This is the latest in our weekly series about the 16 triumphant teams in the European Championship, before the 17th edition is played in Germany this summer.
So far, we’ve looked at the Soviet Union in 1960, Spain in 1964, Italy in 1968, West Germany in 1972, Czechoslovakia in 1976 and West Germany, again, in 1980. This week, it’s time for one of the competition’s most famous successes — France at Euro 1984.
France were truly magnificent at Euro 1984: unquestionably the best team at the tournament, almost certainly the finest side the European Championship had seen in its 24 years up until this point, and probably still its most dominant winners.
This felt like a significant Euros, four years after a poor edition in Italy. France were a slightly controversial choice of hosts, as a country that had only sporadically shown serious pedigree on the game’s international stage, and whose true love of football was often questioned.
But they were not only hosts but also strong favourites to be crowned champions. Excellent form coming into that summer, and their ability to count on Ballon d’Or holder Michel Platini, meant they were almost expected to win the competition, and to win it in style.
“It’s not too much to expect a tournament full of attacking play,” wrote Leslie Vernon before the tournament in World Soccer magazine. “Flagbearers of this attacking policy should be the hosts. They proved against West Germany (in a 1-0 friendly win in the April) that they are able to play an attractive game without such class midfielders as Alain Giresse, Jean Tigana and Michel Platini.
“The presence of this trio should increase their appetite for goals and increase their ability to move the ball around in a pleasing style. Indeed, Platini should be one of the outstanding figures of the tournament with his uncanny passing ability and deadly finishing.”
It would be quite an achievement to live up to that sort of billing. But France managed it.
France tended to switch dramatically between managers who emphasised the need for defensive solidity and ones who considered football an art as much as a sport.
Michel Hidalgo was the latter.
Previously a talented midfielder who scored for Reims in the 1956 European Cup final, he had served as assistant manager to predecessor Stefan Kovacs, and took charge in 1976.
The curious thing about Hidalgo was this was his only job as an outright manager, otherwise serving as either an assistant or a director of football. But he transformed French football, creating an impressive side who reached the semi-finals at World Cup 1982, being eliminated on penalties after a famous — or infamous — 3-3 draw with West Germany.
France might have won that tournament in Spain. Italy eventually did. “To calculate like the Italians is not sport,” Hidalgo insisted. “That style is impossible for the French nature and spirit.”
Before this tournament, it was already agreed Hidalgo would step aside immediately afterwards. Its final, therefore, was his last game as a manager of any side.
It simply doesn’t get better than Platini at Euro 1984.
He got the only goal late in a nervy win against Denmark in the tournament’s opening match. He then scored a hat-trick in a ruthless 5-0 thrashing of Belgium, and another three in an eventful 3-2 victory over Yugoslavia. No one else has ever scored two European Championship finals hat-tricks in their entire career — Platini did it in four days.
He was slightly less dominant in the two knockout games, yet still scored a famous 119th-minute winner as the semi-final against Portugal went to extra time, then opened the scoring in the 2-0 defeat of Spain in the final.
Platini was already regarded as the best player in Europe by a country mile. In the 1983 Ballon d’Or voting, he received as many votes as the players who came second, third, fourth and fifth put together.
Although the award was, in those days, open only to European players, Juventus’ Platini was regarded as the outright best footballer in the world ahead of Diego Maradona, who was then struggling at Barcelona but would rejuvenate his career when completing a move to Napoli of Italy a week after the Euros ended.
The most fabled players in history have always been somewhere between midfielders and attackers, and therefore between creators and goalscorers: Pele, Maradona, Johan Cruyff, Alfredo Di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas, Lionel Messi. Platini was another, one often cast as an attacking midfielder but who preferred banging in the goals himself. He had just completed the second of three straight seasons as Serie A’s top goalscorer, and his nine goals at this tournament took him past Just Fontaine as France’s record holder.
Platini switched off in games and expected less talented team-mates to do his running, and wasn’t the most professional player, rejecting instructions from fitness coaches and openly smoking cigarettes in the dressing room. He later said Euro 1984 was the only time in his career he was fully fit for a major tournament.
That haul of nine goals in the five games tells its own story. Only Cristiano Ronaldo has scored more goals in European Championship finals history — it took the Portuguese forward five tournaments to get there, whereas Platini did it in one summer.
Surely the best tournament any individual footballer has ever had.
In a side lacking world-class strikers, France’s most famous tactical feature was the so-called ‘Le Carre Magique’ — the magic square. It is arguably the most renowned midfield in international history.
Although all four players were good all-rounders, the French have always tended towards a system of the star dominating and the others getting through the dirty work.
So, essentially, Jean Fernandez was the ball-winner, but not really in a ‘Claude Makelele role’ manner, as he often made forward runs into goalscoring positions. Tigana was the box-to-box runner, something approaching a Blaise Matuidi figure — a dribbler rather than a pure workhorse. The playmaker Giresse was the reigning French Footballer of the Year, at a time when that award was only given to home-based players, and would have been the star midfielder in almost any other French side. Platini was deployed as the most advanced of the four, the true magician in the magic square.
Ask anyone who remembers the 1984 tournament to tell you about this side, and they will probably mention Platini’s individual brilliance, and then the magic square.
But that’s where things become interesting.
France did start the tournament with that midfield quartet, but because Manuel Amoros was dismissed against Denmark and therefore suspended for the second game, and his fellow centre-back Yvon Le Roux was out injured, Hidalgo switched to 3-5-2 for the second and third group matches.
And this, with their four midfield stars all on the pitch together but not strictly forming any kind of square, was when France played their best football. In this quintet, Fernandez played from the right, Giresse was deep and Tigana was a right-sided No 8 while Platini was the most advanced of the midfield three. Bernard Genghini was on the left, the fifth midfielder in the 3-5-2. Was it a magic pentagon rather than a magic square?
But Hidalgo went back to the midfield quartet for the semi-final, a decision he seemingly regretted, blaming himself for the side’s poor start to the match. France got through to the final, following extra time, after they gambled on throwing a defender into attack, rather than because of any great tactical planning.
The defining moment
The semi-finals are often when a tournament truly peaks, and France’s last-four win over Portugal in 1984 is arguably the high-water mark in the history of the European Championship.
A brilliant end-to-end encounter in Marseille’s Stade Velodrome featured four goals by the respective No 3s — France defender Jean-Francois Domergue and Portugal striker Jordao. France played some brilliant football, flinging themselves forward to play one-twos on the edge of the penalty box. It was exhilarating, unpredictable football of the highest order.
The game seemed to be heading for penalties but then, in the last minute of the 30 in extra time, with both sides still throwing men into attack, a typically precise Giresse pass, and then a typically exciting Tigana burst, unlocked Portugal. Tigana cut the ball back for Platini, who kept up his record of scoring in every game of the tournament by turning, pausing, and then smashing the ball high past the goalkeeper and the three defenders on the line.
In keeping with many international tournaments, the overall quality of football wasn’t reflected in the final of Euro 84, which was disappointingly cagey. Spain, who needed penalties to squeeze past the Danes in the semi-finals, had their chances to win at the Parc des Princes in Paris, but at that time they were a defensive-minded, overly physical side, and almost all neutrals were cheering on the hosts.
Platini’s inevitable goal was, sadly, rather ugly — a curled free kick just before the hour clumsily spilt into his own net by goalkeeper Luis Arconada. But France’s sealing second, in stoppage time, was a lovely one from Bruno Bellone, a relatively unknown Monaco winger being used up front because of 1) his speed and 2) the squad’s lack of proper strikers.
Running onto Tigana’s pass, he waited for Arconada to advance before delightfully dinking the ball over him and into the net, a picturebook goal to confirm France’s first-ever major tournament success. It was also the second winning ‘dink’ in three editions of the Euros, after Antonin Panenka’s more famous one in 1976’s penalty shootout.
Most prominent British journalists only arrived in France to cover the final having been with England, who failed to qualify for what was still in those days an eight-nation Euros, on tour in South America that June — the one which featured John Barnes’ famous goal against Brazil in the Maracana.
They were unduly negative about the quality of the tournament overall based on the final, but reports around the rest of Europe were overwhelmingly positive about Euro 84, and its deserved winners.
You might be surprised to learn…
The European Championship in France clashed with something of comparable importance in June 1984 — the host nation’s presidential election.
Politics and football have often been linked in France, most notably when the multicultural 1998 World Cup-winning side triumphed at a time when there had been growing support for far-right presidential candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen.
But this was a more direct link. The 1984 side’s manager, Hidalgo, was so popular that after this success he was offered the position of sports minister by Laurent Fabius, the newly elected prime minister. He turned it down, instead serving as the national side’s technical director while Henri Michel became the manager, but later regretted his decision.
“I missed a new adventure, another piece of life,” Hidalgo admitted to French newspaper Le Figaro in 2007. “I declined an incredible proposal. As a coach, I loved representing France. The a job as minister might have suited me.“
Were they the best team?
The best of this tournament without question, and probably still the greatest European Championship side.
Of their predecessors, only the Germany of 1972 come into the equation, while the France of Euro 2000 and Spain’s winning side eight years later are also contenders for that title. But the compliments from the time, albeit some of them a little cheesy, tell the story — the French were widely praised for their ‘Champagne football’ and often referred to as ‘The European Brazil’.
“This was the finest tournament of its kind since World Cup 1970, and by far and away the best European Championship,” wrote Keir Radnedge in World Soccer. “That France should emerge as winners was a climax for which all football fans should rejoice.
“Their victory was a deserving prize for the stimulation, entertainment and sheer fresh air which the French have breathed into the game. So often, the deserving teams come away empty-handed, but France have re-established a sense of football justice. Teams can win at the highest level while concentrating on the virtues of skill, technique and vivacity, teams can win at the highest level with superior class.”
(Top photo: Getty Images)
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