European Championship

Origins and development of the Eurocup || France 1960 || Spain 1964 || Italy 1968 || Belgium 1972 || Yugoslavia 1976 || Italy 1980 || France 1984 || FRG 1988 || Sweden 1992 || England 1996 || Belgium-Netherlands 2000 || Portugal 2004 || Austria-Switzerland 2008 || Poland-Ukraine 2012 || France 2016

 

ORIGINS AND DEVELOPMENT OF THE EUROCUP

The European Championship for National Squads is, as well as the World Cup and Champion Clubs Cup, a French creation. Whereas the latter were devised and implemented by two journalists (Jules Rimet and Gabriel Hanot, respectively), the European Championship was conceived by Henri Delaunay, General Secretary of the French Football Federation, back in 1927, in order to create a European competition similar to America Cup (with an increasing popularity in the New Continent). However, thirty years had to pass until his project took shape and gained boost in Europe. Pierre Delaunay, son of Henri Delaunay, continued his father’s work and, together with the presidents of the federations of Hungary (Sebes), Austria (Frey), Greece (Konstadaras), and Spain (Pujol), presented the project of a European Championship at a UEFA meeting in Köln (Germany) on February 27, 1957. In spite of the initial absence of big names like Germany, England, Italy, Scotland, Sweden, Holland, and Belgium (who doubted the potential of such a competition), the European Nations Cup (the original name for the tournament) received the green light in a UEFA Congress celebrated in Stockholm in June 1958, and later that year the first edition started, with only 17 countries.

In its first editions of 1960 and 1964, the Nations Cup lacked true notoriety. After a series of double-legged knock-out rounds―a format similar to that of Champion Clubs Cup―the competition ended up in a final stage gathering the four semifinalists in one country. The semifinals, third-place game, and final were played in the same week and without a true international attention.

Starting in the third edition (1968), the competition adjusted to a new format and received its present name: European ChampionshipAlthough the final stage at a host country was preserved, the preliminary knock-out rounds were suppressed. Instead, a qualifying leage stage was established, with teams distributed in different groups (similarly to the qualifying stage of the World Cup). Each group champion accessed a 1/4 final round, and winners qualified for the final stage. Although the tournament became more and more popular in Europe, still some modifications were necessary to attract the interest of the fans.

It had to be the Italian Artemio Franchi, president of UEFA, who proposed the idea of increasing the number of participants in the final stage to eight squads. This new format of the European Championship began to be applied in the edition of 1980, whose final stage took place in Italy. From that moment on, the champions of each qualifying group (together with the host country) played the final stage, distributed in two groups of four teams each. In Italy 1980―a very dissapointing edition both in quality of games and attendance―only the group winners advanced to the final. From the following edition on (France 1984), the final stage was modified again and both winners and runners-up qualified for the semifinals.

From the 1996 edition on, with the creation of new European federations, the final stage was extended to sixteen teams divided in four groups, with champions and runners-up qualifying for a quarterfinal round. In addition, the “Golden Goal” rule was introduced in the final: the first team to score in extra-time will win the game, with no need to play the remaining time. The edition of year 2000 had as a main novelty the joint organization of the competition by two countries: Belgium and Netherlands. This happened again in 2008 (with Austria and Switzerland as joint host nations) and in 2012 (Poland and Ukraine).

From the first edition of 1960 until 2008, Germany is the country with more titles in the European Competition: three (two of them when it was known as Federal Republic of Germany).

 

FRANCE 1960

Seventeen countries accepted to participate in the first edition of Nations Cup. This, in itself, posed a problem as the first round of the competition was to be run on a straight home-and-away knockout basis. That hurdle was overcome by playing a preliminary round to eliminate the “excess” country, and it fell to Ireland and Czechoslovakia to compete for the 16th place (although chronologically it wasn’t the first game in the history of the competition, that being the eight-final round match USSR vs. Hungary played in September 1958). In the first leg played in Dublin in April 1959, the Irish opened the scoring with a well-taken goal by Liam Tuohy, and when Noel Cantwell converted a penalty later in the game, they must have thought themselves well on the way to the first round proper. However, five weeks later in Bratislava, the Czechs hammered Ireland 4-0 to take the tie 4-2 on aggregate.

The draw for the first round and quarterfinals was made in Sweden during the World Cup finals, but it passed almost unnoticed by the world’s press amidst the excitement of the World Cup itself. The first name out of the hat was that of the USSR, who were drawn against Hungary. Thus, the first match of the European Nations Cup proper was played on September 28, 1958 in Moscow’s Lenin Stadium (also known as Central Stadium, and later Luzhniki) before a crowd of 100,572 spectators. Neither the USSR nor Hungary had had a very successful participation in the 1958 World Cup and, as a consequence, both fielded much changed teams. The USSR began with the sort of cavalry charge associated with the mighty Hungarian team of the early 50s and took a fourth-minute lead through Anatolij Il’in. The Russian pressure continued and they were unfortunate to be denied a second six minutes later, when the Austrian referee Herr Grill disallowed a seemingly good goal by Nikita Simonjan. The USSR maintained their momentum, pinning Hungary back in their own half by an endless series of attacks down both flanks, until, inevitably, scoring a second goal when right winger Slava Metreveli cracked in a shot from the edge of the area. Although 2-0 up after only 20 minutes, still the Russians did not ease back and, in the 32nd minute, Valentin Ivanov, the best Soviet player, scored a brilliant solo goal to cap an outstanding first-half display. In the second half, however, the Magyars pulled themselves together and pushed the USSR onto the defensive. The Russian defense, solidly organized around Anatolij Masljonkin, held out until the 84th minute, when János Göröcs scored a consolation goal. The second leg was played almost one year later, on September 27, 1959, before 78,481 rain-soaked spectators in Budapest. The Hungarians drafted back keeper Gyula Grosics, playmaker József Bozsik and other ageing stars from their great side of the early 50s. The USSR also brought back veteran players like Lev Yashin and Igor’ Netto, and clinched the game and the tie when Yurij Vojnov scored the only goal in the second half.

Of the countries that entered the first European Nations Cup, France had made the best showing in the 1958 World Cup, and they cruised into the quarterfinal round with a 8-2 aggregate win over Greece. The rest of first round ties produced few surprises, with straight wins (home and away) for Spain over Poland, Austria over Norway and Portugal over East Germany, while Yugoslavia won in Belgrade and drew the return leg in Sofia to dispatch neighbors Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia drew in Denmark and crushed the Danish in Brno 5-1. The remaining tie, Romania vs. Turkey, was the closest of the round, with home wins for each country. Romania just held out in the second leg to win the tie 3-2 on aggregate.

The most attractive tie in the quarterfinal round, USSR vs. Spain, was never played. The Spanish government of General Franco, unable to forget the Russian participation in the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War, vetoed the trip of the national squad to Moscow for the first leg. The Russians refused to play this game at a neutral venue, and as a consequence Spain was disqualified from the tournament and the USSR received a walk-over. In the other ties, France and Czechoslovakia progressed with straight wins over Austria and Romania, respectively, whereas Yugoslavia lost their first leg in Portugal (2-1) but won the second leg in Belgrade (5-1) to confirm their semifinal place.

France was selected as the venue for the final stage. In general, it was a very disappointing tournament, both for the poor quality of the games and the low attendances (compared with those of the qualifying stage). In the absence of the great European squads during the first edition of Nations Cup, it had to be two countries from East Europe, USSR and Yugoslavia, who played the final. The Soviets won 2-1 after extra-time, thanks mainly to the extraordinary display of their goalkeeper, Lev Yashin, aka “Black Spider.” The Russian player, famous for always dressing in black and wearing a cap, caught the attention of the not so big crowd in Parc des Princes with superb saves, some runs away from the goal line (something very unusual for goalkeepers of his time), and precise passes both with his hands and his feet. However, Yugoslavia took the lead just before halftime thanks to a goal by Milan Galić. Slava Metreveli’s equalizer at the beginning of the second half again settled the game. After a 1-1 score at the end of regulation, an extra-time had to be played. It was then when a header by the powerful central attacker Viktor Ponedel'nik, just six minutes from the end, turned out to be the decisive goal that granted the victory to the USSR. It was the triumph of the Russian solid defense and effectiveness over the brilliant and technical play of Yugoslavia.

 

SPAIN 1964

The second edition of Nations Cup was organized on the same home-and-away straight knockout basis as the first edition, but this time 29 out of the 33 eligible European federations agreed to compete, as the tournament’s interest had increased. The only absences of West Germany, Scotland, Finland and Cyprus went largely unnoticed. This time, the draw for the first elimination round was wisely scheduled after the completion of the 1962 World Cup. Spain, the host nation for the final stage, was drawn first and found themselves up against Romania. The absence of seeding threw up an outstanding first round tie: England vs. France.

The four semifinalists after the qualifying rounds (USSR, Spain, Hungary, and Denmark) gathered in Spain to play the final stage of the tournament. In the first semifinal, the hosts defeated Hungary after an extra-time and a goal by right winger Amancio only five minutes from the end. In the second semifinal, the USSR got easily rid of Denmark (3-0).

Almost as a mock of destiny, the final was played in a fully packed Santiago Bernabéu stadium―with the very special attendance of Generalissimo Franco in the VIP balcony―by Spain and the USSR, after these two teams could not decide their knock-out match in the former edition of 1960 due to political problems: Franco did not allow the Spanish squad to travel to Russia, due to the lack of diplomatic relations between the Spanish Regime and the Communist Block.  Who knows what would have happened if the USSR had won this final in Madrid, and Franco is in the juncture of showing the cup to the Soviet team… In any case, this possibility was ruled out by the Spanish victory.

The game had a spectacular beginning.  Pereda scored first for Spain in the early minutes, although Khusainov equalized almost immediately.  From that moment on, under an intense rain, Spain showed a greater dominance of the game, although the USSR also had some good chances to score.  It wasn’t until minute 84 when a spectacular plungeon of Marcelino, following a center cross by Pereda (not Amancio, as can be seen on TV due to an incorrect montage of the images), was the decisive goal that meant the victory of Spain.  It was a short, yet well-deserved, win of a squad trained by José Villalonga and having in Luis Suárez one of their best players.  Spain entered thus the list of Eurocup winners, with the hope to conquer more championships in the future. But time did not confirm these expectations, and up to date (2008) the European Championship of 1964 was the only international title in the history of Spanish football (disregarding the Olympic Games in 1992).

 

ITALY 1968

The third edition of Eurocup—known from now on as European Championship after the change of name was approved via UEFA Congress—saw the number of participants increase to 31. Both for this high number of entrants and for the change of competition format, Italy 1968 can be considered as the first modern European Championship, and it was then clearly established as Europe’s premier tournament. Following the qualifying system of the World Cup, the national squads were divided into eight groups, with only winners advancing to the final stage. Also, following the FIFA World Cup routine, seeding was applied to these groups. The greatest surprise was the elimination of West Germany, runner-up after Yugoslavia in a group with only three teams. After a qualifying round of quarterfinals, four squads obtained the passport for the final stage in Italy: the hosts, USSR (a classic in this round), Yugoslavia (with outstanding players like Osim and Džajić) and England (led by Bobby Charlton, who had just won the Champions Cup with Manchester United).

In the first semifinal, played in Naples, Italy needed the help of San Paolo to defeat the USSR. After a 0-0 stalemale at the end of regulation and extra-time, the toss of a coin would decide the winner of the game. The drawing was held in the dressing-room, with the referee and the captains of both teams. Giacinto Facchetti finally came out and announced the good news for Italy, to the indescribable joy of a crowd that waited silently the outcome of this draw. In the second semifinal, played in Florence, the world champion England was eliminated by a magnificent Yugoslavian team thanks to a late goal by Dragan Džajić. However, the great midfielder Ivica Osim was injured after a tough English defense and couldn’t play the final.


The final in the Olympic Stadium of Rome was a game full of passion. Italy showed a greater dominance during the first minutes, while Yugoslavia held an iron defense to prevent the Italian attacks. However, Džajić scored before halftime, and during the second half of the game Yugoslavia had many chances to secure the match, denied by the good performance of the young Italian goalkeeper Dino Zoff or sheer bad luck. Italy finally equalized the game in minute 80 after a controversial free-kick by Domenghini (he shot before the referee gave the order). The extra-time didn’t bring about further changes in the score, so it was necessary to play a tie-break two days later (in 1968 the penalty shoot-outs had not yet been introduced to decide a final game). In the replay match, the Italian squad showed a greater physical endurance. Riva and Anastasi gave the home squad a 2-0 lead in the first half hour, and then the Italian team controlled the game until the final whistle. With some luck, but also with talented players like Mazzola and Riva, Italy won their first European Championship.

 

BELGIUM 1972

The champion of this edition, FRG, won the title thanks to a brilliant, solid, and basically effective play which didn’t give options to their rivals. Well organized around their three main stars—Franz Beckenbauer in defense, Günter Netzer in the midfield, and Gerd "Torpedo" Müller in the attack—West Germany began to gain their legend of rocky and invincible team that would be magnified two years later with the conquest of the World Cup in their own country. As the English striker Gary Lineker once stated, “Football is a sport with 11 players in which the Germans always win.

When the groupings were drawn for the fourth European Championship, the four European World Cup quarter-finalists of 1970 (England, West Germany, Italy, Soviet Union) were placed in separate groups and, with 32 nations entering, every group comprised four countries. After the league stage, as in previous editions, the same home-and-away straight knockout basis applied for the quarter-finals. In this last qualification round, West Germany eliminated the powerful English squad, even winning 1-3 in their “sanctuary” of Wembley. The other three teams qualified for the final stage were Belgium (even though they were the host country, they had to compete for a berth with Italy), Hungary, and the everlasting Soviet Union.

The semifinals, celebrated simultaneously in Antwerp and Brussels, brought about the classification of West Germany (winners over Belgium thanks to two goals by Gerd Müller) and the Soviet Union (with a decisive penalty shot saved by Rudakov in the last minutes of the game). The final, played in Heysel (present King Baldwin Stadium) was the confirmation of the German supremacy. The organizing game of Netzer and two new goals by “Torpedo” Müller amounted to a clear victory by 3-0 over the Soviet team, unable to stop the German power.

 

YUGOSLAVIA 1976

The fifth edition of the European Championship is the last one in which the final stage is played by only four teams. European sides had fared particularly well in the 1974 World Cup, with six of the last eight finalists from Europe. The reigning European champions, West Germany, were also now world champions and arguably the best team in the world. Holland were World Cup runners-up, and this boosted UEFA’s claim that the European Championship’s status was second only to the World Cup.

In Yugoslavia, first country of East Europe to hold this competition, no other than a country from beyond the “Steel Curtain,” Czechoslovakia, was able to surprise all their rivals and won the trophy. Already in the preliminary stage, the Czechs qualified ahead of England, and in the round of quarterfinals they eliminated the USSR. In semifinals, they defeated the powerful Dutch squad of Cruijff, Neeskens, and Rensenbrink, in a game with extra-time and three players sent off. Czechoslovakia then completed their glorious tournament in the final by triumphing over West Germany from the penalty spot.

In the final stage of Yugoslavia, all the games were decided by very narrow margins and needed an extra-time. In the first semifinal, Czechoslovakia unexpectedly defeated Holland, the “Clockwork Orange” led by Johan Cruijff. In this game, the brilliant player of FC Barcelona was perfectly controlled by the Czech defense, so his contribution to the game was rather poor. In the second semifinal, the hosts faced the present European and World champions, West Germany. Yugoslavia, whose best men were playing in foreign leagues, began the game at full speed, and after thirty minutes they were leading 2-0 with goals by Popivoda and Džajić. In spite of the absence of Gerd "Torpedo" Müller, it was another Müller, Dieter (striker of FC Köln), the decisive player of the match: first he scored the goal that led to an extra-time only three minutes after his substitution, and later secured the qualification of Germany with two new goals.

In the final, Czechoslovakia took a comfortable lead of 2-0 after only twenty-five minutes, although the greater experience of the German players tied the game before regulation (thanks to a goal of Hölzenbein in the last minute). The extra-time didn’t change the sign of the game, so for the first time in the history of the European Championship the penalty spot would decide the winner. This time, luck was on the Czech side, and after Uli Hoeneß missed his shot it was Panenka who scored from the 11-meter spot with a very peculiar style that was later known after his name: right in the middle of the goal, medium height, completely deceiving the goalkeeper, who dived to the left.

 

ITALY 1980

Major competition changes were introduced for the sixth edition of the European Championship. For the first time, the host country for the finals was selected before the beginning of the qualifying rounds. Previously, it had been the policy to choose one of the four semifinalists as hosts, but because the finals themselves were also changed to allow for eight national squads (instead of four, as before), this was no longer practicable. Also, as in the World Cup, the host country received automatic qualification for the final stage. The eight participants in the finals were divided into two groups of four teams each. The semifinals were entirely dispensed with, and instead the group winners qualified directly for the final, whereas the runners-up played the third-place match. This new format was devised by UEFA in order to increase the sport interest (and also the revenue) of the competition. However, things didn’t turn out to be as expected, because the final stage of Italy was characterized by the poor quality of games and low audiences (in Rome, Naples, Milano, and Torino, attendances were disappointing, except for the games of Italy).

After their failure in the preceding edition of Eurocup, a renewed and young West Germany was able to win the title after defeating Belgium in the final. The team coached by Jupp Derwall, with classy players such as Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Bernd Schuster, Hans-Peter Briegel, Uli Stielike, and Horst Hrubesch, qualified easily in their group. Belgium, on the other hand, surprisingly ended up ahead of Italy, England, and Spain, squads theoretically more powerful than the Belgian side. The final, held in the Olympic Stadium of Rome, was a balanced match that was finally decided thanks to a late goal by Hamburger’s striker Horst Hrubesch.

 

FRANCE 1984

Two years after their memorable semifinal in 1982 World Cup in Spain, lost against West Germany from the penalty spot, France took the responsibility to host the European Championship with a double goal: show the world that they were able to organize a great sport competition and prove that their team belonged to the elite of European football. In order to achieve the latter, Les Bleus counted on a genius called Michel Platini at the peak of his career and a group of talented players like Tigana, Giresse and Luis Fernández.

Further changes were made in the competition system of the seventh edition of the European Championship finals, bringing them in line with the World Cup. By popular demand, straight knockout semifinal games were re-introduced for the top two countries from each qualifying group, and the third-place match was entirely dispensed with. The qualifying stage brought about the elimination of teams like Italy (World Cup title holder), USSR and England. As in the previous edition, eight teams qualified for the Final Stage, with France and West Germany as heavy favorites to finish ahead in their respective groups. On the other hand, to re-launch the interest of the competition, the number of venues was extended to seven cities.

The greatest surprise of the Final Stage was the elimination of West Germany by Spain, thanks to a memorable late goal by central defender Maceda. In the other group, France easily cruised into the semifinal led by a majestic Platini, who scored a pair of “hat-tricks” against Belgium (5-0) and Yugoslavia (3-2). After two thrilling semifinals, France and Spain qualified for the final in Paris. The game was a very balanced one, and the French victory was only decided after a terrible mistake by the excellent Spanish goalkeeper Arconada, who couldn’t properly grab the ball in a free-kick from Platini, and instead squeezed the ball under his arm into his own goal.

 

FRG 1988

With two titles backing them, West Germany was the host of the 1988 edition of the European Championship, which had great expectations thanks to the presence of top level squads like Holland, England, Italy, Spain, USSR and, of course, the hosts FRG. The title holder, France, was surprisingly eliminated in the qualifying round.

Outside of sport, this edition of the European Championship was tainted by the violent clashes between English hooligans and German supporters (especially serious in Düsseldorf). Unsurprisingly, FRG, Italy, USSR and Holland qualified for semifinals. This stage of the competition rendered two magnificent games which came to save a tournament characterized by general mediocrity. In Hamburg, the Oranje of Rinus Michels, led by the wonderful duet Gullit-Van Basten, triumphed over West Germany, a team still under construction coached by Franz Beckenbauer. In the other semifinal (doubtless the best game of the championship) the USSR was an overwhelming locomotive that ran over a powerless Italy.

The final between Holland and the USSR appeared to be a replay of the game held in the group stage, in which the Soviet team defeated the Dutch. However, this time the story of the match was quite different. Ruud Gullit opened the score after half an hour, and Marco van Basten sealed the orange victory with a fantastic and unforgetable goal: a tremedous volley from an improbable angle. The Dutch striker of AC Milan completed a wonderful tournament (he was the top scorer with five goals) and Holland became the new European champion in the same stadium in which they lost the World Cup final 14 years ago.

 

SWEDEN 1992

The champion of this edition, Denmark, not only was a big surprise… but they didn’t even qualify originally for the Final Stage! The Danes, falling behind Yugoslavia in their Qualifying Round group, received from UEFA a late invitation to participate once the Balkanic squad was disqualified following a UN ban on Yugoslavia after the Balkan War. Therefore Denmark, whose players were already on holidays, had to assemble an emergency squad only ten days before the beginning of the Final Stage in Sweden.

The 9th series of the European Championship began at a time of momentous change throughout Europe, with the collapse of communism and the re-emergence of many small sovereign states out of their ashes. The first change, however, was not caused by the splintering of countries into their original component states, but by precisely the opposite chain of events: the re-unification of East and West Germany into a single “Germany.” Against the backdrop of this new spirit of nationalism, 33 countries set out on the road to Sweden, divided into seven qualifying groups, five of five countries and two of four countries. The only major surprise of the qualifying stage was the elimination of Italy.

In the final stage, Sweden and Denmark surprisingly finished ahead of the favorites France and England in group I, whereas Holland and Germany qualified in group II. In the semifinals, Germany had some difficulties to defeat the host Sweden, whereas Holland was shocked by Denmark from the penalty spot. The Danes completed their surprising performance in the championship by beating Germany in the final easier than expected. The heavy favorites Germany could not overcome the pressure of the game, whereas Denmark played very relaxed and confidently, with a spontaneous, simple and enthusiastic play conducted by a group of “mercenaries” like Schmeichel (Manchester United), Sivebæk (Monaco), Lars Olsen (Trabzonspor), Povlsen (Borussia Dortmund) and Brian Laudrup (Bayern Munich). Thus, Denmark not only became a surprising champion of the European Championship, but also overrode the general preconception that a good and long preparation is necessary before playing a major tournament.

 

ENGLAND 1996

In order to revitalize the competition, and following the enlargement of their member federations to over 40 countries, UEFA decided to introduce new modifications in Eurocup 96. The Final Stage would be extended to 16 teams divided in four groups. The four countries that had expressed an interest in staging the finals—Austria, England, Netherlands and Portugal—were thus viewed as potential hosts in the light of the requirement that they had eight stadia of sufficient size and quality to accommodate the sixteen finalist. English clubs, having been excluded from European competitions following the Heysel tragedy in 1985, had been re-admitted recently without any serious hooligan problems, and this opened the door for England to stage the 1996 European Championship.

Forty-seven countries (the largest-ever entry) participated in the preliminary round, divided in seven groups of six teams and one of five. The group winners and the best runners-up qualified for the final stage, whereas the two worst runners-up played-off for the last berth. As usual, the host country (England) was bye from this preliminary round. As expected, there were no big surprises and all the favorites easily won their ticket to England.

Dissapointing from the sporting point of view (with a goal average of only 2.06 goals per game), the European Championship in England would go down in history as the first in which the final was decided thanks to the “Golden Goal,” which grants the victory to the first team to score a goal in extra-time (in this case Germany, who obtained their third European championship). Outside of sport, the Eurocup of England was positively marked by the absence of serious incidents between the fans (given the violent precedents of English hooligans in international competitions).

Without playing a spectacular football, Germany proved to be a solid defensive block throughout the tournament (only received three goals in six games), with a good team attitude of all their members and the experience of players like Matthias Sammer, Thomas Häßler, Andreas Möller and Jürgen Klinsmann. However, the most decisive man of the final against the Czech Republic was Oliver Bierhoff: Udinese’s attacker entered the game midway the second half, and within four minutes he scored the equalizer for Germany. In extra-time, Bierhoff scored the most important goal of his life, the “Golden Goal” that gave the victory to his country.

In spite of losing the final, the Czech Republic was the revelation of the tournament. After defeating teams theoretically more powerful like Italy, Portugal and France, the young Czech squad couldn’t overcome the greater German experience in finals.

 

BELGIUM AND NETHERLANDS 2000

For the first time in the history of the competition, two countries were chosen to jointly organize the Final Stage of the European Championship: the games of this phase would be equally played in Belgium and Netherlands. The two host countries excepted, 49 teams entered the qualifying stage, which yielded very few surprises as, despite a few early setbacks, all the stronger nations qualified as group winners. In addition, to overcome the irregular distribution of groups (some with six teams, some with five), UEFA adopted a rather complicated formula whereby the runners-up were graded according to their respective performances against the first, third and fourth-placed teams in their groups to stablish the best overall second-placed team (who received an extra qualifying berth). The rest of runners-up had to compete in a two-legged playoffs in order to be assigned four more spots in the finals.

The final was played between France (current World Cup champions) and Italy, who qualified after an incredible and very defensive semifinal game against host Netherlands: the game was decided from the penalty spot, but before that Italy had a player sent off in minute 34 and the Dutch missed two penalty shots in regulation. However, luck abandoned Italy in the final game, when they saw their 1-0 advantage equalized in the last minute of the game. France almost paid a very high price for the excessively defensive tactic of coach Roger Lemerre, more worried not to concede goals than to score them, quite different from the usual French style. Just when it seemed that Italy’s defense had neutralized France’s attack, Wiltord scored in injury time to send the game into an overtime. In this additional period, another substitute player, David Trézéguet, grabbed the title for France with a “Golden Goal” (second time in which the championship is decided under this rule).

 

PORTUGAL 2004

Without a doubt, the European Championship celebrated in Portugal will be remembered by the enormous surprise of having Greece as the final winner, since the Hellenic team didn’t count in any of the bets before the competition. Some of the favorites in the Final Stage (Spain, Italy, Germany) didn’t even make it past the group phase, whereas the teams that showed the best play of the tournament, Czech Republic and Netherlands, were eliminated in semifinals. The defensive play that qualified Greece for the final proved to be their best weapon when they also beat host Portugal in the decisive game thanks to a single goal by Charisteas.

In spite of playing an unimpressive football, the success of the Greek team lies in a very solid team play inculcated by German coach Otto Rehhagel. Their victory against Portugal in the initial game, which many considered as an “accident,” was just the introduction card of Greece for the rest of the tournament: ironlike defense, order and cohesion between all their lines, and maximum profit of scoring opportunities. The football style practiced by Greece during the competition re-opened the eternal discussion between defenders and opposers of defensive play, which Italy used so successfully during many years.

If Greece was the unexpected winner of the tournament, the biggest disappointment fell to the Czech Republic. The brilliant generation of players led by Pavel Nedvĕd undoubtedly played the best football of the tournament until semifinals, winning all their games and showing a high quality play (especially against the Netherlands, in one of the best games of the competition). However, the great Czech football was unable to neutralize the solid defensive play of Greece, which took the most of one of their scarce opportunities and qualified for the final.

As in previous editions, Portugal 2004 was a showcase for new football stars, like English Wayne Rooney (top scorer of the tournament) and Czech Milan Baroš.

 

AUSTRIA AND SWITZERLAND 2008

Forty-four years later, Spain won again the European Championship, and they did it in style, proving that quality play can also win titles. Although the Spanish team has always had classy players, on this occasion they also showed the psychological strength and determination to overcome their historical complexes and conquer a major tournament. Coach Luis Aragonés is to be commended for this, as he underwent much criticism in the Spanish media for not selecting Real Madrid’s star Raúl for the tournament, but in the end his decision proved right, as Spain played as a solid block, in which no player was more important than others and they all contributed equally.

The Eurocup organized jointly by Austria and Switzerland will go down in history as one of the best in recent years, with some excellent games (in particular Netherlands-Italy and Netherlands-Russia), plenty of thrill and the best team of the tournament as final winner. The competition left some great moments of football, like the qualification games of Holland (with amazing victories over Italy and France), the revival of Russia after a shaky start (led by its star Arshavin), and especially the incredible comebacks of a combative Turkish team (they won three games with goals in the last minutes). Individually, the Eurocup will be remembered for the outstanding performances of Roman Pavljuchenko (incredible speed and coordination for a striker as tall as him), the also Russian Andrej Arshavin (who couldn’t play the first games due to a sanction, but then showed his class against Sweden and Holland), and Spanish forward David Villa (top scorer of the tournament, even though he couldn’t play the final due to injury). In general, all the Spanish players showed a high level, and it’s difficult to highlight one in particular, although midfielder Xavi Hernández deservedly earned the award of MVP of the tournament thanks to his vision of play and intelligent passes. On the side of disappointments, there is Luca Toni (who was completely missing in the games he played), Cristiano Ronaldo (who once again failed to live up to expectations in decisive games, as he did before in the Champions League final with Manchester United), and the French team (who suffered the consequences of the generational change). In the case of Greece, their early elimination was not as surprising as their unexpected success four years before, thanks to the same stingy and ultra-defensive play which, on this occasion, was deservedly punished.

Another note left by the Eurocup was the confirmation that Germany is one of the most competitive teams in the world. Although the Germans have been missing world-class players for many years, the history behind their shirt (and also their combativeness and psychological strength) always seems to give them the edge they need to qualify for finals.

 

POLAND AND UKRAINE 2012

Spain made history after becoming the first national squad to win three consecutive major tournaments back-to-back. Although Vicente del Bosque's side was heavily criticized during the competition for being “boring” and playing with no recognized strikers, they proved that they’re still in a league of their own and saved the best for last to produce a majestic display to beat Italy 4-0 in the final, thus completing a marvelous triad of two European Championships (2008, 2012) and a World Cup (2010).

Despite all the criticism around the play of La Roja in Euro 2012, the statistics prove that, in fact, they improved their numbers with respect to previous tournaments. For example, Spain averaged 626.3 passes per match—more than they did at the 2010 World Cup (588)—and 60.03% possession per game, more than any other side in Euro 2012. Despite playing with no recognized striker for most of the competition, they scored more goals (12) and conceded less (1) than any other team. Spain’s 4-0 win over Italy is the biggest-winning margin ever recorded in a World Cup or European Championship final. The Spanish captain Iker Casillas became the first player to reach 100 international wins.

The Group Stage of the competition produced few surprises, left aside the predicted elimination of co-hosts Poland and Ukraine and the not so predictable failure of Netherland (World Cup runners-up) and Russia. Germany was the most impressive team at this stage, winning all their games in the so-called “Group of Death” (also with Holland, Portugal and Denmark). All the favorites qualified after the quarterfinals, producing four big names in the semifinals (Spain, Germany, Italy, Portugal). Whereas Spain qualified for the final on penalty kicks in the Iberian derby with Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal (with the star Real Madrid attacker once again failing to live up to expectations in a crucial game), Italy shockingly defeated heavy favorites Germany in the second semifinal with a masterful display by Andrea Pirlo and two goals by Mario Balotelli. In the final, the Spanish play was too much for the Italians, who had to bow down to the best football team in history (as it was unanimously proclaimed after Euro 2012).

 

FRANCE 2016

Portugal, eternal underachievers, won their first major tournament at the end of a roller coaster of a competition, and they did it without their star player Cristiano Ronaldo, who was injured early into the final and had to be replaced. Substitute Éder became the Portuguese hero by scoring the winner in extra time, in what was the second-latest goal in a Euro final, four minutes before Viktor Ponedel'nik’s goal for the Soviet Union in 1960. The Portuguese victory came at the end of a tournament highlighted by the elimination of some big names like Spain (defending European champion) and Germany (world champion) and the emergence of new names like Wales and Iceland. Ironically, the teams who offered a better football proposal (Croatia, Hungary, Belgium) were eliminated early in the competition, whereas Portugal and France, who struggled throughout the tournament, made it to the final. In the end, the Portuguese became the new European champions after winning just a single game in regulation time and surviving three extra times and a penalty shoot-out.

The European Championship was expanded to a record 24 teams to allow for a series of growing football nations, and the new competition system proved its worth, as the new arrivals not only didn’t fall behind the traditional names, but in some cases produced some shocking surprises. The likes of Wales, Iceland, Hungary and Albania showed that European football has progressed everywhere in the continent. The most improved teams were Gareth Bale-led Wales (who made it to the semifinals) and the sensational Iceland, the smallest country ever to participate in the European Championship, who produced the biggest surprise in the history of the competition by defeating England with a simple but effective football (only to fall in the quarterfinals to host France). On the other hand, defending champions Spain had a disappointing performance and was eliminated by Italy, whereas world champions Germany, heavily favored after showing the most consistent play throughout the tournament, fell to a clinical France in the semifinal and failed in their attempt to win back-to-back major tournaments (like Spain did between 2008 and 2012).

Despite the fresh air brought by the new arrivals, the football level of Euro 2016 was by and large disappointing, highlighted only by some moments of magic (such as Xherdan Shaqiri’s magnificent scissor-kick goal against Poland), late drama (a record number of games were decided by goal scored in the final minutes) and several acts of hooliganism (despite the tight security measures). Individually, the most remarkable players of Euro 2016 were Antoine Griezmann (the tournament’s top scorer and the inspiration of the French attack), Cristiano Ronaldo (decisive for Portugal on their way to the final, despite his early injury), Gareth Bale (the engine behind the Welsh miracle), Dimitri Payet (one of the tournament’s sensations) and Mario Gómez (a scoring guarantee at the front of the German attack). Iceland is also to be commended; for a team with many amateur players and not a single star, they produced a very solid performance topped by an amazing victory over England. On the disappointing side there are Thomas Müller (who went by another European tournament without scoring a single goal, not even in the penalty shoot-out against Italy), Wayne Rooney (at the end of his football career), Zlatan Ibrahimović (unable to help Sweden advance beyond the group stage) and the whole Spanish team (the end of a glorious generation).

 

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