At Opta Analyst, we have the largest treasure trove of UEFA European Championship data. Here we use it to go back in time and celebrate Euro 1996, only the second time England had hosted a major international football tournament.

A Lack of Goals and a Rise in Shootouts

Penalty shootouts at the European Championship had only been used on four occasions prior to 1996. Most memorable was the 1976 final, when Czechoslovakia beat West Germany, which – up until the final of Euro 2020 – was the only occasion the showpiece match has ended in spot kicks. Antonín Panenka even trademarked the winning penalty.

There were no such delicacies in 1996, although Panenka-esque finishes were on show in open play: see Davor Suker’s astute lob and Karel Poborsky’s outrageous chip.

Peter Schmeichel and Vítor Baía are licking their wounds to this day.

But going back to penalty deciders, they were in fashion in Euro 96, with the tournament seeing four of the seven knockout matches go to a shootout. That’s tied with Euro 2020 (also four) for the most shootouts in a single edition, but the most recent edition of the tournament benefitted from having 15 knockout games compared to just seven.

The reliance on shootouts to settle matches at Euro 96 was a by-product of a total lack of goals. With a miserly 2.06 goals per game, 1996 is the lowest-scoring Euro tournament since moving to a 16+ team format. The seven knockout games produced nine goals, including only six in normal time.

For England, playing on home soil, it was a bittersweet experiment. They secured their first-ever penalty shootout victory against Spain in the quarter-finals – a cathartic achievement six years after heartache in Turin.

Cold sweats quickly returned though, when Germany knocked them out once again on penalties in the semi-finals. If only David Platt, Alan Shearer and Paul Gascoigne could have split the task between them – the trio have the best record among English players, converting all eight of their combined penalties in shootouts.

England best penalty taker records in a shootout

The Final

Teams facing each other twice in the same European Championship tournament is not a rarity – it had happened every eight years since 1988 before Euro 2020 broke that trend.

It was also the second time Germany and the Czech Republic had faced each other in the European Championship final, albeit in a slightly different guise to 1976, in the days when the Berlin Wall was still standing.

Earlier in the 1996 group stages, Germany had easily disposed of the Czech Republic (2-0) in a game that saw 10 yellow cards, a record for a 90-minute match in the history of the tournament and one that David Elleray – officiating that day – is no doubt savouring in retirement.

But it was the Czechs that struck first in the final. Pouncing onto a misplaced pass by player of the tournament Matthias Sammer, Karel Poborsky won a penalty that was clinically dispatched by Patrik Berger. It is still – to this day – the last penalty awarded in a European Championship final.

Germany vs Czechia Euro 96 final

With 20 minutes to go, and in dire need of a goal, Germany head coach Berti Vogts introduced Oliver Bierhoff. At the time plying his trade with mid-table Serie A side Udinese, Bierhoff was a late bloomer, earning his first cap with Germany at the age of 27. He made up for lost time in the final, scoring with his second touch of the game, before adding the winner in the fifth minute of extra-time, the first ever Golden Goal at a major international tournament.

Bierhoff also became the first (and so far only) player to score two or more goals as a substitute in a European Championship final. A “Doppelpack” for the ages.

Oliver Bierhoff Touches - Euro 96 final

Sammer Über Alles

The mid 90s were the crowning years of Matthias Sammer’s career. In 1996, he won the European Championship and the Ballon d’Or before adding a UEFA Champions League to his honours list with Borussia Dortmund the following year.

The Ballon d’Or was possibly the most impressive feat, given that Sammer was a defender. In fact, it was the first time a defender had been awarded the title since Franz Beckenbauer 20 years earlier.

Matthias Sammer open play tocuhes euro 96

A midfielder-turned-sweeper, Sammer’s touch map at Euro 1996 highlights a freedom to push forward, a la Beckenbauer. It was his runs from deep that mystified the opposition and contributed to both of Germany’s goals in the quarter-final against Croatia, first by forcing a penalty (below, converted by Jurgen Klinsmann) and then by scoring a goal of his own.

Germany had also used the tactic to their benefit earlier in the group stages against Russia, with Sammer opening the scoring from a long through ball courtesy of Dortmund teammate Andreas Möller.

It was not a completely flawless tournament – his foul on Poborsky led to the Czech Republic’s opening goal via the penalty spot in the final – but his versatility as a box-to-box libero was crucial in Germany’s strategy to offer alternatives going forward.

Matthias Sammer Euro 96

Czeched Out

The European Championship has a history of producing unexpected winners: Denmark in 1992, Greece in 2004.

The Czech Republic came very close to adding their name to that list.

80-1 outsiders entering the 1996 tournament, the Czech Republic’s path was a bumpy one. An inauspicious opening defeat against Germany was followed by a morale-boosting win against Italy, but it wasn’t until an 88th-minute equaliser in their final group game against Russia that passage to the knockout stages was secured.

Despite registering no more than 0.7 expected goals (xG) in the quarters (vs. Portugal) and semis (vs. France), the Czechs found a way through to the final where they couldn’t capitalise on their opening goal, instead losing to a Bierhoff golden goal in the fifth minute of extra-time.

As any underdog will attest, there is an element of riding one’s luck – the Czechs registered an xG differential of -0.41 per 90 in the 1996 tournament. That’s the second-lowest mark for a Euro finalist after Denmark and their improbable 1992 triumph.

Euro 1996 also became an ideal shop window for the attacking trio of Patrik Berger, Pavel Nedved and Poborsky. All secured big-money moves to major European clubs that summer. Poborsky, notably, had caught the eye of Alex Ferguson. A transfer to Manchester United would ensue, to moderate subsequent success. The Czech winger assisted twice in the group stages and was involved in both of his side’s goals in the knockout phase – his sublime lob against Portugal in the quarter-final and securing the penalty in the final.

A pacey winger also tasked with set-piece delivery duties, he is the most prolific assist provider in the history of the European Championship (six assists in 14 matches – two in 1996, one in 2000, three in 2004), the vast majority coming from that right flank. Not that United reaped the benefits. Poborský would end up delivering half that number with the Red Devils – three assists in 32 league games.

France and England, so Close and yet so Far

England and France – the two beaten semi-finalists – were the only teams never to trail at any point at Euro 96.

Their campaigns had further parallels:

  • Both wanted to make an impact after missing out on the 1994 World Cup
  • All of their knockout games went to penalties
  • Both had a fall guy: Gareth Southgate for England and Reynald Pedros for France, the only players to miss their attempt in the shootouts

England were focused on bringing football home, 30 years after their World Cup triumph. To help them get there, the organisers had devised a plan for England to play all five of their games at Wembley, provided they finished top of their group. It was heartache for all non-southerners, especially given seven of the eight host cities at Euro 96 were located in or north of Birmingham.

Geographical observations to one side, England’s 120-minute semi-final against Germany remains the last time a team didn’t make a single substitution in a Euro match. Take that, lawmakers and your five subs.

Who knows, fresher legs and minds may have helped Paul Gascoigne toe-poke that ball into the open net in extra-time, two weeks after his heroics against Scotland.

England would rue their missed chances. If we look at their expected goals numbers, their performances were on a par with Germany.

England 1-1 Germany Euro 96 semi-final

Meanwhile, France had come into the tournament on the back of a 23-game unbeaten run, the longest in their history. Les Bleus’ performance at Euro 96 would be a precursor to their World Cup triumph two years later, with a focus on defensive solidity. Their figure of 0.69 expected goals against per 90 ended up being the best of any side at the tournament.

It was more laboured at the other end of the pitch, with a paltry five goals in as many games, including none in the knockout stages. They even failed to register a single shot on target in the 120 minutes against the Czech Republic in the semi-finals. Only one of Youri Djorkaeff and Zinedine Zidane’s 36 combined shots found the back of the net, with the pair clearly keeping some in reserve for 1998.

Shearer’s Euro Breakthrough

Going into Euro 96, Alan Shearer hadn’t scored in his previous 935 minutes for England, more than 15 hours without finding the back of the net.

The pressure was on when Terry Venables started him up front in the opening match against Switzerland. The shackles were off after 23 minutes though, when Paul Ince played Shearer through to open the scoring.

The soon-to-be Newcastle frontman would find the net in four of England’s five matches and become only the second England player to secure the Golden Boot at a major international tournament after Gary Lineker at the 1986 World Cup.

Alan Shearer xG map Euro 96

Shearer’s shot map is one of a true No. 9 and highlights how he made space for himself in key positions – only three of his 16 non-penalty shots were from outside the box – but also how clinical he was when faced with big chances, putting away all but one of the six shots with an xG value above 0.25.

Shearer was also ultra-dependable in England’s two shootouts against Spain and Germany, stepping up as the first penalty taker in both, and finding the net each time. He could (should?) have even added an assist to his name with his cross for Gascoigne in the semi-final against Germany… Millimetres.

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