Feijenoord Stadion, Rotterdam, 20.06.2000

0-3 (0-1)
– / Sérgio Conceição 35., 54., 71.

Having collected just a solitary point from their first two matches, Erich Ribbeck’s team found themselves needing a minor miracle to make it into the last eight. They not only had to beat a Portugal side that had already eased themselves into the next stage, but needed Romania to beat England in the corresponding fixture in Charleroi; to complicate matters even further, they needed to win by a larger margin that the Romanians in order to creep ahead of them on goal difference.

Simply, if the Mannschaft drew or lost they were out regardless of results elsewhere. If they were to win but England picked up a point or more, they were out. And if they won by one goal and the Romanians won by two, they were out. Yes, for many the chances of making it through to the quarter-finals were as likely as Paulo Rink getting a shot on target with his right foot, but there had to be at least some scope for optimism.

If the task facing the Germans was not difficult enough, injuries to defender Markus Babbel and midfielders Jens Jeremies and Christian Ziege simply compounded matters: Thomas Linke came back into the side for Babbel, while a number of others would make the first starts in the tournament. Marko Rehmer and the twenty-three year-old Michael Ballack came in for Jeremies and Ziege, while up front it was all change again as the versatile Marco Bode came into the side to join Carsten Jancker.

Given the personnel problems and the general crisis of confidence within the German camp one might not have given Ribbeck’s team much of a hope, but with their opponents choosing to rest a number of key players there was at least a small window of opportunity. The Portuguese side that walked out onto the pitch was little more than a second eleven, with goalkeeper and captain Vítor Baía, the mercurial midfield maestro Figo and the dangerous striker Nuno Gomes among nine first-choice players sitting things out on the bench. Leading the line would be the unheralded SS Lazio’s Sérgio Conceição, who came into the match with the less than fantastic record of two goals in twenty-two internationals.

A crowd of just over 51,000 had made their way to Rotterdam’s historic Feijenoord Stadion – better known as De Kuip or “the tub” – and on what was a warm and humid June evening local referee Dick Jol got things underway with Germany in the famous Schwarz und Weiß and Portugal in an almost blood-red and green ensemble.

Knowing that they had to chase the game Germany started in a positive fashion, with twenty year-old Sebastian Deisler providing a well-timed cross from the right touchline for Carsten Jancker that would test second-string Portuguese ‘keeper Pedro Espinha with five minutes on the clock. The first quarter of an hour would pass by without any great incident, as Ribbeck’s side set about establishing themselves without taking too many risks and opening themselves up to the counter attack.

The sixteenth minute would see the first genuine opportunity for either side, as the Germans failed to clear their lines allowing Sérgio Conceição to sweep the ball in from the right to Pauleta, who swept his shot across the face of Oliver Kahn’s goal. The FC Bayern München ‘keeper actually got the smallest of touches, but the Dutch referee failed to spot it and signalled for a goal kick. Espinha was quick off his line to prevent Jancker collecting a dangerous looking ball from Michael Ballack, but as the match passed the twenty minute mark the loudest cheer from the German supporters came when news started to filter through that Romania had taken the lead against England.

The news from Charleroi seemed to spark the rather languid Mannschaft into life, with a Deisler corner forcing Espinha into a desperate punch away and Ballack clipping Paulo Sousa to earn a yellow card. Jancker would follow Ballack into the book for dissent, and seconds afterwards Portuguese right-back Beto would earn one of his own for a trip on Mehmet Scholl. Suddenly things were happening.

Half an hour had passed when the Germans made their most productive move of the match, if not of their entire tournament. After Deisler had won the ball out on the right, he would find Dietmar Hamann to his left who would in turn pick out Marco Bode as the ball was shifted out towards the left touchline. Bode touched the ball outside to Lothar Matthäus, whose neat first-time pass towards the Portuguese box was turned back inside by Jancker to Scholl. Scholl played the ball back into the box towards Bode who had continued his run forward, and the Werder Bremen man’s crisp left-footed shot skidded past the diving Espinha – only to hit the inside of the post.

One felt that this was the moment that could perhaps have turned things around for the Mannschaft and the beleaguered Ribbeck, but within four minutes things would go distinctly awry.

The man without a clue: Nationaltrainer Erich Ribbeck

Ten minutes before half-time Rui Jorge cut in from the left, finding Pauleta who outsprinted Marko Rehmer into the box before looping a teasing high ball over Oliver Kahn towards the far post. Kahn desperately scrambled towards it, but was beaten by the head of the brave Conceição, who clattered into the German ‘keeper before joining the ball in the back of the net and ending up flat on his back. Minutes after Germany hat hit the post, Portugal were in front.

Knowing know that they had to score at least twice to have even the slightest chance of making the last eight, things were dampened further still for the Mannschaft when the crowd got wind of the fact that an Alan Shearer penalty had levelled things up in Charleroi. They would win three corners in the next five minutes and Jancker would force a save from Espinha with low right-footed effort from the edge of the six-yard box, but any lingering hopes remaining among the German supporters in the stands would be almost completely snuffed out when the news came in that England had then taken the lead against Romania just before half-time.

As the team marched in at the break to a chorus of loud boos and shrill whistles from their own supporters, it looked as though the writing was on already being chalked on the wall.

Ribbeck would send the Brazilian-born Paulo Rink on for Ballack at the start of the second half in a desperate attempt to turn things around, and there would be encouraging signs from Charleroi with the news that Romania had levelled things up at 2-2 against England. There were few signs that the Mannschaft were even chasing the game however, and as the opening minutes of the second half ticked by the best they could offer was a long-distance header from Bode that was easily collected by Espinha.

With just under ten minutes in the second half gone would come the strike that would finally extinguish the hopes of even the most optimistic German supporter. Picking the ball up unchallenged out on the right some thirty-five yards from the German goal, Conceição was allowed to make his way back towards the box, skipping nonchalantly past a half-hearted Hamann before firing a left-footed shot from just outside the area that went straight through the butterfingered Oliver Kahn and into the back of the net.

It was a dreadful goal that summed up the German performance during the entire tournament, and their supporters were too exasperated now to even jeer. Instead, some of them starting cheering for the Portuguese.

In what was an almost semi-tragic finale the veteran Thomas Häßler would come on for Scholl to win what would be his 101st and final international cap, and the remaining minutes would turn into little more than a procession. Tired and jaded, the players no longer looked as though they wanted to be out there – a group of lumbering, uncoordinated misfits that didn’t even look like a team worthy enough to wear the famous German Nationaltrikot. It was at times just too excruciating to watch.

Pauleta should have scored a third for the Portuguese as he found himself in space after a neat cutback from Ricardo Sá Pinto, but in going for a spectacular volleyed finish only succeeding in missing the target. With the Portuguese playing for fun and the Germans treading water, it was a case of simply waiting for the third goal that would almost surely finish things off.

Having taken not too kindly to having his bald head patted by Fernando Couto Carsten Jancker would be replaced by Ulf Kirsten, who like Häßler would also be making his final appearance in the Schwarz und Weiß. It would be the thirty-four year old Leverkusen striker’s fifty-first match for the Nationalmannschaft and 100th in all having played forty-nine times for the East German national side, and it would hardly be the send-off he deserved – more so as within a minute of his arrival he headed woefully wide of the target following a sharp cross from club team mate Rink – a rare right-footed cross at that. Perhaps Kirsten wasn’t expecting the ball come anywhere near him.

With the Germans having switched off long before the Portuguese were almost being invited to try their luck with every concerted move forward, and the coup de grâce would finally come with nineteen minutes remaining. The German defence were once again torn apart, as Conceição sprinted towards inside the penalty area before beating the sliding Thomas Linke and sending the ball across Kahn and into the left-hand side of the net to put the Portuguese three up. Until that point no German team had ever been three goals behind in the history of the European Championship – a record that stretched back to their first qualifying campaign in 1967-68.

The final minutes of the match would see little further action, with the Germans desperate not to concede an even more embarrassing fourth goal and the Portuguese more than content to pass the ball around to loud cheers from the crowd. Sá Pinto would force a fine diving save from Kahn with a well-struck shot from the edge of the box and both Deisler and Rink ended up in the Dick Jol’s notebook to round off what was a truly horrific evening for Erich Ribbeck’s side, but after allowing some two minutes of injury time the Dutch referee finally brought an end to the agony.

The game would provide a sad end to the illustrious career of Lothar Matthäus, for whom this was his 150th cap. He should not have been allowed to finish this way: one will always remember the great moments – such as his buccaneering run and finish against Yugoslavia in 1990 – but somehow I cannot get the picture of his being skinned alive by second-string Portuguese centre-forwards out of my head.

Down and out: a dejected Lothar Matthäus lopes off the pitch, while Marco Bode is flat out on the grass

The final whistle in Rotterdam would signal the end of an era in German football: a number of long-serving stalwarts had worn the Nationaltrikot for the last time, and their exit would be quickly followed by the not wholly unpredictable resignation of the much-maligned Erich Ribbeck.

Despite the shocking performance of his side the Nationaltrainer remained his usual dignified yet defiant self, claiming that he had been let down by his players; while there was clearly a grain of truth in this, the fact remained that it was his tactical inepitude and inability to listen to anybody else that was to blame.

In what would be a final ironic twist Romania would score a last-minute penalty winner in Charleroi, thus dumping England out of the tournament along with Germany. One couldn’t say that both sides didn’t deserve it.

With just a paltry single point to show from their three group matches, Germany would for the first time finish the opening group stage of any major tournament finals without a win. It would be their first group stage elimination at the European Championship since 1984 under Jupp Derwall, when they were knocked out right at the death at the hands of Portugal’s neighbours Spain. Interestingly, the Mannschaft’s first-phase group included both Portugal and Romania – and Derwall’s assistant was none other than Erich Ribbeck.

Germany: Kahn (c) – Nowotny, Matthäus, Linke – Rehmer, Ballack (46. Rink), Hamann – Scholl (60. Häßler) – Deisler – Jancker (69. Kirsten), Bode

Portugal: Espinha (90. Quim) – Beto, Fernando Couto, Jorge Costa, Rui Jorge – Sérgio Conceição, Costinha, Paulo Sousa (72. Vidigal), Capucho – Sá Pinto, Pauleta (67. Nuno Gomes)

Referee: Dick Jol (Netherlands)
Assistants: Jaap Pool (Netherlands) Roland van Nylen (Belgium)
Fourth Official: Ľuboš Michel (Slovakia)

Yellow Cards: Ballack, Jancker, Deisler, Rink / Beto
Red Cards: – / –

Attendance: 51,504

First Phase Group A Table

PortugalPortugal (Q)330072+59
RomaniaRomania (Q)311144+/-4

Other results: Portugal 3-2 England; Romania 0-1 Portugal; England 2-3 Romania.

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