Watch a nerve-shredding EURO '96 group stage match IN FULL on UEFA.tv – and get the background here.
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In their first tournament following the break-up of Czechoslovakia, the Czech Republic had worked themselves into a great position, but would their nerve fail them against eliminated Russia?WATCH IN FULL
If a 2-0 loss in their opener against Germany did not augur well for the Czech Republic, playing in their first major championship since independence, their ensuing 2-1 win against Italy then left them needing to beat a point-less Russia side in their final game to get to the last eight, provided that Italy did not beat the Germans. Coach Dušan Uhrin made a point of not keeping his players updated with the Italy-Germany score. At Anfield, they were driving blind.
• Pavel Kuka: The bulk of the Czech squad were still home-based – a situation that would change after these finals – but forward Kuka had seen more of the world, having led the line in the Bundesliga for Kaiserslautern. He scored against Russia, but later admitted he had meant to cross the ball.
• Vladimír Šmicer: It was set to be a summer of changes for the attacking midfielder: he had agreed a move from Slavia Praha to Lens prior to the finals, and was due to marry his partner Pavlína Vízková on 28 June – two days before the EURO '96 final.
• Vladimir Beschastnykh: Russia had lost their first two matches but were determined to show what they could do; Werder Bremen forward Beschastnykh and fellow danger man Aleksandr Mostovoi started on the bench at Anfield, but both came on at half-time.
The Czechs looked to be steaming to victory after Jan Suchopárek and Kuka both found the target in the first 20 minutes. They hit the frame of the goal twice too, with eliminated Russia seemingly out for the count.
However, a strong wind in Liverpool whipped Oleg Romantsev's side up. Mostovoi and Omari Tetradze struck to level matters within ten minutes of the restart, and Italian fans had reason for delight when Beschastnykh made it 3-2 with five minutes to go. It was not over, though; substitute Šmicer registered his first international goal two minutes from the end, the resultant 3-3 draw – plus Italy's 0-0 with Germany – taking Uhrin's team through.
Vladimír Šmicer, Czech Republic midfielder: "I just said to myself, 'Hit the target.' Before the match, [team-mate Jiří] Němec told me he had a dream that we were losing by one goal and I scored the equaliser. We will have to buy him a crystal ball and get him to do predictions before every game."
Pavel Kuka, Czech Republic forward: "It was an unforgettable goal that sealed our qualification. We did not know the result of Germany vs Italy, so we had to wait. When we heard about it, the great euphoria started! Those were moments you remember forever."
Petr Kouba, Czech Republic goalkeeper: "We played Germany and Italy previously, yet the match against Russia was the hardest for us. Mostovoi and Beschastnykh did very well from the bench. When they scored for the third time, I was going bright red with shame. Thankfully, luck was on our side in the end."
Elsewhere that night
Italy's stalemate with Germany at Old Trafford spelled the end of their English adventure, while – in Group D – Portugal's 3-0 win against Croatia meant that both sides moved on to the next phase. Denmark beat Turkey by the same scoreline in the other match, but finished two points shy of Croatia.
The Czechs went all the way to the final, but Šmicer did not postpone his wedding; he flew back home to get married and returned to England before the game against Germany. The couple now have a daughter named Natalie and a son called Jiří. Unfortunately, they do not have a EURO winner's medal – Germany denied the Czechs 2-1 in the decider, Oliver Bierhoff scoring the 'golden goal' extra-time winner at Wembley.
Russia failed to qualify for the next EURO, and their EURO 2004 experience was disappointing too – they lost their first two matches, and were already out of contention when they beat eventual winners Greece 2-1 in a dead rubber. UEFA EURO 2008 was to be their best tournament since the Soviet era as they reached the semi-finals, eventually yielding 3-0 to soon-to-be champions Spain.REGISTER FOR FREE