European Championship History: The 1990s
The nineties proved to be a decade of change. 1992 saw the first appearance of a united Germany in the European Championships, while gone was the USSR – replaced by the CIS, a transitional national team representing the Commonwealth of Independent States. Four years later, a host of changes were applied – the number of teams taking part doubled to 16, it was the first Championships with the back-pass rule and the Golden Goal was introduced.
The first tournament of the nineties saw the biggest shock of the European Championships so far, with unfancied Denmark knocking out both reigning European champions the Netherlands followed by reigning World Cup winners Germany in the final. The Danes didn’t even qualify for the tournament but were called up to replace the disqualified Yugoslavia.
A quite unremarkable group stage saw Denmark win just one of their three games – the lowest tally by a tournament winner in the groups between their introduction in 1980 and 2004, when Greece repeated the feat. They were heading out with 12 minutes remaining of their group stage campaign before Lars Elstrup’s 78th minute goal against France sent the Danes through to the semi-finals at the expense of the French.
Overall, just 21 goals were scored in 12 group stage games in 1992 (1.75 per game) – the lowest scoring group stage in European Championship history. Fortunately for fans, this didn’t continue into the knockout stages, as the two semi-finals and the final witnessed 11 goals overall (3.67 per game).
Denmark won’t be remembered as one of the most exciting teams to win a European Championship tournament. Over their five matches in 1992, they attempted the lowest shots (10.3) and shots on target (2.4) per 90 minutes and accumulated just 5.37 xG across 480 minutes in the entire campaign; a per 90 average of 1.01 which was only better than France (0.89) and England (0.79).
However, Denmark proved that a well-organised side could prevail in tournament football. They only trailed for 32 minutes through the tournament and in only one game – their 1-0 defeat to hosts Sweden in their second group stage fixture. In fact, they spent 40% of the in-play time during the 1992 tournament in a winning position, more than any other team.
As mentioned earlier, 1992 was the last European Championships tournament that the back-pass was a legitimate law of the game.
On the way to victory, Denmark utilised this rule more than any other team in 1992 – their goalkeeper received an average of 26 passes per 90; more than any other goalkeeper.
Of course, a side that spent the largest proportion of time in the lead (40%) during the tournament are more likely top use a legitimate tactic to waste time – but this tournament was saw the highest overall average of any Euros since detailed collection began in 1980 (18.6 per 90).
After stopping goalkeepers from picking up the ball following a pass from their own teammate, the 1996 tournament saw a dramatic drop in the average number of passes received by goalkeepers per 90 minutes, to a third of the 1992 average. Just 6.9 passes per 90 minutes were aimed at goalkeepers, showing that now that they weren’t able to pick up the ball, they definitely didn’t trust them with the ball at their feet.
But goalkeepers found other ways to keep busy at Euro 96 – via penalty shootouts.
The 1996 tournament had a new feel – there were now 16 teams taking part, there was an extra knockout round added and the Golden Goal rule was integrated to the Championships. With an extra knockout round added, the chances of a penalty shootout occurring were increased and we saw a record four take place at Euro 96, two of which involved England.
The hosts had endured heartache in their only previous penalty shootout – a 1990 World Cup semi-final exit to West Germany. They went some way to exorcizing that ghost with a 4-2 shootout victory in the quarter final versus Spain, but the ghost came back with a vengeance just four days later as they were once again knocked out in the semis of a major tournament by the Germans. England would go on to lose their next four penalty shootouts in major tournaments following Euro 96 – 1998 WC, 2004 Euros, 2006 WC & 2012 Euros – before finally ending their terrible run with a World Cup shootout victory against Colombia in 2018.
Overall, at the 1996 Championships there were 42 penalties taken in shootouts (37 scored). Alongside the tally of four shootouts overall, these are all records within a single European Championship tournament.
Germany won their first major title won as a unified nation, adding to the two European Championship titles won by West Germany prior to reunification. Their 2-1 victory in the final against the Czech Republic came via Oliver Bierhoff’s golden goal, five minutes into extra time – the first major international tournament to be decided by the new format.
Bierhoff was an unlikely hero for Germany, having played just 92 minutes in the tournament prior to his final and only entering the game against the Czech Republic in the 69th minute. His two goals to win the title were his only two shots on target in the entire tournament – he certainly knew how to make an impact.
Whilst it was Germany who lifted the trophy, it was the hosts England who could be said to have left the tournament having left the biggest impression. The country had fallen out of love with their national football team having put on an awful display at Euro 92 and not even qualified for the 1994 FIFA World Cup, with the additional pre-tournament issues following an alcohol-induced misdemeanour during a tour to Hong Kong.
Alan Shearer finished as the tournament top scorer with five goals and is still the only English player to win the Top Scorer award at a Euro Finals. Prior to the Euro 1996 opener at Wembley Stadium versus Switzerland, Shearer had gone 12 England appearances and 640 days without a goal for the Three Lions. He was largely written off as a legitimate goalscoring threat on the international stage, despite coming into the finals on the back of being the Premier League top goalscorer with 31 goals in 35 appearances for Blackburn Rovers.
England’s Euro 96 campaign is largely remembered for excellent wins over rivals Scotland and the exciting Netherlands, followed by that penalty shootout victory against Spain in the quarter finals before a devastatingly unlucky exit to the eventual winners Germany in the semis on penalties. It was an England team that made the country fall in love with their football team again. Balmy summer days and Three Lions reverberating around a packed Wembley Stadium – how English fans long for those days.
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