Euro 2000, hosted by Netherlands and Belgium, staged some fascinating matches that summer. Among them was England losing 3-2 to both Portugal and Romania, Yugoslavia’s 3-3 draw with Slovenia and when the Netherlands missed two normal-time penalties before missing a few more and losing on spot-kicks to Italy in the semi-final.
The next installment of The Panenka’s Greatest Games of The European Championships series harks back to a time when Yugoslavia was still a country. To a seven goal thriller between Spain and Yugoslavia where a place in the knockout stage was up for grabs for the winner.
It is purely debatable to suggest that the European Championships serve up superior football than World Cups but this Euro 2000 group stage emotional rollercoaster of a match is a shining example of why people would think that.
In the 93rd minute of Yugoslavia and Spain’s final Group C encounter, the Yugoslavian players were 3-2 ahead and group winners, Spain on the other hand were headed for an early exit. By the time the referee had blown the full-time whistle however, the Yugoslavs had lost 4-3 and it was the Spaniards who had finished top of the Group. When all seemed lost for Yugoslavia, thanks to results elsewhere, they were going through as well. Norway were in turn eliminated on goals scored after only being able to muster a 0-0 draw against Slovenia, such was the chaos of this Bruges afternoon at the European Championships.
In the days before Spain made football a little bit boring by passing every opponent to death with what would become known as tika-taka, Spain had failed to impress time and time again at major tournaments. Before finally getting that monkey off their backs by winning Euro 2008, at Euro 2000 they were tournament outsiders.
The Spain squad at the time featured players such as Raul, Guardiola and Hierro but La Roja’s Euro 2000 tournament got off to a bad start when they lost their opening game to a single goal from Norway’s Steffen Iversen. In their second game they narrowly beat tournament first timers Slovenia 2-1 in unconvincing fashion.
Meanwhile in one of the other games of the tournament Yugoslavia had been involved in a 3-3 draw with Slovenia and narrowly squeaked to a 1-0 victory over Norway.
Going into the final round of matches in Group C it meant that either Spain or Yugoslavia could guarantee themselves a place in the quarter-finals with a victory. With Norway likely to beat Slovenia in the other group game it meant that the loser of Spain and Yugoslavia would probably be going home.
A talented group of Yugoslavia players were making their first appearance at the Euros. An international embargo had recently been lifted in 1997 after being imposed in 1991 during a period of civil war. The same Embargo that caused them to miss out of Euro 1992 despite qualifying and led to eventual winner Denmark to take their palace.
The Yugoslavia team had a host of players at their disposal and would be no pushovers. On this afternoon in Brugge The players on their team sheet included Sinsa Mihajlovic and Dejan Stankovic of Lazio, Slavisa Jokanovic, who was signed by Chelsea from Deportivo that summer, captain Predrag Mijatovic, formerly of Real Madrid, and Savo Milosevic, who had just signed for Parma from Real Zaragoza and formerly of Aston Villa.
The Spain squad, unlike Yugoslavia, was not one of their most memorable, although notable names on coach Jose Antonio Camacho’s team sheet included the current Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola, Real Madrid legends Michel Salgado, Fernando Hierro and Ivan Helguera and Valencia’s Santiago Canizares and Gaizka Mendieta.
At half-time the scores were level, Milosevic had put his side ahead before having his goal cancelled out by Alfonso. Five minutes into the second half, Yugoslavia had taken the lead again, this time through a swerving Govedarica shot. The scores were leveled more or less immediately though when 60 seconds after Yugoslavia’s second Pedro Munitis, who was introduced at the break, curled a marvelous shot in off the post from outside the area to make it 2-2.
With 40 minutes left on the clock and with Norway still drawing in Arnhem, nothing had changed for either side, they both knew they needed to go for the win to make sure of a quarter-final place.
Finally, the pendulum swung in the direction of the Spanish. Slavisa Jokanovic earned a red card, leading to an incensed Yugoslavian fan entering the field of play to remonstrate with referee Gilles Veissiere. If it seemed bad for the man in the middle by that point in the afternoon, things would get much worse in the aftermath of the game.
Despite holding a man advantage Spain found themselves behind for a third time. On 75 minutes Sinisa Mihajlovic swung in a free kick which was converted home by Slobodan Komljenovic to leave Spain on the precipice of heading home with Norway still drawing 0-0.
Spain showed their resolve and gave their all in the final moments. Guardiola and Alfonso both had good chances saved. Then as late as the 94th minute, Barcelona defender Aberlardo went down in the box and the French referee gave a penalty for Gaizka Mendieta to step up and nonchalantly convert.
The game, which should have been finished by this point, restarted with renewed interest. Spain knew they had to win or they were out. With the result from Arnhem unconfirmed, Yugoslavia began to panic with the realization that another goal for Spain could send ten men Yugoslavia home.
With the scores at 3-3 this fabled story took it’s final twist in the dying moments. Guardiola, Spain’s farthest player back, nervously dug the ball out of his feet on the halfway line to hang a looping delivery over the penalty box while the Yugoslavians defended their own six yard line. The ball found Hierro at the back post who nodded the ball toward the danger zone where a lurking Alfonso rose to volley a shot into the net to make it 4-3.
As the Spanish bench invaded the pitch the clock showed 96 minutes played. They knew that, even in a game like this, they had secured the victory they needed to reach the knockout stage. Simultaneously the news filtered through to the Yugoslavian bench that Norway and Slovenia had finished 0-0 meaning they had simultaneously progressed to the knockouts on goal difference via goals scored.
Amid the scenes of euphoria to mood quickly turned sour. French referee Gilles Veissiere was left bleeding after being hit in the eye by a coin thrown by the Yugoslavia fans. He was then valiantly protected by Alfonso when a Yugoslavia supporter breached the security cordon and, after running almost a hundred yards unchallenged, tried to attack him after the final whistle had been blown.
Riot police also had to charge Yugoslavia fans still incensed by the red card and the award of a late penalty at the Jan Breydel Stadium as they left the ground. The scenes of thuggery somewhat spoiled the most exciting match of Euro 2000 and police were on full riot alert in the Belgian town of Brugge for the rest of the evening.
Spain would go on to be knocked out by eventual winners France while Yugoslavia were humbled 6-1 by semi-finalists Holland. All that for nothing, well, it was worth it.