So, a new millennium, and a new concept for UEFA – for the first time, the finals of the European Championships would be jointly hosted between two countries. This was an excellent tournament, freed from much of the defensive football that had blighted the previous two competitions in England and Sweden, and would end with a Golden Goal winner that would see France become the first country to be the reigning European and World champions at the same time. Before the tournament, the familiar concerns. Would the Belgian and Dutch police be able to cope with the familiar spectre of English hooliganism? The answer was, “not really, but why should they have to?”. Many people rightly criticised the hosts for putting on the match between England and Germany at Charleroi, where the stadium held just 30,000 people, but the vast majority of the trouble occurred outside of the area immediately surrounding the stadium, by people that probably had no intention of going to the match itself. Plus ca change. The rest of Europe gave a sigh of relief when the England team was knocked out in the first round.
England’s qualification had been by the skin of their teeth, winning just three of their eight matches, and being reliant on a Swedish win against Poland to get them through to a two-legged play-off against Scotland. A 2-0 win at Hampden Park should have been enough for them to relax in the second leg, but Scotland won the return match 1-0 at Wembley, to leave them crawling through by the skin of their teeth. They should have had a reasonably comfortable ride against Portugal, a disjointed Germany and Romania. In the first match against Portugal, they should have cruised through after early goals from Paul Scholes and Steve McManaman put them 2-0 up, but they couldn’t hold onto the momentum, and by half time Luis Figo and Joao Pinto had levelled things up at 2-2. A third goal on the hour by Nuno Gomes was enough to do for them. In their second match, they lined up against Germany in a match that had been hyped up as “The Match That All Of Europe Wants To Watch”. It was, then, a pity that it was probably the worst match of the tournament, with a stooping header from Alan Shearer proving to be enough to give England a 1-0 win. Results elsewhere meant that the final match against Romania was a straight battle for second place, with England needing just a draw to qualify. Keegan surprisingly picked Nigel Martyn to start, and the error of his ways was apparent when he allowed Cristian Chivu’s cross-cum-shot to drift over him and in. England did battle back to lead 2-1 at half-time through goals from Shearer and Michael Owen, but a poor punch from Martyn three minutes into the second half allowed Dorinal Munteanu put the Romanians level again, and a late, unnecessary tackle from Phil Neville that Ioan Ganea converted to deservedly put the Romanians through.
In Group B, the big surprise was the abject failure of a Swedish team that had done reasonably well during the qualifying rounds. They lost their opening match against Belgium, but the Belgians themselves ran out of steam, losing matches against Italy and Turkey to go out. Turkey, by contrast, showed the quality that would take them to the World Cup semi-finals two years later. The Italians won three out of three to take the group leadership. Group C was the place to be for goals, so long as you weren’t watching Norway. The Norwegians nearly squeaked through to the quarter-finals in spite of only scoring one and conceding one in their three group matches. Group C also contained the angry, angry Yugoslavians (who seemed incapable of not losing a man per match to a red card), newcomers Slovenia and the perennial under-achievers, Spain. Slovenia looked likely to cause a mighty shock in their first match against Yugoslavia, with Yugoslavia down to ten men and the Slovenians leading 3-0 with less than an hour played. Yugoslavia, however, came back to draw an extraordinary match 3-3. Spain started slowly, losing 1-0 to Norway, before making mighty hard work of beating Slovenia 2-1. In their final match, they played Yugoslavia knowing that they would most likely need a win to get through. Into injury time, Yugoslavia were 3-2 up, before Mendieta levelled things up for Spain and then, four minutes into stoppage time, Alfonso Perez won the game for Spain and knocked Norway out. Results in Group D meant that France and Netherlands were already through to the quarter-finals by the time that they met in their final group match in a match that many people thought would be repeated in the final. The Dutch beat the French 3-2 in a pulsating match in Amsterdam which won them the group.
The Dutch peaked in the quarter-finals with a 6-1 win against Yugoslavia on a balmy Sunday evening in Rotterdam, with a stunning performance that left commentators almost breathless and saturating them with praise. In the second match, France took the lead through Zinedine Zinedane before Mendieta levelled for Spain. Yuri Djorkaeff gave France the lead again, and France looked to be holding on to win before a last minute penalty award gave Spain a glorious chance to take the match into extra-time. Raul, however, blasted the ball well wide – France were through and Spain, the self-appointed bridesmaids of world football, were out again. France would play Portugal in the semi-final – a repeat of 1984. The Portuguese were too strong for Turkey, and two Nuno Gomes goals gave them a 2-0 win in Amsterdam. Finally, Italy had a relatively comfortable win – 2-0 against Romania in Brussels. They wouldn’t be able to find their way past the flying Dutchmen though, would they?
Everything seemed to be pointing towards a Dutch win. Italy had hardly been inspiring, whilst the Dutch had been formidable against both France and Yugoslavia. When the Italians had Gianluca Zambrotta sent off ten minutes from half-time, their chances too a further nose-dive. Four minutes later, the Dutch had a golden opportunity to take the lead from the penalty spot but, in an ominous warning for the Dutch Frank de Boer’s penalty was magnificently saved by Francesco Toldo. So it went on. Wave after wave of Dutch attacking play, all of it repelled by the sturdy Italian defence. On, indeed, to penalties. Considering the Dutch record in 1996 and 1998, and the Italian record in 1990, 1994 and 1998, this could have been a very long evening, but the Italians didn’t blink while the Dutch did, with misses from Frank de Boer (again), Jaap Stam and Paul Bosvelt handing Italy a scarcely-deserved place in the final. In the other semi-final, Nuno Gomes gave Portugal a first half lead against France, who levelled through Thierry Henry six minutes into the second half. The match seemed to be drifting to penalties, before Wiltord’s shot was blocked by the arm of Abel Xavier – Zinrdine Zidane converted the penalty to send the French through to face Italy.
Without the romance of the Dutch team, the final in Rotterdam looked likely to be a disappointing match. Indeed, there were few clear chances in the first half, but Italy took the lead eight minutes into the second half with a cleverly worked goal from Marco Delvecchio, it looked as if it might be another victory for defensive, pragmatic football. France were saved in the dying seconds with a late, late goal from substitute Sylvain Wiltord, and two minutes from half-time in extra-time, Zinedine Zidane fired a low cross into the roof of the net to give France a just about deserved victory. It’s difficult to get away from the belief that the Dutch were the team that set this tournament truly alight, but their failure to kill off the Italians meant that Euro 2000 would be France’s to lose in the final, and they succeeded where the Dutch failed.
Netherlands vs Yugoslavia – Group Match
Netherlands vs Italy – Semi-Final
France vs Italy – The Final