European Championships: England 1996
Germany’s success in Euro ’96 owed much to Berti Vogts’ 3-5-2 formation which enabled Matthias Sammer the freedom to show off his considerable talents. Employed as a sweeper, Sammer was not only an important part of a typically watertight defence, but was on hand to make a significant attacking contribution throughout the tournament.
Having played alongside Franz Beckenbaeur and Paul Breitner as part of West Germany’s defence in the mid-1970s, Vogts recognised first-hand the value of defenders capable of contributing in the opposition’s half. As he prepared his squad for Euro ’96, Borussia Dortmund’s Sammer was an obvious choice to fulfil the sweeper role popularised and defined by Beckenbaeur a generation previously.
Drawn in a group alongside Italy, Czech Republic and Russia that left little room for error, Germany were comfortable winners over the Czechs in their opening fixture. However, the second match against Russia proved more challenging, and with Italy still to come, a trademark late run by Sammer to open the scoring proved pivotal in ensuring their passage to the quarter-finals. Vogts’ side did not concede a single goal during the group stages.
While Germany had demonstrated their defensive quality, their system hinged on a fluid approach. Whenever Sammer strode into midfield to dictate play, the industrious and disciplined Dieter Eilts would drop into defence to cover. This was no more apparent than in the ill-tempered quarter-final against an exciting Croatia side. The sweeper imposed himself on the game – his surge into the box earning a penalty that Jurgen Klinsmann converted. Hovering in midfield where he had spent much of his early career, Sammer’s late runs proved difficult to defend against, and he beat Slaven Bilic to a Markus Babbel cross to net the winner.
Germany edged past England in an enthralling semi-final at Wembley to set up a rematch with a stubborn Czech Republic team whose defensive, counter-attacking approach had already got the better of Italy, Portugal and France. Although Germany were favourites, the Czechs struck first after Karel Poborsky broke free down the right flank. As Sammer covered, he brought down the rapidly advancing winger, conceding a penalty that Patrik Berger drilled low past Andreas Kopke. German blushes were spared when substitute Oliver Bierhoff scored twice – the second an extra-time golden goal – to lift the European Championships trophy.
It was a minor aberration during an otherwise exemplary tournament for Sammer. Combined with inspirational performances for Dortmund in their 1995/96 Bundesliga and 1996/97 Champions League successes, he was awarded the Ballon d’Or in 1996. It was no surprise that he was the first defender to win the award since Beckenbaeur himself in 1972. The following year Sammer suffered a serious knee injury that brought his career to a close and Germany, minus their talismanic driving force, failed to replicate their Euro ’96 form as they crashed out the 1998 World Cup in the quarter-finals. Sammer had proven that, like the Kaiser, it takes a special breed of player to be defender, playmaker and goalscorer.