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european championships through the ages

A Potted History of the European Championships: 1960–2016

Each edition of the European Championships has its own historical narrative, and its own distinct identity. Here, we attempt to tie them all together.

by Jim Weeks
08 July 2016, 5:26pm

The Soviet Union clash with Yugoslavia in the 1960 Nations' Cup final // PA Images

With Euro 2016 now drawing to a close, we're starting to see the historical narrative of the tournament take shape. The expanded format – a risky move by UEFA – has generally worked well, with underdog sides including Wales and Iceland bringing something fresh to the competition, and instilling a sense of hope and optimism with their success. This will be remembered as an egalitarian tournament, which is fairly apt, what with it being in France and all.

Each version of the European Championships has its own narrative, and its own distinct identity. Here's a quick glance at every single tournament since the first ever Nations' Cup, then, in an attempt to tell the story of the Euros as a glorious whole.

1960 – Hosts: France – Winners: The Soviet Union

Like Diego Maradona, Gary Lineker and Rudi Voller, the European Championships was born in 1960. Sort of. The inaugural tournament was actually known as the European Nations' Cup, and looked very different to what we've witnessed over the past month. And can anyone honestly imagine Lineker as a baby?

Qualifying for the Nations' Cup spanned the 18 months prior to the tournament, consisting of knockout rounds leading to the quarter-finals. The final four sides progressed to the tournament itself, with a host being chosen from one of the qualified teams. There was none of the pomp and ceremony of modern competitions.

READ MORE: The Sinister and Disturbing World of Euros Mascots

In 1960, the four qualifiers were France, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union. Fun fact: only one of those nations still exists in the same form.

The French were chosen to host the final tournament, which consisted of just four games: a pair of semi-finals, a third-place play-off and, of course, the final.

Highlights of the 1960 final

The Soviet Union bossed their semi-final, sweeping aside Czechoslovakia by three goals to nil. The other was a nine-goal thriller: France were 4-2 up with just 15 minutes to play, but an incredible four-minute spell saw Yugoslavia score three to take a 5-4 lead. They held out, consigning the hosts to the third-place play-off.

The final was less of a goal-mad affair, the Soviet Union prevailing over their fellow communist state Yugoslavia. It ended in a 2-1 win for the Soviets, ensuring that the first "Euros" was won by the boys from behind the Iron Curtain (an affectionate term that literally no one used at the time).

1964 – Hosts: Spain – Winners: Spain

Spain take on the Soviets in the 1964 final

Happy enough with the inaugural tournament, the format was left unchanged for 1964 (a year that also saw the passing of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, though to be honest there's nothing to indicate he cared a jot for football).

This time the final four were Spain, the Soviet Union, Hungary and Denmark. The Spanish acted as hosts and went on to win the thing, beating the defending Soviet side 2-1 at the Bernabéu. It was the first (and hopefully only) time that a fascist-led country would face a communist country in a major final. A frankly insane 105,000 fans packed into the Madrid stadium to see the game, a record attendance for a final that still stands today.

Spain would have to wait almost half a century for their next piece of silverware. That would be rather less politically charged, thankfully.

1968 – Hosts: Italy – Winners: Italy

The Italy team of '68, commemorated on an overseas stamp // Via

The tournament got its current name in time for the 1968 edition, with the UEFA European Football Championship – or Euro '68 – taking place in Italy. The format was unchanged, with the Italians joined by the ever-present Soviets, Yugoslavia and, for the first time, England.

Two years on from their World Cup win, Alf Ramsey's side fancied their chances at the continental contest. Alas, they went down to a 1-0 defeat against Yugoslavia, with a very late goal from Dragan Džajić ending English hopes. Still, better was to come. Or not.

Yugoslavia met Italy in the final and led for the better part of an hour, that man Džajić putting them in front on 32 minutes. But, cheered on by 68,000 fans at the Stadio Olimpico, Italy found an equaliser with just 10 minutes to play. Angelo Domenghini was their hero, the Inter Milan ace levelling the game and ensuring – no, not extra time – a replay. Indeed, this would prove to be the only time that the Euros was decided in this way.

Footage of the decisive replay, which Italy won 2-0

Two days later the sides met again at the same venue – but this time with only 32,000 fans (no doubt impacted by the game being played on a Monday night).

After the tense first game the replay would prove much smoother for the hosts. Luigi Riva settled Italian nerves on 12 minutes, before Pietro Anastasi doubled his side's lead on the half hour. Italy thus secured their first and to date only European Championship.

1972 – Hosts: Belgium – Winners: West Germany

West Germany win their first European Championship against the USSR

No format or name changes here, with Belgium, West Germany, Hungary and the Soviet Union reaching Euro 1972. The Belgians acted as hosts but couldn't overcome the might of West Germany in their semi-final, the great Gerd Müller netting twice in a 2-1 win. Meanwhile the Soviets – who maintained their 100% attendance rate in the tournament – reached the final for a third time by beating Hungary 1-0.

Alas, they were losers again – and well beaten. A Müller brace and one from Herbert Wimmer gave the West German side a 3-0 win – and the first of their record four Euros titles.

1976 – Hosts: Yugoslavia – Winners: Czechoslovakia

Antonin Panenka lifts the trophy after Czechoslovakia overcome West Germany // PA Images

Euro '76 saw the fall of the Soviet Union – as an ever-present at this tournament, at least – and the arrival of the Netherlands, who qualified for the first time. They were joined by holders West Germany, Czechoslovakia, and hosts Yugoslavia.

The Czechs were ranked as outsiders, but they overcame the Dutch – whose side featured Cruyff, Neeskens and Rep – with an extra-time win.

READ MORE: Game Changers – Antonin Panenka and Czechoslovakia at Euro '76

The other semi also required extra-time. It ended 2-2 between West Germany and Yugoslavia, but a brace from Dieter Müller (who'd also scored in normal time) sent the Germans into the final for the second time in succession.

Highlights of the Euro '76 final

Another 2-2 draw followed in Belgrade, forcing penalties. The Germans suffered a rare defeat in a spot-kick contest, with Czech player Antonin Panenka scoring his iconic no-fucks-given penalty to seal the trophy for his nation – and write his name in football folklore.

1980 – Hosts: Italy – Winners: West Germany

A Belgian attack breaks down in the 1980 final // PA Images

The Euros as we know them truly began in 1980, when eight sides played for the Henri Delaunay Trophy trophy in Italy. This was the first to feature a group stage, but there was no knockout round. Instead, two lots of four teams fought for a spot in the final. Group A winners West Germany made it three in a row, while in Group B it was Belgium who prevailed. Respective runners-up Czechoslovakia and Italy progressed to a third-place play-off.

The final was Belgium's first and to date only appearance in the deciding game of a major tournament, but it was West Germany who triumphed to earn the trophy for a second time. Horst Hrubesch gave them the lead on 10 minutes, but a Belgian penalty levelled the scores with the clock showing 75. Extra-time seemed inevitable, but Hrubesch won it with just two minutes left.

West Germany won their second European title in 1980

Over in the play-off match, a 1-1 draw was followed by an extensive penalty shootout. After no misses from nine Czech efforts, and eight successful Italian kicks, Fulvio Collovati missed. This was the last time to date that the Euros included a third-place play-off.

1984 – Hosts: France – Winners: France

Michel Platini was the star at Euro '84 // PA Images

Euro '84 was held in France and again saw eight teams competing. This time, however, the group winners and runners-up progressed to the semi-finals. The French aced their group with three victories, then saw off Portugal with an extra-time win to make the final. Their opponents for the decider would be Spain, who escaped a very tight Group B and then beat Denmark on penalties in the semi.

READ MORE: Michel Platini and France at Euro '84

The undoubted star of this tournament was Michel Platini, who headed into the deciding game with eight goals to his name. In front of 47,000 fans at the Parc des Princes, Platini was again decisive, grabbing the first goal on 57 minutes. Bruno Bellone added a second to clinch France their first major tournament win. Platini was top scorer, star player, and hero to a nation. Wonder what ever happened to him.

Platini scored a whopping nine goals over the course of the tournament

1988 – Hosts: West Germany – Winners: The Netherlands

The Netherlands beat West Germany in an epic semi-final at Euro '88 // PA Images

The same format was retained for the 1988 tournament, which was held in West Germany (18 months before the Berlin Wall fell). The hosts won Group A, beating Italy to top spot on goal difference. In Group B, the Soviet Union were back for a final hurrah, and beat the Netherlands to top spot, while the Republic of Ireland and England both crashed out – the latter losing all three of their games.

The final was contested between the Netherlands and the Soviets at Olympiastadion in Munich, with the Dutch having overcome Germany in the semis. Ruud Gullit opened the scoring after half an hour, before Marco Van Basten scored his iconic volley on 54 minutes to secure victory for the Oranje. It was the first and to date only major trophy for the Dutch. For Rinus Michels – who managed the "Total Football" side that lost the 1974 World Cup Final – it provided a well-deserved international success.

Van Basten's iconic screamer against the USSR

For the Soviets – a powerhouse of the tournament's early years – this was goodbye. They qualified for Euro 1992, but the breakup of the Soviet Union saw them compete as the CIS national team. Shortly after, the former Soviet team became Russia, now perennial underachievers on the international stage.

1992 – Hosts: Sweden – Winners: Denmark

Denmark celebrate winning Euro '92

Same format, very different winner. Euro 1992 was hosted by Sweden with the slogan "Small is Beautiful", apt given that this was the last eight-team tournament.

Group 1 contained the hosts, Denmark, England and France. To the surprise of many, it was the two big guns who went out while the Nordic sides progressed. Over in Group 2, Netherlands and Germany progressed ahead of Scotland and CIS. The Germans were playing their first tournament as a united nation.

Germany edged the hosts 3-2 in their semi thanks to a Karl-Heinz Riedle brace and one for Thomas Häßler. They would meet Denmark in the final, after the Danes stunned the Dutch on penalties after a 2-2 draw. The legendary Van Basten was the only man to miss a spot-kick.

Denmark produced a huge upset to beat Germany in the final

Germany were overwhelming favourites, but Denmark beat them by two goals to nil in Gothenburg to seal a remarkable triumph. When a smaller nation goes on a run at a major tournament, the story of Denmark in 1992 is usually re-told.

1996 – Hosts: England – Winners: Germany

England came oh-so-close at Euro '96 // PA Images

Hosted by England, Euro '96 saw the tournament double in size to 16 teams. This meant two groups became four, while the knockout stage now included quarter-finals. Some would argue that this is the perfect format for the continental competition.

READ MORE: Football's Coming Home – Remembering Euro '96

It was nearly a perfect summer for England, a heady mix of unusually good weather, an unusually good football song and a bizarrely likeable England side lighting up the tournament. Terry Venables' side reached the semis, only for a heartbreaking defeat on penalties to eventual winners Germany to end the party early. Die Mannschaft secured their fourth Euros (and their first as one nation) by beating the Czech Republic in the final, but for the hosts the tournament will always be remembered for Southgate's penalty miss and that Gazza goal against Scotland.

2000 – Hosts: The Netherlands & Belgium – Winners: France

France's magnificent Euro 2000-winning side // EPA Images

The first tournament to be co-hosted, Euro 2000 was played in the Netherlands and Belgium. The former were on song, but the latter couldn't make it out of their group. The same fate befell both England and Germany, who finished third and fourth in Group A, behind Portugal and Romania.

By the semi-finals it was an all-heavyweight affair: reigning World Champions France took on Portugal, while Italy played co-hosts Holland. Both games went to extra-time, France beating Portugal thanks to a Zidane penalty in the 117th minute. The Italians prevailed with a rare penalty shootout triumph, beating the Dutch 3-1 after a 0-0 draw in Amsterdam.

The Azzurri looked on course to win the tournament thanks to a 55th-minute goal from Marco Delvecchio. But Sylvain Wiltord levelled deep in injury time, before David Trezeguet won it for the World Champions with a 103rd-minute golden goal. This largely unpopular innovation was not used at previous or subsequent tournaments, but Les Bleus made it count in 2000.

2004 – Hosts: Portugal – Winners: Greece

Greece celebrate perhaps the biggest upset in Euros history // EPA Images

12 years after Denmark, Greece took an even more surprising win at Euro 2004. The tournament took place in Portugal, and began with a shock 2-1 Greek win against the hosts. Both made it out of their group and then met again in the final. Portugal had seen off England (on penalties, naturally) and the Dutch, while Greece stunned holders France (1-0) and then edged the Czech Republic (1-0). Surely they couldn't repeat the trick in the final?

READ MORE: Game Changers – Greece's Underdog Victory at Euro 2004

They only bloody did – and it was 1-0, of course. A goal from Angelos Charisteas just before the hour was enough to overcome the hosts and secure Greece a totally unexpected victory. Indeed, Otto Rehhagel had masterminded one of the greatest upsets in then history of international football. As a German, it was in his blood to succeed at the Euros.

2008 – Hosts: Austria & Switzerland – Winners: Spain

Spain ended several decades of hurt in 2008

Between 2008 and 2014, Spain were the undisputed kings of international football. Their reign began in 2008, when they won the Euros in style. The tournament used co-hosts for the second time, with Austria and Switzerland sharing the privilege.

La Furia Roja aced their group, then beat Italy on penalties to reach the semi-finals. Here they were comfortable winners over surprise package Russia, and secured a place in the final against old masters Germany.

READ MORE: The Cult – Fernando Torres

The Germans were returning to their best, too. Having slumped at the turn of the millennium, a good showing at the 2006 World Cup had revived belief in Die Mannschaft. Success would come for them, but this was Spain's time. A goal from Fernando Torres at the Ernst Happel Stadion in Vienna saw the Spanish lift their first trophy since 1964; the wait for another would be considerably shorter.

2012 – Hosts: Poland & Ukraine – Winners: Spain

Euro 2012 was Spain's third bit of major international silverware in four years // EPA Images

Having sealed the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Spain were now acknowledged as the most formidable national team on the planet, and indeed one of the best of all time. Their next challenge was to make it three major honours in a row – a feat never achieved before.

At Euro 2012, hosted by Ukraine and Poland, it rarely looked in doubt. Qualifying from a tricky group with seven points, they beat France 2-0 in the quarter-final. It took penalties to secure their spot in the deciding match, but once they'd reached the big stage Spain were in their element. Despite facing a defensively sound Italy, they took a memorable (assuming you're not Italian) 4-0 win at the Olympic Stadium in Kiev. It was the biggest winning margin in a European Championships final, an honour that the Spain squad of Iniesta, Xavi, Silva et al fully deserved.

2016 – Hosts: France – Winners: Unknown

Euro 2016 is about to come to its final zenith // EPA Images

Euro 2016 has seen further expansion to the format, with 24 teams now qualifying. This led to some head scratching at the latter end of the group stage, but can largely be judged a success for allowing new nations into the fold.

With just the final to play, it's unfolding just as hosts France would have hoped. They looked sluggish in the group, but have really come on since comfortably overcoming Iceland in the quarter-final. Beating reigning World Champions Germany in the semis will have instilled real belief in Les Bleus – particularly their star player, Antoine Griezmann.

READ MORE: The Euro 2016 Review

They will face a Portugal side who scraped through the group with three draws – making them huge beneficiaries of the expanded format. They looked unconvincing in wins over Croatia and Poland, but comfortably dispatched surprise package Wales in the semi-final.

Euro 2016 has been defined by its underdogs // EPA Images

History clearly favours the French, who won the Euros on home soil in '84 and also collected the World Cup in front of their own fans in 1998. Portugal, meanwhile, have yet to win a major international honour. On Sunday in Paris, they will have a chance to put that right – but the crowd will be firmly backing the hosts.

@Jim_Weeks

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