merely been playing in an exhibition match, he took one touch to control the ball, and then a second to drive it into Bento’s goal. Le Stade Velodrome exploded. The living room of a house in a village twenty miles south of Paris did likewise. Portuguese players lay strewn across their penalty area, shattered, broken and beaten. There could be no comeback from this sucker punch. France were in the final of the 1984 European Championships.
The final, of course, could never live up to this match, although the Parc Des Princes was a riot of colour as Le Stade Velodrome had been four days earlier, but France got their reward with a little luck. Luis Arconada fumbled a first half Platini free-kick over the line to give them the lead, and a late goal on the break from Bruno Bellone wrapped the tournament up for the the host nation. The drama, however, had come to pass on that sweltering Marseillaise evening four days prior, though. This was a match which sucked the viewer incontravertably in, in which so many of the competing players managed something approaching the absolute peak of what they were capable of. It was a match of perfection and human frailty, and at the end of which it was a tragedy of sorts that one of those playing had to lose. It was, however, probably just that this French team, a team which played with such swagger and elan, ended up as the winners.
There was one other winner on that balmy evening in Marseille, though. British viewers had to wait until later in the evening to watch the match, and they only saw extended highlights of the match, but they were treated to what was perhaps the magnum opus commentary from the BBC’s John Motson. Every phrase of his that evening was perfectly weighted, every single word building to a climax at the point of Platini’s winning goal. “I’ve not seen a match like this in years!”, he cries coitally after France win the match, and he was right. Motson isn’t necessarily everybody’s cup of tea, but it would be churlish to talk of this evening without mentioning that the BBC’s man at the ground that night hit every single note in exact tune with what everybody watching was feeling at the time. It is easy, for those of us that spend so much time examining the murkier side of football, to start to forget the grace, beauty and theatre of a sport which captivates us at an early age and refuses to let go. Nights like this, however, are a perpetual reminder of why we fall in love with the game in the first place.
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