Where better to stage the biggest UEFA European Championship finals to date than in the country which gave the world the game? Sixteen nations converged on England in the summer of 1996, but while the hosts celebrated football "coming home" it was their old rivals Germany who took the spoils.
The tournament itself could hardly have hoped for a better venue, with England's renovated stadia and heightened public enthusiasm creating the perfect backdrop, even if many locals feared that key men Paul Gascoigne and Alan Shearer might be spent forces. After remaining loyal during Shearer's 21 goalless months, however, coach Terry Venables received immediate vindication.
England's leaden 1-1 draw with Switzerland was mitigated by the Blackburn Rovers FC striker opening the scoring, and he pounced again in the 2-0 victory over Scotland; as did Gascoigne with a classy second. And there was even better to come when Shearer and Teddy Sheringham shared two apiece in a dazzling 4-1 triumph over the Netherlands, who needed Patrick Kluivert's consolation to rescue a quarter-final berth at Scotland's expense.
Italy and holders Denmark were less fortunate, bowing out before the golden-goal rule appeared for the first time in a curiously attritional knockout phase. Czech Republic revelation Karel Poborský chipped sublimely to beat Portugal, but elsewhere there was little to cheer. Matthias Sammer's winner for Germany against Croatia was overshadowed by some overbearing Croatian tackling and both England and France needed penalty shoot-outs to advance, following 0-0 stalemates with Spain and the Netherlands respectively.
They were both undone on penalties too; Les Bleus succumbing first after 120 goalless minutes with the Czechs. Twenty years on from Antonín Panenka's masterstroke, the Eastern Europeans were back in the final – and yet again only Germany stood between them and the title. Shearer raised English hopes that it might not be so just three minutes into the other semi-final, but Stefan Kuntz quickly responded. Gascoigne came agonisingly close to winning it for England in extra time before Gareth Southgate joined the growing list of Englishmen to fail in shoot-outs.
In spite of that, over 76,000 spectators streamed into Wembley to see Germany contest their fifth continental final. Their last had ended in a shock loss to Denmark 1992 and a repeat looked feasible when Patrik Berger converted from the spot, but that was to ignore the quality on the German bench. Berti Vogts sent on Oliver Bierhoff and, after heading an equaliser, the predatory finisher broke Czech hearts four minutes into extra time. His shot may have been tame, but it found its way past Petr Kouba for the competition's first ever golden goal. Suddenly, the game – and the tournament – belonged to Germany.
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