From the very outset, Euro 2000 had the makings of one of the great summer tournaments, writes Ryan Baldi.
Held jointly between Belgium and the Netherlands, the first European Championship of the new millennium brought together a stellar cast of elite names of the world game – Luis Figo, Raul, Francesco Totti, David Beckham – with Italy, Portugal, Spain and the hosting Dutch all boasting squads bursting with talent.
None, though, were as star-packed as France. Having won the World Cup on home soil two years earlier and led by the world’s best player, Zinedine Zidane, Les Bleus were always likely to be installed as pre-tournament favourites.
What was most worrying for other nations with an eye on European glory was that, in the short time since their World Cup triumph, France appeared to have gotten considerably stronger.
“We’re definitely better than two years ago,” Zidane said before the tournament began. “Everyone is two years older and has more experience, and we also play in the best European divisions. We now have five attackers with immense quality, which is what we lacked at the World Cup.
“As for me, at 28 I’ve matured, and I’ve reached the summit of my art.”
Whereas in 1998, France’s victory was built largely on defensive solidity, with their line-up famously featuring scoreless striker Stephane Guivarc’h and with a group-stage red card having landed Zidane with a two-match suspension, at Euro 2000 they were brimming with attacking options.
Deployed in his customary No.10 role, Zidane could count on the usual ballast behind him of Marcel Desailly, Laurent Blanc and midfield workhorses Didier Deschamps and Emmanuel Petit. But ahead of him this time he had legitimate, lethal targets for his defence-splitting through-balls in the shape of, at different times, Sylvain Wiltord, David Trezeguet, Nicolas Anelka and, primarily, Thierry Henry.
Henry had been part of France’s World Cup squad two years earlier, but as a winger. Since then, he had joined Arsenal in the summer of 1999, beginning his transition into one of Europe’s great marksmen.
And in the opening game against Denmark, Zidane and Henry combined to score the second goal of a 3-0 France win. The midfielder lifted a pass from near the halfway line into the space behind the Danish defence. Henry, cutting in from the left in familiar fashion, raced clear to slot past Peter Schmeichel. Curiously, though, that was one of only two goals Zidane would ever assist for Henry.
The draw for the group stage had not gone easy on the world champions, pitting them against the Czech Republic and the Netherlands in addition to Denmark. But another three points in the second game against the Czechs meant manager Roger Lemerre could rotate his squad for the final match against Holland with qualification for the knockout rounds already assured. Zidane was rested as France lost 3-2 in a dead rubber.
Despite the defeat, the decision to give his best players a night off against Holland proved a masterstroke from Lemerre. Against a tough and skilled Spain team in the quarter-final, Zidane was the difference, curling a stunning 25-yard free-kick into the top corner in a 2-1 win.
And then came Zidane’s masterpiece. France needed extra time to overcome Portugal in the semi, but the Juventus playmaker – who would become the most expensive player in history the following summer when he signed for Real Madrid – was utterly majestic throughout.
A 20-yard Nuno Gomes snapshot gave Portugal a first-half lead, and Henry pulled France level in the second period. Even as 120 minutes approached, Zidane pirouetted and created at will, terrorizing his Portuguese midfield counter-parts – and defensive midfielder Costinha in particular.
When full-back Abel Xavier handled on the line in the 117th minute, Zidane stepped up and rocketed his first-ever international penalty into the top corner for Vitor Baia’s net. With the Golden Goal rule in effect, the game was over and France were through.
“It was very tough, very intense,” former Arsenal and France winger Robert Pires told World Soccer magazine. “There was a lot of stress because it was just one step away from the final. But it was the best game Zizou played. He was like a genius, like a maestro. He took a lot of responsibility. For the other players like me, it was easy to follow him in this game.”
“He changed the game with this ability and skills,” Portugal striker Gomes also recently reflected for World Soccer. “There was a move where he took the ball almost from one area to the other. And, of course, the way he scored the penalty that decided the game.
“He’s for sure among one of the best players that I faced. And for me, he’s one of the best players in the world. Some of the times I played against him I found myself amazed by his pure class.”
Italy awaited in the final. Compared to previous displays, Zidane was somewhat subdued and it seemed as through the defensive style of the Italians would win the day as they clung to a 1-0 lead thanks to Marco Delvecchio’s 55th minute strike.
In stoppage time, though, substitute Wiltord fired a low shot beyond Francesco Toldo and into the corner of the goal to force extra time again for France. And after 103 minutes of grueling play, Pires danced through a tired Italian defence and cut the ball back to Trezeguet, who thudded into the top corner. Another Golden Goal, another international triumph for France.
Throwback to David Trezeguet scoring a Golden Goal & winning EURO 2000 for France ????????????
— Wyngback Football (@wyngback) June 11, 2021
If the success of ’98 was founded on defensive fortitude and an underdog spirit, France were able to meet raised expectations in 2000 through their determination, attacking power and the genius of their main man.
“When we didn’t know what to do with the ball,” said full-back Bixente Lizarazu of Zidane, “we gave it to him.”