Friday, 13 June 2014

Euro '88: The Best Tournament Ever

Guest columnist Sir Robert tells us why Mr Van Basten's opus remains the high point of international football

It was with great pleasure that I accepted my groundhopping companion and blogger of the moment, the Football Hipster’s, generous invitation to reflect on a major finals tournament of my choice as part of his ongoing focus on the build-up to Brasil 2014.

Your correspondent is now a veteran of fourteen World Cups and European Championships in total. Just totting them up made him shudder in late-thirtysomething Angst. From a callow ten-year-old who first experienced injustice in the adult sense when Maradona leapt like a salmon above Shilton, to unforgettable pub outings in his twenties (is there anything in football as simultaneously invigorating and crushing as watching England failing heroically in a packed, partisan pub?) and finally a somewhat cynical old git nevertheless enthralled like a young boy with Balotelli’s first-half performance against Germany in 2012 – he has seen a lot. However, the tournament to be relived here is not a World Cup finals, but Euro ’88 in the former West Germany.

The reasons for this perhaps slightly leftfield choice are several. Having first fallen in love with football in 1985 (Heysel being only the second live match I ever watched on television – I was perhaps too young to understand properly and hence was not put off for life), by 1988 I was more seasoned and yet still impressionable enough for the tournament to make a real impact on my soul. My Mexico ’86 initiation had taken place during a still-mythical and exotic era when a lack of twenty-first century wall-to-wall television coverage or UEFA Champions League in its modern format meant that the likes of Maradona, Platini, Zico and Socrates were not as universally well-known as Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi are today. Moreover, as a subsequent Germanophile, Euro ’88 was my first introduction to that country, albeit via an 18-inch anything-but-flatscreen Philips in my parents’ lounge and Shoot magazine, coming a full fifteen months before my first tentative wie komme ich am besten zum Bahnhof? at school.

There were other factors in my choice: the presence of a then (even you must admit it, Hipster) beyond-cool, Rastafarian-locked European Footballer of the Year; his sidekick and eventual multiple successor to that same crown - the most technically accomplished European player I have ever watched; England going into the tournament as joint favourites and the concomitant wave of expectation; a burgeoning antipathy towards the German Nationalelf (which lingers to this day, despite my general Germanophilia); and, last but not least, an exciting young Italian number nine who in those days still had thick, curly black hair.

So, it was with a real buzz of excitement that I left school on Friday 10th June 1988 – my first year of secondary - and went home to await the curtain raiser, West Germany v Italy, from the Rheinstadion in Düsseldorf. What first struck me was the sheer noise coming through from the stadium: my first experience of German football fans and, not far behind them, the outnumbered yet ever-raucous Tifosi. The anthems were different in those days, too, in the sense that they were played by brass bands and were purely instrumental, with “only” the 62,000 crowd providing vocals. Mancini, erstwhile enfant terrible of calcio (perhaps explaining his fatherly attitude to the wayward Balotelli at Manchester City), struck his first international goal at the fourteenth attempt and embarked on a histrionic run – evoking Tardelli six years earlier - in the direction of a paparazzo who had been digging him out in the Italian gutter press, before being simultaneously hugged and ushered back to the centre circle by his team-mates. The equaliser came minutes later from that enduringly (annoyingly, Paul Parker?) effective goalscoring full-back, Brehme, following a curious incident involving Zenga and too many steps in the area. I do not recall otherwise having seen that rule ever being enforced. The spoils were shared, and for the first time I was hooked on football in a more mature sense.

Incidentally, to this day no German or West German national side has ever overcome the Italians in a competitive fixture.

Mancini seeks out his tormentor
The following day, Spain beat Denmark 3-2 in Hanover. The historically under-rated Michel opened the scoring, the brilliant elder Laudrup (reprising his boyish brilliance of Mexico ’86 before his self-imposed exclusion from Euro ’92) replied with an equaliser. The Spanish proceeded to score two more. Denmark’s Anschlusstreffer came on 82 minutes from a young Povlsen, at the time with 1. FC Köln, but it was not enough. By way of observation, Povlsen would be a star four years later in that most unexpected Danish triumph where not a single Danish striker found the net in play in five games and one extra-time – although Povlsen did score a key shoot-out penalty after an intense battle of nerves and wills with van Breukelen. Following their opening reverse in 1988, the Danes replaced Rasmussen with Brondby’s big, blond 24-year-old goalkeeper with a German surname who had been playing part-time with Hvidovre only a year earlier (scoring six goals in three seasons, incidentally). He would go on to some degree of success despite this initial international disappointment.

The Azzurri's lead is short-lived; Brehme celebrates with a leap
On the Sunday, Group B opened with a match in Stuttgart which will not be discussed in detail for reasons which will be clear to any Englishman. This was the game in which Lineker’s lack of form at the time first became clear to a wider television audience. Shorn of his oft-now-forgotten pace over short distances as a result of a lingering bout of hepatitis, he nevertheless hit the bar as England forlornly sought to cancel out the (Glaswegian!) Houghton’s opener. Perhaps appropriately, the Irish had squeezed into the finals at the expense of Bulgaria thanks to Mackay’s goal for Scotland in Sofia. In the evening match at 1. FC Köln’s Müngersdorfer, the USSR beat The Netherlands 1-0 with a Rats goal early in the second half. The match was in hindsight an early, entirely unforeseen dress rehearsal for the final. The same happened in Portugal ’04, save that Portugal v Greece was the opening match and closing match of the entire tournament and the same team won both matches. USSR v The Netherlands (No. 1) was notable also in that Holland gave an indication of their ability with much of the possession and play, despite the narrow reverse, and of course the fact that one Marco van Basten was a mere substitute that day, lacking match fitness after having been injured for much of his début season with Milan. He had been overlooked in favour of his former Ajax team-mate Johnny Bosman, the Dutch squad’s top scorer in qualifying. Van Basten did hit the bar when eventually brought on, giving a small hint of what might follow. Depending on whom you believe, his mentor Cruijff either coaxed the depressed van Basten into travelling to the finals in the first place, counselled patience when the player was initially omitted from the starting eleven and/or advised the player to quit the camp after being dropped for that first game. It has also been suggested that Van Basten smoked cigarettes (offered to him by then-chimney Cruijff?) in secret while plotting the next move. With Cruijff, all things may be possible. 

One aspect of fascination to a stadium enthusiast is the juxtaposition of Euro ’88 with the 1974 and 2006 World Cups. Positioned neatly in between, Euro ’88 provides an interesting marker. The venues, eight in all, were identical to those used in 1974 save that in 1988 the Müngersdorfer in Cologne replaced the Westfalenstadion in Dortmund (which says something about the profile of the respective home clubs in the 1980s), and West Berlin was absent, the organisers this time having shown an element of deference to the Eastern bloc which was absent in 1974. The capacities of most were generally a touch smaller in 1988 as seats slowly replaced the predominance of terracing, but these were still “classic” stadia, perhaps best seen in the case of that blue-collar fortress, Schalke 04’s former Parkstadion in Gelsenkirchen (surely the noisiest of the lot). By contrast, although the majority of the host cities in 1988 made the cut for 2006 (only Düsseldorf missed out), all had been either replaced or fundamentally altered to the extent that they were new stadia to all intents and purposes. Of those which were not actually replacements, one need only look at photographs of Hanover’s Niedersachsenstadion in 1988 and the renamed AWD-Arena in 2006 to see the contrast.


Another curious aspect is the choice of venue for the matches in 1988. Eight venues were used, and each hosted two of the fifteen matches with the exception of Hamburg which hosted only one. Five venues (Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Hanover, Gelsenkirchen and Cologne) took in one match in each group. The anomaly was that Munich hosted one match (West Germany v Spain) in Group A, and the final, whereas Stuttgart hosted one match in Group B (England v Ireland) and one semi-final. Hamburg hosted a lone semi-final– albeit the arguable match of the tournament, as to which see below. Had the organisers used perfect symmetry, Hamburg would have replaced Munich as a Group A venue – albeit moved from the final round of group matches (West Germany v Spain) - with the latter stadium being saved for the final.

Such asymmetry is the kind of thing which irritates a somewhat obsessive-compulsive person such as me, for which I make no apologies.

Turning to the second set of matches in the group stage, the most famous is undoubtedly Holland’s defeat of England in Düsseldorf, with Gullit now purring in spite of the slightly more withdrawn role, by his standards, which he played in this tournament owing to team tactics. Van Basten - now in the first eleven – kick-started his (and arguably the whole) tournament in spectacular fashion. It is testament to Tony Adams, in for the injured Butcher, that at twenty-one he was able to lift himself from the experience to score in the final game and go on to establish himself as a fixture in the Arsenal and England teams, captaining both to great acclaim despite his well-documented off-the-field struggles at a certain time. Van Basten’s three goals in Shilton’s 100th international were straight from the textbook of goalscoring – a precise turn in tight space and a clinical finish for the first, a deadly accurate finish for the second, and a predatory strike from the initial set-piece for the third. Robson’s typically buccaneering equaliser at 1-0 gave merely temporary hope, Hoddle’s free-kick against the post (to name but one near-miss for the Three Lions) merely anguish. In the other Group B game in Hanover’s Niedersachsenstadion, Whelan hit a stunning, if shinned, volley from outside the area. It would not be the only time in the tournament that the USSR’s Dasayev, by general agreement Europe’s best guardian at the time, would be beaten by a spectacular volley from distance. The game ended 1-1.

In Group A, the Germans despatched the Danes 2-0 with goals from rising star Klinsmann and Olaf Thon, the latter playing for the last time in front of his Schalke supporters in the Parkstadion before a transfer to Munich to replace the Internazionale-bound Matthäus. In the other game, in Frankfurt’s Waldstadion (go up the TV tower in Frankfurt and you’ll see that the now-Commerzbank Arena is ringed by woods, Frankfurt being in the heavily-wooded central German belt despite its skyscraper-thronged city centre) the then-follically blessed and shinpad-less Vialli settled what was commonly regarded as the decider for second place in the group against Spain with a low cross-shot with a quarter of an hour to go.

Vialli puts Spain to the sword
In the final round of Group A games, West Germany beat Spain 2-0 in Munich, the master finally putting the apprentice in his place. Völler, his status under threat following the emergence of Klinsmann and amid clamours to be dropped due to lack of form, answered his critics in the perfect manner with two strikes to sink Spain. Italy secured their semi-final berth with a 2-0 victory over the Danes in Cologne.

In Group B, the USSR extended England’s misery with a 3-1 victory in Frankfurt, Aleinikov scoring the fastest goal of the tournament inside three minutes. But the real drama occurred in the other Group B game. Needing only a draw to pip the Dutch to a semi-final place, the Republic of Ireland held out for 81 minutes, even hitting the post just before Kieft’s freak, swirling headed (and possibly offside) goal, the ball meeting his cranium rather than the other way around following an Irish clearance from a blocked shot by Ronald Koeman. It is easily forgotten when reliving the vibrancy and colour of their first and so-far only major tournament win just how close the Dutch came to elimination that Saturday afternoon in Gelsenkirchen. What is also sometimes forgotten is that van Basten was Kieft’s heir-apparent at Ajax, the emergence of the former in the early 1980s hastening the departure of the latter to Pisa, only shortly after he had won the European Golden Boot with Ajax while still not quite yet twenty. The Dutch have traditionally blooded their stars young, but the failure of the national side to qualify for World Cup ’82, Euro ’84 or Mexico ’86 meant that Euro ’88 was the first time much of the viewing public had witnessed players who had exhibited great ability for several years. To that end, perhaps they were not quite as “novel” as might first appear. The Dutch lost out on Euro ’84 to a Spanish side who scored nine goals against Malta without reply in the second half of their final qualifier to win 12-1 and pip the Dutch on goals scored. They missed Mexico ’86 thanks to a late away goal conceded at home to neighbours and eventual semi-finalists Belgium in a play-off. To add to the sense of righted wrongs in 1988, the Dutch had been missing both van Basten and Kieft through suspension in the second leg of that play-off in late 1985, yet had still come within four minutes of Mexico. In hindsight, Spain’s second place in 1984 and Belgium’s fourth place in 1986 makes the Netherlands’s 1988 triumph perhaps less surprising than it seemed at the time.

The first semi-final paired West Germany and The Netherlands in a rematch of the 1974 World Cup final. Spice was added by the fact the West German coach had been the winning captain in 1974, whereas Dutch coach – Rinus “The Sphinx” Michels (so-called because of his serious on-field demeanour when a player) - was in charge on both occasions, during two of four stints as national boss.

Much has been written of this first semi-final in Hamburg’s Volksparkstadion, most notably in Simon Kuper’s classic “Football against the Enemy” and in particular his investigation of the psychological significance of the match on Dutch society in general. The Dutch had agreed to a request from the Germans to swap Hamburg hotels, ending up in the central Intercontinental and kept awake by German fans (and - in Gullit’s case – German journalists’ phone calls), late into the night - which suggests a certain insouciance, naïveté even, on the Dutch camp’s part. Come matchday, thousands flocked over the border for the short trip to Hamburg. In hindsight, the West Germans will have rued the tournament schedule and the allocation of the match to that city. As the German striker Mill sagely commented post-match, it would have been better had the game been played in Germany. The Dutch dominated the first half with their best technical performance thus far, but went behind after a questionable penalty awarded against the strong yet wonderfully elegant Rijkaard for a challenge on Klinsmann – the young striker beginning to carve out a second career as Greg Louganis’s understudy which stopped only when he joined Tottenham for the first time. As for Rijkaard, loaned out to Zaragoza for a season by Sporting Lisbon who had signed him from Ajax after irretrievably falling out with Cruijff– and promptly sold him to Milan in one of the worst pieces of transfer business ever - his ball-playing style was a revelation in an era of rather more primitive centre-back play in the UK. I recall well either the BBC or ITV commentator – perhaps Barry Davies, I’m not sure - watching Rijkaard calmly dribble around a couple of Soviets on the edge of his own box (!) before moving play on under pressure in the group encounter: “Rijkaard bringing the ball out from the back…oh, look at that”.

Back to Hamburg: Van Breukelen’s almost-successful attempt to keep out Matthäus’s kick only added to the sense of injustice on the part of the Dutch. Following this, their playing panache receded somewhat as the game became ill-tempered. Gullit was effectively handled by Borowka and had little tangible impact on proceedings. Just as it seemed the Dutch had played into German hands and were heading for noble defeat to their West German hosts once again, Ignea, the Romanian referee, awarded a penalty to the Dutch which seemed to bemuse even van Basten – if you watch the video, he gets to his feet with a bemused look as the whistle blows. Kuper reports that van Basten commented to amused Dutch journalists afterwards: “Kohler brought me off-balance, after which the referee pointed to the spot. And then I just had to bow to his judgment”. This would be the first of three intense battles between van Basten and Kohler, repeated at Italia ’90 and Euro ’92. Van Basten won two of them, but Kohler won two medals (one winner’s and one runner’s-up) to van Basten’s one in those tournaments.

Whether it was a case of the referee evening up an earlier error in hindsight, we shall never know. Ronald Koeman made no mistake, sending Illgner the wrong way to send the Dutch support into a buzzing frenzy of shouting and klaxons.

As the match drifted towards extra-time, Wouters, van Basten’s old comrade at Ajax, highlighted the oft-noted apparent telepathy between the pair with a slide-rule pass which split open the German rearguard. Van Basten was onto it in a flash and expertly rolled an equally slide-rule shot along the turf between Kohler’s leg and Illgner’s glove into the far corner of the net. There was barely time for the Germans to respond.

Van Basten's 87th minute winner against W. Germany
An unfortunate or –depending on your point of view – amusing coda to the game was provided by Ronald Koeman, who blotted his copybook (and, figuratively, something else close to him) when goading the distraught West German fans by mimicking wiping his backside with the shirt he had swapped with Thon.

The incident gave rise to a published poem by former Oranje stalwart, Johnny Rep, who commented that that “new shirt is only really worth wiping your bum with”, which Kuper notes is a play on the fact that The Netherlands’s home shirt for this tournament was “foul” and “tiger-striped”.

Koeman makes friends and influences people
The other semi-final was perhaps something of an anti-climax, viewed both against the backdrop of the previous night’s drama and in isolation. The Azzurri had been installed as strong favourites to beat the USSR, which is somewhat surprising given the relative inexperience of much of their side at this level and the fact that the USSR had topped Group B ahead of the Dutch finalists, although Italy had prevailed 4-1 in a friendly that spring. As it transpired, in a rain-drenched Neckarstadion in Stuttgart the USSR prevailed 2-0 through Litovchenko and Protasov, preying on Italian lapses on the counter twice within a few second-half minutes. In some ways, they had beaten the Italians – who had had the better of the play - at their traditional own game.

The 20y.o. Maldini faces the USSR
Mainly as a result of their rich vein of form, but partly due to the suspension of the best Soviet defender in Kutznetsov, the Dutch were installed as favourites to lift the trophy before the final in Munich against the USSR on Saturday 25th May 1988 despite the 1-0 reverse in the opening group game.

If the preceding Tuesday evening in Hamburg had been revenge in Dutch minds for the defeat in the World Cup final in 1974 (and, perhaps, other events of yesteryear as well…), then the Euro ’88 final was the coronation, appropriately enough held in the same stadium as that 1974 reverse. Built for the 1972 Olympics, the Olympiastadion represented innovation and modernity in 1974, and was still relatively new in 1988. It has of course since been replaced for footballing purposes by the Allianz Arena, becoming effectively obsolete only thirty-three years after its first major appearance.

Your correspondent recalls having been roped into a Boys’ Brigade athletics meet that day in South-East London (despite at the time being singularly unathletic, unlike the acrobatic van Basten - as we would see later). However, it was with great fortune that his battalion was eliminated early, and he was able to race home to catch almost all of the final. Gullit, as noted earlier, was sacrificed a little for the greater good of the Dutch team’s tactics in this tournament, but he would have his moment around the half-hour mark. For all the artistic guile of the man, the goal was a bullet header which beat Dasayev more by power than precision, a Dutchman (I forget who) having thankfully raced back onside as the original corner was cleared.

Van Basten’s goal on 52 minutes, from a looping, lingering Muhren cross, is one of those footballing moments which I will take to the grave. As did the late Rinus Michels, no doubt, whose delighted disbelief as he came off the bench in celebration with his assistant was caught beautifully by the cameraman. Van Basten remains the only player capable of scoring a hat-trick against England and nevertheless remaining to this day my favourite-ever player bar none. The Hipster will confirm that a limited edition signed poster of Marco playing in Oranje circa 1990 (possibly one of the World Cup matches), resides at home – although this has in later years been somewhat cravenly moved by me from the lounge to the study. My attempt at justifying such an unjustifiable relegation is that Marco inspires me as I write…

'ave it...!
That goal was the last van Basten would ever score in a major finals, aged only 23 (though he did have one incorrectly not awarded in the group game against the now-CIS in Euro ’92, a perfectly timed, difficult volley when half bent-over smacking against the bar and just over the line, before rebounding out). It is poignant to acknowledge that statistic now but, at the time, the possibility did not occur at all.

There was still time for the USSR to come back, and the tide was certainly turning when van Breukelen committed a needless foul on Belanov who was going nowhere. However, “Positivo” (as he was sarcastically known back home due to an allegedly overweening personality) saved from the European Footballer of the Year but one, and the Dutch were able to see out the game with relative ease.

The final was, incidentally, the last major final in either the Euros or the World Cup to be played on a Saturday. For me, there is something inherently satisfying about Saturday afternoon finals in springtime, and seeing the Dutch squad lined up on benches in the stadium all stamping their feet in unison while singing and clapping crowned this tournament perfectly for this impressionable twelve-year-old. Euro ’88 may in fact have been a mixed bag technically, not particularly goal-laden (only 2.27 per match, compared with 2.21 in the lambasted Italia ’90 and behind Mexico ’86 on 2.54) and an unmitigated disaster for England. But there was not a single 0-0, red card, extra-time or penalty shoot-out (unique in this respect, I believe) and for colour, noise and drama it’s my favourite tournament finals to date. 

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