Led by a certain Antonin Panenka, Czechoslovakia put a five-tournament no-show behind them to win Euro 1976. Livio Caferoglu looks back on the first giant-killers of our time.
When it comes to shock triumphs in major tournaments on the international stage, most people are quick to cite Denmark at the 1992 European Championship or Greece at Euro 2004. Yet, while not being quite as romantic as those of a Scandinavian or Hellenic disposition, Czechoslovakia at Euro 1976 is surely the most historic.
Prior to qualifying for Euro 1976, Czechoslovakia had not participated in five of the six tournaments that had passed, and in the one tournament they did make – the 1970 World Cup – they lost all three of their group games. Indeed, their runners-up finish at the 1962 World Cup, where they were defeated 3-1 by Brazil in the final, felt like a lifetime ago.
The realisation that the Czechoslovakians' once-golden era had rusted ultimately came, among them 1962 Ballon d’Or winner Josef Masopust and defensive lynchpin Ladislav Novak, and so a new generation needed to be sourced. Fortunately for the nation, they finally encountered stability after a multitude of Coaches as Vaclav Jezek became their longest-serving boss and unearthed gems such as Antonin Panenka, and the country’s all-time most capped player Zdenek Nehoda.
In a group containing World Cup winners England and Portugal, Czechoslovakia had their work cut out if they were to end 12 years of European pain, and their qualifying campaign started on a bad note as they lost 3-0 to the Three Lions. However, Jezek’s men would win four of their next five games, including a 5-0 demolition of the Selecção, thereby booking their place in Yugoslavia against the odds.
Turning attentions to the tournament, only four countries participated due to the rules at the time, with Czechoslovakia in esteemed company as they were joined by the hosts, 1974 World Cup runners-up Netherlands and West Germany, who had beat the Oranje two years earlier for their third international title. Needless to say, Czechoslovakia were by far the underdogs – not that it mattered, as history would tell us.
Kicking off with a semi-final against Netherlands, Anton Ondrus put Czechs ahead on 19 minutes with a powerful header from a corner, but the gangly centre-back went from hero to zero after one red card each as he volleyed a cross into his own net, prompting extra time in Zagreb. Nonetheless, a breakaway down the left allowed Nehoda to head his side 2-1 up, before a sweeping move was capped off by Frantisek Vesely rounding Piet Schrijvers and tapping the ball into an empty net.
One down, one to go then, and standing in the Czechs’ way of the Henri Delaunay Trophy were West Germany – the defending champions. What was to follow was one of the great European Championship matches, and it began with Jezek’s troops taking another early lead, goalkeeper Sepp Maier unable to do anything about Jan Svehlik’s close-range strike after he kept out the No 17’s earlier effort.
A long-range shot from right-back Karel Doblas then flew past Maier to leave Czechoslovakia two to the good and seemingly destined for their first-ever piece of silverware, but their lack of experience threatened to undo all of their hard work. The competition’s top goalscorer Dieter Muller pulled one back for Die Mannschaft with an acrobatic volley in the box, before Bernd Holzenbein headed home an equaliser with only one minute of normal time remaining.
With extra time failing to determine a winner, a penalty shootout ensued – an outcome which remains unique to Euro 1976 – and neither the Czechs nor Germans missed a trick in each of their first three spot-kicks. But then Uli Hoeness blazed his effort over Ivo Viktor’s crossbar. It was left to Panenka to score the decisive penalty, and score he did in legendary fashion as he coolly chipped the ball down the middle of Maier’s goal.
The triumph was considered historic in more ways than one, given it was the first time the hegemony in European football had been broken. Furthermore, Panenka changed the way penalties were approached forever as the stars of the modern game such as Francesco Totti, Andrea Pirlo and Zinedine Zidane have successfully replicated the attacker’s effort, in turn inspiring players to experiment from the spot. Lastly, of course, Czechoslovakia would separate less than 30 years later.
Like many central European outfits in the 1970s, Czechoslovakia adopted a short-passing style at Euro 2016, but it was the manner they perfected it that separated them from their rivals. Jezek was also commended for building a title-winning team in just four years, with six Czech players featuring in UEFA’s Team of the Tournament – more than the other three countries combined – while never before had an underdog displayed such spirit and harmony as the benchmark was set for future giant-killers.
Although the Czech Republic and Slovakia were the result of Czechoslovakia’s partition in 1993, the former are seen as the latter’s natural successor, and they will once more use the class of ’76 as motivation at Euro 2016. But so will the so-called ‘lesser’ nations, and although Denmark and Greece have gone on to upset the apple cart in the time that has passed, neither of them did it quite like Czechoslovakia.