So, Euro 88. That was the one that the Dutch won at a canter, all crowned by Marco Van Basten’s magnificent volley against the USSR in the final, right? Well, yes and no. The Netherlands were, in their pomp, an extraordinary team to watch when in full flow. However, they were beaten by the USSR, flattered by a 3-1 win over England (a match in which England hit the woodwork twice) and required a late winner against Ireland in the group stages, needed two late goals to beat the host nation, West Germany in the semi-final, and might have had a tense end to the final had not Hans Van Breukelen saved a penalty for the USSR in the final.
After their failure to get to the finals, England had made it this time, and the Republic of Ireland were there for the first time. Other than that, it was business as usual, although the holders, France, had carelessly failed to qualify, and Italy were in something of a transitional stage with a team that was expected to peak for the World Cup in 1990. Again, the nations were divided into two groups of four, with West Germany, Italy, Spain and Denmark in Group A, and the Netherlands, England, Ireland and the USSR in Group B. The top two from each group would qualify for the semi-finals. Group A started with a nasty surprise for the Germans when Roberto Mancini gave Italy the lead against them in Dusseldorf, though they recovered quickly to earn a draw. The pre-tournament favourites (who had been the runners-up to Argentina in the World Cup two years previously) then coasted through to the semi-finals with comfortable wins against Spain and Denmark. Italy won their second match against Spain, and also gained a semi-final place with a 2-0 win over Denmark, a result which they didn’t even need, with the Germans beating Spain at the same time.
In Group B, one might have expected England to impress. After starting slowly, England had been impressive in the 1986 World Cup, coming within inches of taking Maradona’s Argentina to extra-time in the quarter-finals, and had played excellently in their qualifying campaign. Their opening match against Ireland, however was a disaster for them, with Ray Houghton scoring the only goal of the game. Meanwhile, the Dutch were beaten 1-0 by the USSR. England started their second match, against the Dutch, reasonably well, and things were looking bright for them when Bryan Robson cancelled out Marco Van Basten’s opening goal. Van Basten hadn’t even been expected to start the tournament in the first team, but his two second half goals knocked Bobby Robson’s team out with a match to spare. Meanwhile, the Irish held the USSR to a 1-1 draw to leave themselves with an excellent chance of making the semi-finals with one match to play. England’s miserable time at the tournament was completed with a 3-1 defeat in their final match against the USSR, but the real tension came in the match between Ireland and the Netherlands. Ireland only needed a draw to get through to the semi-finals, and it looked as if they were going to do it (a header from Paul McGrath which hit the post in the first half could have put things beyond doubt) until eight minutes from time, when Ronald Koeman’s mis-hit shot was headed in by Wim Kieft to put the Dutch through.
The semi-finals placed Italy against the USSR and West Germany against the Netherlands. Neither match went to the expected script. In the first match, in Hamburg, the Germans took an early second half lead through a penalty from Lothar Matthaus. The match turned on its head in the final fifteen minutes. First of all, a Ronald Koeman penalty brought the Dutch level, and then, with two minutes left to play, Van Basten was put through and rolled the ball in to put the Dutch through. The next day, the USSR, who had been functionally impressive in their group matches, beat Italy 2-0 with goals from Gennadiy Litvachenko and Oleg Protasov. The final, played at the Olympic Stadium in Munich, proved to be a disappointingly one-sided affair, though the Dutch needed until the second half to take the lead, through Ruud Gullit. It did, however, provide the defining image of the tournament when, with fifteen minutes to play, Van Basten volleyed in an extraordinary shot from an absolutely impossible angle to put the match beyond any doubt. The Dutch may have ridden their luck to get to the final in the first place, but there could be no doubt that they had the players of the tournament in Van Basten and Gullit, and their victory was a victory for the son of Total Football.
Republic of Ireland vs Netherlands
West Germany vs Netherlands