The game of football is many things to many people. A cash cow, a community lifeline; an intermittent source of national pride. Like it or not, for millions of casual viewers football is also entertainment – but there are no guarantees. We have all sat and watched a match simply fail to happen. But when everything comes together, nothing else compares.
Euro 2004 sits at the heart of what may be football’s finest era for pure entertainment – a decade-long run of enthralling summer engagements from France ’98 to Euro 2008. Stupendously talented players were let off the leash, unburdened by tactical dogma. Tournaments were shorter, sharper, yet to sag under the weight of extra numbers and their own importance.
That’s not to say the stakes weren’t high here. Germany’s shock draw with Latvia had left Group D up for grabs. These were two sides packed with promise: Arjen Robben, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Edgar Davids against Petr Cech, Pavel Nedved and Tomas Rosicky. Still, no one expected what came next – a game Alan Hansen said was the best he had ever seen. Him and me both.
By the time Wilfried Bouma headed home in the fourth minute, against the run of play, you could sense this would be special. The Dutch doubled their lead on 20 minutes, Davids bisecting the high Czech line with a through ball to Robben, who squared for Van Nistelrooy to tap in. The Mainz manager, Jürgen Klopp, may have been taking notes.
The Czech manager, Karel Bruckner, could feel the game slipping away and summoned Vladimir Smicer from the bench. Before he could get on, they had pulled a goal back. Milan Baros seized on Philip Cocu’s loose pass and wriggled into the penalty area. As he turned towards goal he slipped, but deftly prodded the ball to Jan Koller, who couldn’t miss. Bruckner then made a bold move, sending Smicer on anyway for the defender Zdenek Grygera.
It was symbolic of a curious, captivating game. The tempo was relentless but both teams played with total attacking freedom, as if there was nothing to lose. The imperious Davids hit the post with a low, angled strike, before Van Nistelrooy’s point-blank effort was repelled by the elastic Cech. Dick Advocaat blinked on the hour, swapping the electrifying Robben for the midfield makeweight Paul Bosvelt. Bruckner threw on Marek Heinz, another forward.
The equaliser came in the 71st minute, one of the goals of the tournament. Koller chested the ball smartly into the path of Baros, whose sledgehammer shot scorched Edwin van der Sar’s fingertips on the way in. The Dutch were stuck in fifth gear, and the gaps between the lines grew. Koller came off, giving Nedved space to step forward and weave his magic. Jonny Heitinga was dazzled, dismissed for two desperate fouls on the Czech playmaker.
A draw would leave Bruckner’s side top of the group, but in a precarious position. Nedved took matters into his own hands. His free-kick clattered into the keeper’s chest before a ludicrous swerving exocet pounded the crossbar. With two minutes remaining, another long-range shot did the trick. Van der Sar, caught off-balance, pushed the ball out to Karel Poborsky, who cut it back for Smicer to complete an extraordinary comeback.
There was still time for the Dutch to chase an equaliser, but Rafael van der Vaart’s last-gasp header squirmed wide. Their opponents kept pouring forward, unable to dial back the intensity that had swept them into the lead. With the ball on the Dutch byline, Heinz inexplicably but brilliantly tried to score rather than run into the corner. When the final whistle blew, the men in white celebrated as if they had won the final.
A rematch in Lisbon would have made a fitting finale, but both teams came unstuck in the semis of a wildly unpredictable tournament. Spain, Italy and Germany went out at the group stage and it was Greece, the ultimate spoilers, who took the trophy. That has clouded our view of a glorious month for armchair fans where the highlights reel belonged to the losers. If you want to understand why we love football, just watch this game.