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Euro 96: The summer of Sammer

Euro ‘96 is fondly remembered by German fans as the tournament that helped heal the wounds of their formerly partitioned nation. Die Mannschaft, comprising of both Ossi and Wessi (easterner and westerner), emerged triumphant, thanks in large part to one former East German international in particular – Matthias Sammer.

There were indeed numerous notable facets to this tournament. The partisan coverage in the British media, the pulsating atmosphere at England games, the high-drama of the newly implemented golden-goal rule – there was so much to digest.

Who could forget Paul Gascoigne’s dentist chair celebration? Or Karel Poborský’s sumptuous lob over Vítor Baía? It is rather unsurprising that with so much to absorb Sammer’s match-winning displays disappeared into the hazy ether of my youth.

Dresden-born Sammer, who was seen as an idolic figure by East German fans, transcended mere mortality. He embodied the process, and the progress, of cultural, political and economic reintegration in the reunified state. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and German reunification in 1990, Sammer became the first easterner to play for the newly reunited nation. It was rather fitting that he, the scorer of the East German national team’s last goals (a brace vs Belgium in September 1990), was the man to bridge the cultural divide.

Sammer, who had been voted the 1995 and 1996 German Footballer of the Year, rode into the European Championship on the crest of a two-year wave of domestic success with Borussia Dortmund. Die Schwarzgelben (The Black and Yellows) had enjoyed a period of prolonged domination in the Bundesliga, winning consecutive titles in ‘95 and ‘96. Dortmund’s commander-in-chief was legendary boss Ottmar Hittzfeld – a man whose lasting impact on Sammer sent ripples through footballing history.

After enduring a fruitless ‘92/’93 Bundesliga campaign Hittzfeld introduced a change in tactics – namely the incorporation of a sweeper or, as it was originally known, libero. Literally meaning ‘free’, the libero is a spare defender who sits behind the defence, orchestrating play and ‘sweeping’ up balls that break the defensive line. Today the role is largely seen as a forgotten relic from a bygone age – a simpler time before the offside trap, ball-playing defenders and sweeper-keepers became the norm.

The libero role was popularised by titans of the game like Dutchman Ruud Kroll and, the archetypal liberated centre-back, Franz ‘der Kaiser’ Beckenbauer. Of course, the concept of a sweeper had been around in Italian football for an age, but the role saw a quantum leap in evolution in the early 1970s. Beckenbauer added an offensive dimension to the position, regularly carrying the ball out of defence, playing passes through the midfield lines and initiating attacks.

 

Hittzfeld viewed Sammer, who had excelled playing as a midfielder for Dynamo Dresden and VfB Stuttgart, as the perfect candidate for the role. Like Beckenbauer, Sammer was a great reader of the game. As a trained playmaker he could do it all and, crucially, see it all from the libero position. It came as little surprise when Germany’s national team manager Berti Vogts, a former teammate of Beckenbauer’s, chose to build his Euro ‘96 team around the newly emancipated Sammer.

After Die Mannschaft’s crushing loss to Denmark in the ‘92 European Championship final, and the humbling defeat at the hands of Bulgaria in the ‘94 World Cup quarter-final, Vogts was a man under immense pressure.

His squad were an ageing group, arguably inferior to that of the previous tournaments. This was the last hoorah for many of his players – one last shot at success before the ravages of time parted their ways. A little long in the tooth they may have been, but, with Sammer at the apex of his career, only a fool would doubt their chances.

The phrase ‘never write-off the Germans’ is usually enough to jolt one out of any sceptical stupor, but, in hindsight, it seemed hardly necessary on this occasion. After all the Germans, who had won their last European title in 1980, had every motivation to succeed. Victory would represent a triumph as a reunified people, the nation’s first since the toppling of the Wall. The tournament, if nothing else, constituted a chance to expedite the lengthy process of cultural reintegration.

Germany, who were drawn in Group C alongside the Czech Republic, Italy and Russia, began their Euro ‘96 campaign with a commanding 2-0 victory over the Czechs at Old Trafford. A tournament-ending injury to captain Jürgen Kohler threatened to sour the occasion, but first-half goals from effervescent full-back Christian Ziege and the dazzling Andreas Möller saw the Germans coast to a comfortable win.

Sammer, who received the armband from the stricken Kohler (and retained it for the remainder of the tournament), stole the show that day. His resolve hardened by the battlefield promotion, his focus and determination spread to his teammates. Along with Thomas Helmer and Markus Babbel (Kohler’s replacement), Sammer marshalled the Czech side’s attacking threats of Poborský, Patrik Berger and Pavel Kuka with consummate ease.

Sammer played a key part in his side’s second goal. Germany’s stand-in captain, seeing danger-man Poborský unmarked on the edge of the box, charged out of defence and slid in to intercept Radek Bejbl’s pass. With little concern for his own well-being Sammer launched himself into the tackle, winning the ball cleanly, and sparking a counter-attack. Ten seconds later Andreas Möller finished past Czech goalkeeper Petr Kouba, and the match was effectively over as a competition. Much like Fabio Cannavaro’s interception against Germany in the 2006 World Cup semi-final, this was a goal entirely of Sammer’s making.

In the following match, against Russia at Anfield, Sammer showcased the attacking aspects of the libero role. It was a clash of two old enemies, a feisty and bruising affair littered with fouls. With 55 minutes on the clock, and the scores at a deadlock, the German captain executed one of his trademark runs from deep, ghosting past the oblivious Russian midfield. Latching on to a lobbed through ball, Sammer volleyed a ferocious low shot, stinging the palms of Chelsea’s Dmitri Kharine. The Russian ‘keeper, unable to hold the powerful drive, spilled the ball to the onrushing Sammer who toe-poked the ball home.

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The Germans went on to win the match 2-1, qualifying from their group with a game to spare. Their final group fixture against Italy represents the only blemish on their tournament. A lacklustre team performance against Arrigo Sacchi’s side saw Die Mannschaft rely heavily on goalkeeper Andreas Köpke.

The German stopper pulled off a string of world-class saves, including a penalty from Gianfranco Zola. A 0-0 draw preserved their unbeaten record, but this grizzled German side were starting to show signs of fatigue.

Their opponents in the quarter-finals were the much fancied Croatians. A skilful and well-organised side, they boasted seasoned talents like Davor Šuker and Zvonimir Boban. The media billed it as the gifted vs the determined – a tale of Croatian beauty vs the German beast. As it transpired, there was little in the way of glamour to be found that day. The heated encounter that unfolded was indicative of a tournament where defensive tactics, with a pronounced emphasis on physicality, were deployed by the majority of participants.

Once again, Sammer played a pivotal role in his side’s opening goal. Making another one of his unchecked bursts from midfield, the marauding German split the defensive partnership of Robert Jarni and Igor Štimac with an incisive run. Chesting Mehmet Scholl’s perfectly weighted pass into his path, Sammer, confronted by central defender Nikola Jerkan, nodded the ball against the unfortunate defender’s hand. The penalty was given, and duly converted by flamboyant striker Jürgen Klinsmann.

Six minutes into the second half and the Croats were level through a mesmeric finish by Šuker, but their joy was to be short-lived. Just five minutes later Igor Štimac saw red for a second bookable offence. Croatian misery was further compounded three minutes later, when Sammer popped up in attack once again and scored the winner.

In the build-up to the goal, from the corner of the screen, you could just about make out the figure of Sammer slowly drifting forward into the Croatian half. Like a master assassin, he stealthily made his way toward his target. Timing his late run to absolute perfection, he muscled his way in front of defender Jerkan, beating the Croatian to Babbel’s whipped cross. The ball ricocheted between the two, falling kindly at the feet of the German captain, who rifled the ball into bottom corner – securing their passage to the semis.

So to their tournament-defining match against the old enemy, England. The match commentator Brian Moore called “Wembley’s biggest football occasion in 30 years”. This fixture was as much about the atmosphere and the build-up as it was about the match itself. Patriotism, on both sides, was at an all-time high.

Interestingly, both sides chose to alter their formations for this encounter. England, who had soundly beaten the Dutch 4-1 en route to the final, switched from a 4-4-2 to a 3-5-2 system. Similarly, the Germans had played a 5-3-2 thus far, but chose to change to a 4-3-3 for this clash. Vogts installed Sammer in the defensive midfielder role this time. The German midfield trio (Sammer, Steffen Freund and Dieter Eilts) was particularly defensive, perhaps in an attempt to stifle England’s Paul Ince, David Platt and, particularly, the mercurial Gascoigne.

England began in the ascendancy, Alan Shearer heading home a Paul Gascoigne cross after just three minutes. The Germans levelled fifteen minutes later, through the unfortunately named Steffan Kuntz. Into extra-time, and with the prospect of a golden-goal looming, the shackles were removed. England had two huge chances to win late on, with Anderton hitting the post, and Gazza agonisingly out of reach of Shearer’s cross-come-shot.

So to penalties, and with the scores locked at 5-5 Gareth Southgate famously fluffed his lines, leaving Möller to convert the final spot kick – sending the German players, and their small pocket of fans, into ecstasy. England dominated the match, but it was not a game of many high quality chances. In many ways the occasion dwarfed the game itself, but nevertheless, it was one of the most captivating football experiences I’ve ever had.

As in ‘88, with the Soviet Union and the Netherlands, the ‘96 finalists also met in the group stage. The Czechs were hoping to emulate their historic victory over West Germany in 1976, while the Germans were looking to right the wrongs of their devastating loss in ‘92. In truth, this final was a tepid affair, the game not really coming to life until Berger opened the scoring from the penalty spot in the 59th minute.

Vogts reacted, sending on super-sub Oliver Bierhoff, who equalised with just fifteen minutes remaining. Five minutes into extra-time, Kouba flapped at Bierhoff’s tame shot, the ball squirming out of the Czech ‘keeper’s grasp, and into the corner of the net. Bierhoff had scored the first ever golden goal in the competition’s history and Germany had won their third European Championship.

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Sammer, who operated in a restricted role in that rather dour final, was defensively solid throughout the tournament. He has since reflected on the competition, affirming that it was his side’s desire, doggedness and defensive rigidity that got them over the line.

“Take the game against Croatia. We lost Klinsmann through injury, Šuker scored to make it 1-1, but we still came back to win. Or, beating England at Wembley in the semi finals – a real task, I can tell you. Anderton hit the post, Gascoigne almost won it … It was a great game against a great team and we only won because we wanted it so very desperately.”

Sammer was voted Player of the Tournament and named in the Team of the Tournament, alongside his compatriots Köpke and Eilts. The other defenders nominated were Laurent Blanc, Marcel Desailly and Paulo Maldini – not bad company to keep. The accolades kept coming, with Sammer winning the 1996 Ballon d’Or title. He became just the second defender (after Beckenbauer) to win the award, beating twenty year-old Ronaldo Nazário and Euro ‘96’s top-scorer Shearer to the coveted prize.

Sammer’s prolonged period of success extended into the following season, where he tasted Champions League success with Dortmund in ‘97. Then disaster struck. Complications after a knee operation in October of ‘97 forced Sammer to retire at the ripe age of just 32.

It truly is one of the great shames – to watch the career of such a mountain of a man cut short by injury. I can’t help but wonder how well Germany might have done at the 1998 World Cup, had Sammer been available.

Sammer was a man for the big occasion, a player who dragged an ageing side to the summit of European football. He was the linchpin in Germany’s success that year – a win that transcended the tournament, and the sport.

Sammer was more than a footballer, he was an ambassador for the new Germany.

Read – Iconic Performances: The night Zinedine Zidane dominated Brazil

Read Also – Cherry-Picked: Five brilliant teams that overachieved before being bought up by Europe’s elite

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