As Antonín Panenka's lofted penalty glided through the air, the UEFA European Championship was about to be transformed forever. With that one outrageous piece of skill, the Czech midfielder secured his nation the 1976 title and lifted the competition to a new level in the public consciousness.
It was the perfect end to what had been an outstanding tournament, served up by four excellent teams whose tussles have predictably been overshadowed by that iconic concluding kick. Hosts Yugoslavia welcomed Czechoslovakia, Johan Cruyff's brilliant Netherlands side and the holders and world champions from West Germany for a footballing festival held in Eastern Europe for the first time.
Of that quartet, the Czechs seemed to have easily the slimmest chance of getting their hands on the Henri Delaunay trophy. Coached by Václav Ježek and drawing their strength from hard work and team spirit, their campaign began with an inauspicious 3-0 loss to England at Wembley. Few would have identified that as the first outing of potential champions, but a 2-1 victory over Don Revie's men in Bratislava helped them top qualifying Group 1 and advance to the last eight.
Wales did surprisingly better than their English neighbours by scaling the Group 2 summit with a team inspired by the likes of John Toshack and Leighton James. Their bid was sunk by Yugoslavia in the quarter-finals, however, leaving the Czechs to carry the torch for the underdogs as they overcame an Oleh Blokhin led Soviet Union. Elsewhere, the cavaliering Dutch ripped through Belgium's defences to record a 7-1 aggregate win, while West Germany dealt comfortably with Spain to complete the semi-final lineup.
Gerd Müller was no longer around to frighten defenders, but his namesake Dieter stepped into the void with a crucial hat-trick on his debut in Belgrade, as the holders came back from 2-0 down to eliminate hosts Yugoslavia 4-2 after extra time. Extra time was required in Zagreb too, where Johan Neeskens and Wim van Hanegem were both sent off as Czechoslovakia defeated the Netherlands 3-1 to deny them the chance of avenging their 1974 FIFA World Cup final loss to West Germany.
That left Helmut Schön's men as favourites, yet the Czechs had gone 20 games without defeat since Wembley and soon had the Germans staring at another 2-0 deficit. Müller hit back then Bernd Hölzenbein equalised in the last minute, and after no goals followed in extra time the dreaded penalty shoot-out made its first appearance in a major tournament.
Seven successful conversions later and Uli Hoeness skied over, allowing Panenka to achieve immortality by waiting for Sepp Maier to dive before chipping his spot kick audaciously down the middle. "If it were patentable, I'd have it patented," he joked.
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|4||Dieter Müller||West Germany|
|1||Heinz Flohe||West Germany|
|1||Bernd Hölzenbein||West Germany|