We're down to the final game of Euro 2016. One team will make history while the other will have to forever lament it. There are some sides who have endured far worse missed opportunities than others, however, who have had to live with the knowledge that they failed to win a trophy they really should have. So, along those lines, who are the best teams to have never won the European Championships? Who looked like they should emerge winners of the tournament, only to narrowly falter?
Both quality of performance and elimination obviously matter, as Russia's excellent initial displays in Euro 2008, for example, were somewhat mitigated against by the fact that Spain destroyed them twice, both in the opening game and the semifinals. These are all teams who were ultimately denied by little more than blind luck or circumstances badly going against them.
Czech Republic, 2004
If it still seems amazing that a side as sensational as the Czechs did not win Euro 2004, it is not exactly inexplicable. There is at least one very obvious explanation: Pavel Nedved's unfortunate injury 40 minutes into the semifinal against Greece removed their impetus and undeniably affected their confidence. Up until then, the captain had been the central player in a glorious attacking unit that was almost uniquely freewheeling in a constrained tournament.
The Czech Republic had looked almost unstoppable at that point. They had cruised to the semifinal, brushing aside Latvia, Germany and especially Denmark in a supreme 3-0 quarterfinal display. Even the one setback, going 2-0 down to Netherlands after 19 minutes in the group stage, only served to best showcase their brilliance. They stormed back with one of the best displays in the competition's entire history, winning 3-2 after an 88th-minute Vladimir Smicer strike.
It seemed like the perfect announcement of their credentials, only for things to go so wrong against Greece. They lost Nedved then lost their way, with Traianos Dellas scoring a 115th-minute silver goal that would prove to be the winner for the Greeks.
"In three years as coach and 30 matches we have conceded a goal from a corner for the first time," then-manager Karel Bruckner said. Afterwards, Nedved told the squad in the dressing they were "the best international team" he had played with. They might well have been the best not to become European champions.
Joachim Low's side may have atoned for their semifinal defeat to Italy by winning the World Cup two years later, but this elimination did not just deny them an earlier chance to do a double. It also denied the world the grand showdown with Spain that we should have seen. While the Spanish might have been at their peak at that point, the quality of German displays indicated they were a team very much on the rise.
Germany had claimed a 100 percent record in the Euro 2012 group of death by defeating Portugal, Denmark and the Netherlands, before putting four goals past Greece in the quarterfinals. The sloppy way they conceded two goals in that last-eight game did hint that issues remained within the team if they were not fully on their game, though, and Mario Balotelli exploited them in a 2-1 semifinal win. It was a rare off day at exactly the wrong time.
Vitor Baia told ESPN FC this week he and his Portugal teammates are still frustrated that they did not win Euro 2000, and they were a team well aware they wasted a chance at something truly special. They certainly played special football at that tournament, unravelling opposition sides with such smooth attacking play.
Going 2-0 down to England in the first 18 minutes of their opening game actually ignited them, releasing some rampantly good football but also a genuine resilience. Romania, Germany and Turkey were easily beaten before they really put it up to eventual winners France, taking their semifinal to extra time. It was the way they went out that most irritated Portugal. In the days of the golden goal rule, Abel Xavier was adjudged to have handled the ball in the box, allowing Zinedine Zidane to score a decisive penalty. It led to a lot of commotion and angry complaints, ugly scenes in stark contrast to the beautiful football they'd displayed throughout the campaign.
England's closest call in the last 50 years came down to mere inches: Paul Gascoigne just missed Alan Shearer's volley across goal in the golden goal period of its semifinal defeat against Germany. Darren Anderton hit the post in extra time and, in the penalty shootout, Gareth Southgate hit his spot-kick so meekly. It was a suitably dramatic way to go out after a home campaign that had everything except ultimate victory.
England rose from the difficult start of a 1-1 draw against Switzerland, growing after a "derby" win against Scotland to produce the greatest display of the tournament and one of the greatest in modern European Championship history with a 4-1 thrashing of the Netherlands. They were then lucky to beat Spain on penalties in the quarterfinal before throwing everything at the Germans in that pivotal game. Everything, however, was not quite enough.
It is testament to the quality of Euro 2000 that there are two teams from it on this list, but that is how good the field was. The collective quality of the four semifinalists (France, Italy, Portugal and the Netherlands) was probably better than any modern tournament, and was only emphasised by how close both games went. The fine margins of the Dutch match, however, remain incredible.
After winning four of four games heading into the semifinal, seemingly scoring at will as they beat eventual champions France and then put six past Yugoslavia in the quarterfinals, the co-hosts seemed afflicted by the most confounding of mental blocks. They suddenly failed to finish from one of the most presentable scoring opportunities in football: a penalty. The Dutch missed two spot-kicks in regulation and three more in the shootout to fall to Italy.
It was one of the most amazing 0-0 draws ever, as an Italian side eventually reduced to 10 men after Gianluca Zambrotta's second yellow just about kept the Dutch out. Of all the infamous finals that the Netherlands have lost over the past two decades, the nature of this semifinal was a match for any of them because they had been so brilliant up until the point it all short-circuited.