Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The decade's greatest footballing moments (2) - Les Bleus storm Euro 2000

Barthez, Thuram, Desailly, Blanc, Lizarazu, Vieira, Deschamps, Djorkaeff, Zidane, Dugarry, Henry.

Might this be the greatest international XI ever? Older generations talk about the 1970 Brazilians, or the Total Football Dutch who followed them. But each of these eleven players were part of the French side that won the 1998 World Cup on home soil. Considered outsiders initially, Aime Jacquet's side made great use of home advantage and the emerging talents of Zinedine Zidane, along with a fortunate draw (only Italy stand out amongst their pre-final adversaries, with South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Denmark, Paraguay and Croatia hardly behemoths of the tournament) and the bizarre pre-final seizure suffered by Ronaldo that utterly destroyed the preparations of Brazil.

So Jacquet's successor, Roger Lemerre, took France to the 2000 European Championships, just across the border in Belgium and Holland, with his side as one of the obvious favourites, but also question marks over just how appropriate the moniker of World Champions was. But Lemerre's side were two years older, and two years better. The likes of captain Didier Deschamps, defensive rock Laurent Blanc and attacker Youri Djorkaeff were in their thirties, but had lost none of their pace or skills, whilst the younger stars of the World Cup win, players like Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires and David Trezeguet, had improved from promising youngsters into world-class players. Add in the likes of Fabien Barthez, Lilian Thuram and, of course, the talismanic Zidane, who were all at the peak of their powers, and this was a team that oozed quality and had remarkable depth. And they had something to prove.

Euro 2000 was, frankly, damn good. Every group had incident. Kevin Keegan's England were at the centre of affairs - first blowing a two goal lead in a 3-2 defeat to a thrilling but volatile (as would become apparent later on), Portuguese side, but looked set to qualify after seeing off an uncharacteristically weak Germany with a single Alan Shearer goal. Though England appeared strong on paper, with Shearer and Michael Owen up front and David Beckham and Paul Scholes in midfield, Keegan's tactics ("he thinks they're a sort of mint", claimed David Mellor) were naive at best and they were hardly as good as the sum of their parts. Nevertheless, they appeared destined for the knockout stages after taking a 2-1 halftime lead against Romania in their final group match, with a draw sufficient for progression. However, a blunder by backup goalkeeper Nigel Martyn, in for the injured David Seaman, gifted an equalizer, and then as time ticked away Phil Neville guaranteed himself a free lager on any subsequent trip North of the border by giving away a daft penalty that condemned England to a 3-2 defeat and elimination. Portugal, meanwhile, stormed the group with maximum points, finishing off by stuffing Germany with their reserves. Ouch.

Considering France's easy group two years earlier, it seemed fitting that they be dumped into the group of death (there's always one) with the Dutch co-hosts, plus the up-and-coming Czechs and Denmark; the latter proved unable to cope in their first tournament after the retirement of the great Laudrup brothers, and managed to lose all three matches without scoring a goal. France and Holland both won their first two games, clinching qualification before playing each other. Lemerre rested several players whilst the hosts did not; regardless, it was a close, thrilling match which saw the Dutch come from behind to win 3-2 and take top spot.

The other host nation, Belgium, did not do nearly as well, despite beating Sweden in their first game, as a nightmare performance in their final match by goalkeeper Filip De Wilde, against Turkey, resulted in defeat and an early exit at the expense of the victors. In between, the Belgians lost to Italy, who romped the group despite pre-tournament doubters. Dino Zoff, the coach, had lost his goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, and star striker Christian Vieri to injury, whilst Alessandro Del Piero was half fit and Roberto Baggio retired. So Zoff dared to build his side around the Roman Francesco Totti, a player who flattered to deceive at several international tournaments to come but who repaid his coaches faith with a series of staggering performances as the second striker. Add a typically solid defence containing living legends such as Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Nesta and the evergreen Paolo Maldini, and the Nerazzuri stormed through a fairly weak section.

They would then see off Romania in the quarter finals, and then knocked out the Dutch in a penalty shoot out in the semis, in a match where the Netherlands missed two penalties in normal time and three more in the shootout, against opponents who played much of the game with only ten man, setting up a final against France, who had knocked out Spain and Portugal to get to Rotterdam.

Spain, of course, had qualified in circumstances now renowned; having lost to the robust, long-ball Norwegians in their opening game before beating Slovenia, they had to defeat Yugoslavia to go through in what is now recognized as one of the most incredible matches ever. Twice the Serbs went in front, but twice Spain equalized. Hopes were raised when Yugoslavia had a man sent off, but they nicked a goal from a set play, and led 3-2 entering injury time. In the 91st minute, Spain pulled level with a penalty, but it was not enough; in the fifth minute of injury time, the ball was launched forward one last time, and bounced to the feet of Alfonso, who simply closed his eyes and put his foot through it. Cue raucous celebration, cue Motty nearly having a coronary in the commentary box. Spain were through, but so to were Yugoslavia, as Norway paid for their safety first policy by going out after a 0-0 draw in their last game. The Spanish lost a thrilling quarter-final 2-1 to the French; Yugoslavia lost a not-so-thrilling game 6-1 to the Dutch.

If the games so far were incident-packed enough, that was nothing on the France-Portugal semi. Zidane's golden goal penalty, three minutes away from a penalty shoot out, won it, after Abel Xavier was sent off for handball on the line; He, and two other Portugal players, were banned for several months for shoving and abusing the ref. Somehow, Zidane kept his nerve in all the chaos and put France through to a showdown to Italy. The final itself would need a golden goal to win it, but it hardly went to the script; Zoff's previously pragmatic, safety first side took the initiative and led through Marco Delvecchio, and spurned several chances to increase their lead - Del Piero was especially guilty. France toiled for long periods and lacked their usual creative juices, but in the 94th minute substitute Sylvain Wiltord stole in to equalize and take it to extra time, then another sub, Trezeguet, wellied in a golden goal. France won the title their team (if not their performance in the final) deserved.

It would be their peak Blanc and Deschamps retired, and preparations for the 2002 World Cup were ruined by injury to Zidane. They crashed out of that tournament without scoring a goal, and then fell to Greece at Euro 2004's quarter final stage. The side that reached the final of the World Cup in Germany were, in truth, a far inferior team. But then, so was every other international side of the decade. The 2000 Bleus were truly a class above.


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