PICKING A BEST XI from past European Championships is a tricky task.
The tournament was slow to acquire anywhere near the level of prestige associated with the World Cup and only featured eight teams (rather than four) for the first time in 1980.
Consequently, players’ performances prior to 1980 have been essentially disregarded, since it would be almost impossible to justify selecting anyone on the basis of a game or two.
Also, note that I’ve decided to go with a 4-5-1 formation, playing Michel Platini just behind the strikers, in order to accommodate the best players possible.
Anyhow, the team in question can be seen below. And apologies in advance for the exclusion of Jurgen Klinsmann/Carlos Puyol/[insert name of wronged individual here].
Peter Schmeichel (goalkeeper): Though the Danish keeper had signed for Man United a year previously, it was Euro 92 where he truly established himself as one of the world’s best players in his position. He was integral to his side’s shock victory, producing a number of fine stops throughout the tournament, including a crucial penalty save from Marco van Basten in the semi-finals. Schmeichel also performed at Euro 88, Euro 96 and Euro 2000 – with Denmark never coming close to repeating their remarkable success of 92. Indeed, they failed to even progress past the group stages on all three occasions. However, such disappointments did little to detract from their famous achievement.
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Paolo Maldini (left back): The only player on this list never to have won the Euros, Maldini deserves his place nonetheless on the basis of his displays at Euro 88, 96 and 2000 – reflected by his inclusion in the Team of the Tournament on the latter two occasions. He was particularly unlucky in 2000, when a brave Italian performance was not enough to prevent the side from losing 2-1 in extra time to a talented French outfit. If ever a player didn’t deserve to retire trophyless from the international stage, it was Maldini.
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Lilian Thuram (right back): Thuram, along with a few others such as Roberto Carlos, effectively changed what was expected of a modern full-back. Whereas before, the position generally revolved around being defensively solid, footballers such as Thuram, who possessed pace and athleticism in abundance, brought an unprecedented level of attacking prowess to the role. And it was at the Euros where he delivered some of his finest performances, and particularly at Euro 2000, which France ultimately won. Thuram also holds the record for most matches played at the Euros (16), along with Edwin van der Saar.
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Traianos Dellas (centre back): Dellas was very much emblematic of the Greek side in general at Euro 2004, given that he was a relatively unremarkable footballer (his career encompassed an underwhelming spell at Sheffield United) who exceeded all expectations during one crazy summer in Portugal. While Otto Rehhagel received much of the praise for showing a patent level of tactical nous, Dellas was the bedrock from which the wily German coach laid his foundations.
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Marcel Desailly (centre back): One of the greatest centre-halves of all time at his peak, Desailly was a commanding presence at the back with no shortage of skill to boot. He played in three consecutive European Championships before his retirement in the aftermath of Euro 2004, twice being named in the Team of the Tournament in the process, owing to a series of solid defensive displays.
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Brian Laudrup (right midfielder): Though Laudrup failed to score at Euro 92, he was still an important part of the Danish team that won the competition, and his immense contribution was reflected by his inclusion on the shortlist of the FIFA World Player of the Year poll shortly after the tournament ended. He was also one of Denmark’s better players at Euro 96, scoring three goals, in what was a relatively lacklustre side that exited the competition at the group stage.
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Ruud Gullit (central midfielder): The player who George Best once claimed was “better than Maradona,” Gullit excelled at Euro 88 (where he captained Holland to victory) and Euro 92 (in which his side were unfortunate to lose out in the semi-finals on penalties). And perhaps more so than Johan Cruyff even, Gullit epitomised Holland’s elegant total football style, given his first-class footballing technique and ability to play in a number of positions with equal aplomb.
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Michel Platini (attacking midfielder): “A good player, not a great player,” was the label that Eamon Dunphy famously applied to Platini during the 1984 European Championships. But Dunphy’s verdict seemed rather foolish by the tournament’s conclusion, as Platini inspired France to win their first-ever major international tournament. Having scored an astonishing nine goals in five games, Platini was well on his way to becoming a legend of the game in light of France’s triumph, and justifiably so – it’s difficult to think of another instance of a single player having such an overwhelming influence on a major international tournament.
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Marcos Senna (central midfielder): The Euro 2008-winning Spain side was filled with immensely talented players, but it was Senna, one of their less naturally gifted footballers, who arguably made the most telling contribution of all. He showed the requisite discipline and footballing intelligence to perform the holding midfield role to near perfection, freeing the likes of Xavi and Cesc Fabregas to excel in more attacking positions, while ensuring they retained an impressive level of defensive solidity – so much so that they went the entire knockout stages without conceding a single goal. Senna was consequently lauded as the Player of the Tournament by many journalists.
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Zinedine Zidane (left midfielder): While he helped France reach the semi-finals at Euro 96, and the quarters in 2004, it was at Euro 2000 where Zinedine Zidane really shone. He produced a number of influential displays, scoring crucial goals in the quarter and semi-finals along the way, and helping France to ultimately lift the trophy, while deservedly being acknowledged as the UEFA Player of the Tournament in the process.
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Marco van Basten (Striker): Even before Euro 88, Van Basten’s reputation as a world-class footballer had been more or less consolidated, with the striker scoring 128 goals in 133 games for Ajax between 1982 and 1987. And he did not disappoint in this tournament either, scoring five times – including arguably the best goal ever scored in a major final (see below) – as he led Holland to victory. He also played in Euro 92, though couldn’t quite recapture his earlier form, and his career fizzled out shortly thereafter, owing largely to a succession of injury troubles.
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Otto Rehhagel (Manager): Undoubtedly the easiest selection on this list, Rehhagel took a team of journeymen devoid of a single world-class player and somehow turned them into the champions of Europe. Though many dismissed the Greece team of 2004 as ‘boring,’ there was no doubt that a great football mind was behind their incredible success. The level of organisation and work ethic Rehhagel brought to the side proved that a team with limited ability could still have a significant impact on international football.
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Substitutes: Iker Casillas, Lothar Matthäus, Giourkas Seitaridis, Xavi and Thierry Henry.
Have we forgotten anyone? Let us know in the comments section below.