An Alternative History of the European Championships

With the European Championships starting next Friday, Back of the Net's Paul Watson gives a brief history of the tournament to date.

1960: Tournament created by poor administrationThe European Championships was born after the French FA initially got the year of the World Cup wrong and then clean forgot to invite any non-European nations. The tournament was hastily rebranded as the European Nations Cup.

Seventeen nations entered qualification, eight and a half qualified and the tournament was won after three and a quarter games by the Soviet Union and a third of Yugoslavia.

1976: Panenka penalty eventually wins first shootoutFootball history was made when outsiders Czechoslovakia beat West Germany to win the championship after the first penalty shootout at the major tournament. Antonin Panenka’s winning penalty was a soft, chipped kick that has since been imitated by the likes of Gary Lineker.

Christened the 'Falling Leaf', the shot was so soft that befuddled German goalkeeper Sepp Maier dived right, regained his feet and dived to his left before Panenka’s floated kick fluttered into the middle of the goal.

1984: Platini’s tournamentEuro 84 will forever be remembered as Michel Platini’s competition. The French legend netted nine goals en route to glory, including hat-tricks against Belgium and Yugoslavia, refereed the semi-final between Spain and Denmark and hosted the majority of the matches in the ample back garden of his house in Saint-Étienne.

1988: Van Basten invents new angleHolland finally secured some silverware, lifting the trophy in the home of rivals West Germany. The tournament’s defining moment was a magnificent volley from Holland’s Marco van Basten against the USSR, scored from an angle that hadn’t previously existed.

Weeks after the goal, mathematicians confirmed the existence of the ‘Van Basten’ angle (380 degrees). The USSR was formally dissolved in 1991 as a result of stagnated economic growth, failed attempts at internal reform, greater political and social freedoms, a lack of foreign exchange reserves and Van Basten’s goal.

1992: Denmark win despite not being in competitionThe competition in Sweden was a landmark in football history as Denmark lifted the trophy despite not having qualified or indeed turned up. Danish coach Richard Moller-Nielsen was informed of the triumph while on the beach in Alicante.

England’s campaign ended ignominiously, finishing bottom of their group. A 2-1 defeat to the hosts sealed the Three Lions’ fate and led to tabloid journalists famously superimposing a turnip on Graham Taylor’s face – a move that was widely condemned as racist after it emerged that Taylor’s great-grandfather was a radish. The result was decided by Tomas Brolin’s magnificent goal, which he celebrated with six years of overeating. 

1996: Football comes home, leaves againEngland hosted its first competition since the 1966 World Cup, causing hysteria amongst fans who, spuriously, believed the outcome of the competition would therefore be the same. To mark the occasion, Baddiel, Skinner and the Lightning Seeds produced the first of 45 versions of their catchy song Three Lions. At any given time during the three weeks of the competition the song was audible to every man, woman and child in England.

Boosted by frenzied support and a grey away kit that rendered them invisible except on very sunny days, England seemed headed for glory. However, a thrilling semi-final with old enemies Germany finished 1-1 after extra-time. Rather than face the inevitable penalty shoot-out defeat, England honourably chose to forfeit the game, walking off to huge cheers from the home fans.

The final was something of an anti-climax. With England out, only 45 people attended the match between Germany and the Czech Republic. Germany won it when Oliver Bierhoff netted the first ever Golden Goal in extra-time. The game continued for around eight minutes after the goal before referee Pierluigi Pairetto gathered the teams together and explained that the Germans had won.

2004: Greece win, ruin tournamentMassive outsiders Greece triumphed in Portugal despite having just one shot on target during the entire competition. Having taken a shock lead against the hosts in the opening game, a dour Greek side managed to successfully keep the ball in the corner for the entire three weeks of the tournament.

Daily TV coverage was replaced with a weekly check-in to make sure Angelos Charisteas was still bent over the ball while players from the 15 other nations hacked around him fruitlessly.

2008: Human Rights groups condemn Group of DeathEngland’s failure to qualify for the finals in Austria and Switzerland was quickly put into perspective when Italy, France, Romania and Holland were drawn in a ‘Group of Death’. Pressure mounted on the organisers to find a humane solution to the situation but the games went ahead despite an impassioned entreaty from UN secretary-general Kofi Annan.

Holland and Italy emerged from the realm of the damned but players were clearly scarred by what they had seen. Several Dutch players had to be escorted from the field in tears during their defeat against Russia, while Italian striker Luca Toni spent most of the game against Spain standing stock still with mouth ajar. It was only when Toni failed to complain about having his shirt very gently pulled that anyone realised something was wrong.

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