The best-ever European Championship finals? That's an easy one. It's Euro 76, isn't it. Four matches, nineteen goals, three two-goal comebacks, a Dutch team down to nine men and refusing to kick off, the whole event climaxing with Mr Panenka's party piece, the greatest artistic statement of finality since the last chord of A Day In The Life. Man, those five days were a blast.
It was only four matches, though, which to 21st-century eyes is sort of cheating. The modern Euros may be bloated, distended, unwieldy things compared to the distilled purity of the old four-team festivals. But they allow so much more space and time for drama to unfold, stories to breathe, narrative arcs to develop, heroes and villains to reveal themselves, and tanked-up clowns to rearrange garden furniture in gorgeous town squares with extreme prejudice. Therefore we ask again: the best-ever European Championship finals? There's only one contender! The first major tournament of the new millennium and still the best: Het Uefa Europees Voetbalkampioenschap België/Nederland 2000! Allez La Belgique! Hup Holland Hup!

1. Happy hosts

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Dennis Bergkamp and Michael Reiziger of Netherlands come out of the tunnel to warm up.

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During the run-up to Euro 2000, there were serious concerns that the English would seriously embarrass themselves at the big event, which would be co-hosted by Belgium and the Netherlands. More on the antics of Kevin Keegan and Phil Neville anon, though here we're specifically referring to the lumpen minority of England's support that prioritizes the throwing of hands over parties. A month before the tournament, fans of Arsenal and Galatasaray were involved in a donnybrook at Copenhagen airport after the Uefa Cup final. Bottles and fists whistled hither and yon, leading to more than 60 arrests, and in the immediate wake of the bother, the National Criminal Intelligence Service predicted that "if there is any trouble at Euro 2000, English fans will be part of it. This is not handbags-at-dawn stuff. It is very nasty. We are talking about people with iron bars, sticks and knives."
Sure enough, on the eve of the tournament, Belgian police made their first three arrests in Brussels, stumbling across some slow-witted English folk waving about some hunting knives and a crossbow in a local park. The tooled-up trio shamefacedly explained that they worked for the News of the World, and were merely posing for photos that would cast some light on how easy it was for thugs to procure lethal weapons. Nothing of real use having been achieved, the hacks had their ears warmed and were sent packing with a caution after a night in the cooler. Meanwhile across town, a couple of miles away from this warm-up fiasco, co-hosts Belgium set the ball rolling with a 2-1 victory over Sweden, Bart Goor and Emile Mpenza sending the 50,000 crowd at the Stade Roi Baudouin home happy, albeit with nagging concerns about the form of keeper-ringmaster Filip de Wilde, who stood on the ball in the performing-circus-seal style to present Johan Mjallby with a clown-car-crash goal.
Hosting duties came around at the wrong time for the Belgians. The advantage of home comforts fell slap bang between the glories of the Seventies and Eighties, when the Red Devils could easily have snaffled a European Championship, or maybe even the World Cup, had a little luck gone their way, and the current second golden age, which in a parallel virus-free universe may well have ended next month in Euro 2020 glory. But their 2000 model was extremely light on star power. The Swedes could at least call on Freddie Ljungberg and Henrik Larsson, so this was a fine opening result for Belgium. By contrast, their co-hosts Holland could boast a world star in pretty much every single position: Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Kluivert, Marc Overmars, Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids, Jaap Stam ... I mean, we could go on for some time. But at the Amsterdam Arena, that pre-match dirge, the supposedly uplifting We Are The Champions, simply served to bring the team down. Oh Freddie, how could you.
Holland were abysmal against the Czech Republic, who were denied by the woodwork twice before Ronald de Boer had his shirt lightly tugged by Jiri Nemec in the 90th minute, the Dutch midfielder grabbing the opportunity to showcase his contemporary interpretive dance abilities. Celebrity referee Pierligui Collina played to the crowd by pointing to the spot, and brother Frank dispatched the penalty. "It's a scandal," observed Czech coach Jozef Chovanec. "Several players are crying in the dressing room right now." The match-winning De Boer admitted that the Dutch had got away with one. "You need to have luck," Frank shrugged, a statement that would snap into sharp focus for Holland at the same stadium, from the same distance of 12 yards, repeatedly, nearly three weeks down the line. But for now, both of the hosts were on the board, three points to the good, a flying start.

2. French payback

Thierry Henry shoots at goal against Czech Republic

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The Czechs had arrived in the lowlands as outside bets, black horses, the hipsters' choice. They'd won the championship already, of course - the aforementioned Euro 76 as Czechoslovakia - and were surprise finalists at Euro 96, when they came within 17 minutes of getting their hands on the trophy. Four years down the line, they'd subsequently gotten even stronger, adding Tomas Rosicky and Jan Koller to a squad that already contained Karel Poborsky, Patrik Berger, Vladimir Smicer and the relentless Pavel Nedved. Enough talent to go all the way, and much of it extremely handsome to boot. Some guys have all the luck.
Or do they? The only problem was, they'd been drawn in the group of death for the second Euros in a row. In England, they'd managed to squeak out of a section containing recent World Cup finalists Italy and eventual champions Germany, but another great escape was too much to ask. Having been defeated by the co-hosts, next up came pre-tournament favourites France, who had opened with a scratch-of-the-arse-stretch-and-yawn 3-0 victory over Denmark. The Czechs had eliminated France at the semi-final stage of Euro 96, and this was payback. A poor Petr Gabriel backpass allowed Thierry Henry to zip clear and deliver an early sledgehammer to Czech hopes, and though Nedved earned a questionable penalty that allowed Poborsky to equalise from the spot with a powerful take on the Panenka, Youri Djorkaeff added a second for France on the hour and the Euro 96 runners-up were out.
Later that day, Holland were sent out at Feyenoord's De Kuip to face Denmark, their ears still burning from a pre-match blast from coach Frank Rikjaard, who complained of a lack of effort and spirit in their opener against the Czechs. He also cited a squad-wide disinterest in reconnaissance whenever upcoming opponents were on television. "They have been playing cards," he spluttered incredulously. That insouciant approach began to look questionable as Thomas Gravesen hit the bar with Edwin van der Sar stranded, and the hosts were whistled off by the Rotterdam crowd at the end of a nervous and goalless first half. But something clicked in the second, when Patrick Kluivert, Ronald de Boer and Boudewijn Zenden made it 3-0 to Barcelona. At which point Holland eased off the gas, a wise decision considering the long road ahead, not so clever when one more goal would have meant they'd only require a draw against France in the last game to avoid travelling to Bruges for the quarters. Now, if they wanted to stay on home soil, they'd need to beat the world champions.
Just as well, then, that French coach Roger Lemerre decided to give all of his big names the night off for the final group game in Amsterdam. No Zizou, no Thierry Henry, no Youri Djorkaeff, no Barthez, Blanc, Lizarazu and Thuram at the back, no Didier Deschamps until the 90th minute, caring not a jot about who their next opponents would be, or where they'd play. Some signal to be sending. And they still managed to take the lead twice, until Holland's first-choice XI finally got their act together in the second half, once again, Frank de Boer piledriving home a free kick and Zenden finishing a route-one goal that made Dave Bassett's Wimbledon look like Brazil circa 1970. With a 3-2 win, the co-hosts would remain on their own turf in the last eight, albeit only after squeaking past someone else's second string. Meanwhile the French had proved their squad was deep enough to field two fine teams if needs be. Some other major countries were struggling, without conspicuous success, and to name just one...

3. England, then

Kevin Keegan issues instructions during training

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England's attempt to qualify for Euro 2000 wasn't a Tayloresque farce or McClarenite shambles; they did make it to the tournament, after all. But the campaign wasn't particularly impressive. Glenn Hoddle's side, the wind behind after an intermittently impressive but ultimately self-destructive showing at France 98, flew out of the traps, Alan Shearer scoring in the first minute of the first match, away to Sweden. But the Swedes hit back with two goals in two minutes around the half-hour mark, both the result of some uncertain goalkeeping by David Seaman - shades of Rotterdam in 1993 under Graham Taylor - and the fact that Paul Ince was sent packing upon losing the head completely, clattering Henrik Larsson from behind, pulling him up by the hair, then giving the ref the finger as he stormed off. There goes that feelgood factor!
The situation then threatened to spiral out of control. England were toothless in a goalless Wembley draw with Bulgaria, who had just been whacked by three goals at home to Poland. They then stuttered to a not particularly convincing three-goal win in Luxembourg. These were the sort of results that could get a manager the sack. But Hoddle stayed on ... that is until he gave an interview in which he claimed disabled people were paying back the karma from another lifetime.
Once the FA had sent him bouncing down Lancaster Gate on the bones of his spiritual arse, popular Fulham boss Kevin Keegan was given the job on a part-time four-game contract. After a 3-1 win over Poland - in which Paul Scholes scored with all three of his attempts on target, England's only other effort in the 90 minutes coming from Martin Keown - the Fulham owner Mohamed Al Fayed offered to release Keegan as "my gift to the nation". Why thank you, Mohamed, with this gift you are really spoiling us.
The remaining games of the campaign, with Keegan now in situ full time, were not much of a honeymoon. Four matches brought seven goals, six of them at home to Luxembourg. England went goalless in draws with Sweden and Poland, and drew 1-1 in Bulgaria. They scraped into the play-offs, pipping the Poles on the head-to-head, though they needed a favour from Sweden, who beat Poland in the last round of matches, to manage even that. England inevitably drew Scotland for a place at the finals. Their 2-0 victory at Hampden in the first leg, Paul Scholes silencing the famous old stadium with two first-half goals, was arguably the best performance during the Keegan era; falling exhausted over the line at Wembley, David Seaman their best player in a 1-0 defeat to the Auld Enemy, perhaps their worst. England had made it, although they hadn't exactly sent a message ringing out across the continent. Not that it stopped fans and media alike talking them up as one of the favourites to win the tournament when it came round in the summer. Hey, you know how folk rolled back then.

4. It's on! For 18 minutes!

Luis Figo and Paul Scholes battle for the ball

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To be scrupulously fair, England really did look like potential champions for the first 18 minutes of their Euro 2000 campaign. A mere 169 seconds of their opening game against Portugal had elapsed when David Beckham whipped in one of his right-wing worldies and Paul Scholes flashed a header off the underside of the crossbar. On 18 minutes, Beckham set up another for Steve McManaman. Keegan, never capable of hiding his feelings and playing it cool, let a sunny grin crack across his elated face. Too soon. It only took Portugal 19 more minutes to haul themselves back level, Luis Figo skelping one in from 25 yards with David Seaman rooted to the spot, Joao Pinto angling a fantastic diving header across the worryingly immobile keeper and into the bottom left. Nuno Gomes' second-half winner, clipped home as Seaman lumbered off his line, felt inevitable. It was the first time England had shipped a two-goal lead in a major finals since West Germany knocked them out of Mexico 70.
The verdict across the continent was damning. "Figo, Pinto and Gomes put a spanner in the works of English arrogance," trumpeted one Portuguese newspaper. "The English were dumbfounded. We sank the English armada!" The Spanish press were even more withering. "England would sometimes do far better if they played with a goalkeeper," began a hilariously rude verdict in AS. "Keegan insists on starting with that piece of meat with eyes called Seaman."
Some members of England's travelling support took the defeat with customary good grace, subjecting the players to what FA suit Steve Double described as "disgusting, foul-mouthed abuse" as they left the Eindhoven pitch. Beckham responded digitally. The majority of supporters remained stoical, though, and no arrests were made after the game. Eindhoven police suggested that the wide range of cannabis plants legally available for purchase in the city might have dulled the collective desire to harsh anyone's buzz, though a spokesperson also posited the depressingly plausible theory that they were "probably saving themselves for Saturday's match against Germany".

David Beckham gives his response to England fans

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5. Enter the champions

The goons among England's support couldn't even wait that long. Pumped up on adrenaline and Trappist beer they clearly couldn't handle, more than 170 clowns were arrested near the Grand Place in Brussels for setting about French, German and Turkish fans. The Manneken Pis dribbled away with quiet dignity by comparison. In Charleroi, where the Germany game would be played, England fans chased the locals around the town square, redistributing all bar and cafe furniture, all fisticuffs and feng shui. The bother continued the morning after, with water cannons, tear gas and other anti-t**t measures deployed to quell the rioting. By the end of the day, over 500 fans had their miserable Stone Island collars felt.
The meatheads would miss an epochal event. Germany were the reigning champions, but what remained four years down the line was the husk of a once-great team. The elegant sweeper Matthais Sammer was gone. Where Jurgen Klinsmann once roamed, Carsten Jancker now lumbered. Lothar Matthaus was 78 years old. True, they had won their last warm-up game 8-2, but that was only at home to Liechtenstein, and it took them over an hour to hit the front, five of their goals coming in the last nine minutes against a team of amateurs."Everywhere you go, all you hear is that we'll be going home after the first round," sighed Markus Babbel, one of the few drops left from the 1996 bottle. "There is no fire in the team."
Germany spent the majority of their opening draw with Romania misplacing passes and bickering with each other. Mehmet Scholl scored a fine goal, sending a rising arrow-straight heatseeker into the top left, but on balance the champs were clearly there for the taking. England hadn't beaten them since the 1966 World Cup final, since when they'd developed the Mutter and Vater of all mentale Blockaden, but this German side was so dismal that even Keegan's men couldn't miss with the free swing. Alan Shearer wound back all of his neck muscles to power home a 53rd-minute header, Becks nearly got himself sent off for a needlessly cynical bodycheck on Ulf Kirsten, and we won't waste your time with any further descriptions of the worst match of the entire tournament. It was rank. Like England cared, as a 34-year wait came to an end. "Nobody wants to fight now," smiled one fan as he necked a tinny in the rearranged town square. "We'll have a great night celebrating. There won't be many Germans keen to show their faces anyway." Magnanimous in victory as ever. Uefa told the FA in no uncertain terms that one more skirmish would lead to the team's disqualification.

6. Exit the champions, and England

Phil Neville (centre) is consoled by Martin Keown (left) and David Beckham (right) of England

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If Germany were to survive, the reigning champions had to beat Portugal - who had seen off Romania with a dramatic late winner and were already through to the quarter-finals - by two goals. They limply succumbed to a Sergio Conceicao hat-trick against what was essentially a Portuguese B-team, and Erich Ribbeck became only the second German coach since 1938 to fail to take his team past the first round of a major finals. The other one, Jupp Derwall, had at least won Euro 80 and led his men to the 1982 World Cup final before failing at Euro 84. Ribbeck remains to this day the least successful coach in Germany's entire history.
Keegan went into England's final group game with Romania in high spirits. "If you asked the team 'can we pass it better?' then the answer would be 'yes we can'. But I still believe we have a chance of going to the final." A draw would suffice, and Romania's old master Gheorghe Hagi was suspended, but Keegan's optimism was sorely misguided. In midfield, Paul Ince and Dennis Wise continually gave the ball away; Romania spent most of the first half gratefully passing it around them. Michael Owen struggled to hold the ball up; captain Alan Shearer, set to retire after the tournament, could barely run to reach it in the first place. Nigel Martyn - thrown in at the deep end after Meat-Eyes Guy injured his shank during the warm-up - was caught out of position for Christian Chivu's cross on 22 minutes, the ball floating over his head and spawning into the top right. Only one result looked possible.
Then a lifeline, as Chivu gave away a penalty for a crude tackle on Ince five minutes before the break. Shearer slotted it away, and just before the half-time whistle Owen latched onto a Scholes through ball and rounded keeper Bodgan Stelea to give England a half-time lead they barely deserved. But for the second time in the tournament, England snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Within three minutes of the restart, a weak Martyn punch was sent whistling back past the keeper's lugs by Dorinel Munteanu, and England spent the remainder of the evening on the back foot. They nearly clung onto the draw that would have seen them squeak through, but with three minutes to go, Phil Neville panicked as Viorel Moldovan slipped him down the right, lunged witlessly, and conceded the fatal penalty that Ioan Ganea dispatched without fuss. Neville and Shearer, his international career having come to a sudden and inglorious end, left the pitch in tears. A distressing scene, though at least the fans behaved.
To Keegan's immense credit, he offered no excuses. "I don't think we did enough to win so it's not a hard-luck story as far as I'm concerned. We didn't pass the ball well enough and spent most of the game chasing to try and win it back. You can't expect to play like that in this heat, against players of this quality, and win. You cannot chase a football for 60 of the 90 minutes, as we have in our three games, and expect to last the race." The influential Gazzetta dello Sport pointed the finger of blame at his "tactical selections, increasingly built around a truly 'Made In England' style". Keegan promised to find a solution in time for the 2002 World Cup qualifiers, but within five months his team had lost the last-ever competitive fixture at the old Wembley to - who else? - Germany, and he ended the evening tearfully resigning, with characteristic dramatic and poetic flair, in the bogs.
There were a few plus points to be taken from England's otherwise disastrous Euro 2000 campaign, though. Sort of. The two goals against Portugal were genuinely brilliant. Germany had been beaten at long last, a monkey finally off the back. And at least they took their leave of the stage due to rank ineptitude, rather than having been sent home in disgrace, punished for the misdemeanours of the more simple members of their support. Small mercies, but that was where we were.

7. Comedy and drama

pain celebrate after the last gasp winner from Alfonso during the European Championships 2000 match against Yugoslavia

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Romania would meet Italy in the quarters. The Azzurri made it out of their group with three wins from three, quietly stylish but with flashes of brilliance: Antonio Conte guiding an overhead kick into the top right against Turkey, Stefano Fiore sending a pearler into the same corner against Belgium, Alessandro del Piero rifling into the top left against the Swedes. Belgium needed only a draw in their last game against Turkey, but poor old Filipe de Wilde had another normal one in their goal. He flapped under a high cross to allow Hakan Sukur to head the Turks into a half-time lead, resembled a small child slip'n'slidin' along a strip of wet tarpaulin in the front yard, as he made his futile scramble to block Sukur's second, then charged 30 yards out of his box to commit an ersatz tribute to Harald Schumacher, poor Arif Erdem his Patrick Battiston. Both left the field, De Wilde in high dudgeon, Arif on a stretcher. The co-hosts were out in shameful fashion. "I refuse to blame our goalkeeper," Belgian coach Robert Waseige could be heard saying from behind a cloud of thick cigar smoke. The gentle strains of Bach's Air on the G String could be heard playing somewhere in the background.
The greatest drama of the group stage was provided by Group C. Specifically by Serbia and Montenegro, in fact, at the time trading under the name of FR Yugoslavia. First up, a derby meeting with one of the post-civil-war successor teams of the old full-fat Yugoslavia: little Slovenia. "It wouldn't be a surprise if we lost," said FR Yugoslavia manager Vujadin Boskov before the game. "It would be a catastrophe! They are a small country of only 1.9m people, better known for tennis and skiing." Sure enough, Slovenia proceeded to go three goals up against their more illustrious neighbours, Hamlet-a-like captain Zlatko Zahovic scoring twice. They really should have been four up, as well, but Zahovic missed a one-on-one with the keeper. Still, a three-goal lead usually works, especially when the opposition are down to ten men, notorious hothead Sinisa Mihajlovic sent packing for a pointless shove on Saso Udovic. But FR Yugoslavia responded with three goals in six minutes. Savo Milosevic scored two of them, both from close range, as widespread shock and confusion swept across the English midlands.
By the time FR Yugoslavia's final match with Spain came around, it was all to play for. The Spanish, still in their pre tiki-taka phase as perennial flaky no-shows, had lost their opening match to Norway, who were now playing a style so base they made former coach Egil Olsen sound like a Danny Blanchflower-style crazed idealist. But they'd scratched out a win against Slovenia, while Milosevic had further discombobulated the denizens of north-east Birmingham by scoring the only goal in the Yugoslavia-Norway game, and now anyone in the group could go through. Yugoslavia went ahead three times against Spain - another goal for Milosevic, who was by now simply trolling Aston Villa fans - and as the final whistle blew elsewhere on a goalless draw between Slovenia and Norway, the Spanish were down and out as the game went into injury time. Norway's point meant they'd be going through at Spain's expense, even if Spain found an equaliser, on the head-to-head.
Assume nothing. With a couple of minutes of stoppage time, Pedro Munitis went down in the middle of a melee in the six-yard box, and Gaizka Mendieta put away the resulting penalty. Then with seven minutes of injury time on the clock, Pep Guardiola launched a desperate Hail Mary, Ismael Urzaiz headed down, and one of his team-mates swept gloriously into the bottom left. Spain were saved, one of the great escapes, and if you listen really, really hard you still may be able to hear the last gasps of John Motson's hysterical Alfonsooooooooooo!!!!! pinging around in the ether.

8. Four statements of intent

Patrick Kluivert celebrates in his hat-trick game against Yugoslavia

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The Yugoslavia bench held their heads in their hands as one, but no matter, they were still through. Exactly how grateful they'd be is a moot point. Four days later, they faced sole surviving hosts Holland in Rotterdam, and were obliterated by Patrick Kluivert, who by the 54th minute was celebrating his fourth goal. Marc Overmars added a couple more before that man Milosevic scored a last-gasp consolation, tapping home one of his trademark close-range snaffles after Predrag Mijatovic hit the woodwork. Milosevic had the good grace not to celebrate, though it proved a crucial goal for personal reasons: it meant he'd end the tournament as joint leading goalscorer with Kluivert, who had the third of his four goals taken off him, Dejan Govedarica credited with getting to it first and turning it into his own net.
After their uncertain displays in the group stage, Holland now believed the Henri Delaunay Trophy would be lifted by Frank de Boer in the same stadium a week later. Meanwhile Italy eased through at the expense of Romania, Dino Zoff's side making it to the semis having conceded just two goals in four games, Hagi's major-tournament swansong ending early after two yellow cards. Portgual swanned past Turkey to reach the semis for the first time since 1984. And making it four statements of intent out of four, Zinedine Zidane whipped a free kick into the top left of Spain keeper Santiago Canizares' net, Youri Djorkaeff sent a riser into the top right, Raul Chris Waddled a last-gasp penalty into a nearby Bruges canal, and the world champions strutted through to the last four in big-leggy fashion. Zidane, the party flicks having been brought out, was clearly of a mind to right the wrongs of his no-show in England four years previously: "I am playing the best football of my career and the team is even better than in 1998." Gauntlet down. Was anybody up for the battle?

9. Oh Abel!

Abel Xavier with his head in his hands

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There's no hard statistical data to back up the following statement, so sue us, but memory serves that most folk - the purists, certainly - wanted the final to be contested by Holland and France, the two sides most likely to turn the De Kuip denouement into an aesthetic wonder. It didn't quite work out like that, though it wasn't for the want of trying.
The first semi-final in Brussels pitted favourites France against everyone's favourite dark horses Portugal, whose second Golden Generation were coming of age. Nuno Gomes opened the scoring with a glorious strike, turning away from a snoozing Didier Deschamps and whip-curling a perfectly placed shot into the bottom left. A disoriented goalkeeper always embellishes the mise-en-scene, and Fabien Barthez stood there rooted to the spot, beaten all ends up from the get-go, stunned disbelief etched all across his face. Thierry Henry's turn and cross-shot levelled the score in the second half, after which France utterly dominated, Zidane once again spinning this way and that in perfectly balanced, ever-elegant control. But Vitor Baia was only forced into one seriously meaningful save, tipping Emmanuel Petit's low screamer around the post, while Everton right-back Abel Xavier nearly flashed a late header past Barthez, the keeper fingertipping over marvellously, just in time.
The match was heading for penalty kicks when Sylvain Wiltord took a whack from a tight angle on the right with three minutes of golden-goal extra-time left on the clock. The regally coiffeured Xavier stretched out a hand and tipped it around the post. Penalty, whereupon all hell broke loose. Portugal, correctly surmising that the jig was pretty much up, surrounded the referee in the trenchant style contemporaneously popularised by crack debating collective Manchester United. Austrian referee Gunter Benko wasn't budging. Luis Figo stormed off the pitch in his vest. Zidane arrowed the penalty into the top left and France into the final. Nuno Gomes received a red card after an exchange of views that were too full, too frank. France had made it despite a display that was, by their own stratospheric standards, below par. Disappointing even. As a result, the thousands of Dutch fans who had crossed the border on reconnaissance to run the rule over the opposition for the final went home content.

10. Oh Jaap!

Jaap Stam watches his penalty fly over the bar

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How many of those gleeful oranje fans were also in the Amsterdam Arena 24 hours later is not recorded. They would have witnessed a Dutch performance that reached the very heights of absurdity. Against an Italian team down to ten men after 34 minutes - Gianluca Zambrotta picking up two yellows after obsessing over Boudewijn Zenden, first scything him down from behind, then cynically tugging his shirt - Holland attacked relentlessly. It wasn't Total Football, but it was close to total domination. But time and again Dennis Bergkamp and Patrick Kluivert hummed and aahed when presented with a chance, or dallied before eventually choosing the wrong final ball. Holland also missed two penalties, Frank de Boer's effort turned away by Francesco Toldo, Kluivert's effort banging off the base of the left-hand post and rebounding back, inches out of reach, allowing Italy to scramble clear.
In that sense, the luck wasn't with Holland; Bergkamp had seen an early diagonal daisycutter twang off the left upright, too. But then you make your own good fortune, and Italy, having slipped into stereotypical backs-to-the-wall catenaccio mode, defended magnificently. The game ended goalless and went to penalty kicks, a state of affairs neither team fancied. Holland had been knocked out of Euro 92, Euro 96 and France 98 on penalties, while Italy's record was even worse: they'd been dispatched on spot kicks from the last three World Cups in a row, and lost the Euro 80 third-place playoff on their own patch to Czechoslovakia, Fulvio Collovati the only man to miss in a 19-penalty thriller.
To put it another way: neither country had ever tasted victory in one. Italian midfielder Luigi Di Biagio certainly knew about failure, having missed the crucial spot kick in the World Cup quarters against France two years earlier. He bravely put himself forward for the first one, and smashed some redemption into the top left. Frank de Boer's weak effort was easily stopped by Toldo, whereupon the air sucked out of the Amsterdam Arena quicker than smoke from a bong. The home fans seemed to sense all was lost, that all of the luck really had been cashed in for their spawny opening win against the Czech Republic.
They were pretty much proved right after Gianluca Pessotto slotted away Italy's second and Jaap Stam launched Holland's towards Lowestoft. Francesco Totti's Panenka was just rubbing it in, and the Italians were off to Rotterdam for a final showdown with the French. Bergkamp retired, while Rijkaard immediately offered his resignation. "I had one aim, to become European champions. It was nothing to do with the match itself. I had a goal in mind and this generation of wonderful footballers deserved it. I didn't manage to succeed and that's a great disappointment." Thoughts immediately turned to the 2002 World Cup in the far east, and a qualification campaign involving Roy Keane and the Republic of Ireland. Good luck with that, then, everyone.

11. A glorious end to a glorious month

David Trezeguet celebrates after scoring the golden goal

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The first half of the Rotterdam final was a non-event, as these things so often are. But on 54 minutes, Totti sprang Pessotto clear down the right with an impudent back heel that took Bixente Lizarazu out of the game. Pessotto's cross was met in the centre by Marco Delvecchio, who opened up his body and pinball-flippered a sidefoot into the top left. Despite then doubling down on defence, Italy still carved out the better chances, Del Piero missing two, Delvecchio one. And it looked good enough for the Italians to be crowned champions of Europe for the first time since 1968.
That was until the third of four added minutes. Barthez launched a long Hail Mary from the back. Trezeguet flicked on. Fabio Cannavaro should have cleared, but his weak header fell at the feet of Wiltord, just inside the box on the left. Wiltord took one touch and, despite facing a tight angle, whipped a low diagonal shot through Nesta's legs, under Toldo's hand, and into the bottom right.
Having come so close, Italy were unable to rouse themselves in extra time. Demetrio Albertini and Cannavaro were both caught on the back foot as Robert Pires put the pedal to the floor and reached the byline on the left. He pulled back for Trezeguet, who sent a screamer into the top left before ripping off his shirt and sailing away wearing a toothy grin. Italy had been the better team on the night, but France had been the better team over the whole piece, and were rightfully European champions for the second time.
Les Bleus had also become only the second team to hold both the European Championship and the World Cup at the same time, after the great West German side of the early 1970s. Theirry Henry went out of his way to highlight their improved place in the pantheon. "People said that in France we won because we had an easy group and played at home. Here we had a very difficult group, we had difficult matches against Portugal and Spain, and we were able to prove here that we can win outside our country. Maybe people will say we are better now. We have a lot of quality but without our mentality it would be different."
A content Roger Lemerre agreed with his striker's analysis. "When you see the minutes going by, hope becomes desperation and you hope for a miracle. That miracle did indeed happen. It is the strong will of the team that made it possible." Compare and contrast with his opposite number Dino Zoff, seconds away from adding Euro 2000 to his CV alongside the 1982 World Cup he'd lifted as a player. "How do you expect me to feel?" he sighed. "We were sure of the victory and it slipped away. But you cannot say my players did not put up a fight." Back home in Italy, blowhard politician Silvio Berlusconi accused Zoff of being "an amateur" for not putting a man-marker on Zidane in the final. "I am offended as a man," replied Zoff, who handed in his badge. "I am not taking lessons in dignity from Berlusconi." He resisted the temptation to point out that Zidane didn't do a great deal in the final anyway. France meanwhile were welcomed back to Paris by a 400,000-strong crowd on the Champs Elysees, man-of-the-tournament Zidane earning the biggest cheer as the players took turns to gad about on the balcony of the Crillon Hotel on the Place de la Concorde.
This was both the peak, and the end, of France's imperial phase, which came to a juddering halt in miserable fashion in South Korea two years later, as they crashed out of the World Cup without scoring a single goal. It was the worst performance of all time by a defending world champion, beating an unwanted record set by ... Italy, who at least won one of their games at the 1950 World Cup. Italy also enjoyed payback in the 2006 World Cup final, beating France on penalties, Zidane taking his leave of both his senses and professional football with a flourish to shame d'Artagnan. In other words, we may conclude that what goes round, eventually comes round. Not in the case of poor Kevin Keegan's managerial career, admittedly, but the overall point stands.
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