France ‘84, Holland ’88, Spain ’08: who are the best ever Euros team?

Dutch Flag

What do you get if you cross Total Football with tiki-taka? Ramba Zamba fußball, the name given to the colourful, vibrant style of West Germany in the early 1970s.

West Germany 1972

The positions in their 1-3-3-3 formation were little more than a basis for negotiation. Nobody demonstrated the fluidity of the team better than Franz Beckenbauer, who was sort of the original John Stones. He had moved back from midfield to create the position of attacking sweeper and was so cool he played international football with a resting heart rate.

Beckenbauer was one of three superstars in the side, along with Günter Netzer and Gerd Müller; indeed the three were a vote away from sharing the Ballon d’Or that year. The first goal in the final showed the best of all three: Beckenbauer’s run from the halfway line, Netzer’s improvised volley off the bar and Müller’s finish. Müller was not a natural goalscorer; he was a supernatural goalscorer, with an eerie awareness in the penalty area. He subjected opposing goalkeepers to Tor(!)-ture by scoring the scruffiest goals imaginable. Any temptation to say he was lucky had disappeared by the time he scored the last of his 735 goals for club and country.

Even though Müller scored twice in both the semis and the final, the tournament belonged to Netzer. He was a playboy off the field and a playmaker on it; an heroically decadent individual who had a different concept of exercise to everyone else. In short, Netzercise involved other people doing his running. It was stunningly arrogant, and entirely justified. His performances should have permanently obliterated the joyless tripe about not picking luxury players. In that form he was essential, and elevated a great side into possibly the greatest international side of all.

He inspired the almost mythical 3-1 win at Wembley in the first leg of the quarter-final (the actual finals tournament consisted of only four teams in those days), which is still regarded as Germany’s best and most important victory. They beat the hosts Belgium 2-1 in the semi-final, and – in what many good judges think was their best performance of all – walloped a good USSR 3-0 in the final.

West Germany were wrongly fingered as the villains when, without the fading Netzer, they won the World Cup in 1974, but two years earlier they had been hailed as the saviours of football. “Football from the year 2000,” said l’Équipe. It was an almighty compliment at the time, even if, as Scott Murray pointed out: “nobody could have possibly anticipated the horrors of Carsten Jancker, Paulo Rink and Jens Jeremies.”

West Germany were the neutrals’ darlings. After the final, as German fans trolleyed pints of Happy until the small hours, residents of Brussels complained to one policeman about the noise. They felt the short shrift of the law. “With a team like Germany,” he said, “there’s good reason to celebrate.”

Germany’s starting XI for the 1972 final
Germany’s starting XI for the 1972 final Photograph: The Guardian

France 1984

France had a man sent off in the first and last games of Euro 84. Many will tell you it was no hardship, because they were a four-man team anyway. Or perhaps a one-man team. Such was the influence of Le Carré Magique (The Magic Square), their charming midfield, and especially Michel Platini – who scored nine times in five matches to help France, the hosts, win their first major tournament. Nobody has scored as many European Championship goals in an entire career, never mind a tournament.

The narrow focus is harsh on some excellent players, particularly the goalkeeper Joël Bats, the classy defender Maxime Bossis and the left-back Jean-François Domergue, who did a Thuram before Lilian Thuram by scoring the only two goals of his international career in the semi-final. (Thuram played 142 times and Domergue nine, mind you.) There were other echoes of 1998 in the strikers; the five centre-forwards scored only one goal between them, in the last minute of the tournament, and most – good players though they were – would make decent answers on Pointless.

That could never be said of the midfield, which has a case for being the greatest of all time. They played together for the first occasion only four months before the tournament, in a friendly win over England, even though Jean Tigana and Platini were 28 and Alain Giresse 31. Luis Fernández, 24, completed a midfield quartet who moved the ball around with the same languor of slackers passing around a bong. Giresse’s goal against Belgium was the most beautiful evidence of that.

Platini scored all types of goals, including a brilliant diving header as part of a perfect hat-trick against Yugoslavia, his second in two games after another in the 5-0 tousing of Belgium. He also scored the 118th-minute winner in the 3-2 semi-final victory over Portugal, a match for which the word “epic” feels inadequate; the BBC commentator John Motson lost it more than at any other time in his career. That goal came from yet another surge from the brilliant Tigana; he and Fernández should donate their lungs to the Fifa museum when they die.

The final was a nervy 2-0 win over Spain, but nobody could argue with France’s triumph. They are the only team to win every match at the European Championships, and in 1984 they won all 12 of their matches. Most of them with 11 players.

France’s starting XI for the 1984 final
France’s starting XI for the 1984 final Photograph: The Guardian

Holland 1988

After the World Cup misery of the 1970s, the Dutch had an understandable fear of finals, which made it even crueller that they had to play two of them to win Euro 88. The historical importance of the semi-final against West Germany was such that, to some of the players and most of the country, the final against the USSR was almost an afterthought. They won it anyway, and in a manner that wowed the world.

The celebration of that Dutch team is fractionally over the top; they did not always have the substance to match their obvious style. They had significant moments of luck in all four of their victories – even England hit the post twice at 0-0 before losing 3-1 to Marco van Basten’s hat-trick – but when they were good, they were breathtaking. It’s hard not to be charmed by the memory of Van Basten, Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard and Ronald Koeman wiping his backside with Olaf Thon’s shirt.

Besides, nobody could deny they were due a bit of luck. The tournament was full of payback for the 1970s. Wim Kieft’s freakish 82nd-minute goal to beat Ireland – without which Holland would have gone out at the group stage – spun off the pitch like a leg-break, just as Rob Rensenbrink’s goalbound shot did in the final minute of the 1978 World Cup final before hitting the post. Van Basten was offside as well.

The semi-final against West Germany had weird echoes of the 1974 final, and not just because of the second world war; there were penalties at both ends and the eventual winners got back into the match through a dodgy spot-kick. Even the winning goals resembled each other. It was, wrote David Winner in Brilliant Orange, “A night of dark memories and seeming redemption unfolded, with the intensity of a final duel in a Sergio Leone revenge western.”

Yet Van Basten’s last-minute winner could have been scripted by Hitchcock; a sudden, shocking thrust after a seemingly innocuous move. It came from the back, where the Netherlands won Total Football bingo throughout the tournament by playing a central-defensive pair of Koeman and Rijkaard. At a time when everyone else had stoppers at the back, they had starters – as Koeman showed with the penetrative pass to Jan Wouters that led to Van Basten’s goal.

There was little of the cliched ???infighting. So much of that was down to their total respect for the coach Rinus Michels. They gave him a present of a gold watch on the day before the game, and then Van Basten gave him an even bigger present during the final. His astonishing volley left Michels staggering around dazed on the touchline, his hand over his face in gratitude and disbelief. He was the Godfather of Total Football and a culture obsessed with striving for perfection, but not even he thought it could actually be achieved.

That final, against the last great USSR side, who had beaten Holland in the opening game, was even throughout yet felt preordained. Such was the mind-altering power of Van Basten’s goal. It didn’t just change our perception of the game, it changed our perception of that team. You never get a second chance to make a last impression; the one made by Holland in 1988 will last forever.

Holland 1988
Holland’s starting XI for the 1988 final

France 2000

First the world, then Europe. France may have done things the wrong way round when it came to global domination, but the way they developed their team was so logical as to verge on cliché. At the 1998 World Cup they relied largely on one of the great defences. Two years later they had found a comparable attack. Better still, they played with the freedom of a team that had established themselves as winners – and who didn’t have to endure the mixed blessing of being hosts.

Although they often played three tacklers – Didier Deschamps, Emmanuel Petit and Patrick Vieira – France were a much more attacking side. A lot of the names were the same as in 1998, but Vieira and Thierry Henry, who Arsène Wenger had just converted into a centre-forward, were regulars and represented a serious upgrade. Zinedine Zidane, whose contribution in 1998 is wildly overrated, was also, in his own words, “at the pinnacle of my art”. One piece of control and balance in the semi-final against Portugal still looks astonishing 16 years later

For all that, France had a very good view from the precipice for most of the knockout stages. Raúl missed a last-minute penalty in their 2-1 win over Spain in the quarter-finals, and they would have lost both the semi and the final but for Fabien Barthez’s reactions.

Zidane ignored an almighty rumpus to win the semi-final with a nerveless golden penalty, three minutes before a shootout; and Sylvain Wiltord equalised against Italy in the 93rd minute of the final. Then Robert Pirès set up David Trezeguet to wallop a Golden Goal. Wiltord, Pirès and Trezeguet were all substitutes. The final was a perfect demonstration of so many of France’s qualities: strength in depth, enormous mental strength, and the aura of a team who had got better since becoming world champions.

France 2000
France’s starting XI for the 2000 final

Spain 20 08-12

The memories of Spain’s greatest era are still fresh in the memory: Iniesta and Xavi, taka and tiki. Yet in many ways they were two different sides. The evolution between Euro 2008 and Euro 2012 was stark, and the two teams – though both defined by one phrase, tiki-taka – had many differences.

The 2012 team were harder to beat but the 2008 side may be remembered more fondly – they had significantly less possession but were far more progressive. And they were new. The freshness made Spain more exciting, and meant that opposing teams were not putting 10 men behind the ball. Time has partially forgotten players such as Marcos Senna, the defensive midfielder who had a wonderful tournament, and Carlos Marchena. Sergio Busquets and Gerard Piqué could not get a game for their club never mind their country, and the 1-0 win over Germany in the final came two days before Pep Guardiola officially took over as Barcelona manager.

Spain went into the tournament fancied by many, but with that came the fear they would be the underachieving joke of the tournament (England didn’t qualify). Instead, they changed perceptions of the Spanish national team forever, and redefined football with the sheer volume of their passing. Two wallopings of a good Russian side – 4-1 in the opening game, 3-0 in the semi-final – stood out. They even had not one but two centre-forwards in Fernando Torres and David Villa.

In 2012, they mainly used Cesc Fàbregas as a false nine and, as wonderful as their 4-0 demolition over Italy in the final was, their legacy was not a performance but a philosophical debate: whether it was OK to win boring, the aesthetic equivalent of winning ugly, as Spain did for most of the tournament. That was only partially their fault, though there were certainly times when tiki-taka became tiki-takanaccio. It worked, however: Spain concede only one goal in the tournament.

The 2008 side were a lot more fun to watch – and, you suspect, to play in. But the 2012 team, though verging on an art project with their indulgent passing, dominated games like no international side in history, with almost 70 per cent of possession in the tournament. Their technical accomplishment was astonishing, and they had the most intimidating aura. Opposing teams could barely get out of their third, never mind their half.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Rob Smyth, for The Guardian on Sunday 5th June 2016 13.09 Europe/London

Spain 2008
Spain’s starting XI for the 2008 final
Spain 2012
Spain’s starting XI for the 2012 final

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