It’s fair to say that there was quite a lot resting on the success of the 1984 European Championships. UEFA had extended the finals of the competition in Italy four years previously from four nations to eight, and it had been pretty much an unmitigated disaster. Tiny crowds, terrible football and England’s “finest” being tear-gassed by the Italian police meant that the pressure was very much on France to run a better tournament this time around. Although UEFA had doubled the size of the competition, the eight team format was still small enough for some significant names to be missing. England, as discussed below, had been knocked out by Denmark, Italy, the defending World champions had a disastrous qualifying campaign, finished fourth in their group, Scotland finished bottom of theirs, and the USSR, Holland, Poland (who’d finished third in Spain two years prior) all missed out. Northern Ireland only went out on goal difference to West Germany, in spite of beating the Germans home and away.
France were the odds-on favourites to win the tournament. Unlucky to lose in the 1982 World Cup semi-final against West Germany, they had strengthened still further in the intervening two years. Michel Platini had developed almost certainly the most complete attacking player in Europe, Joel Bats had established himself as a great goalkeeper, and the addition of Luis Hernandez to their midfield had added some much-needed grit to their formula. This wasn’t, of course, to say that they would have it all their own way – European football had strength in depth in 1984. The West Germans were, predictably, the second favourites to win, but many people also had a lot to say about Spain and Sepp Piontek’s flourishing Danish team. In short, it was an open competition.
Group A – France, Denmark, Belgium & Yugoslavia: France opened edgily in Paris, with a fortunate deflected goal from Platini giving them a somewhat fortuitous 1-0 win against Denmark. They really came into their own in their next match, as they thrashed Belgium 5-0 in Nantes, with Platini scoring the first of two successive hat-tricks. They completed their qualification with a nervy 3-2 win against Yugoslavia. In spite of their thrashing at the hands of the French, Belgium went into their final group match against Denmark knowing that a win would take them into the semi-finals, and they seemed to be cruising at 2-0 up with just a few minutes to go in the first half. No-one, however, had given a copy of the script to the Danish, though. Frank Arnesen (yes, that Frank Arnesen) pulled a goal back just before half-time, and second half goals from substitute Kenneth Brylle Larsen and Preben Elkjaer sent the Danes through to the semi-finals.
Group B – West Germany, Spain, Portugal & Romania: The biggest surprise of the competition was the early elimination of West Germany. They were held to a goalless draw in their opening match against Portugal, before two Rudi Voller goals saw them overcome Romania. Meanwhile, the Spanish drew their opening matches against Romania and Portugal, meaning that three of the four teams could still qualify going into the final round of matches, with the Germans only needing a draw to edge through. It looked like they were going to do enough, but a last minute winner by Spain’s Antonio Maceda Frances suddenly turned everything on its head. The Germans, suddenly, were staring at being knocked out. Portugal had scored against Romania with nine minutes to play in the other match in Nantes and held on. The Germans were out, and Spain and Portugal went on to join France and Denmark in the semi-finals.
Semi-Finals – France vs Portugal and Spain vs Denmark: You can make a pretty good case for claiming that the 1984 European Championship semi-final between France and Portugal is the greatest football match of all time. Played on a balmy evening at the Stade Velodrome in Marseille, it was a night of high drama, when the French team was forced to prove its ability and inner strength by a valiant Portguese side. Everything seemed to be going according to plan for them when Jean-Francois Domergue drove a brilliant free-kick into the top corner mid-way through the first half. After this, though, the French stalled. Unable to build in their lead, France watched in horror as Rui Jordao levelled things up for Portugal through a looping header that seemed to catch Bats out with fifteen minutes to play, taking the match into extra-time. If the home crowd were shocked by that, they were reduced to silence eight minutes into extra-time, when Jordao scored a freak second goal for Portugal – his mis-hit shot bounced down into the ground and looped up and over Bats to give Portugal the lead. With no alternative available, France flooded forward, looking for an equalizer. With six minutes to play, it came – a mad scramble inside the Portuguese penalty area (I counted nineteen players in or around it) resulted in the ball falling to Platini, who lost his footing, only for the ball to roll loose for Domergue to equalize. Even now, though, the drama wasn’t over. With the crowd volume now completely deafening, Jean Tigana swept forward and pulled the ball across the penalty area for Platini, who steadied himself and swept France into the final amongst scenes of absolute bedlam. Don’t believe me? You can see all the goals here.
With all of this excitement the night before, you could forgive Spain and Denmark for failing to live up to it in Lyon all the following night, but that isn’t to say that they didn’t manage their fair share of drama. Soren Lerby gave the Danes an early lead, but this was cancelled out in the second half by another Spanish goal by Maceda. This time, though, there was no sting in the tail, and the match went to a penalty shoot-out. All of the first eight penalties were converted before Preben Elkjaer stepped up and… blasted the ball over the crossbar. Carlos Santillana converted the final penalty to put Spain in the final against France.
The Final – France vs Spain: You have to feel a little sorry for Luis Arconada. He was an outstanding goalkeeper for Real Sociedad and Spain for over a decade and often talked of as being the best in Europe, but his career is defined by two fatal mistakes – a flap at the ball against Northern Ireland during the 1982 World Cup which handed the Irish a 1-0 win against the hosts and condemned Spain to a second round grouping against West Germany and England (they’d go on to finish bottom of that group), and fumbling Michel Platini’s weak free-kick over the line for the crucial first goal in the 1984 European Championship Final. Truth be told, it was a poor match. The French had ridden their luck before this, but Arconada’s error gifted the French a crucial lead in a match of relatively few chances. In the dying seconds, another great surging run by Tigana set up Monaco’s Bruno Bellone to score a second goal and tie the match up for France. You can see highlights here:
There’s no question that France, and in particular Platini, deserved their Euro 84 win. Platini scored an amazing nine goals in just five matches, including two hat-tricks. On top of the massive disappointment of losing on penalties two years earlier in the semi-final of the World Cup against West Germany, this was a massively cathartic moment for France. The momentum of it almost transported an inferior team to the World Cup final in 1986. The tournament itself was also, in a more general sense, a success. Without the English travelling animals present, it was played in a good atmosphere (there was a minor incident in Strasbourg on the day of the West Germany vs Portugal group match, but those concerned were apprehended and deported the same day), in beautiful conditions and in front of big crowds. With the so-called “Three Lions” struggling to get to Austria and Switzerland next summer, one can’t help but wonder whether the two host countries are keeping their fingers crossed that England fail to get there.