WE all remember the European Championship of 1976 for one thing – the cleverly “dinked” penalty by one of the Czech Republic’s favourite sons, Antonin Panenka. His audacious kick, deceiving the imposing figure of giant West German goalkeeper Sepp Maier, has become part of football folklore and copied by multitudes.
But the European Championship of 1976, one of the great forgotten tournaments, had plenty to offer. It was a smaller, almost apologetic format, two semi-finals and a final and third place play-off, held in the old Yugoslavia. And for British fans, it was almost lost from sight – in those days, if England (or when convenient, Scotland) were not involved, the competition could go almost unnoticed.
In 1976, England were a qualifying casualty, going out to Czechoslavakia. With Don Revie in charge, England raced ahead in their campaign, playing all three home games within six months – winning 3-0 against the Czechs, 5-0 versus Cyprus and drawing 0-0 with Portugal. In the second term of the qualifying stages, England lost 2-1 in Bratislava to mislay the initiative and they finished runners-up in their group. It was the beginning of the end for Revie’s England. Of the British nations, only Wales came through their group, with the Scots – unbeaten in World Cup 1974 – going out to Spain.
With 1974 still fresh in the memory, the Netherlands were placed in the same group as Poland and Italy. Despite losing 4-1 to the Poles, the Dutch won the group, but there were – not for the first time – simmering rows within the squad and between the players and the Dutch football authorities.
The Netherlands were still at their peak, but no longer coached by Rinus Michels. George Knobel, who moved from Ajax Amsterdam, was now in charge. Knobel had problems keeping a Johan Cruyff-dominated squad in check and lasted just 15 games.
West Germany, the holders and World Champions, made heavy weather of a group that included Greece, Bulgaria and Malta. With Gerd Muller gone, they tried a succession of strikers but none could truly replace “Der Bomber”.
The quarter-finals saw the Dutch come good, beating Belgium 7-1 on aggregate. In the first leg, held in Rotterdam, Robbie Rensenbrink scored a hat-trick as the Netherlands won 5-0. Many saw Rensenbrink as the heir apparent to Cruyff as the star man. The Soviet Union, including European Footballer of the Year, Oleg Blokhin, were surprisingly beaten by Czechoslavakia, while West Germany returned to the scene of the 1974 triumph in Munich to beat Spain 2-0 after a 1-1 draw in Madrid. Wales, the United Kingdom’s only representative, were beaten 3-1 on aggregate by Yugoslavia.
Zagreb and Belgrade were chosen as host cities for the closing stages of the competition. The smart money was on a repeat of the World Cup Final: West Germany v The Netherlands. The word “revenge” was being bandied about. The Dutch were pretty much still the team that finished second in WM ’74.
But they also had that same self-destruct mentality. Against the Czechs in the semi-final in Zagreb, the Netherlands were bad tempered, petulant and clumsy. The Czechs took the lead in the first half and suffered a red card. But the Dutch themselves lost Johan Neeskens in normal time, and then in extra time, Wim van Hanegem, who got involved in a childish exchange with controversial referee Clive Thomas. Van Hanegem had not forgotten that Thomas – known as “the book” – had disallowed a goal by the talented midfielder at Feyenoord. Johan Cruyff also received a yellow card, his second of the competition, which meant he would miss the final if the Dutch won through. This seemed to deflate the Dutch and two extra-time goals, from Dukla Prague right winger Zdeněk Nehoda and Slavia Prague striker František Veselý won the game by 3-1 amid torrential rain in front of just 18,000 people. There would be no rematch for Cruyff and his crestfallen team-mates.
The following night in Belgrade, West Germany fell two goals behind to a fast-moving Yugoslavia, whose two wide-men, Dragan Džajić and Slaviša Žungul, were in astonishing form. The Germans looked very leaden-footed, especially Franz Beckenbauer, who was outpaced by Danilo Popivoda when the Yugoslavs took the lead. Džajić added a second when he chested the ball past Maier and by the interval, West Germany were glad of a rest.
Helmut Schön made two decisive substitutions in the second half. Heinz Flohe came on in the 46th minute and 18 minutes later, his long range shot was deflected into the net. With 11 minutes to go, Schön brought on 1. FC Köln forward Dieter Müller, who had just finished the Bundesliga season with 14 goals in 19 games. The impact was immediate, for Müller levelled the scores in the 82nd minute and then in extra time, he scored two more to give West Germany a 4-2 victory.
When the media realised that the competition had delivered two excellent, attack-minded games, continuing the spirit of “Total Football”, there was much greater emphasis on the final. West Germany were considered to be firm favourities, but after eight minutes Ján Švehlík put the Czechs ahead. In ther 25th minute, it became 2-0 as Spartak Trnava midfielder Karol Dobiaš scored with a shot from a tight angle. Once more, the Germans had started slowly, and in typical resilient fashion, they staged a comeback. Three minutes later, Dieter Müller scored a trademark volley and then the Czech defence came under intense pressure, with Ivo Viktor, a veteran keeper who made his name with Dukla, pulling off a string of excellent saves. With a minute to go, a glancing header from Bernd Hölzenbein’s, from a Rainer Bonhof corner, finally beat him. And then penalties and that famous penalty kick by Antonian Panenka, a cultured midfielder who plyed his trade with Bohemians Prague. A cheeky chip and it was 5-3 to Czecholavakia on penalties.
Was it so much of a shock? Czechoslavakia had not had their colours lowered since England won the first European Championship qualifier in October 1974 at Wembley. They had beaten Portugal 5-0, overcome the USSR and won against Cruyff’s Holland. In the past, Czechoslavakia had to deal with factions in their squad – Slovaks and Czechs. The former dominated this team, including their coach, Václav Ježek. One of the few Czechs was the skipper, Tonda Ondruš, who presided over a group of players who were more united than ever before.
Sadly, Czechoslavakia did not build on their victory, despite having talent in abundance. They failed to qualify for the 1978 World Cup, but they did finish third in the 1980 Euros, beating Italy 9-8 on penalties in the play-offs. And guess what? Panenka scored again. They’re still national heroes in Prague and Bratislava – and rightly so.
Report by Neil Jensen, Game of the People