European Nations Cup: Birth of the European Championships

The first idea for a European Cup came about in 1926, four years before the first FIFA World Cup. Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Austria, and Italy had met and proposed a tournament for only European teams. However, FIFA was on the verge of creating a worldwide competition, and the idea was placed on the backburner as the first FIFA World Cup was brought forward from first inaugural year of 1934 to 1930. Regardless, Europe played a significant role in the first World Cup and the strength in depth of European teams led to the idea of a European Cup resurfacing and eventually occurring in 1960. UEFA was founded in 1954, and just four years later the draw for the first exclusively European tournament, known as the European Nations Cup was held in Sweden. Seventeen countries agreed to compete in the tournament. However, there were notable absences from some major nations including Italy, England, the Federal Republic of Germany, and some others who refused to participate in the tournament. The first match took place on September 28, 1958, with the Soviet Union defeating Hungary 3-1 in Moscow. The first tournament proper occurred in France between July 6 and 10, 1960. The Soviet Union won the trophy with a 2-1 win over Yugoslavia after extra time in the Parc de Prince Stadium, Paris, on July 10. The next tournament in 1964 attracted 29 nations including Italy, England, and others who refused to take part in the inaugural tournament. The only major absence was the Federal Republic of Germany who continued to refuse to participate. However, the German Democratic Republic took part. Spain hosted the finals between July 17 and 21, 1964. A bumper crowd of 105,000 packed the Bernabeu Stadium to see hosts Spain defeat the Soviet Union 2-1 and lift the trophy.

The Development of the UEFA European Championships

The third edition of the tournament received official sanction and was renamed the UEFA European Championships. 31 nations entered the 1968 edition, almost twice that of the first tournament eight years previously. All the key nations were present, including the Federal Republic of Germany, and eight qualifying groups were held for the first time in the tournament’s history. The format granted qualification to the eight group winners who would compete in the quarter-finals of the tournament. The Soviet Union, Spain, England, Italy, Yugoslavia, Hungary, France, and Bulgaria all qualified from their groups and competed in the tournament held in Italy between July 5 and 10, 1968. The Italians won the tournament on home soil after qualifying for the final after the toss of a coin decided their tie against the Soviet Union in the semi-finals and playing two finals against Yugoslavia due to the first match ending in a draw. The same format of qualifying was kept for the 1972 and 1976 editions of the tournament. In 1972 Hungary, the Federal Republic of Germany, Belgium, and the Soviet Union competed in the semi-finals which were staged in Belgium. The Federal Republic of Germany won the tournament following an impressive 3-0 victory over the USSR in Brussels. In 1976 The Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and the Federal Republic of Germany competed in the semi-finals in Yugoslavia. The final between the Federal Republic of Germany and Czechoslovakia was decided by a penalty shootout for the first time in the competition’s history, with Czechoslovakia coming out on top. Small changes were made before the 1980 edition of the tournament. The host nation was granted automatic qualification and the quarter-finals were staged in the host country rather than being a two-legged affair. The Federal Republic of Germany became the first country to win the tournament twice with a 2-1 victory over Belgium in 1980. 1984, 1988, and 1992 editions of the tournament remained virtually unchanged from this format. 1984 stands out as one of the greatest tournaments in the competition’s history thanks to the emergence of Michel Platini who guided France to victory on home soil. In 1988 the tournament was held in Germany and produced a new European Champion with the Netherlands lifting the trophy, and 1992 is always remembered for the shock of Denmark lifting the trophy on Swedish soil.

The Expansion of the UEFA European Championships

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, many new football associations were formed. This caused the European Championships to expand and increase the number of participating teams to 16 for the 1996 edition which was held in England. The teams were divided into four groups with the top two advancing to the quarter-finals. Germany lifted their third title in 1996, defeating the Czech Republic in Wembley by “golden goal,” a new rule introduced allowing the first goal in extra time to end the match. In 2000, the tournament was held by two countries for the first time when the Netherlands and Belgium were joint hosts. France lifted the trophy, defeating Italy 2-1 in the final with a “golden goal” occurring for the second time. The 2004 edition of the tournament produced a shock winner, along the lines of Denmark’s victory in 1992. Held in Portugal, the hosts met unfancied Greece in the final, who had gained a reputation for their ultra-defensive style. The Greeks defeated the hosts 1-0 to claim a historic victory and provide another new name to add to the list of winners. The 2008 edition of the European Championships was held in Austria and Switzerland, with Spain entering the tournament as favorites having secured the World Cup two years previously. Widely regarded as one of the greatest international sides ever, the Spanish met Germany in the final in Vienna. An excellent match was decided by a Fernando Torres goal in the 33rd minute as Spain won their first ever European Championships and became the first nation to do the World Cup and European Championships double. 2012 saw another joint hosting of the tournament as Poland and Ukraine were named as joint hosts. The final saw Spain meet Italy in Kyiv, with the Spanish strolling to a 4-0 victory, becoming the first nation to win the tournament twice in a row in the process. 2016 saw yet another expansion of the tournament as 24 countries now qualified for the finals. Under the new format, the finals consisted of six groups of four with the top two automatically qualifying to the round of 16 along with the four best third-placed sides. The final was contested between hosts France and Portugal who were seeking their first ever title. A 1-0 win after extra time handed Portugal the title, making them the tenth different winner of the tournament.

The Future of the UEFA European Championships

The European Championships will celebrate its 60th birthday during the 2020 edition. As a celebration, the tournament will be held across thirteen cities in thirteen countries with the final played in Wembley, London. The tournament will follow the same format as the 2016 edition with 24 nations qualifying for the competition split into six groups of four and the top two from each group along with the four best third-placed teams entering the round of 16.