The European Championship
The European Championship these days is nearly as big an event for European teams as the World Cup but it wasn’t always that way. The first Championship wasn’t until 1960, and the event was largely ignored by England until 1968.
Origins of the CompetitionThe idea of a European competition to complement the World Cup was first proposed by a legendary figure in French football, Henri Delaunay, back in 1927, but the idea didn’t really get off the ground until the late Fifties. Delaunay headed the French Football Federation and was the first head of UEFA when it was created in 1954. Sadly he died the next year, but the idea lived on and is commemorated by the trophy being named after him.
First TournamentThe English FA didn’t enter for the first competition, called the European Nations Cup, nor did any of the other home nations, as they had their own annual championship already. In fact, some last minute scrabbling around was necessary to get the number of countries entered up to seventeen, one more than the minimum. The final tournament was held in France to honour Delaunay.
Only the four semi-finalists were at the tournament; the preliminary matches were played as two-leg (home and away) knockout ties throughout the two years leading up to the tournament. The USSR won, although they might not even have been at the finals had General Franco, Spain’s right-wing dictator, not withdrawn Spain from the quarter-final, handing the Soviets a bye.
Competition EstablishedThe competition had always been intended to be held in the years in between World Cups, and in 1964, with twenty-nine countries entering, there was no doubt that the competition was here to stay. England, along with all the other home nations except Scotland, decided to enter, but lost at the first hurdle to France, 6-3 on aggregate.
Northern Ireland did better, getting past Poland to then cause a shock in the next round. They held eventual winners Spain to a 1-1 draw in Bilbao, but lost the return match in Belfast 0-1. The political drama on this occasion was provided by Greece, who refused to play Albania as they had technically (but not actually) been at war with them since 1912.
Introduction of Group StagesIn 1968, the format of the competition changed. It was renamed the UEFA European Football Championship, and the now familiar group-based qualification stage to reach the finals was introduced, though there were still only four teams at the tournament. UEFA decided to use the British Home Championships of 1967 and 1968 combined as one of the qualifying groups, and England went through.
Being World Champions, England were expected to put up a decent showing, and they beat the reigning European Champions, Spain, in the two-leg quarter-final, coming back to win 2-1 in the second leg in Madrid. But at the finals they lost a bad tempered semi-final to an 86th minute goal by Yugoslavia. Alan Mullery, after being persistently fouled throughout the game, retaliated in the last minute and became the first English player to be sent off in an international.
England picked up third place after a play-off with the USSR who had lost their semi-final to Italy on a coin toss after a goal-less draw. Italy went on to take the title, defeating Yugoslavia 2-0 in a replay after the first match had ended 1-1.
England in the DoldrumsBy 1972 the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish football authorities had successfully lobbied for the Home Championship not to be used as a qualifying round, to give them a fairer chance of progressing. For England decline was in evidence as West Germany, fresh from the shock of their defeat of England in the 1970 World Cup, rubbed salt into the wounds by beating England 1-3 at Wembley to deny them an appearance at the final tournament.
England failed to qualify for the next two competitions and they next appeared in 1980 when major changes were made to the format. UEFA expanded the final tournament to eight teams and introduced the group stage, with England duly failing to progress past it. They repeated this feat in 1988 and 1992 and their next best showing was in 1996.
Three Lions on a ShirtAs well as football coming home, UEFA took the opportunity to expand the final tournament to 16 teams, largely because the break-up of the Soviet Union and other Eastern bloc countries meant there were now 48 teams entering the competition. The format has stayed the same since then and it has largely accounted for the tournament reaching the status it has now, being as fiercely competed as the World Cup. England had an excellent tournament, humbling the Dutch 4-1 on the way to a semi-final defeat to Germany in a penalty shoot-out.
Modern TimesThe tournaments of 2000 and 2004 have continued to raise the profile of the competition, but for England they have been disappointing, going out at the group stage in 2000 and losing the quarter-final of 2004 against hosts Portugal. Qualifying for Austria-Switzerland in 2008 is currently taking place but with seven teams in the group it will be a long haul, and Croatia and Russia are looking dangerous.
Discussions are also taking place about the size of future tournaments and it could be that 2012 or 2016 will see 24 teams in the finals.
Euro TriviaGermany can lay claim to being masters of the European Championship, being the only team to have won the tournament three times (twice when they were West Germany), and France have won it twice. In a league table of positions based on each country’s final placings since the start of the competition, England came 14th, based on their third place in 1968 and as losing semi-finalists in 1996 (third place play-offs were dispensed with after 1980).
Surprisingly, in the table of appearances in the final tournament, England are joint second on seven with Denmark, the Netherlands, and Spain, all behind Germany on nine.
Goal Scoring RecordsThe short-lived ‘golden goal’ made an appearance at the Euro 1996 Final when Oliver Bierhoff scored the winner against Czechoslovakia in the extra time, stopping the game immediately.
England’s Alan Shearer was the top scorer at that tournament with five goals, and with two more at Euro 2000, he is the second only to Frenchman Michel Platini (9) as the most prolific European Championship goal scorer.
England fans, in 2005, voted Paul Gascoigne’s audacious lob over a shocked and stranded Colin Hendry and volley past Andy Goram, to finish Scotland off in the Euro 96 group match, as the fourth best England goal of all-time.