Vladimír Šmicer recalls the Czech Republic's run to the EURO '96 final before turning his attention as an ex-Lens man to the city hosting matches next summer.
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With the Stade Bollaert-Delelis set to stage four matches at UEFA EURO 2016, former Lens midfielder Vladimír Šmicer recalls his three-year stay with Les Sang et Or, remembers his near-miss at EURO '96 with the Czech Republic and gives UEFA.com his take on one of the most exciting encounters in UEFA European Championship history.
UEFA.com: The Czech Republic reached the final in their first tournament as an independent nation at EURO '96. Tell us what was it like playing in that talented team.
Vladimír Šmicer: It was really special for me because it was my first big championship, I was young and I was playing alongside the likes of Pavel Nedvěd, Patrik Berger, Karel Poborský and Radek Bejbl. It was a great tournament, England is a special place because the stadiums are close to the pitch – you can feel the energy from the fans and maybe that's what helped us. It was a significant tournament for the nation, not only for the team – we had a great support from our fans. And we were good! That's why we went to the final.
UEFA.com: Despite reaching the Wembley showpiece against the odds – overcoming Portugal in the quarter-finals and France in the last four – do you have any regrets?
Šmicer: Our big disappointment was that we didn't face England in the final. Unfortunately they lost [their semi-final] on penalties [against Germany]. We played Germany in the group stage and we lost [2-0]. So they were confident ... and they were a little bit lucky in the end [to win the final], but that's football.
UEFA.com: Tell us how you felt when substitute Oliver Bierhoff struck the golden goal in extra time in the decider to give Germany the EURO '96 crown.
Šmicer: [It was a] big disappointment because we were minutes away from becoming champions. He struck the equaliser on 73 minutes. Then in extra time he registered again – it didn't look like a good chance at first ... but then he scored, and suddenly you realise that you have lost [because Bierhoff netted the golden goal]. Usually you would have time to respond, but this was the first time the rule applied, so all you can do is say: 'Oh! It's over!'
UEFA.com: What was it like to play the decider at the 'Home of Football' in front of 73,000 fans?
Šmicer: It was a big disappointment for us to lose. But overall it was a surprise for us to reach that stage. We were delighted to play that final at Wembley, it was a mythical place for the Czech players and none of us had played there before. It's a memory we will cherish for the rest of our lives.
UEFA.com: In another memorable encounter, led by Karel Brückner, the Czechs came back from 2-0 down to beat the Netherlands in Group D at UEFA EURO 2004. You started the match on the bench; did you think the tie was over when Ruud van Nistelrooy struck their second?
Šmicer: When they doubled their advantage, our coach said: 'Vladi, go and warm up, you are going on!' I thought: 'Okay, great, now we are 2-0 down you want to put me on!' However, while I was warming up Jan Koller pulled one back. So I came on at 2-1 and it was one of the best games I ever played for the Czech Republic. The match was unbelievable. In the end won 3-2 and I scored the winner. It could easily have been 5-1 or 5-2 to the Dutch, or 4-2 to us ... it really was a fantastic game.
UEFA.com: Nedvěd rattled the bar from 20 metres before your 88th-minute strike sent the Czechs through to the quarter-finals. What was it like to score the decisive goal?
Šmicer: It was a great shot from Pavel. [But] the ball was strange, it was the adidas Roteiro – we couldn't get used to it. Pavel loved it though because if you hit it right, you could score from distance – unfortunately he didn't score that one though. In the end Poborský set me up for the winning goal. We were happy because we got to the quarter-finals by winning that game. It was nice.
UEFA.com: The Stade Bollaert-Delelis in Lens will stage four games at UEFA EURO 2016. Tell us why it's such a great footballing city?
Šmicer: It is a special city, for me especially, because I spent three years at Lens [1996–99]. It's a small city but it has a big stadium and really nice fans – they love football. I know Lens at the moment are a yo-yo club but the fans still turn up – they support the team in a fantastic way.
UEFA.com: By the end of 2015, the venue will have a capacity of 38,223. Why is the atmosphere in Lens considered among the best in France?
Šmicer: Maybe because the city is close to England, it's a little bit similar. The fans don't wait for the action, they make noise anyway, [so] that makes you produce something [on the pitch]. I remember in the three years I played there, the fans were twice voted the best in France. That shows how passionate they are about football.