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Euro 2012: The History of Europe's International Football Championship

The history of the Euros becomes a timely topic as Euro 2012 gets underway in Poland and Ukraine. UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) held the first European Championship finals in France in 1960. Only four teams competed and the ‘final tournament’ was effectively the two semi-finals and final of a cup knockout.

Hosts France were the favourites, but despite being 4-2 up in their semi-final against Yugoslavia with 15 minutes to go, lost 5-4. The final would be won by the Soviet Union, whose star player was goalkeeper Lev Yashin.

The 1964 tournament was held in Spain, who had defaulted from the 1960 event after their fascist dictator General Franco refused to allow the communist Soviets into his country for their quarter-final qualifier. This time, with UEFA threatening to take the tournament away from the Spanish, he allowed the defending champions in. Franco would be pleased at the way things panned out, Spain beating the USSR in the final.

The host nation won for the second successive tournament in 1968, Italy defeating Yugoslavia, who had now been runners-up twice in three stagings.

The famous West German team of Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Muller and Gunther Netzer won the 1972 finals, held in Belgium, but were powerless to retain their trophy in Yugoslavia four years later. In that 1976 final, they were beaten by Czechoslovakia in a penalty shootout, Antonin Panenka scoring the decisive penalty with one of the cheekiest kicks of all time, a dainty chip straight down the middle.

The Euros go large . . . and even larger

The 1976 finals had been extremely popular, so for Europa 80, UEFA allowed eight teams to compete in the finals. Two mini-leagues of four teams competed, with the group winners facing each other in the final. West Germany regained the trophy they lost four years earlier, beating Belgium in the final, but it was a poor tournament that didn’t stay long in the memory.

The format was slightly rejigged for the 1984 version in France, with a semi-final stage coming after the opening group phase. If the 1980 tournament was forgettable, this one was perhaps the greatest ever, midfielder Michel Platini scoring nine times in five games as hosts France claimed their first trophy, spectacularly beating Portugal 3-2 in a dramatic semi, before beating Spain in the final.

Euro 88, held in West Germany, was another memorable classic. After losing two World Cup finals in the 1970s, Holland finally got their hands on some silverware, beating the USSR 2-0 in the final. The match, and the tournament, will always be remembered for Marco van Basten’s sumptuous volley in the final, a dipping cross walloped in from an almost impossible angle to the right of the Russian goal.

Euro 92 in Sweden was less memorable, although the tournament offered up perhaps the biggest fairytale in the history of the European Championship. Denmark failed to qualify, but were handed a reprieve when Yugoslavia, who had topped their qualification group, descended into civil war and couldn’t compete. The Danes made it all the way to the final, where they beat reigning world champions Germany 2-0.

By now, the Euros were becoming almost as popular as the World Cup, so UEFA decreed that Euro 96, held in England, would be competed by 16 teams. The hosts looked as good a bet as anyone, especially after Paul Gascoigne scored a screamer in a 2-0 win against Scotland, and England trounced much-fancied Holland 4-1. But they met Germany in the semi-final, and were knocked out on penalties. Germany beat the Czech Republic in the final, thanks to Oliver Bierhoff, who scored the first golden goal to decide a major tournament.

The Euros in the new millennium

Euro 2000, held jointly by Holland and Belgium, was a huge success, with many high-scoring and dramatic matches. Holland were beaten in the semi-finals by Italy, missing two penalties during normal time. The Italians nearly won the trophy, leading France 1-0 in the final with seconds to go, but Sylvan Wiltord whipped in a dramatic equaliser, before David Trezeguet scored a spectacular Golden Goal in extra time.

Euro 2004 was a quieter affair. Otto Rehhagel’s Greece side was considered dour, not that they’d care: they amazingly won the tournament against all the odds, smothering reigning champions France, the much-fancied Czech Republic and hosts Portugal.

Euro 2008 was held in Austria and Switzerland, and was most notable for Turkey’s efforts to match their rivals Greece’s achievement four years earlier. They made it to the semi-finals, thanks to two spectacular comebacks – a 3-2 win from two goals down against the Czech Republic, and a win on penalties against Croatia after plundering a 1-1 draw with the very last kick of the match – but were eventually knocked out by Germany.

The Germans, however, had no answer for Spain, who had been by far the best side in the tournament. They won the final thanks to Fernando Torres’s single goal, adding a second European Championship to the one they won back in 1964.

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