On May 27, 2006, a skinny teenager positively drowning in his oversized green-and-yellow kit became Wales’ youngest ever player. A few minutes after coming on as a substitute, 16-year-old Gareth Bale sprinted down the left and crossed into the middle to Rob Earnshaw, who met the pass to score the winning goal in a 2-1 victory over Trinidad and Tobago.
Twelve years on and Bale is an icon for club and country. Now the chiseled Cardiff-born forward hulks out of his red Wales shirt. A true specimen of skill and physique, Bale is ready to lead his nation into a European Championship semi-final. For Earnshaw, who retired from football earlier this year having finished his career in Canada with MLS side Vancouver Whitecaps, Bale’s bow is still remembered vividly.
“When I first saw him he was 16 just coming into the national team,” Earnshaw recalls to Sport360. “He set me up for a goal on his debut. I was thinking ‘who’s this kid?’ Soon after that, I remember he took the ball one time in training and dribbled past a few players and I thought, ‘oh okay, this kid can play!’ You see that certain young players have got that extra ability about them and it’s really nice when you see them use it. As soon as he set up the goal on his debut, it was a case of ‘this boy’s here and he’s going to do something.’
“Of course I’m not going to sit here and say I knew for sure he would be a Real Madrid superstar but we knew he was a special player. It’s been more about evolution with Gareth. He always had the ability but it’s his desire to get better, he always wanted more, that’s what has taken him to the next level. He’s achieved things and then he’s immediately looking at how to improve himself again. It’s a credit to him. He keeps analysing his game and has this incredible drive to tweak things to get better and better.”
Off the pitch, too, Bale made an impression on Earnshaw, who echoes the sentiments of many Welsh players at Euro 2016 – that the Madrid maestro is certainly no prima donna.
“Importantly Gareth’s a great lad, too. I’ve always had laughs and jokes with him when we played together. He’s got this confidence but he’s humble too. He just loves what he does. I loved playing with him, it makes life easier and it also makes you step up as a player when you’ve got someone of that ability playing alongside you. There were times in training when I just saw him go into take-off mode – he’d get the ball and take one or two players on. You’d just really enjoy watching it.
“Any time I’ve spoken to him or been around him, he is down to earth and really proud to be playing for Wales. He really enjoys it. It’s almost like that schoolboy enthusiasm when he pulls that Wales shirt on. It’s not a pressure, it’s a pleasure. That’s the key. It’s where he’s from, he’s super proud. We’ve known him since he was 16 and he is still this passionate Welshman who just loves playing for Wales.”
Having appeared in his last international in 2012, Earnshaw – who scored 16 goals in 59 caps – has played with the majority of Wales’ European Championship squad. And it has been thrilling for him to watch from afar – he is now a youth team coach at Vancouver – as his friends and former team-mates have upset the applecart in France.
“I’ve seen every game live and everyone has certainly been paying attention to Wales,” Earnshaw says. “It’s amazing, you can travel anywhere in the world and there will always be Wales fans there. I watched the Belgium game in a bar in Vancouver and it was filled with Welsh fans. We celebrated, they took some photos after the game – it was great. It felt the whole bar was rooting for Wales. We’re everywhere! I am in Las Vegas now so I’ll be watching the semi-final here.
“Obviously I would have loved to have played in a major tournament but it didn’t happen. But I approached every Wales game like it was the final of the European Championship – I loved every moment of playing for my country. I played for 10 years and I have no feeling of disappointment, I was lucky to even get one year of pulling on that red shirt.
“I’ve spoken to a few of the boys, they are really enjoying it, taking it in. You can feel the pride that they’ve got for where they are, what they’ve achieved so far. I’ve been in constant contact with the lads I’m close to. It’s nice to see those guys do well. I’m just happy that some of my friends are there, that they can play and represent their country. It feels like we’re all in it together – every fan is kicking every ball, I’m the same. The players understand that everyone is behind them.”
One of Earnshaw’s friends could be in for the toughest challenge of his career against Portugal. With Ben Davies out, veteran centre-back James Collins is expected to step in to replace him. He hasn’t yet featured at Euro 2016 and has not started a game since West Ham played Tottenham on March 2. But Earnshaw is convinced that Collins can handle the occasion and if required, handle Crisitano Ronaldo too.
“It’s huge for him and if James steps in of course he can cope,” says Earnshaw. “He’s someone I’ve always been very close to, we came through at the same time – I played with him from the age of 16. Listen, he’s been playing in the Premier League for more than a decade, he’s an experienced top level player. He’s a great defender, 100 percent committed to what his job on the field is. Every game you know what you are going to get and that is full effort.
“He’s used to big players and big games – he is more than capable. I’ve seen him from afar and I’ve seen him close up and either way it’s the same. As long as they stick to the gameplan and what their individual roles are, they’ll be fine. I hope he has Ronaldo in his pocket. It’s been funny to see Ronaldo at this tournament, so often he kicks it wide and sprinting in the box to try to get a header.
“He’s easier to defend against if he’s playing this way. He’s got so much ability that of course he can score goals in different ways. The key thing about football, though, is that if your concentration is there on the day you can stop anyone. James Collins can do that of course.”
With Earnshaw also a former roommate of Joe Ledley and a club-mate of Chris Gunter at Nottingham Forest, there is much to connect him to this Wales team. He will be watching the match against Portugal intently and believes that his former team-mates can not only win the semi-final but lift the Henri Delaunay trophy this Sunday.
“Wales are capable of beating Portugal, of course. Ronaldo doesn’t have a team behind him, Bales does. I actually think Wales are favourites. You just feel the togetherness. You have to have a team that wants to work together, pushing in the same direction. That ‘Together, Stronger’ captures everything you need to know about Wales.
“I think anything is possible now, including winning the tournament. Sport is unpredictable, that’s why we love it. It is about the right moment, the right time. You have to grab the chances that you have.”
On Saturday Germany became the first team to reach at least the semi-finals of six consecutive major tournaments. Even with their consistent over achievement in tournament football (since 1970 they’ve finished in the top-4 in 18 out of the 24 World Cups and Euros they’ve participated in), even in their celebrated history, this is new ground for Germany. And the man behind it all can do as he pleases – although hopefully in the absence of cameras. Joachim Low’s role in the past decade of German football only seems to improve. Assistant to Jurgen Klinsmann as Germany changed their identity, it is under Low that the country has finally fulfilled their destiny. For perspective, the worst case scenario would be just the one World Cup from this generation of players.
And yet, this renaissance can’t curb the feeling that rises every time you see a Low lineup – is this man any good at his basic job at all? It might seem an outlandish question to ask at first glance yet how much of his success is down to the DFB’s changes at the turn of the century? Football’s past has generally been built around “great man history” but looking at Low you wonder if he’s just in the right place at the right time.
Low’s modus operandi over the past eight years has been one of change, even where there was little need for it. By 2010 Germany had emerged as THE counter attacking force in international football, and yet one loss to Spain later Low decided to take a turn towards tiki taka. Two years and 15 wins in a row later he decided to alter his formation against Italy, changing three of his front four and bringing in Toni Kroos in favour of three midfielders instead of the more common. That change, in the semi-final of the European championships no less, could have cost him his job. It didn’t and four years later he would do the same, altering his formation to try to match Italy, even foregoing the strengths of his own team. This time around, his players’ mental fortitude in the penalty shootout earned him an escape.
Joachim Low with Germany
Among all of this, the greatest argument for him actually not being all that good may be borne out of his greatest achievement – the 2014 World Cup. Low started the tournament by copy and pasting the Bayern Munich template. Phillip Lahm started in midfield in each of the first four games, Germany playing two centre-halves as their full-backs. When Pep Guardiola moved Lahm to central midfield it was with the knowledge that he still had the likes of Rafinha and David Alaba to count on in wide defensive areas. Low didn’t have anyone half as good as them. In fact, the only one fit to fill Lahm’s enormous boots was Marcel Schmelzer, someone Low has never taken a liking to. Finally, sense prevailed for the quarter-final against France, with Lahm moving to right-back and Miroslav Klose brought in for his first start of the tournament. Suddenly, expectedly, Germany “peaked at the right time” and Low eventually brought home the silverware. It was management by trial and error, but at the fourth time of asking Low had won a major tournament and cemented his legacy.
In a way, Low stands in contrast to the other great international manager of his era; Vicente del Bosque. The Spaniard took upon Barcelona’s style but never truly copied it word-for-word. His insistence on playing a double-pivot instead of the Barcelona midfield of Busquets and Xaviesta often brought him a lot of opprobrium, but it also delivered two major titles. His argument that Barca’s philosophy was not replicable because there was no Spanish Messi is one that Low could learn from. Of course, as Del Bosque has failed to adapt to the changing trends in football, he too could learn from Low about clean slates and reinvention.
But I digress.
This tournament hasn’t been all that kind to Low. And yet, just two games away from becoming European champions, you can’t count out him getting it right. Much like in 2014 he has already changed from a false nine to a proper centre forward and brought in a mobile right back. All that’s missing is for him to return to a three man midfield.
In other countries one or two mistakes from a coach are enough to discard him to the scrapheap but Germany continue to march on, increasingly seeming like doing so in spite of a manager who may end up being their most successful ever. With the tournament playing out in France, it is fitting that Low’s legacy could best be described by a Frenchmen in the guise of Napolean, a man well aware of a general’s requirement to be lucky rather than good.
The Euro 2016 semi-finals are upon us with Wales facing Portugal on Wednesday before Germany and France battle on Thursday night.
The tournament’s semi-finals have regularly delivered entertaining spectacles and hopefully, this year will be no different.
Here’s a look at some of the most thrilling semi-final clashes in the tournament’s history.
FRANCE 4-5 YUGOSLAVIA – 1960
The first incarnation of the European Championship saw its highest scoring semi-final as France and Yugoslavia shared a remarkable nine goals in 90 minutes. Milan Galic – who would later finished his career in France with Stade Reims – opened the scoring but Les Bleus scored four goals without reply to take a 4-1 lead with 53 minutes on the clock.
However, helped by some shambolic defending and goalkeeping by France, Yugoslavia battled back to turn the game on its head. Two goals in two minutes by midfielder Dražan Jerković sealed the victory as Yugoslavia took just 26 minutes to change the score from 4-1 to 5-4 in their favour. Yugoslavia ended up losing the final to a Lev Yashin-inspired Soviet Union in extra-time, little surprise given the energy they’d expended fighting back against France.
YUGOLSAVIA 2-4 WEST GERMANY (aet) – 1976
Looking to win their third successive international tournament having triumphed at Euro ’72 and the 1974 World Cup, West Germany had to show every ounce of their champion spirit to topple Yugoslavia in Belgrade. The tournament hosts had race into a two-goal lead by half-time thanks to goals from Dragan Dzajlic and Danilo Popivoda, who played his club football for German side Eintracht Braunschweig.
But West Germany did not roll over, Heinz Flohe snatched one back before substitute Dieter Muller came off the bench to equalise with eight minutes to go and send the game into extra-time. Muller was not finished there, though, the Cologne striker scoring twice more to round off an impressive hat-trick and send his side into the final, where West Germany would lose on penalties to Antonin Panenka’s Czecholsovakia.
FRANCE 3-2 PORTUGAL (AET) – 1984
Michel Platini was in blistering form at Euro ’84, scoring hat-tricks in group games against Belgium and Yugoslavia, but he saved perhaps his most decisive intervention for the semi-final. Toulouse striker Jean-François Domergue’s opener was cancelled out by Jordao to take the game into extra-time.
Jordao and Domergue then exchanged a goal apiece again as the game in Marseille looked to be heading towards penalties. That’s when Platini stepped up, the Juventus striker picking up Jean Tigana’s cross and swiveling superbly inside the area before slotting the ball home to send the hosts into the final. Platini would score again in the showpiece against Spain, as France lifted the trophy on home soil.
WEST GERMANY 1-2 NETHERLANDS – 1988
After West Germany’s victory over them in the 1974 World Cup final, Netherlands were determined to exact a measure of revenge and they did just that, dumping the hosts out. The game in Hamburg had some amazing symmetry with the 1974 final. Back then Johan Neeskens had put the Dutch ahead before West Germany equalized with a penalty of their own and then scored a second to triumph.
In the Euro ’88 semi-final, it was West Germany who led through Lothar Matthaus’ spot-kick. But with 16 minutes to go, Ronald Koeman kept his cool from 12 yards and then two minutes from the end the irrepressible Marco van Basten slid the ball home to send the Oranje fans into raptures. Netherlands, with that memorable Van Basten volley, beat Soviet Union in the final to win their first major trophy.
NETHERLANDS 2-2 DENMARK (Denmark win 5-4 on penalties) – 1992
Both semi-finals were hugely entertaining affairs with Germany beating hosts Sweden 3-2 in the other but this was the most significant given that it ended with the reigning champions losing to the eventual champions. Denmark were not even supposed to be at the tournament but stepped in late after Yugoslavia were excluded, and they played with freedom throughout the finals.
Henrik Larsen twice gave Denmark the lead but they were pegged back by Denis Bergkamp and then Frank Rijkaard’s 86th-minute equaliser. The game was to be decided on penalties and with Denmark scoring all five of theirs it was a miss by 1988 hero Van Basten that proved costly for the Dutch. Denmark knocked the holders out and then completed their fairytale by beating reigning world champions Germany in the final.
ENGLAND 1-1 GERMANY (Germany win 6-5 on penalties) – 1996
Having played some excellent football to make it to the semi-finals, hosts England were confident of beating Germany in a competitive fixture for the first time since the 1966 World Cup final. That optimism reached fever pitch when tournament top scorer Alan Shearer headed home an early goal, but it was dampened by Stefan Kuntz’s equaliser before half-time.
What followed was a thrilling, end-to-end contest that saw both sides squander opportunities to win, Paul Gascoigne coming agonizingly close to diverting Shearer’s cross home for a golden goal in extra-time. It went to penalties and, just as in the 1990 World Cup semi-finals, it was Germany who emerged victorious, successfully converting each of their six penalties – Andreas Moller crashing home the decisive strike after Gareth Southgate’s tame effort had been saved by Andreas Kopke.
TURKEY 2-3 GERMANY (2008)
In the Euro 2008 knockout stages, Germany were certainly the great entertainers. Having beaten Portugal 3-2 in the quarter-finals they repeated the trick in the last-four, coming from behind to defeat a highly unpredictable Turkey side who had scored in the 122nd minute against Croatia in their previous game before triumphing on penalties.
A howler from Jens Lehmann gifted Turkey an early lead as Uğur Boral’s shot crept under his body, but Bastian Schweinsteiger and Miroslav Klose put Germany 2-1 up. Two minutes from time, Semih Şentürk looked to have salvaged another late result for Turkey but there was to be one more twist as, in stoppage time, left-back Philipp Lahm advanced forward and kept his cool to secure a dramatic victory for Germany.