Belgium went into Euro 2000 hoping to merely make it out of their group, while their co-hosts had much grander ambitions. The Netherlands had home advantage and a wealth of talent to call on in their pursuit of a second major trophy. Along with France, the reigning world champions, Frank Rijkaard’s side were considered favourites to go all the way.
There was just one problem. The French and Dutch were drawn together in the same group, alongside the Czech Republic, who had reached the final four years previously, and Denmark, the shock winners back in 1992. The Netherlands enjoyed a lot of backing, but also had to contend with added pressure and expectation.
“We knew we had the support of the crowd,” recalls midfielder Bolo Zenden. “We set up camp in Hoenderloo. The hotel was completely locked down, so we were basically closed in. Two years earlier, in the World Cup in ‘98, we still had a little bit of freedom to move around outside the hotel.
“Because it was madness playing at home, we couldn’t really go out of the hotel, which meant that it was hard to get a moment away from football. Away from the fans, away from each other. We were really stuck with each other, which is not bad, but sometimes you need to release a bit of your tension. That’s the only downside.”
The Netherlands had impressed at the last World Cup, topping their group and seeing off Yugoslavia and Argentina, courtesy of Dennis Bergkamp’s sublime goal, before losing to Brazil on penalties in the semi-finals. A peripheral part of that squad, Zenden had since developed into a key player. Going into the tournament, he believed they could triumph.
“The mood was great. The supporters were really thinking that we could win the Euros because we had a good team,” the former Liverpool and Barcelona man explains.
“We had nearly the same team as we had in ‘98 at the World Cup. There weren’t too many changes. And we came really close at the World Cup, so why not at the Euros?
“I think we had a complete team. If you look at the players we had, they all played in big competitions for big teams and were regulars. We had a lot of talent. It felt like in ‘98 and 2000 – either one of the two, or maybe both – we had the team to actually be champions.”
That confidence was justified. After France had beaten Denmark 3-0 in their opening game, the Netherlands lined up to face the Czech Republic with a team full of household names – Edwin van der Sar, Jaap Stam, Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids, Bergkamp and Patrick Kluivert among them.
A win was needed to keep pace with the leaders, but they made a sluggish start. Although Pavel Srnicek kept out several efforts, van der Sar was equally busy in the second half, as the Czech Republic looked to capitalise on a nervy performance. Against the run of play, Frank de Boer thumped home a late penalty to take all three points.
A better showing was needed against a blunt Denmark, but the Netherlands were unconvincing in the early stages. It was goalless at the break and Zenden feared for his place in the team after agreeing to an awkward compromise.
“I played the second game as a right-winger because we had a bit of a problem within the squad where Marc Overmars didn’t want to play on the right – he wanted to play on the left,” Zenden remembers.
“Rijkaard said to me, ‘Listen, you know we have a bit of an issue here. Do you mind playing on the right side?’ I said, ‘Yeah, sure. If that’s what the team needs from me, then that’s what I’m willing to do.’
“I struggled in the first half. In the second half, Ronald de Boer was warming up. I thought, ‘Ok, this is me then. I’m done and dusted because I’ve put myself on the line playing on the right. I’m going to be subbed.’ Rijkaard actually took Overmars off, put me on the left and Ronald de Boer on the right. All of a sudden, everything was moving in a positive way.”
With that change, the team clicked. After Kluivert’s opener, Zenden whipped in a low cross for de Boer to convert at the back post and then he got on the scoresheet himself, finding the top corner from 12 yards out. There was no doubt about who would be playing on the left in future.
Both countries were already through, but the meeting with France would decide who won the group and deliver a serious statement of intent. The Netherlands had extra incentive to come out on top because the group winners would play their quarter-final in Amsterdam, while the runners up would have to go to Bruges.
The stands were a sea of orange as the two teams emerged from the tunnel. While the Netherlands had rested a handful of players, France made eight changes. Only Vincent Candela, Marcel Desailly and Patrick Vieira remained from the side that had seen off the Czech Republic.
The game swung to and fro, an entertaining spectacle living up to the sense of occasion. Christophe Dugarry’s header put France ahead, but they were soon pegged back by Kluivert’s smart finish. Despite appeals for offside, David Trezeguet’s instinctive flick restored their lead.
The Netherlands weren’t to be denied and came roaring back after the half-time break. Frank de Boer’s viciously swerving free kick brought them level and then Zenden vindicated Rijkaard’s decision to field him on the left, latching on to a long ball and drilling home the winner. It might not have been a first-choice France team, but it was a huge result regardless.
“You still beat the reigning champions and the French could put up two teams with a lot of quality,” Zenden affirms.
“It’s not like they gave away a lot of talent by playing an A or a B player. They were all triple As back then. To win that game gave us a morale boost. It gave us a bit more confidence to go all the way. It also gave us the opportunity to stay and play in Holland. That was something we really wanted.”
At that point, Zenden felt unstoppable. “I was just on top of my game. I’d already spent two years at Barcelona, playing with the best and winning the league over there. It was just momentum and picking up confidence. If you feel like you’ve got the confidence of the manager, that’s also an influence on your game.”
Rijkaard was 37, just five years into retirement and embarking on his first managerial job.
“I loved playing under him,” Zenden says. “What happened with the Overmars case really gave me a boost. He was a calm manager. He sometimes had to make an unpopular decision, but he’d explain it. He had a very good assistant in Johan Neeskens. Rijkaard set his sights only on one thing and that was winning the Euros.”
Buoyed by victory over France, belief was rising they could do it. That was only enhanced by a 6-1 thrashing of Yugoslavia in the quarter-finals. A Kluivert hat-trick, an own goal from Dejan Govedarica and a late Overmars brace made for an emphatic scoreline.
“We were full of confidence and we had a lot of quality. You don’t really score six goals in a quarter-final, but we did it. We had goals coming from loads of different players, it wasn’t just one pinch hitter,” explains Zenden.
Kluivert now had five goals, making him the tournament’s top scorer alongside Savo Milosevic, who was responsible for Yugoslavia’s injury-time consolation. Zenden had played with Kluivert at club and international level over the past two years, witnessing his quality up close.
“He made a difference in many games,” recalls the winger. “We just had a very solid team and players who could make a difference, like Kluivert, Davids, Cocu, Stam and de Boer. All these players. Van der Sar. They all made a difference.”
The Amsterdam Arena hosted the Netherlands for a third time, as they met Italy with a place in the final at stake. France had beaten Portugal the day before, so both sides knew the challenge that awaited them. In contrast to the goal-filled encounters that had come before, this was a tight and tense affair.
The Netherlands took the initiative from the start, but Italy were renowned for their defensive discipline. Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Nesta, Mark Iuliano and Paolo Maldini were kept busy after an early red card. Zenden gave Gianluca Zambrotta plenty of trouble out wide, resulting in a sending off for two bookable offences.
“I’m not sure if, afterwards, you would say that we should have played it differently,” Zenden considers. “I think we went full-on. We were already doing well in the game and we thought we could go all the way. We had chances. But the Italians defended with their lives.”
With almost an hour left to play, the Dutch were convinced they would make their extra man count. Instead, they found Francesco Toldo in inspired form. Ultimately, it was a game defined by penalties and the Netherlands faltering under pressure as they had done in the World Cup two years earlier. First, Toldo sprung to his left to deny the usually reliable Frank de Boer, then Kluivert hit the post.
Substituted late in the second half, Zenden could only watch on in despair as his teammates toiled in front of goal. Nobody could land the decisive blow during extra time. Italy went into the penalty shoot-out feeling that luck was on their side, while the Netherlands were weighed down by the psychological burden of their earlier misses. Three of their first four takers failed to score and their fate was sealed.
“We did practise penalties in training, but as soon as the pressure is on and the situation is there on the pitch, it’s always different. We had already spoken about the same thing when we played against Brazil two years earlier. They took all their penalties in a certain way. We tried to do something similar, but it wasn’t to be,” says Zenden.
“Italy had more confidence than us because they knew they had to take it all the way to penalties to have a chance of winning. And with us already missing two penalties in the game, I don’t think that gave a lot of confidence to our players. To miss five penalties in a semi-final is obviously a nightmare.”
The squad, the coaching staff and the supporters were crestfallen. This was meant to be their time, on home turf and they’d fallen short. Unfairly or not, the sense the Netherlands were a great team who lacked a hard-nosed winning mentality persisted. Rijkaard immediately announced his resignation.
“He’d already made the decision he wasn’t going to continue because, in a way, he felt he’d failed. For him, the ultimate prize was winning the Euros. Because he didn’t, he felt he had to leave. But I guess, if it was up to the team, they would have loved him to stay on,” says Zenden.
“I was devastated. It just drains all the energy out of you. It’s just unbelievable. That goes on for years and years because everybody always reminds you of the game and asks you about it. ‘How the hell did you not win that one?’ Who knows? It just didn’t happen. We did do well, but not well enough to actually win it. In the end, it only counts if you have a medal.”
There were no clear answers about where the Netherlands had gone wrong. For whatever reason, when the big moment arrived, they hadn’t been able to take it. In the final, France stole victory from the jaws of defeat with Sylvain Wiltord’s 93rd-minute equaliser and David Trezeguet’s dramatic golden goal, cementing their status as the world’s best team.
It certainly wasn’t the outcome the co-hosts had longed for, but the surge of optimism and belief they’d felt as they progressed through the competition meant so much. Although tinged with regret, for Zenden and so many others, it was the highlight of their international careers.
“It’s one of the three major tournaments that I played in and I still very much cherish it because we got all the way to the semis and also, for myself, it was one of my best. I think of it with fond memories but obviously I would have loved to bring back a trophy,” he adds.
“Later on, at Chelsea, I played with Marcel Desailly and Emmanuel Petit, who were part of that French team in ‘98 and 2000. They said that they were happier to play Brazil and Italy in the finals. They still feared us more than the other opponents, which is obviously a compliment, but it doesn’t get you anywhere.”