After a 32-year absence, the UEFA European Championship is coming home this summer when France hosts Euro 2016.
Like a lot of the best concepts in world soccer, the idea for a European championship came to fruition because of the enterprise and foresight of a Frenchman.
FIFA’s longest-ever serving president, Jules Rimet was one of the driving forces behind the World Cup, with the inaugural tournament taking place in 1930 thanks in large part to his initiative. The European Cup, now known as the UEFA Champions League, was the brainchild of French sports journalist Gabriel Hanot. In 1956, respected magazine France Football came up with the idea of honouring Europe’s best player by polling the top soccer journalists across the continent and awarding him the Ballon d’Or (Golden Ball), which then morphed into the FIFA world player of the year award.
So it should hardly come as a surprise that Henri Delaunay, who alongside Rimet was one of the early architects of the World Cup, conceived the idea of a competition featuring Europe’s top nations. It was while serving as general secretary of the French soccer federation that Delaunay first proposed the idea of a European championship while attending a FIFA meeting in 1927. However, soccer’s world governing body didn’t give Delaunay’s proposal much thought, and instead chose to focus on its plan to hold the first World Cup.
MORE ON EURO 2016: Sportsnet has you covered with in-depth coverage of Euro 2016 in France, which runs from June 10 to July 10.
• Match schedule || Group standings || Live scoreboard || Latest news
• Profiles: All 24 teams || History of Euro || Top 10 moments in Euro history
• Sportsnet’s predictions || 10 players to watch || 5 key group stage games
Delaunay would not be denied, though, and his prophetic vision of a continental championship began to take shape in 1954 with the formation of UEFA, soccer’s governing body in Europe. In one of the sport’s saddest tragedies Delaunay died in 1955, two years before UEFA gave its approval and began to organize the first European championship.
UEFA invited 30 nations to compete in the inaugural competition, but close to half of the invitees declined, most notably West Germany, Italy and England. In total, only 17 countries agreed to participate, with the first qualifying games taking place in 1958.
A two-year qualifying process with matches taking place all across Europe resulted in the field being reduced to four teams (France, the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia) and in 1960, more than three decades after the birth of Delaunay’s grand notion, the inaugural European Nations Cup was staged in France.
It was, to be completely honest, far from a smashing success. Trouble began before the four teams even made it to France. The Soviet Union was drawn against Spain in the quarterfinals, but Spanish dictator General Franco barred the Soviets from entering the country to play the away half of the two-legged playoff. UEFA had no choice but to declare the Soviets the winner and Spain was forced to forfeit.
Fewer than 18,000 fans watched the final between the Soviets and Yugoslavia at the Parc des Princes. The Soviets won in extra time and were crowned the first champion of Europe, hoisting the championship trophy that was named in Delaunay’s honour. Spain would garner a measure of revenge four years later, besting the Soviet Union in the final at Madrid’s Santiago Bernabeu stadium.
By 1968, more teams entered the qualifying fray, and a young Dino Zoff led Italy to victory over Yugoslavia in the finals in Rome, 14 years before he would guide his country to World Cup glory. The teams battled to a 1-1 draw on June 8, but the Azzurri scored a pair of first-half goals in the replay two days later to add a European title to their impressive CV.
West Germany became the new dominant force in world soccer in the early 1970s, winning the renamed European Championship in 1972 by defeating the Soviets 3-0 in the final in Brussels. Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Muller played pivotal roles in the Germans’ first European crown, as they did two years later when Germany won its second World Cup, this time on home soil.
But the German juggernaut was derailed in the 1976 final in Belgrade, with Czechoslovakia defeating the reigning world and European champions in a penalty shootout courtesy of a cheeky finish from Antonin Panenka.
The 1980 tournament marked the modern era of the European championship. Due to the competition’s growing popularity, UEFA expanded the field to eight teams, divided into two groups of four with the winner of each group advancing to the final. The Germans claimed the championship for a second time, beating Belgium in Rome.
The tournament returned to its roots four years later when it was staged in France for the first time since the inaugural competition in 1960. This time, the top two teams in each group moved on to the semifinals. Coming off a bitter disappointment at the World Cup two years earlier, Michel Platini dominated the European championship like no other player before or since. The Juventus star scored in each of France’s five games (including a pair of hat tricks) and tallied a tournament record nine goals, as Les Bleus conquered Spain in the final in Paris.
Germany staged Euro ’88 and looked a certain bet to win its third European crown. But the marvellous Marco van Basten and the Netherlands had other ideas and dispatched the hosts in a dramatic semifinal contest in Munich. The Dutch then defeated the Soviet Union in the final thanks to a brilliant volley from van Basten, claiming their only major international honour at senior level to date.
Denmark stunned the soccer world at Euro ’92 in Sweden when they won the tournament after being called into action as a last minute replacement for Yugoslavia, who were barred over security reasons.
Euro ’96 saw the tournament undergo another format change: four groups of four teams in the finals with the top two sides in each group advancing to the knockout stage. As the slogan said, soccer returned home to England, but the Germans knocked off their English hosts in the semifinals in a penalty shootout before defeating the upstart Czech Republic in the final at Wembley Stadium courtesy of Oliver Bierhoff’s golden goal.
Four years later, Belgium and the Netherlands co-hosted the event that saw another golden moment in the final, as French striker David Trezeguet netted the golden goal in the 103rd minute to sink Italy and give Les Bleus their second European championship.
Like Denmark in 1992, Greece authored one of the most amazing chapters in Euro history in 2004 when it upset host Portugal (twice, including in the final), France and the Czech Republic en route to being crowned champions of Europe.
In 2008, Austria and Switzerland co-hosted the tournament. It was in Vienna where Spain finally shed the label of under-achievers, defeating Italy and Russia before besting Germany in the final. Not only did Spain claim the European crown for the second time, but it laid the foundation for its World Cup victory two years later and the tactical revolution the sport would undergo where teams tried to duplicate the Spaniard’s possession-based game.
Spain asserted its global dominance four years ago when the tournament was held in Ukraine and Poland, as La Roja became the first nation to repeat as European champions.
All of which brings us to this summer in France, where an expanded field of 24 teams will gather to battle it out for European supremacy.
So, who will emerge victorious? Can Spain three-repeat and claim a record fourth European crown? Can World champions Germany add another Euro title to their resume? Or will we see a surprise winner?
Only time will tell, but if history is any indication, we’re in for a thrilling and dramatic ride this summer.
Monsieur Delaunay would be proud.
Sportsnet’s Soccer Central podcast (featuring Thomas Dobby, Brendan Dunlop, John Molinaro and James Sharman) takes an in-depth look at the beautiful game and offers timely and thoughtful analysis on the sport’s biggest issues.