FEATURE | Misery in Manchester: France’s Stumble in the semis at Euro ’96

It’s 28 years since the last time France edged through to the semi-finals of the European Championships via a penalty shootout. The opponent that awaited them in the next round at Euro ‘96 was a far less daunting prospect than the Spanish outfit that will take on Didier Deschamps’ side on Tuesday.

Indeed, Les Bleus were strong favourites to book their place in a mouthwatering final against either Germany or hosts, England. Aimé Jacquet’s men had been one of the most entertaining sides in the tournament and with only an unfancied Czech Republic standing in their way, the result seemed a foregone conclusion. However, defeat on penalties in Manchester has banished the ‘96 cohort to the margins of French football history. So, who were the boys in bleu in ’96 and how good were they?

A new era

Les Bleus made the trip across the Channel after finishing second in the Group 1 qualifying group, a point behind Romania and six points ahead of Slovakia. The squad had just emerged from a bold overhaul with Jacquet bringing the curtain down on the careers of big-name stars such as Eric Cantona, Jean-Pierre Papin and David Ginola. Jacquet’s new France was built around the outrageously skilful 23-year-old Zinedine Zidane, Bordeaux teammate Christophe Dugarry and PSG’s livewire forwards Youri Djorkaeff and Patrice Loko. Monaco’s 24-year-old Lilian Thuram had also emerged to make the right-back slot his own. There was plenty of experience to anchor these new talents too, with the likes of goalkeeper Bernard Lama, Laurent Blanc, Marcel Desailly and captain Deschamps.

This revamped squad were going to have to do it the hard way though, as they found themselves pitched in the toughest group of the tournament. In their way stood the dangerous underachievers Spain, and Eastern powerhouses Bulgaria and Romania, both of whom still boasted the stars that had lit up the 1994 World Cup just two years before.

Topping the group

Jacquet’s men made the perfect start, with Dugarry’s looping first half header enough to see off Romania at St James’ Park. It was a solid if unspectacular performance, with Lama barely tested by Gheorghe Hagi and co, while Loko came close late on when his close-range effort flashed wide. The next match against Spain promised to be the glamour tie of the group and a late loss of concentration proved costly for Les Bleus. France made the early running at a raucous Elland Road with Andoni Zubizarreta’s one-handed save denying Vincent Guérin a certain opener. Three minutes into the second half, the French finally got the goal they deserved as Djorkaeff turned in Christian Karembeu’s lofted pass. Three points and a place in the quarter-finals looked all set until José Caminero stunned the French with just five minutes remaining.

The French now had to get a result against their old bête noire, Bulgaria. Dimitar Penev’s men had infamously broken French hearts when a last-minute strike denied Les Bleus qualification to the 1994 World Cup. Perhaps a sense of revenge helped motivate the French, as the men in blue overpowered their opponents with consummate ease, running in 3-1 winners at St James’ Park. Blanc’s header from a corner set France on their way after just 21 minutes, before an own goal from Luboslav Penev and a sharp finish from Loko either side of a trademark Hristo Stoichkov freekick booked their place in the last eight.

Penalty pleasure and pain

Waiting for France at Anfield in the quarter-finals were the Netherlands. Although still smarting from a 4-1 evisceration by England just four days earlier, the Oranje still boasted the nucleus of the marvellous Ajax side that had lifted the Champions League the previous summer.

Given the heavyweight nature of the tie, it perhaps wasn’t a surprise that chances were hard to come by as both defences cancelled each other out. The closest the French came was Karembeu’s ballooned effort from close range in the first period and it was Lama who would be the hero of the day. In the dying minutes of the game, Clarence Seedorf was sent clean through and saw his effort smothered by the PSG stopper. With both sides cancelling each out in extra time, Lama then denied the Sampdoria playmaker in the shootout after both sides had dispatched three spot kicks apiece. Blanc dramatically stumbled as he hit the fifth and final penalty but it was good enough. France were through to their first semi-final since the World Cup in 1986.

After seeing off the Dutch masters, the Czech Republic undoubtedly presented an easier proposition. Especially so given the absence of key men, Jan Suchopárek, Radoslav Látal, Pavel Kuka and Radek Bejbl. France themselves were without injured captain Deschamps and the suspended Karembeu but were still well-fancied to make the final step to Wembley. Twice Djorkaeff, France’s player of the tournament, came close in the second half, smashing the bar from long range before sending a brilliant scissor kick over the bar. As the game rolled into extra-time, Loko and Reynald Pedros nearly won it for France before the sides turned to penalties to settle the contest. After five successful penalties apiece, Pedros saw his effort parried by Petr Kouba and captain Miroslav Kadlec supplied the decisive coup de grâce.

The neutrals had been denied the attractive prospect of a final with Jacquet’s skilful charges but they wouldn’t need to wait long. Just two years later six of the starters at Old Trafford would be World Cup winners and the misery in Manchester a distant memory.

GFFN | John Porter

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