Tossed coins, tear gas and Three Lions: the fascinating history of the Euros

The rise of the European Championship, from a World Cup afterthought to international football’s toughest tear-up. Take that, Jules Rimet!

“For me, the Euros is even harder to win than the World Cup. There are only big teams.” Zinedine Zidane, a winner in 2000, may have a point – but the European Championship wasn’t always the toughest tournament in international football. In fact, it took three decades to even get off the ground, and even longer for the continent’s football heavyweights to take it seriously.

The idea of a European Championship was first mooted in 1927, three years before Jules Rimet’s World Cup vision became reality. But while the FIFA president had an understandably global outlook, his fellow Frenchman and administrator, Henri Delaunay, had something a little closer to home in mind. A World Cup, he reasoned, would be a logistical nightmare – and so it proved, with just four of the 13 participants in Uruguay in 1930 finding passage from Europe.

Only after the formation of UEFA in 1954, however, did the campaign for a pan-European contest gather momentum. Given a leg-up by the European Cup, which had proved a huge success in its first two seasons, the European Nations Cup, as it was then known, officially received the green light by UEFA’s executive committee in June 1957 – but not before the usual posturing and politicking.

The British, as ever, were suspicious of Johnny Foreigner, concerned that a new competition would interfere with the Home Championship. All four UK associations abstained from the vote; so did would-be World Cup hosts Sweden, with West Germany – apparently miffed that all their best players had been poached by Italian clubs after their 1954 World Cup triumph – and Italy among seven UEFA members to vote against the idea. But with 14 nations in favour, the new tournament was born. Two years after his death, Delaunay’s dream had come true.

So as not to step on the World Cup’s toes, the Euros would be held every four years from 1960. Inspired by the European Cup, the early rounds would be played over two legs home and away (beginning in autumn 1958), with the semi-finals and final taking place as a mini-tournament in one country. Fittingly, the Henri Delaunay Trophy would be contested for the first time in its founder’s homeland, France.

There was controversy from the off, with the USSR given a bye in the quarter-final after General Franco, still bitter at the Soviet involvement in the Spanish Civil War over 20 years earlier, refused the Russians entry into Spain. Inspired by legendary keeper Lev Yashin, the USSR beat Yugoslavia 2-1 in the Paris final. But with so many notable absentees, could the Euros really be considered a success yet?

1960: Yashin dashing into action

At least England were impressed enough to take part in the 1964 qualifiers, falling at the first hurdle to France – to begin an extraordinary run that has seen them never win a knockout game in the Euros without the help of a penalty shootout.

Despite their quarter-final forfeit in 1960, Spain were chosen as hosts for the four-team tournament stage this time, on the condition that they opened their borders to any potential opponents. There were some squeaky bums at UEFA when the USSR beat Sweden in their quarter-final to qualify, but Franco’s government played ball this time, taking great pleasure in watching their team beat the holders in the final at a packed Bernabeu.

And so to 1968: a tournament of firsts. It was the first time the name ‘European Championship’ was used; the first time the reigning world champions (England) took part; and the first time qualification began with a group phase. Eight group winners then played two-legged quarter-finals before the familiar four-team finals.

This phase itself boasted several firsts. After a 120-minute stalemate in the opening semi, Italy were the first and only team in Euros history to progress via a coin toss, the unlucky Soviet Union calling wrong. The second semi-final saw Alan Mullery become the first England player to be sent off in a senior international, his team losing 1-0 to Yugoslavia, who then lost the final in the competition’s first replay. While some of these innovations would quickly be done away with, the event was here to say.

The next finals witnessed the tournament’s first truly great team: a West Germany vintage arguably better than the one that would win the World Cup two years later. They dominated England in the Wembley leg of their quarter-final, playing what L’Equipe called “football of the 21st century”, then beat hosts Belgium in the semi before hammering the Russians 3-0 in the final.

The Germans weren’t much worse in 1976, and were joined in the finals by three other excellent teams: Holland, hosts Yugoslavia and outsiders Czechoslovakia, who would provide the crowning moment of international football’s first major penalty shootout drama.

Having come from two goals down to beat Yugoslavia in the semis, West Germany again came from behind to force extra time against Czechoslovakia in the final, but neither side could find a winner. “We were all heading for the dressing rooms when we were waved back,” recalls defender Koloman Gogh, who, along with his Czech team-mates, was all set for a replay. Unprepared they may have been, but they kept their composure and won thanks to Antonin Panenka’s famous chipped effort.

1976: Panenka shows the world his cojones

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Just as the 1958 World Cup was seen by many as the competition’s first ‘proper’ tournament, so 1980 took the Euros onto the next level. The expanded eight-team format – reflecting the popularity, success and quality of the 1976 finals – was good news for Italy, who qualified automatically as the hosts (these would henceforth be chosen well in advance because of the additional organisational demands).

UEFA hadn’t quite cracked the finals format yet, though. Seven group winners would qualify alongside Italy – a sensible enough idea, even if excellent teams such as France and Poland failed to progress. But of the eight teams divided into two pools of four, the group winners would qualify directly for the final, with the runners-up contesting third place. With no semi-finals – and no second chances – the result was anxious, often physical football, with teams so scared of losing their first or even second games that they didn’t really try to win them either. No wonder only 22 goals were scored in 12 games.

1980: Turin trouble as England fans get gassed

For England, who qualified comfortably and were well-fancied to win the tournament, the defining memory was of Ray Clemence blinking through the haze as police in Turin used tear gas to break up rioting fans at their opening game against Belgium. That game was drawn 1-1, and a 1-0 defeat to Italy in their second game meant Ron Greenwoodt’s men were out, even though they went on to beat Spain.

That Belgium went on to lose 2-1 to West Germany in the final only heightened the sense of what might have been for England – even if, admittedly, the Belgians only got on the scoresheet in that final courtesy of a penalty given for a foul that took place miles outside the area.

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Negative football, crowd trouble, dodgy refereeing… it was hardly a resounding success for the new-look Euros. What followed in the next two tournaments, though, was clear validation. The 1984 finals produced a great team (France), led by a great player (Michel Platini), inspired by a great midfield (the Magic Square) who won a great semi-final (against Portugal) on their way to lifting the trophy.

1984: A national icon. And Michel Platini

Further vindication for the introduction of semi-finals came four years later, when the Dutch – who only finished second in their group – gained revenge for an opening-game defeat against the USSR by beating them 2-0 in the final. History tends to forget that Marco van Basten started the tournament on the bench, remembering instead his hat-trick against a poor England, late winner in a dramatic semi-final against West Germany and, of course, iconic volley in the final. This remains the best goal in the history of the Euros – and to think, under the old format it would never have happened.

Suddenly the Euros seemed to be all about second chances. Euro 92 was a tournament of generally functional football, but the fairy tale of Denmark made up for it. Called in at the 11th hour when a UN security resolution ruled out Yugoslavia, they weren’t quite dragged off the beach as popular myth suggests but their coach Richard Moller Nielsen was decorating his kitchen when he got the phone call. They ate burgers, played crazy golf and defied the odds. As though to prove the stars were aligned, John Jensen scored in the final as the newly reunified Germany were beaten 2-0.

By 1992, the European Championship was well established as the world’s biggest football tournament after the World Cup. Further expansion was desirable; indeed, inevitable. For England, after the stadium improvements that followed the Taylor Report, that was excellent news. Accordingly, it was selected as the host nation for Euro 96.

1996: England fans find an identity

For once, the country wore an optimistic face. A deeply unpopular government was limping to the end of its term and the new one, unsullied by reality, stood by ready to replace it, full of gleaming potential. Britpop and Britart ruled, still fresh and exciting. Even the weather was decent. In two and a half of their five games, England played great football, but more important was the mood of the tournament. As crowds sang along to Three Lions, England’s footballing rehabilitation after the horrors of Bradford, Heysel and Hillsborough was complete.

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Yes, an IRA bomb destroyed much of the centre of Manchester on the day England beat Scotland; yes, there was rioting after England’s semi-final defeat to Germany; and yes, the football was largely grim and the grounds not always full. But for a generation of fans there will never be a better summer.

It didn’t merely make huge numbers of English fans love the Euros, but also made patriotism fun again. The vast numbers of those who travel abroad to watch England play football, cricket and rugby are now infused with a similar spirit. Germany, with Matthias Sammer to the fore, ended up winning the tournament… while UEFA realised they were onto a money-spinner.

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England’s new image was quickly tested at Euro 2000 (held in Belgium and Holland, the first joint hosts) by rioting in Charleroi. They and Germany (England's only victims) were both dreadful, but elsewhere the football was sparkling, the rise of 4-2-3-1 leading to the best tournament on the pitch bar none. And, for the first time since the expansion of the format in 1980, it was played out in front of full stadia in Belgium and Holland.

2000: Penalty pain again for the Dutch

Romania dazzled briefly; so did Spain, before Raul’s crucial missed penalty in the thrilling quarter-final against France; Portugal’s golden generation succumbed to a golden goal in the semi-final; so, too, Italy in the final, having somehow seen off Holland, glorious losers in the semis just like fellow hosts England four years earlier. Winners France were luckier than on home soil in the ’98 World Cup, but they were also better. Football’s like that sometimes.

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It was dramatic, intoxicating stuff and, for a while, it seemed Euro 2004 might live up to it. The Czech Republic were superb, their 3-2 win over Holland probably the greatest international game of the decade. England, inspired by the 18-year-old Wayne Rooney, were fleetingly brilliant. Portugal, with a side dominated by the Porto team that had won the Champions League – plus Cristiano Ronaldo – flickered with menace.

Then came the anti-romance: Greece dourly ploughing their way through the tournament with man-marking and set-plays, underestimated until it was too late, by which time they had pulled off a triumph more unlikely even than Denmark’s 12 years earlier. Yet despite their dreadful style of play, somehow nobody held it against them.

2004: More fairytale stuff with Greece

This was the way of the Euros: won – with the exception of Germany in 1996 – either by great teams or by fairy tale underdogs. But by 2008 it was the turn of a great side again, amid lots of good ones. Holland, Russia, Turkey, Germany and Croatia all had their moments, but the cream ultimately rose to the top, even if Spain needed penalties to see off an average Italy side in the quarter-finals. Nobody’s perfect… although, as their World Cup triumph would prove two years later, this Spanish side came pretty darned close.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? More than enough to whet the appetite ahead of this summer’s tournament. But what of the comparisons with the World Cup? The present 16-team format certainly offers far more concentrated quality, with seven of FIFA’s top-10-ranked teams (for what that’s worth) coming from Europe and 13 of the world’s top 20 about to compete in Poland and Ukraine. As Zizou points out: “At a World Cup you have time to get going, but here you can’t afford to make even a single mistake.”

While the European contest might lack the variety and exoticism of the World Cup, it does have a habit of producing unexpected winners – perhaps because it’s easier for a weaker team to produce a run of form (or luck) over the span of a five- or six-game tournament than the seven matches required to reach a World Cup final.

But not for much longer. In France in four years, there will be 24 teams at the finals, arranged in six groups of four, meaning four of the third-placed teams will make it through to a last 16 knockout stage (as happened at the 1986, 1990 and 1994 World Cups). Will it dilute the quality and intensity? It’s hard to argue that there are more easy games at the World Cup since the number of finalists was increased to 32 – just as the world’s smaller nations are becoming more competitive, so too are Europe’s.

But is the Euros, as Zidane suggests, really harder to win than the World Cup? Only when the two have the same number of teams will we really be able to make that comparison. For now, the European Championship remains smaller and more perfectly formed than the World Cup – and more thrilling than Henri Delaunay could ever have imagined.

EURO TIMELINE1927 Frenchman Henri Delaunay floats the idea of a European international tournament, but receives a lukewarm response1954 The formation of UEFA and subsequent early success of the European Cup prompts the idea of an international version to resurface1957 UEFA members vote in favour of a ‘European Nations Cup’, with a finals tournament to be held every four years from 19601960 A four-team finals tournament takes place in France after two-legged knockout qualifying stages; the USSR are crowned champions1968 The name is altered from the European Nations Cup to the European Championship, with the format changed to eight qualifying groups followed by two-legged quarter-finals1976 The first ever Euros penalty shootout sees Czechoslovakia beat West Germany thanks to Panenka’s penalty chip1980 The success of the Euros sees the final tournament extended to eight teams, with group winners meeting in the final 
and hosts no longer having to qualify1984 The format is tweaked so group runners-up also qualify for the semi-finals, resulting in more positive play1996 The tournament is expanded to include 16 teams and quarter-finals; this is deemed a great success2000 France become the first reigning world champions to win the Euros, courtesy of David Trezeguet’s golden goal, the second final to 
be won this way2004 80-1 outsiders Greece win the tournament with the help of a ‘silver goal’ (scrapped not long after) against the Czech Republic2016 Finals tournament to be expanded to include 24 teams, just eight fewer than the World Cup... but will the quality 
be as good?

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