Old Trafford, Manchester, 09.06.1996
Ziege 26., Möller 32. / –
Germany’s opening fixture would be against the Czech Republic at Old Trafford, competing in their first major competition since their separation from Slovakia in 1993. As Czechoslovakia the Czechs had won the European Championship in 1976 – beating the Germans on penalties in the final – and were seen by many pundits as potential dark horses in what was a challenging first phase group.
Berti Vogts’ side came into the opening match in much the same way as they had done four years previously in Sweden: missing key players. Lothar Matthäus, for long a mainstay in the side, had found himself out of favour with Nationaltrainer Berti Vogts and was no longer part of the squad, playmaker Mario Basler had been injured just days before the tournament was to begin, while both new skipper Jürgen Klinsmann and utility man Steffen Freund would be suspended for the opening match having picked up two yellow cards during the qualifying campaign. Nevertheless, the team that walked out onto the pitch in Manchester would include five of the eleven that had started the 1992 final against Denmark: Thomas Helmer, Stefan Reuter, Thomas Häßler, Matthias Sammer and Jürgen Kohler, who would be given the captain’s armband in Klinsmann’s absence.
Following a pleasant drive up the M1 and M6, I would be there in person to savour this moment; somehow, my battered old Ford Fiesta had managed to make it all the way to Manchester – complete with a couple of Schwarz-Rot-Gold scarves flapping out of the windows. Following the national anthems the players from both teams would greet each other with what was described by BBC commentator John Motson as the “hallelujah handshake” – the first time this now common ritual would take place at a major tournament as part of UEFA’s Fair Play campaign.
As Harrow schoolmaster David Elleray got things underway on what was a bright and slightly humid June afternoon I was there in my brand new white home shirt, part of the crowd of just over thirty-seven thousand. That same shirt was being worn by the Mannschaft down on the pitch, with Dušan Uhrin’s side in their usual red shirts and white shorts.
The Czechs started positively, with the long-haired Karel Poborský looking particularly lively. German ‘keeper Andreas Köpke was quickly called into action as he raced off his line to clear the ball from the advancing Pavel Kuka, and his Czech counterpart Petr Kouba was eager to punt long balls forward.
The first ten minutes passed with little incident, but in scenes that were eerily reminiscent of the opening game in Sweden ’92 skipper Jürgen Kohler remained down on the ground after a rather innocuous tangle with Kuka. Kohler slowly limped off the pitch, and would spend a good five minutes being treated on the touchline before the decision was finally made to replace him with Markus Babbel. Much like Rudi Völler four years earlier, Kohler – with his right knee in strapping – would be walking not just off the pitch but out of the tournament.
The loss of their captain with not even a quarter of a hour gone seemed to stir the uncharacteristically languid Germans into action, and out of nowhere they produced the first real opportunity of the match as VfB Stuttgart’s Slovenian-born striker Fredi Bobić’s right-footed volley forced a superb reaction save from Kouba. Moments later Andy Möller headed narrowly wide from Thomas Häßler’s outswinging corner, and with nineteen minutes gone Häßler also went narrowly wide after an excellent setup by Bobić.
As the match passed the twenty minute mark the bright start from the Czechs had been long forgotten, as the Mannschaft slowly started to assert themselves. Möller, Häßler and Christian Ziege were starting to stamp their authority on the game as the Czechs battled to get a foothold in midfield, while sweeper Matthias Sammer was starting to look like a flame-haired Franz Beckenbauer as he started to venture further forward.
It would only a matter of time until one crisp move paid off, and with twenty-six minutes gone the deadlock was broken. After a patient build-up at the back Thomas Helmer advanced into the Czech half down the left, playing a flat forward ball to Bobić who quickly flicked it inside to the fast-advancing Ziege. Ziege made it look easy and cut inside towards the D, burst past Radoslav Látal and rounding Miroslav Ladlec before sending a perfectly-placed right-footed shot into the low left-hand corner of the net. The diving Kouba managed to get a hand to the ball, but the shot was so well placed that he could only help it on its way.
Christian Ziege strikes to open Germany’s account after twenty-six minutes at Old Trafford
Three minutes after getting on the scoresheet Ziege found his way into Mr. Elleray’s notebook for a crunching challenge on Poborský, as the Germans continued to keep the pressure on whenever the Czechs got hold of the ball. The pressure exerted by Dieter Eilts on Poborský was typical of the German play, with the Bremen man winning the ball to find Kuntz, who held things up nicely for the quickly-arriving Möller to embark on yet another charge forward.
Picking the ball up just inside his own half, Möller charged down the left side of the field and inside towards the opposition box, floated past the dithering Kadlec and smashed a low right-footed shot from around twenty-five yards. The ball found the same area of net as Ziege’s strike six minutes earlier, as Kouba saw the ball far too late. At 2-0 the German crowd finally started to relax, though the team remained patient in possession and relentless in keeping the squeeze on their beleaguered opponents.
Andreas Möller celebrates Germany’s second goal to secure a crucial opening victory and all three points
As half-time approached the German supporters were dishing out chants usually reserved for the last five minutes, such was the measure of the Mannschaft’s dominance. As the whistle blew and the teams walked off it had the perfect half for Berti Vogts’ side, tempered only by the early withdrawal of Jürgen Kohler; one could only have imagined that the coach had little more to ask for in the second half than more of the same.
The Czechs made two changes as Patrik Berger came on for Martin Frýdek and Radek Drulák for Poborský, and with not even two minutes gone Berger found his way past Sammer and hit his shot wide of the far post. Uhrin’s side had started the second half in much the same way as they had the first, and Drulák sent in a teasing cross towards Kuka that was firmly punched away by Köpke. With the Czechs looking to force the pace the Germans found themselves resorting so a number of scratchy challenges, with Kuntz finding his way into the book for a clumsy forward’s challenge.
Much like the in the first half, Vogts’ side were able to get things back under control. Thomas Helmer came desperately close to scoring a third from Möller’s curling free-kick, while Ziege was denied a second goal by the upright as he leapt to reach a Häßler corner with Kouba rooted to the spot.
The English referee would take centre stage just short of the hour mark as both Möller and Babbel saw yellow in the space of two minutes, while Berger just moments later was somehow able to get away with a badly-timed challenge from behind on Eilts. With twenty-five minutes left Vogts made his first real tactical adjustment, taking off striker Bobić and sending on the defensive midfielder Thomas Strunz. As if then to make up a little for the fact that the Germans were now 4-2 up in the yellow card count, Elleray levelled things up in the space of minute, with both Kadlec and Drulák being added to his quickly-growing list. The yellow card parity didn’t last long however as Reuter slid in late on Jiří Němec.
With the Germans having switched down a gear and the Czechs unable to make any real headway, the game slowly started to wind down to its inevitable conclusion, though not before Häßler became the tenth player – and the sixth German – to make his way into the referee’s book as Němec was once more sent tumbling. With ten minutes left another well-timed German challenge led to another fast break, as Möller criss-crossed the field and combined excellently with Helmer before his shot-cum-cross was well parried by Kouba with Kuntz standing unmarked in the middle of the penalty area.
Kuntz was replaced by Oliver Bierhoff with seven minutes left, and while the Czechs would win a couple of free-kicks in dangerous positions the remaining time ticked away without incident. As the final whistle approached every German pass was being cheered by their supporters in the crowd, and David Elleray allowed just under six minutes if additional time before drawing a close to proceedings.
Having secured maximum points in an opening European Championship finals group match for the first time since 1980, Berti Vogts’ side would have a week-long rest before returning to Old Trafford to take on the group’s other Eastern European dark horse, the Russian Federation.
Germany: Köpke – Sammer – Kohler (c) (14. Babbel) – Reuter, Eilts, Helmer, Ziege – Häßler, Möller – Bobić (65. Strunz), Kuntz (83. Bierhoff)
Czech Republic: Kouba – Kadlec – Horňák, Suchopárek – Latál, Bejbl, Němec – Frýdek (46. Berger), Nedvěd – Kuka, Poborský (46. Drulák)
Referee: David R. Elleray (England)
Assistants: Anthony Bates (England), Peter Walton (England)
Fourth Official: Stephen Lodge (England)
Yellow Cards: Ziege, Kuntz, Möller, Babbel, Reuter, Häßler / Bejbl, Nedvěd, Kadlec, Drulák
Red Cards: – / –