Eusebio, penalties, Germans, Southgate, Watkins: ranking England’s seven major tournament semi-finals

Dave Tickner
England semi-finals from 1990. 1996 and 2018.
England semi-finals from 1990. 1996 and 2018.

England have now played in seven major men’s tournament semi-finals, and it’s a pretty wild fact that the majority of those now involve Gareth Southgate as either player or manager.

You can even make it half of eight with Southgate as head coach if you want to include the 2019 Nations League which, to be absolutely clear, we do not. We’re only including the distinctly Nations League-adjacent Euro 1968 under duress.

There’s lots more on that a little bit further on, though, as we do the inevitable and rank all seven times our brave boys have heroically battled/steamrollered/sh*thoused their way to this stage of a big summer tournament. Southgate himself has improved England’s record in these games from one win in four to three wins in seven, which is pretty, pretty, pretty good.


7) Euro 1968: Yugoslavia 1-0 England
Ah yes, the forgotten England semi-final. That is not a figure of speech either: we literally forgot about it until being reminded that it happened and had to add it in.

Obviously, that means it has to take last place in our ranking. Because say what you like about the other semi-finals in this list, we remembered they existed.

We have some mitigation here. It came long before we were born, for one thing, but also the early European Championships were, in our considered opinion, bollocks. It was a four-team finals tournament, for crying out loud.

That’s not a major tournament, that’s a Nations League finals. Are we counting England’s semi-final from 2019 here? As previously stated no, we are not. Yet this makes the list because ‘technically’ it was a Euros and not a Nations League. Pfft.

For other reasons why this tournament was warm balls, see the fact Italy got through their semi-final against the Soviet Union on the toss of a f***ing coin and then won the final against Yugoslavia in something called a ‘replay’. What the heck even is that? Does any of that sound like a proper tournament? No.

Imagine a European champion now who got through the whole tournament while barely being able to win a game properly. It would be unthinkable.

Apparently it counts and we have to include it but we make no apology for chucking it last. Because the game itself was also quite cack by the sounds of it.

In the two years since England lifted the World Cup, the suspicion lingered that home advantage had been the deciding factor. It rather overlooked the fact that the Three Lions went four years without losing an away game, from a 1-0 Taça das Nações (the charmingly named ‘Little World Cup’) defeat to Argentina in June 1964 to a 1-0 loss against West Germany in June 1968.

Trivia fans: that was England’s first ever defeat to The Germans. It was their ninth meeting. We used to be the big brother to their annoying younger sibling.

That friendly was a pre-tournament warm-up for Euro 68, for which England qualified by topping a group comprised of the results of the two most recent British Home Championships. They beat Wales and Northern Ireland home and away, losing to Scotland at Wembley but securing the draw they needed to advance in front of 134,000 at Hampden Park during the last round of games. There followed a two-legged quarter-final against Spain, England beating the holders 3-1 on aggregate.

The elimination of La Furia Roja left the field pretty much open. Italy, knocked out of the World Cup by the actual North Korea, faced a strong Soviet Union sans Lev Yashin. After a goalless draw and continued stalemate during extra-time in Naples, captain Giacinto Facchetti called correctly and the hosts advanced on a coin toss which to this day sounds perfectly legitimate and not at all dubious. The beaten Soviets just accepted a completely fair defeat without even calling for a best of three.

In the other semi-final, the winners of the World Cup took on a team that failed to even reach that tournament. Yugoslavia finished third in their qualifying group, behind both France and Norway, losing to Sweden in the round of 16 at Euro 1964. England were favourites to win the entire competition on balance, although there was little to truly separate the contenders.

That bore true as England and Yugoslavia played out a dour, attritional game. The loss of Geoff Hurst and Nobby Stiles to injury in that aforementioned friendly with West Germany undeniably affected preparations as Ramsey felt compelled to start with a five-man midfield behind the isolated Roger Hunt. It kept things tight in defence but creativity and guile was hampered. Fill in your own jokes here if you want.

Hunt and Alan Ball had chances but the breakthrough was Yugoslavia’s and it arrived late. A high ball from the left caught Bobby Moore, of all people, out of position and flat-footed. Dragan Dzajic masterfully brought it down and finished past Gordon Banks with four minutes remaining.

England failed to muster a response beyond that of Alan Mullery becoming the first England player ever to be sent off when he retaliated after a particularly robust challenge from winger Dobrivoje Trivic. He later pointed out that “the player I kicked out at had been hacking at me throughout the game” and so he “turned round and kicked him in the how’s-your-fathers” out of “sheer anger”, which seems fair enough.

Manchester United had won the European Cup a week before but Bobby Charlton had failed to transfer his goalscoring heroics in that final against Benfica to a slightly more physical match. A furious Ramsey suggested that Yugoslavia were worse than the “animals” of Argentina that his side had encountered at the 1966 World Cup.

“I have never seen anything like that,” he said. “I don’t think even the Argentines were worse. We are hard – when we go for the ball. But the ball is always there to be won. These people do their worst when the ball is away. It is evil.”

Also, we would argue quite strongly that the infamous “years of hurt” should probably be counted from this point. Never made much sense to start it from the year they won the sodding World Cup.


6) 2018 World Cup: England 1-2 Croatia (aet)
An early England lead, thanks to Kieran Trippier’s free-kick, was followed by chances to increase that lead in a first half when England had the measure of Croatia and absolutely no chance that this direction of travel would change with subsequent rueing.

Most infamously, there was Harry Kane’s decision to go for goal rather than square the ball to Raheem Sterling.

It was a spectacular save rather than a miss, but there’s no doubt that while the chance of Kane scoring was high, the percentage call was the pass to Sterling.

Ah well. England were still in full control and Croatia were offering relatively little as the first half came to a close. This should still be fine, and we’ll worry about France in the final later.

But the second half brought with it a creeping, growing sense of dread inevitability. England withdrew into themselves – just as they had in the last 16 against Colombia and have done time and again since to mixed but always nerve-shredding results – and Croatia gradually took control as the midfield superiority of Modric, Brozovic and Rakitic came to the fore.

Ivan Perisic equalised, and England were clinging on to reach extra-time. Ten minutes from the end of the extra 30 minutes Mario Mandzukic scored a second Croatia goal that had been coming from the moment they equalised and England’s long wait to reach another major final stretched on.

It nevertheless remains true that England have only ever lost a major semi-final in 90 minutes once, which we’ve decided is definitely a thing. And you can include the Nations League there as well if you must, because it took the Dutch the added 30 minutes to sort out an England midfield featuring Ross Barkley and Fabian Delph.


5) Euro 2020: England 2-1 Denmark (aet)
Neither the best nor most memorable game of England’s run three years ago, and a result that at the time felt rather fortunate but now for some inexplicable reason over the last fortnight or so seems less and less so. Weird.

England hadn’t exactly powered their way through the group stage, with a now familiar total of two goals scored in winning their group, but the knockouts had told a different story. The Germany game was tight and tense, but England were deserving winners even if a final score of 2-0 against a humdrum German side spoke of comfort that never truly existed.

The quarter-final was a breeze, though, England sauntering past Ukraine 4-0 in Rome to set up a return to Wembley for a date with a Denmark side whose progress through the tournament after Christian Eriksen’s on-field collapse was an inspiring one.

Denmark took the lead after half an hour through Mikkel Damsgaard, but England were soon back on terms via an own goal from Simon Kjaer, whose overall tournament on and off the pitch absolutely did not deserve such a moment.

From there on it was standard nail-chomping, nerve-mangling agony to the final whistle before what we will euphemistically describe as a soft penalty late in the first half of extra time gave Harry Kane the chance to put England ahead for the first time. He missed it, but not the rebound and in our memory of it, England actually saw out the closing 15 minutes or so reasonably well which is almost certainly not how it actually happened.

Alas, it would serve only to set England up for their first ever defeat in a major tournament final. A stain on Gareth Southgate’s name that none of his predecessors carry. He has always been a fraud.


4) 1990 World Cup: England 1-1 West Germany (aet, West Germany won 4-3 on penalties)
You’ll have heard it all before, of course, from the story of this game itself to those who point out (fairly) that Italia 90 was actually quite shit and turgid for the most part. And then of course there’s the grown-ups at desperate pains to loftily point out that only England care about the supposed Anglo-German rivalry actually.

But it was still the first time England had reached the last four of any major tournament for more than two decades and all that, and it was a huge deal for a side that had been humiliated at Euro 88 and, despite being among the six seeds (in order to keep them and their hooligan following in Sardinia-based Group F and off the Italian mainland, if you believe some fairly plausible conspiracy theories) were not expected to pull up too many trees in Italy.

England’s group was markedly dour. Seven goals in six games, and the only decisive result was a 1-0 England win that earned them top spot. You’re already ahead of us here with the comparisons, of course, but the Italia 90-Euro 24 similarities don’t even end there, with second and third place needing to be separated by silliness despite both those teams making it through in the end thanks to third-place safety nets. Ireland ‘beat’ Netherlands on the drawing of lots in 1990, just as Denmark edged out Slovenia on disciplinary countback this time around.

Late drama in the last 16 as well, was it? Oh yes.

England played out 118 goalless minutes against Belgium in the second round until Paul Gascoigne took that free-kick and David Platt hit that swivel volley and Gary Lineker made that face.

The quarter-final against the breakout stars of Cameroon was absolutely wild, with England leading and trailing before a Gary Lineker penalty forced extra-time and a second one secured in the win in extra time.

It all led to a semi-final date with old rivals West Germany (although, actually, I think you’ll find…).

Watching clips of it now, it’s disconcerting to be reminded that it all took place 10 years closer to 1966 than to the present day. It’s like that thing with the T-Rex and the stegosaurus and the iPod. This 34-year-old match still feels like part of England’s modern history, yet it is well over half Gary Lineker’s life ago.

England played heroically. But Peter Shilton’s inability to get off the ground once again cost England dear in a pretty big game as an Andy Brehme free-kick looped off the unfortunate Paul Parker and over England’s 40-year-old keeper, a man whom time’s relentless march had already significantly impacted.

Lineker levelled with his 10th and final World Cup goal 10 minutes from the end of normal time, and you all know what happened next even if it is now distressingly and discombobulatingly ancient history.


3) 1966 World Cup: England 2-1 Portugal
Three of England’s six previous semi-finals to have been played at one iteration of Wembley or another. The first was against Portugal and has a surprisingly low-key place in English football lore when you think about it.

And it’s really because of one fairly simple reason: England won it. Semi-final defeats live longer in the memory for the obvious reason that they provide an end to the narrative arc, with absolutely no human being alive or dead having ever cared about a third-place play-off.

But when you win the semi-final, it just becomes another staging post in the story.

Most of England’s ongoing 1966 and all that obsession is thus based around the final. And we all know what happened in the 1966 World Cup final – well, everyone apart from Rio Ferdinand.

But really, that’s a shame in a way. Because this semi-final was by all accounts an absolute corker. Portugal had Eusebio and were outrageously good, and England had to be at their absolute best to beat them.

Bobby Charlton smacked home both England goals to seemingly settle matters, only for his brother Jack to handle a goalbound header. Eusebio, who would end the tournament with the Golden Boot, scored the penalty to set up the most nervous of finishes, but England held on to win a game of the highest quality and set up a final against West Germany that – spoiler alert, Rio – Alf Ramsey’s side would win 4-2 with a chunky assist from The Russian Linesman, and some people on the pitch who thought it was all over, and what was until 2022 the only hat-trick in a World Cup final.

Shameless Budweiser shill Geoff Hurst is still the only man to have scored a hat-trick in a winning World Cup final effort, though, so there’s that. And he is also the only man to have scored a World Cup final hat-trick that only actually included one goal, because, let’s be honest, the second one didn’t go in and the game should have been stopped before the third due to the aforementioned people on the pitch.


2) Euro 96: England 1-1 Germany (aet, Germany won 6-5 on penalties)
It’s no wonder the Germans don’t care. Six years after Italia 90 – and thus mercifully still slightly closer to us than to 66 but not for much longer – it happened again.

And it was even more galling if anything. England again had not always been convincing in the tournament but the group-stage demolition of Netherlands was thrilling and Gazza’s goal against Scotland an absolute madness. They were, again, as in 1990, magnificent in the semi-final. Tournament top scorer Alan Shearer sent a nation already propelled into a fury by Cool Britannia and Britpop into raptures with a third-minute goal but nominative determinism’s Stefan Kuntz equalised on the quarter-hour.

Somehow there were no further goals in 105 minutes despite Germany having a golden goal disallowed and Paul Gascoigne still to this day looking certain to score on every replay of that absolutely excruciating near-miss.

To penalties again, then. Germany – as they had in 1990 – scored all of their first five in frankly boringly stereotypical fashion. But then England, having shown they could do penalties in the quarter-final against Spain, responded in kind. Shearer, Platt, Pearce, Gascoigne and Sheringham all took penalties worthy of Palmer, Bellingham, Saka, Toney and Alexander-Arnold. Then so did Andreas Moller. Then so didn’t Gareth Southgate.

England have since won both last-16 and quarter-final penalty shootouts under Southgate’s management to ease that pain, but it will surely take a semi-final win on spot-kicks to truly square that circle. What are the chances, do we reckon?


1) Euro 2024: England 2-1 Netherlands
Blah, blah recency bias blah, blah dodgy penalty blah, blah. We don’t care, we’re not listening. Maybe a more sober assessment some time from now will indeed change this view. But we doubt it.

There is simply no semi-final moment in England’s history to compete with Ollie Watkins’ brilliant late winning goal and that alone would be enough to take it to top spot even without the really quite decent game that preceded it. England actually played well! For a bit, anyway! Better than they had for the rest of the tournament anyway!

But none of that even matters anyway. Watkins’ goal goes directly to somewhere near the top of England’s greatest ever moments, vanishingly few of which had actually happened in previous semi-finals. For its lateness and excellence as a winner in a major tournament game, the only other one that really comes anywhere close is David Platt against Belgium at Italia 90. And that was only the last 16.

Bonus points for Watkins coming closer than any other England player in history to going Full Tardelli in celebration, and more bonus points for the way it boiled Ronald Koeman’s p*ss. That’s for 1993, mate.