Spain face Croatia this evening confident they will breeze into the quarter-finals, but they will have to go some way to live up to this cracker...
The fallout from Manchester City’s last gasp title win has led to pundits collating some similarly astonishing moments from down the years when victory was wrestled from the jaws of defeat. Anfield ’89, Barcelona ’99 and Istanbul ’05 enjoyed a good airing, but surprisingly there was no mention of what was, to my mind, one of the best games in recent memory, Spain’s comeback against Yugoslavia in Euro 2000, probably because this was before Spain had been anointed God’s gift to football and most people think Alfonso is a kind of mango.
The Netherlands and Belgium staged some superb matches that year: England losing 3-2 to both Portugal and Romania, Yugoslavia’s 3-3 draw with tournament first-timers Slovenia and one of the epic 0-0 draws in history, when the Netherlands missed two normal-time penalties to eventually lose on spot-kicks to Italy. But the way in which Spain secured qualification from Group C, with two goals in injury time, was simply breathtaking.
These were the days when every tournament preview labelled Spain as ‘perennial underachievers,’ and such tags looked justified two games in. Their talented side, featuring Raul, Guardiola and Hierro, went down to a Steffen Iversen goal to lose their opener against Norway and followed that with a nervy 2-1 win over Slovenia. This left qualification for the quarter finals in the hands of Norway, who were playing Slovenia, and Yugoslavia, who only needed a draw in Bruges.
And things didn’t start well for Spain. Having already lost Deportivo winger Fran to injury, eventual tournament top scorer Savo Milosevic gave Yugoslavia the lead on the half hour, heading in Ljubinko Drulovic’s cross. Eight minutes later, Real Betis forward Alfonso struck an equaliser after a lucky break in the box, but Spain had work to do in the second half.
The ascent of their struggle increased just after the break when Dejan Govedarica, a half time replacement for the influential Vladimir Jugovic, hit a precise shot from the edge of the box that clipped the underside of the bar and swerved past Santiago Canizares. 2-1. Spain’s response was even more rapid this time – Pedro Munitis, another half time sub and player for whom the phrase ‘diminutive winger’ could have been invented, curled a marvellous shot in off the post just a minute later to equalise for a second time.
Pedro Munitis, another half time sub and player for whom the phrase ‘diminutive winger’ could have been invented
But there was still 40 minutes left to play, and with Norway needing just one goal to seal their qualification over in Arnhem, both teams new they needed to go for the win to make sure of a quarter final place. Things finally seemed to be going the way of the Spanish when one-time Chelsea flop Slavisa Jokanovic was sent off, leading to a crazed Yugoslavian fan invading the pitch and attempting to attack the French referee. Their fans may have been incensed, but their players remained focused. The Spanish reverted to type.
Sinisa Mihajlovic, that most opinion dividing of central defenders, swung over a free kick which caused panic in Spain’s defence, allowing Slobodan Komljenovic to pounce and steer Yugoslavia back into the lead. With 15 minutes remaining, a Spanish team containing the captains of Real Madrid and Barcelona was on the brink of elimination.
In a very significant way, this was turning out to be Yugoslavia’s European Championship revenge. Just ten days before Euro 92, the last tournament they qualified for, their much-fancied side was kicked out of the tournament as their civil war raged only to see replacements Denmark cruelly go on to be crowned champions. That generation contained many of the players – Davor Suker, Robert Prosinecki, Robert Jarni, Zvinomir Boban – that had won the 1987 World Youth Championships, as well as world-class stars Dejan Savicevic and Dragan Stojkovic. Jonathan Wilson called them “the greatest side there never was.”
Spain should know all about wasted generation, and they were determined to go further than at France 98, when they went out in the group stages despite being in a group with Nigeria, Bulgaria and Paraguay. But as this match drew to a close, it looked as though another clutch of Spanish talent was to be frittered away.
A defeat, and it was curtains for Jose Antonio Camacho’s men, and with the clock ticking down, Guardiola and Alfonso both had good chances saved. Then as late as the 94th minute, Barcelona defender Aberlardo went down in the box – penalty. Gaizka Mendieta stepped up to roll the ball in nonchalantly, as he always did, but no one knew whether this would be enough, and no one knew whether there was any time left to kick off again.
Spain should know all about wasted generation, and they were determined to go further than at France 98, when they went out in the group stages despite being in a group with Nigeria, Bulgaria and Paraguay
But there was, and Yugoslavia began to panic. With the result from Arnhem unconfirmed, another goal for Spain could send them out. And with ten men and all their substitutions used up, they just had to pray they held on, or hope the Slovenians, who just nine years previously had been their fellow countrymen before war ripped them apart, could do them an improbable favour.
A final, almost apologetic punt from Guardiola, who was the only outfield player back in the Spanish half, caused pandemonium in the Yugoslavian box. The defence had retreated to within six yards of their own goal line, and Fernando Hierro was able to pull away to the far post. He headed back into the danger zone, where Alfonso was one of seven Spaniards arriving in the box, right about where the dismissed Jokanovic probably would have been.
The ball bounced once, Alfonso steadied himself, and arched his body to slide a volley through the tiniest of gaps. It ran into the net, and John Motson went mad: “ALFONSOOOOO!”
The clock showed 96 minutes.
The Yugoslavian bench looked on in horror while Spaniards spilled on to the pitch in ecstasy. They now knew they were through, but there was a nervous wait for their defeated opponents. Fortunately, they were relying on Norway – the negative tactics of the Scandinavians, who assumed a draw would be enough, ensured they couldn’t break down Slovenia. Yugoslavia had been let off, but the moment belonged to Spain.
Tensions boiled as the final whistle went, with another Yugoslavian, draped in his national flag, breaking through the barbed wire fencing and racing the length of the field to remonstrate with the referee. Another threw a coin in his eye, drawing blood. They must have felt pretty daft when they realised Norway had only drawn and their team was secured second place in the quarters.
At the time, Motson gushed, “you only see games like this once in a while, but when you do it’s so, so special.” Let’s hope events in Manchester last month don’t mean we have to wait much longer.
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