A Euro Champs Odyssey: 1976, 2006 And All That In Zagreb

Philip Cornwall visits a country that doesn't exist but staged the finals 36 years ago, and a stadium where England have stumbled and soared.. He's arrived in Zagreb...

Last Updated: 07/06/12 at 16:08

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On a warm night in what has long been the capital of independent Croatia, you half-expect a couple of English Heritage blue plaques on the outside of Zagreb's Maksimir Stadium. 'Gary Neville played a back-pass here,' one would read, recalling how England's new assistant coach found the net for his second own goal in the penultimate of his 85 internationals, when a bad bounce deceived Paul Robinson in October 2006 and gave impetus to Steve McClaren's rapid descent to disaster. 'Theo Walcott shot on sight here. No, really,' the other would say, recording the day 23 months later when the hopes invested in Arsenal's speedy underachiever for once paid off and he kickstarted Fabio Capello's tenure.

Less parochially, as the European Championship prepares for a step into the heart of the old Soviet bloc for the first time, I am retracing the steps the finals took in 1976. That year they were held the wrong side of the still-standing Iron Curtain for the only time, and won by a team that no longer exists against another that no longer exists in a country that, also, no longer exists.

Yugoslavia had divorced the Soviet bloc by the time it welcomed Czechoslovakia, West Germany and Holland for the 1976 finals, the last played with the original four-team format. Matches were staged here and in Belgrade and, after beating Holland in extra time at the Maksimir, Czechoslovakia drew 2-2 with West Germany in Belgrade. At the time the Germans carried no especial reputation from 12 yards and the Czechs and Slovaks were not daunted. Anton Panenka's winning chip down the middle is famous but the identity of the erring German is less well known; one certainty after the Champions League final is that Uli Hoeness, the Bayern Munich president, will have been able to tell Bastian Schweinsteiger that he knew how he felt. And at least Schweinsteiger hit the target.

West Germany, European champions four years earlier and World Cup winners in 1974, were attempting the same treble contemplated today by Spain. Fourteen years on from Hoeness's miss the two Germanys unified; because the predecessors were smaller, the single Germany receives credit for the West's performances. But east of the Iron Curtain - "from Stettin the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic", in Winston Churchill's phrase - that does not apply.

Yugoslavia not only hosted in 1976, they were runners-up in 1960 and 1968. Looking at English newspaper previews, Croatia's best performance is listed as quarter-finalists; the Czech Republic's as runners-up in 1996; Russia's as semi-finalists in 2008; and Ukraine as having never taken part. This is all technically true and Slovakians, whose compatriots played the majority role in the 1976 triumph but were often omitted by the standard abbreviation of Czechoslovakia to its first five letters, will no doubt be pleased that their divorced half no longer gets the credit.

Yet from the point of view of the tournament's history something is missing. Individual Czechs ('76) and Russians and Ukrainians ('60) have all taken home a winner's medal; Croats tasted final defeat in 1960 and 1968.

Valeriy Lobanovskiy, the patriarch of Kiev football who later forged the post-independence Dynamo and died in his post, also led the Soviet Union to their last hurrah, with 11 Dynamo players in the 20-man squad that reached the final of Euro 88. The map of Europe has changed and swallowed their achievements.

The upheavals of 1989 onwards were unthinkable in 1976; they remained unthinkable when the USSR beat Holland in a 1988 group game but were beaten by Marco van Basten and co in the final. It can be tempting to view the lines on a map as being as immutable as the contours of the mountains or the passage of the rivers, especially so when the borders were enforced with tanks and nuclear ferocity east of the Iron Curtain. As it turned out they were anything but fixed.

We could not see that storm coming. Today we know that Europe is undergoing a profound crisis with an unknown outcome. Some of the most unstable economies - Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Spain and above all Greece - are sending teams to Poland and Ukraine. The latter host is divided against itself over relations with Russia and the status of that country's language, prompting fights in parliament and demonstrations in the street.

Whether Euro 2012 can escape the upheavals is questionable; where the lines on the map will be drawn come 2016 is even less certain.

*****

It has been a white-water ride for Croatia as well as us since we were drawn together for Euro 2008 qualifying. After delivering the coup de grace to McClaren with their chess-like Wembley winner, Slaven Bilic's side swept the board their group at the finals, including dispatching Germany, and against Turkey in the quarter-finals took the lead in the 119th minute, only to hit the rocks in the 120th and then lose the shoot-out.

A 9-2 aggregate margin of defeat against Capello's side in World Cup qualifying denied Bilic's men a place even in the play-offs for South Africa. They needed that route to reach Polkraine, after coming off second-best to Greece, though at least this gave them a chance to put right what went wrong against Turkey in Vienna four years ago.

With England in such turmoil it is hard to look beyond the round-robin games but, if Roy Hodgson's team do emerge from Group D, then their quarter-final opponents would come from one out of Spain, Italy, the Republic of Ireland - and Croatia.

Eight years ago England played Croatia in Lisbon, winning 4-2 in the final group match of a tournament where, as Gary Neville repeats, we should have done so much better. That electric 90 minutes and the opening against Portugal are among my favourite memories of following England abroad. I try to block off what happened from the moment of Wayne Rooney's quarter-final injury onwards, though I can vividly remember screaming at David James - from 30 rows up - to stand still at a couple of the penalties, waiting to catch out the one down the middle. What would he give to be able to pick up where he left off in those two matches. What would I give for him to have that chance.

Philip Cornwall

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