** The first finals of the new millennium saw a co-hosting history made by Holland and Belgium while France duly regain the crown they had won in 1984 with a thrilling 2-1 golden goal victory over an Italian team who had surprised even their own fans by reaching the final. The finals provided thrill-a-minute football to live in the memory of all who were there.
The final was one such occasion. Italy, in defiance of their defensive traditions, traded lightning raids blow for blow with the World Cup holders in a goalless first half and went ahead through Marco Delvecchio 11 minutes into the second half. Even man of the tournament Zinedine Zidane appeared unable to work his usual magic as the match ran over the 90 with Italy on the brink of glory.
Then the Italian defence failed to clear one last, despairing up-and-under and substitute Sylvain Wiltord equalised seconds from the whistle. Italy, physically and psychologically the worse for wear after a tougher semi-final, ultimately subsided 13 minutes into extra time. Monaco’s Juventus-bound striker David Trezeguet jabbed home the winner. It was the second successive victory for France by a golden goal and the second consecutive European Championship to have been decided that way.
It was a miserable tournament for England who went out in the same group as fellow under-achievers Germany. Against expectations, their group was lifted by the impressively disciplined Romania and an inspired Portugal.
The Portuguese made their mark right from the start. They went 2-0 down to England in 17 minutes in Eindhoven yet hit back to win 3-2 with a superb long-range strike from Barcelona’s Luis Figo, a diving header from Joao Pinto and an opportunist second-half strike from Nuno Gomes. The same day only awful finishing by Viorel Moldovan let Germany escape their clash with Romania with a 1-1 draw. That placed extra weight on the long-awaited meeting of Germany and England in Charleroi.
Sadly, hooligan trouble erupted in the town square before the match and by the following morning police had detained and expelled more than 900 English fans – some hooligans, some genuine fans caught up in the chaos in both Charleroi and Brussels.
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As for the match, England won 1-0 with a 53rd-minute header by skipper Alan Shearer. They then lost 3-2 to a Romanian who defied the absence through suspension of inspirational Gheorghe Hagi.
All four quarter-finals were decided in 90 minutes without recourse to extra-time or shoot-outs. Two goals from rising star Nuno Gomes provided Portugal with a 2-0 win over Turkey while Italy defeated Romania by the same margin courtesy of Francesco Totti and Pippo Inzaghi. Holland justified favourites’ status when they thrashed Yugoslavia 6-1 with a hat-trick from Patrick Kluivert but complacency nearly cost France dear against Spain.
Zidane fired France ahead from a free kick after 32 minutes only for Gaizka Mendieta to equalise from a penalty four minutes later. The French regained the lead through Youri Djorkaeff right on half-time yet squeezed through only because Raul lofted a last-minute penalty over the bar.
The drama factor increased in semi-finals which were both decided from the penalty spot. France maintained the thrill-a-minute fashion by defeating Portugal 2-1 on Zidane’s golden goal penalty in Brussels albeit only after mayhem when the Portuguese contested the award for hands against Abel Xavier.
Portugal’s ‘golden generation’ had come under heavy pressure from media and fans to land a first-ever senior trophy and thus fulfil all the promise generated by world youth title triumphs in 1989 and 1991. They led 1-0 at half-time through Nuno Gomes but France levelled through Thierry Henry to secure extra-time. At the end the tension erupted into explosive bad temper with lengthy subsequent bans for Gomes, Abel Xavier and Paulo Bento.
The second semi-final was decided by the only penalty shootout of the event, Holland falling 3-1 to Italy after a 0-0 extra-time draw. The cliche about a team “paying the penalty” was never more apt. Holland’s Frank De Boer and Kluivert not only both missed penalties in normal time but De Boer, Jaap Stam and Paul Bosvelt also failed in the shootout. Italy battled through despite playing all but the first halfhour with only 10 men after the expulsion of Gianluca Zambrotta.
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