England's semi-final history: From Eusebio's Wembley tears to extra-time heartbreak against Croatia in Russia

It’s 55 years since England’s only semi-final tournament victory, which put them on the verge of World Cup glory and left one of history’s greatest players in tears.

Before going on to win the 1966 World Cup on home soil, England had only twice got out of the group stages at a World Cup and had never reached the finals of a European Championships.

Beating one of the pre-tournament favourites in a Eusebio-led Portugal made it look easy for the Three Lions, but in the 55 years since semi-finals have only been a story of heartache for the nation.

Can Gareth Southgate do what he could not in 2018 and lead England all the way this time? Here’s some inspiration he might like to take about how to do it – and what mistakes to avoid this time.

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World Cup 1966 – England 2-1 Portugal

England’s first tournament semi-final produced a superb game against a Portugal side bristling with attacking talent.


Eusebio, one of the finest players of all time, joined in a four-man attack by Jose Augusto, Jose Torres and Antonio Simoes, had already scored seven goals en route to that stage, including four goals in a barnstorming 5-3 win over North Korea in the quarter-finals.

England’s last-eight win over Argentina had been marred by controversy surrounding Antonio Rattin’s first-half dismissal for dissent, and accusations of bias from the visitors towards the referee which led to the Argentine squad attacking the Three Lions’ bus as it left the ground.

The Observer called that game “an international incident” but there was to be no such contention in the next round.

Alf Ramsey made the brave call of putting Nobby Stiles on man-marking duty for Eusebio, akin to trying to chase a shadow, but it worked. Bobby Charlton’s fine effort put England ahead on the half-hour mark, and he doubled their tally with time running out as Portugal pushed for an equaliser.

“Oh when the saints, go marching in,” boomed a 90,000-strong crowd at Wembley, not deterred when a Stiles handball allowed Eusebio to halve the deficit from the spot, the first goal the hosts had conceded in the entire tournament.

England held on. Stiles’ man-marking job was done with Eusebio left in tears as he headed for the dressing room. England’s counter-attacking football won the day, and West Germany awaited in their debut World Cup final.

Euro 1968 – Yugoslavia 1-0 England

Florence provided England with plenty of sightseeing opportunities, but the blistering Italian heat of early June did the World Cup holders no favours against a side they had never beaten on foreign soil.

England’s proud reputation as a well-disciplined side was pushed to its limit by Yugoslavia, who bullied them from start to finish, and left Ramsey’s side scrapping for half chances in a game where spirit won the day.

Their coach, Rajko Mitic, had claimed prior to the tournament, which they had reached after a stunning 6-2 aggregate win over France in a two-legged quarter-final qualifier, that this was Yugoslavia’s best team since the one he had played in more than a decade earlier.

Geoff Hurst and Stiles – the hero at Wembley two years prior – had both been injured in an ill-fated friendly with West Germany the previous week, which had already condemned England to their first defeat anywhere in Europe in five years.

“England in danger of defeat”, ran one national newspaper headline in the run-up to the match, and so it proved. Dragan Dzajic, still considered one of his country’s best footballers, outwitted Bobby Moore to reach a long ball in behind, chest it down and beat Gordon Banks five minutes from time.

“The covering of the Yugoslavs prevented all but the occasional half chance,” ran The Guardian’s report from Italy. “The plain fact was that in this hard and bruising match one real opportunity was created and the Yugoslavs took it.”

England’s night went from bad to worse when Alan Mullery became the first England player to be sent off, dismissed for retaliation against defender Dobrivoje Trivic. The beaten world champions’ frustrations had got the better of them as their relationship with semi-final defeats began to turn closer to the disappointment we have become used to today.

Mullery later explained what had happened. “Every Yugoslavian had spent the whole game kicking us,” he said. “This one guy, Trivic, was the worst. He raked his studs down my calf – blood started pouring out, so I turned around and kicked him in the nether regions.”

World Cup 1990 – England 1-1 West Germany (3-4 on penalties)

England’s first penalty shoot-out. No one could have predicted how prophetic this heart-breaking loss to Germany would prove over the coming years, with England’s exit from four of the next five tournaments coming in the same manner.

Even before spot-kicks, there was plenty of drama as England returned to Italy, and Turin, to face arguably the best side in world football.

“We outplayed the most impressive team in the tournament,” said the departing Bobby Robson as he dissected the end of his managerial reign, and a game his side had certainly not deserved to lose.

England had hardly dazzled to reach this stage. Extra-time had been needed to see off both Cameroon and Belgium in what had been seen as a kind side of the knock-out draw, with England’s only win in 90 minutes a narrow 1-0 victory in their final group game against minnows Egypt.

“I cannot imagine a more honourable way for this England team, and their embattled and frankly erratic manager Bobby Robson, to take their leave of the peaks of soccer,” was the line in the Daily Express the following day.

England flew out of the blocks but could not find a way through, and fell behind on the hour mark to Andreas Brehme’s hugely fortunate deflected goal from a free-kick. At home, fans wondered whether those two extra half hours would take their toll. So did the players.

“We were exhausted,” later revealed Gary Lineker, whose side defied their fatigue to continue to push their opponents and finally find a way through courtesy of the striker himself nine minutes from time.

As extra-time arrived, the freshness of the German side did start to show through, and a tired challenge from Paul Gascoigne earned him a booking which would rule him out of the final, leaving him in tears.

Both sides hit the post before the game went to penalties, with England eliminated in the toughest of circumstances by Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle’s misses from 12 yards.

Euro 1996 – England 1-1 Germany (3-4 on penalties)

After a dismal Euro ’92 showing and a failure to reach World Cup ’94 altogether, England’s run to the last four at Euro ’96 pulled the footballing public of the country back together.

And that’s without mentioning the hole their squad had dug after smashing up a plane on the way back from a trip to Hong Kong.

A win over Scotland, something always to be savoured, and a 4-1 pummelling of the Netherlands pushed memories of England pulling in pitiful crowds for meaningless friendlies in the two years leading up to the tournament firmly out of the window.

A fortunate penalty shoot-out win over Spain in the quarter-finals then took the Three Lions within touching distance of another home success but the semi-final meeting with Germany followed a familiar pattern.

England were inches away from winning the tie when Alan Shearer’s low cross eluded a sliding Gascoigne in extra time in agonising fashion, but the game went to penalties as the nation crossed their fingers.

Pearce buried his demons from six years earlier as he converted his spot-kick in emphatic fashion, but when Gareth Southgate’s tame effort was repelled by Andreas Kopke, it was left to Andreas Moller to strike the decisive blow, ending England’s dream of a European Championship triumph on home turf in heartbreaking circumstances.

World Cup 2018 – England 1-2 Croatia (after extra-time)

Fast forward 22 years and Southgate found himself leading England into their next semi-final appearance as manager.

His England side had reached the last four thanks to a cathartic penalty shoot-out victory over Colombia and a straightforward quarter-final triumph over Sweden in Russia, but Croatia proved too good for them.

It looked like it might be England’s night when Kieran Trippier’s free-kick gave them an early lead, but Ivan Perisic’s second-half strike brought Croatia level and they went on to win it through Mario Mandzukic in extra time.

England had spurned chances to extend their lead after Trippier’s opening goal, but Croatia gradually took control of the game, outplaying England in central midfield, where Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Marcelo Brozovic dictated proceedings.

England’s players were crestfallen after the final whistle, but the run to the last four far exceeded expectations and laid the foundations for a second run to the last four of a major tournament just three years later.

This time, Southgate hopes to complete his England redemption by taking them all the way to the trophy.

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