European Championship underdogs – Czech Republic 1996

Playing in their first major tournament as an independent nation after the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, the Czech Republic very nearly emulated the Czechoslovakian side of 1976 who won the competition in Yugoslavia.

A side with more than a couple of very promising players took the Euros in England by storm.

Beating Italy at Anfield saw them progress to the quarter-finals at the Azzuri’s expense on the head-to-head record.

A slender 1-0 win over Portugal set them up with a fascinating tie against France which went the distance and ended victoriously for the Czechs, winning 6-5 on penalties.

They were just 17 minutes from glory until Oliver Bierhoff levelled for Germany in the final at Wembley after Patrik Berger had given them the lead from the spot.

It would be Bierhoff who broke Czech hearts, scoring the first Golden Goal at the Euros to win it for Germany, despite strong claims he was offside, and a howler from Petr Kouba in the Czech goal.

Best Player – Karel Poborsky

It would be difficult to go on to make 118 appearances for your country and play for European heavyweights such as Manchester United and Lazio and still not have the most glittering career out of a roster players, but that just goes to show the strength of this Czech side.

But Poborsky was immense for his country, named man of the match in the quarter-final and in a final which they lost, emphasising the quality demonstrated by the Slavia Prague man.

He bagged the winner against Portugal and earned the penalty which so nearly won the tournament for the Czechs but that did nothing to tarnish recognition of his performances as despite not winning the trophy he was arguably the best player at Euro ’96.

Cult Hero – Miroslav Kadlec

Positioned firmly in the centre of the Czech backline, Kadlec was an authoritative figure who already had a Bundesliga title to his name at Kaiserslautern.

His man of the match performance against France in the semi-final included holding firm at the back for 120 minutes and also scoring the decisive penalty in the shootout which sent the Czechs through.

Breakthrough Star – Pavel Nedved

Euro ’96 was the springboard which catapulted Nedved onto the global stage as he developed into one of the greatest midfielders of his generation.

Still fresh-faced at just 23, without his signature long blonde hair yet, Nedved starred throughout the competition and attracted the interest of Italian giants Lazio, most probably after scoring in the Czech’s meeting with Italy in the group stage.

He would go on to play for Juventus becoming a club legend, winning the Ballon D’or in 2003, only the second Czech player ever to do so.

Leader – Vaclav Nemecek

A strong, experienced backbone was needed in the spine of a side full of young prospects and Nemecek was certainly that for the Czech Republic.

The 29-year-old was turning out for Servette in Switzerland and Euro ’96 was certainly the high point in his career.

His suspension for the final was a big blow for the side who missed his commanding presence in midfield as they couldn’t keep Germany at bay in extra time.

Decisive Moment – Oliver Bierhoff replacing Mehmet Scholl

Had it not been for this masterstroke substitution by Berti Vogts, the Czechs may well have hung on to their 1-0 lead.

Bierhoff came on with 20 minutes to play in the final and within three minutes he had equalised for Germany before also scoring the Golden Goal which clinched the game and shattered the dreams of 10 million Czechs.

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Andrew Delaney

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