Twenty years on from Euro ‘96, everyone still remembers the excitement that gripped the nation. Football came home. The penalty shootout that eliminated England at the semi-final stage is still a bone of contention for many fans. In fact, the player whose goal decided the whole tournament is largely forgotten. That man was German striker Oliver Bierhoff.
One interesting aspect of Bierhoff’s career is that unlike most German internationals, he played almost his entire career outside of his homeland. A legend in Serie A and a hero for his country, he departed the Bundesliga at the age of 22 and never returned. It’s safe to say, however, that his career was none the poorer for it.
Born in Karlsruhe in 1968, he joined the academy at Bayer Uerdingen. He would make his debut in 1986 at the age of 18. After a solid first season which saw him score eight goals, the following campaign saw him making just twelve appearances with only one goal. In the summer of 1988 he transferred to Hamburg and netted seven times over the course of the season, but again he struggled for game time.
Midway through the 1989 – 90 season, having failed to find the net in his eleven appearances and lagging behind Polish striker Jan Furtok in the pecking order, he was transferred to Borussia Mönchengladbach. Eight goalless games later Bierhoff was on the move again, dismissed by many as below the standard required to make it at the top level.
He left his native Germany and signed for Austrian Bundesliga side Casino Salzburg (now known as Red Bull Salzburg). Being in a weaker league and coupled with being the club’s first choice striker, Bierhoff flourished. The 23 league goals he scored in the 1990 – 91 season ensured that his stay in Austria was only temporary. After one season, he headed to the country in which he would build his reputation.
Italian side Ascoli, newly promoted to Serie A bought Bierhoff to spearhead their bid to stay in the division. Initially the move did not work out as planned and Bierhoff scored just twice in seventeen games in his first season. Ascoli were immediately relegated back to Serie B.
Over the next three seasons, Bierhoff scored 46 goals in Serie B. Despite this, Ascoli were unable to find the quality to take them back into the top flight of Italian football. After two successive sixth place finishes, the 1994 – 95 season saw them relegated again, this time to Serie C1. At the other end of the table Udinese had just gained promotion to Serie A and an £850,000 bid saw them take Ascoli’s star man with them.
With AC Milan buying world renowned stars like Roberto Baggio and George Weah in the summer of 1995, the transfer of Oliver Bierhoff went unnoticed by most. By the end of the season however, he was gaining prominence and attention, scoring 17 Serie A goals for a side that only finished in 11th place.
By now aged 27, the 6ft 3ins striker had added maturity and experience to his game. His height made him a formidable opponent in an aerial duel and he also displayed cool finishing with either foot inside the box. Whilst not blessed with electric pace, Udinese knew how to play to his strengths.
His form didn’t go unnoticed by Germany manager Berti Vogts. He gave the striker his international debut in February 1996 – a year that would see the striker become a national hero. Bierhoff was named in the squad for the 1996 European Championship in England, and despite his impressive record in Serie A, Jürgen Klinsmann was still Germany’s top striker. Stefan Kuntz, the man who equalised against England in the semi-final was seen as the main backup striker. Bierhoff started just one game and made another substitute appearance during the group phase. He didn’t get on the pitch again until the final itself, a game in which he made history.
Germany were trailing 1 – 0 to the Czech Republic at Wembley, after a Patrick Berger penalty on the hour. Bierhoff replaced midfielder Mehmet Scholl and joined Klinsmann and Kuntz in the attack. Within four minutes of being introduced, the Udinese striker escaped his marker and planted a bullet header into the net from Christian Ziege’s in-swinging free kick.
With the scores level after 90 minutes, it took five minutes of extra time to ensure his place in football history. With Germany on the attack, Klinsmann floated a cross towards Bierhoff. He took the ball down, turned and hit a shot which deflected off defender Michal Horňák. The deflection completely wrong footed Petr Kouba in the Czech goal, and he let the ball slip through his fingers.
Euro 96 became the first international tournament to be decided by the Golden Goal. Germany were European Champions, and the relatively unknown Oliver Bierhoff was the hero. It has been rumoured that Berti Vogts selected the striker on the advice of his wife; whatever the reason, the decision to play Bierhoff certainly paid off.
The increased profile that the tournament gave him ensured there would be plenty of interest in the German striker. He remained at Udinese despite the fact they had not qualified for any European competition. Bierhoff and his strike partner Paolo Poggi each scored 13 league goals during the 1996 – 97 season. This ensured a fifth place finish and a UEFA Cup spot. They did even better the following campaign, as Bierhoff hit 27 league goals to top the Serie A scoring charts and propel the club to third.
Bierhoff carried this form into the 1998 World Cup in France where he was now a first choice selection for his country and scored three times despite Germany’s quarter final exit at the hands of Croatia. He was seen as such an inspiration to the rest of the squad that he was made captain following Klinsmann’s retirement that summer. Unfortunately for Udinese, this kind of form attracted the attentions of Europe’s elite clubs.
Transfer to Milan
Following the World Cup, Bierhoff completed a £9.3 million transfer to AC Milan. They also took his Udinese team mate Thomas Helveg and manager Alberto Zaccharoni. Partnered with George Weah he was an instant success at the San Siro, scoring 19 league goals as Milan won the Scudetto; quite an improvement on a tenth place finish the previous season.
In 1999, Milan beat off competition from almost every club in Europe to secure the services of Andrey Shevchenko. This didn’t help them defend their title, finishing third and eleven points behind eventual champions Lazio. Their inconsistent form also transferred to their Champions League campaign. Milan won just one match and exited the competition at the first group stage after finishing bottom. Bierhoff managed 13 goals that season as it became clear that Shevchenko was now their main striker.
The 2000 – 01 season would see Milan slip further down the Serie A table, finishing sixth. Exiting the Champions League at the second group stage was still seen as performing well below expectations. This decline cost Zaccharoni his job before the season ended. Bierhoff was now approaching the age of 33. His output was reduced to nine goals that season while Shevchenko hit 34.
With Fillippo Inzaghi brought in from Juventus during the summer of 2001, Bierhoff was given a free transfer by Milan.
There was no shortage of clubs vying for his services despite his advancing years. Bierhoff joined French side AS Monaco, but the move was not a success for either party. He scored four times as the club finished in 15th place, just six points above the relegation zone. He was selected for the 2002 World Cup squad, although by now he was back up to Oliver Neuville and Miroslav Klose.
Following a disappointing tournament at Euro 2000, when they were eliminated at the group stage, Germany were not seen as one of the favourites for the 2002 World Cup. They got off to a perfect start however, by hammering Saudi Arabia 8 – 0 with Bierhoff among the scorers . This though would prove to be the final international goal of his career.
His final appearance for his country came in the World Cup Final that summer, again as a substitute. Germany had surprised everyone by getting as far as they did, but it was another striker who took the plaudits in the final. Brazil’s Ronaldo scored both goals in Yokohama, cementing his place as the world’s top striker.
Following the World Cup, Bierhoff left Monaco on a free transfer and went back to Serie A, joining Chievo. Although his days as a prolific goalscorer were behind him, he played his part in securing a seventh place finish. In his last match as professional footballer, Chievo lost 4 – 3 to champions Juventus; Bierhoff scored a hat trick. He retired at the end of the 2002 – 03 season. He is now part of the Germany setup, holding the position of Business Manager.
Bierhoff wore the number 20 shirt for most of his career, but his style was that of a traditional number 9. Whenever there was a cross whipped into the box, he would usually be on the end of it. He always seemed to have the ability to float above everyone else and then head the ball with tremendous power and accuracy. He also had great upper body strength, which enabled him to hold up the ball to great effect.
Despite the fact he didn’t join Udinese until his late twenties, he scored 103 goals in Serie A. This was at a time when it was generally accepted as being the best league in the world. Strikers such as Stoichkov, Rush and Kluivert failed to make a success of their time in Italy, so that was no mean achievement by Bierhoff.
Oliver Bierhoff will it seems forever be only associated with the goal that decided Euro 96. However in 70 appearances for Germany he scored 37 times. A lot of people may have forgotten just what a great striker Oliver Bierhoff was, but his country never will.