Euro Moments: Belgium fall agonisingly short of unlikely glory
Guy Thys' side carved an incredible run to the final before being denied by those pesky Germans
West Germany’s Horst Hrubesch celebrates after scoring the winning goal in the Euro 1980 final. Photo: Bob Thomas/Getty Images
From Denmark in 1992 to Greece in 2004 the European Championships are no stranger to a completely unfancied team coming from nowhere to lift the Henri Delaunay Trophy (Martin O’Neill, take note).
But in 1980 Belgium nearly trumped the lot with an extraordinary run to the final.
Coming into the tournament the Belgians had won just two matches in international tournament history.
Simply qualifying for either a World Cup or a European Championship was considered a major coup for the team in red.
But then came along a golden era of players who would take the nation to the very brink of footballing ecstasy.
Under the management of Guy Thys, players like goalkeeper Jean-Marie Pfaff, right-back Eric Gerets and midfielder Jan Ceulemans changed the fortunes of Belgian football forever.
Although it was not unusual for the time it’s worth noting that the 22 players who travelled to Iatly for the Euro finals all played their professional football in their home country. This was a team determined to make their fans and their football league proud on the biggest stage.
As goalkeeper Pfaff has said since: “before Euro 1980 we were amateurs”.
The momentum started in the opening game when, coming up against a strong England team captained by European Footballer of the Year Kevin Keegan, the Belgians earned a 1-1 draw amid chaotic scenes as English fans rioted on the terraces.
After beating Spain 2-1 the Belgians needed only a draw against host nation Italy to reach the final (in those days just eight teams qualified for the Euros with the top team from each group contesting the final).
A disciplined and resolute defensive performance saw Thys’s side grind out the 0-0 draw they needed and, suddenly, Belgium were just 90 minutes away from being crowned kings of Europe.
However, the formidable form of West Germany awaited in the Stadio Olimpico, Rome for the final.
Jupp Derwall’s team had come unbeaten through a group containing the might of Czechoslovakia, Holland and Greece and boasted superstars such as Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Bernd Schuster in their starting 11.
But it was Hamburg’s Horst Hrubesch who would take all the plaudits when he put in the performance of his life to break Belgian hearts.
After opening the scoring in the 10th minute with a strike at the end of a fantastic move orchestrated by the sublime 20-year-old Schuster, Hrubesch’s side were pegged back by René Vandereycken’s penalty with 15 minutes to go.
The game looked to be heading to extra time but then; heartbreak. The Germans won a corner on the left with Rummenigge to swing it in.
In a bizarre twist which showed off the incredible set-piece ability of the German, Rummenigge told the cameraman to point his camera at Hrubesch.
Perplexed, he did as he was told and was justly rewarded. The Bayern Munich winger’s delivery landed perfectly on his team mate’s head, allowing him to glance the ball into the far corner and win the European Championship for Germany.
For the Belgians it was bitterly disappointing. However, without knowing at the time they had propelled their country to the forefront of international football. Two years later they topped their group at the World Cup, finishing ahead of Diego Maradonna’s Argentina, before reaching the semi-finals four years later in Mexico.