It was Mark Twain who said truth was stranger than fiction. His argument was that while fiction exists within the realms of possibility, the truth holds no such bounds. It is possible that Twain was part of the crowd in the Jan Breydel Stadium in Bruges to witness the maddest international match of the twenty-first century – Spain verses Yugoslavia at Euro 2000.
In possibly the greatest tournament of the modern era, this bizarre and thrilling Group C encounter really took the proverbial biscuit. The match had seven goals, late drama, one red card, exquisite football, plot twists Hollywood producers would have considered far-fetched and even multiple pitch invaders. Most incredibly of all it cracked a smile on the faces of Alan Green and Mark Lawrenson.
Before tiki-taka and tournament success, it was impossible to encounter references to the Spanish national team without the prefix ‘perennial underachievers’ attached. After an embarrassing group stage exit at France ’98, a qualifying defeat to Cyprus saw the end of manager Javier Clemente.
Demonstrating their Jekyll and Hyde nature, Spain thrashed Austria 9-0 soon after and romped into Euro 2000 on the back of forty-two goals in qualification. Packed with talent such as Fernando Hierro, Pep Guardiola, Gaizka Mendieta and Raul, Spain were fancied to do well in Holland and Belgium. John Motson had them down as dangerous outsiders for the title.
In a tale as old as time, things began to go wrong once the tournament started. In their opening game, Spain were defeated by an incredibly defensive Norway, falling to a goal by Steffan Iversen that many believe is still commemorated annually in the Pulis household. Facing another early exit from a major finals, Spain railed to beat Slovenia 2-1 to set up a crucial final game against Yugoslavia that they had to win.
Their opponents did not share quite the same desperation. The Yugoslav team in 2000 was a veritable who’s who of European footballing royalty - Siniša Mihajlović and Dejan Stanković of Italian champions Lazio, Predrag Mijatović of Fiorentina and the great playmaker Dragan Stojković, although the latter was now playing out the autumn of his career in Japan.
Having edged out arch rivals Croatia in qualifying, their campaign was shaping up to be equivalent of an ageing band’s final stadium tour before the inevitable break-up.
After an hour of their first match the prognosis looked bleak. Up against outsiders Slovenia, making their debut at a major tournament, Yugoslavia found themselves three goals down and were set for an ignominious defeat.
Demonstrating he was a few sandwiches short of a full picnic, Mihajlović was then sent off for behaviour that When Saturday Comes described as ‘befitting of a Sunday League player’.
However, a stunning comeback spearheaded by Savo Milošević ensured the Yugoslavs snatched a 3-3 draw, which was followed by a narrow win over Norway. Going into the final round of matches, Yugoslavia knew they would progress if they avoided defeat. It was all set up for an afternoon of outrageous entertainment.
The match started at a furious pace. Spain missed two chances early on – Ivan Helguera shooting just wide and Alfonso miskicking in front of goal.
Meanwhile Yugoslav midfielder Slaviša Jokanović, destined to win promotion to the Premier League with Fulham and Watford as a manager, made his first contribution of the game. With a reputation for loose limbs, Spanish winger Fran had to be substituted after falling victim to Jokanović’s flailing elbow. Despite this, Spain looked the more likely to score.
Therefore, it should have been no surprise that a Yugoslav should break the deadlock. Taking advantage of injury ensuring full-back Michel Salgado was out of position, a teasing cross from Ljubinko Drulović was headed home by Milosovic. The Real Zaragoza striker, ridiculed in the English media for his underwhelming spell at Aston Villa, would end the tournament as joint top goalscorer. In the press box, the assorted Spanish hacks began sharpening their knives.
The two teams continued to exchange blows, a description that should be taken literally. Drulović whacked Salgado, Slobodan Komljenović scythed down Mendieta and Jokanovic finally received a booking for another hack on Helguera.
Laudably, Spain found time amongst negotiating this assault course to equalise before half-time with Real Betis striker Alfonso firing home after Raul’s break had fallen to him in the penalty area.
Stojković and Mendieta fought in the goal net over who should take the ball back to the centre circle, like two toddlers fighting over the next turn on the swings. The game was mad and getting madder.
Facing elimination, Spain replaced the incapacitated Salgado with forward Pedro Munitis at the start of the second half. However, it was an opposing substitute who would be next to strike. Having already wasted one opportunity, midfielder Dejan Govedarica curled in an exquisite right-foot shot from just outside the box, clipping the underside of the crossbar on its way past Spanish keeper Santiago Cañizares.
Any Yugoslav joy was short-lived. Spain instantly broke upfield and Munitis drove home a gorgeous effort in off the post, heaving them back into the contest. There were only seventy-three seconds between the two strikes, the brilliant technique of both finishes elevating an already dramatic game into something approaching a classic. The day after England had capped an inept set of displays with an early departure, commentators Motson and Lawrenson were positively purring.
Channelling the spirit of Alan Partridge, the BBC noted the game ‘teetered on the edge of football anarchy’, with running battles continuing all over the pitch. Stojković was cautioned after one too many fouls on Mendieta and the Tasmanian devil Jokanovic was shown a second yellow card and expelled from the field.
This was the cue for Yugoslav players to surround the French referee Gilles Veissière, their cause aided by one fan who charged onto the pitch to argue his case. The supporters in Bruges could hardly argue about being short-changed.
By now, Yugoslavia had decided to draw men back in order to cling on to the point they required to progress. Spain, still searching for a winner, had five forwards on the pitch and continue to exert heavy pressure on the Yugoslav backline.
However, this script was proving no slave to convention. With fifteen minutes remaining, the Spanish defence failed to clear a whipped Mihajlović free kick, allowing the ball to ricochet round the area like a cheap arcade machine. It eventually fell to Komljenović who contorted his body to poke the ball past the despairing Cañizares.
Possibly swept up by all the excitement, Motson cried that the Yugoslav fans were ‘going absolutely jubilant’. Spain were back to staring directly down the barrel.
The game grew ever more frantic as Spain piled forward, their attackers now having to dodge a flare thrown onto the pitch as well as the attentions of the opposition defence.
Guardiola’s audacious chip was just about dealt with by goalkeeper Ivica Kralj and two penalty shouts were waved away. As the clock ticked away, the situation looked hopeless for the Spanish. Five minutes of injury time were added on.
Suddenly a lifeline. A dubious penalty, awarded for an infringement on Spanish captain Abelardo, was stroked home by Mendieta. 3-3.
As injury time ran out, Spain continued to probe. Norway were stubbornly holding out for a 0-0 draw with Slovenia in the group’s other game, meaning that only a winner would see La Roja go through.
The allotted injury time ran out, causing staff and substitutes on the Yugoslav bench to implore the referee to blow the final whistle. As if enraptured as everybody else, Mr. Veissière allowed play to continue. What happened next was reported by the BBC as the ‘late, great escape’.
From just inside the opposition half, Guardiola launched one final long ball forward into a crowded penalty area. Reacting quickest to the knockdown, Alfonso lashed the ball past the static Yugoslav goalkeeper to complete the most improbable comeback. The Spanish contingent erupted with disbelieving joy having somehow managed to save themselves. Houdini himself would have been proud.
In the commentary box Motson, having lost all semblance of compsure, screamed ‘ALFONSOOOOOOO’, pre-empting Martin Tyler by over a decade. It seemed the only natural reaction in the circumstances. Alongside him, Lawrenson exclaimed that he had ‘never witnessed anything like this in my life’ in the disbelieving manner of a pensioner stumbling across Love Island.
By contrast, the Yugoslav players and staff stood in crestfallen silence. Having been ahead three times in the match, they had contrived to lose the game in the most gut-wrenching circumstances.
As communications were not as instant in 2000, they believed they had been eliminated. Another fan attempted to reach the referee only to be hit by an object thrown from the crowd.
However, it would be Norway who would lose out. Their fans and players slumped on the pitch in Arnhem after hearing news of Spain’s escapology act.
While it was hard not to feel sympathetic for the hordes of Viking helmet-wearing supporters, their progression would have been a detriment to the competition. Norway managed one goal in the group stages compared to Spain’s six and Yugoslavia’s seven. Ultimately, they could have no complaints.
The protagonists of this extraordinary encounter did not last much longer in the tournament either. The frailties in Yugoslavia’s ageing team were fully exposed by co-hosts Holland in the quarter-finals, Patrick Kluivert scoring a hat-trick in a 6-1 thrashing.
Meanwhile, Spain were squeezed out by eventual champions France in a tight encounter. Real Madrid golden boy Raul missed a late penalty as Les Bleus won 2-1.
The eventual fate of the two teams should not deflect from the maddest international of the twenty-first century. On one afternoon in Belgium, two of the most naturally gifted teams of Euro 2000 contested a match that simply had everything.