So here we go, one month of non -stop football, as Europe’s elite meet in France for a celebration of the beautiful game. The European Championships is one of the world’s most popular sporting events, but this was not always the case. When Henri Delaunay, Secretary of the French Football Federation, first put forward the idea for a pan European games in 1927 he was unable to harness any meaningful support for the venture. 

Eventually, Henri Delaunay got his wish as he went on to become the first General Secretary of UEFA. However, his death in November 1955 meant the Frenchman would not be able to see his hard work through to fruition. Replaced by his son Pierre Delaunay, Pierre continued his father’s dream and in 1957 under the name of the UEFA European Nations Cup, Europe would have its first competitive continental tournament. The trophy would be named after Henri Delaunay, simply known as – ‘ The Henri Delaunay Cup ’.

The qualifying stages began in 1958, with notable absentees including; England, West Germany and Italy. The first finals were held in 1960 in France -the host nation was determined after the qualifying stage. The format for the qualifying stage followed the blueprint of the European Cup, where both nations played each other home and away.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of qualifying, would be the boycott of Spain when drawn against the Soviet Union. The Spaniards were amongst the favourites to win the competition, a side boasting the talents of; Alfredo Di Stefano, Luis Suarez and Paco Gento. Sadly however this gifted group would not get the opportunity to compete in France.

Since the end of the Spanish Civil War diplomatic ties between the two nations had been non-existent, Spain’s dictator General Francisco Franco detested everything to do with the Communist State. The Soviet Union was the only major country to officially support Franco’s opponents. Franco refused to allow a team representing his nation enter Moscow, thus pulling Spain out of the competition.

Only four teams would qualify – the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and France. In the semi-finals the Soviets comfortably saw off Czechoslovakia 3-0. The other tie would be far from straightforward with Yugoslavia trailing the French 4-2…but with 15 minutes remaining the Yugoslav’s would turn defeat into victory, scoring three goals in a stunning four minute burst. Winning the game 5-4 – the highest scoring game in the competition’s history.

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Lev Yashin helped USSR to lift the European Championships in 1960

The final would need extra time to separate the two teams, with Viktor Ponedelnik scoring the winner in a 2-1 win for the Soviet Union. Legendary goalkeeper Lev Yashin would finally receive a richly deserved major international winner’s medal.

The 1964 tournament, held in Spain, would continue the same format, with the Soviet Union, Denmark, Hungary and Spain making the final four. This would see Franco begrudgingly welcome the Soviet Union. Thankfully, there would be no repeat of boycotting when the two teams met in the final. Luckily for Franco a late winner from Marcelino would see the Spaniards win their first international competition. Imagine Franco seeing the Soviets lift the trophy in his beloved Madrid. A potential diplomatic disaster had been averted.

The host nation would again be victorious in the 1968 tournament. With Italy winning this time around, beating Yugoslavia 2-0 in a replay. It was at this point that the competition changed its name to the European Championship and would be the first tournament for which England qualified. The English finished third, beating the Soviet Union 2-0 in the third place playoff.

The Italians route to the final was curious to say the least. After drawing 0-0 in the semi-final against the Soviets, the game was decided by a coin toss, which as luck would have it the Italian captain Giacinto Facchetti chose correctly. Not sure they would get away with that today.

The 1972 Championships, in Belgium, saw West Germany announce themselves as a true contender. Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Muller and Paul Breitner were just a few names the Germans could call on. They would stroll through the competition, thrashing the Soviet Union 3-0 in the final, with Muller netting a double. Was this the best ever German team?

In the summer of ’76, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, West Germany and Holland all met in Yugoslavia. The Czechoslovakians  saw off the Dutch 3-1 in the semifinals, with a little help from British referee Clive Thomas, who sent off Johan Neeskens and Win van Hanegem. Holland’s total football was put on hold for the time being.

Czechoslovakia would meet Germany in the final, after they beat the Yugoslavs 4-2 in the other semi-final. The Czechoslovakians looked set for victory until Bernd Holzenbein equalised for the Germans in the last minute of normal time to make it 2-2. The competitions first penalty shootout was to follow after a scoreless extra time.

Uli Hoeness would miss the only penalty of the shootout, allowing Antonin Panenka to win it. Up he stepped before gently chipping the ball down the middle of the goal and here was the birth of the ‘Panenka Penalty’.

With the growing popularity of the tournament, the 1980 championship held in Italy, would see the number of competitors expand from four to eight. With no semi-finals, the two group winners would go through to the final. Predictably, West Germany would be there, against the surprise package of Belgium.

Yes, you guessed it, the German’s won. Two goals from Horst Hrubesch would see them edge out the Belgian’s 2-1 at the Stadio Olimpico.

Platini scored nine goals in five games as France lifted the European Championships in 1984

Platini scored nine goals in five games as France lifted the European Championships in 1984

Has a Euros ever been dominated by a single player like France’s Michel Platini did in 1984? The reigning World Player of the Year scored an outrageous nine goals in five games, as the French went on to win the tournament on home soil.  A competition high in quality would hit its peak in the semi-finals, when the French met Portugal. All square at 1-1 as they entered extra time, Rui Jordao’s volley looked set to see the host tumble out of the tournament. Luckily for France a comeback was on the cards. Jean Francois Domergue would equalise and fittingly it would be Platini who would grab a late winner. The final would be a more straightforward affair with France beating Spain 2-0.

The 1988 European Championship is remembered for one thing. That Marco van Basten volley. This talented Dutch side triumphed where the team of the 70’s had failed – by winning their first major tournament. Holland met the Soviet Union in the final – this would be the Soviets last European Championship as the Union would break-up in 1991. A Ruud Gullit header was followed by a historic goal from Van Basten, a goal of stunning technique and execution. The game finished 2-0 to the Dutch.

One of the biggest shocks in the Euro’s history took place in Sweden in 1992, as Denmark came straight off the beach to conquer Europe. The Danes replaced Yugoslavia in the finals who were caught up in a brutal Civil War. Having squeezed through their group, Denmark would meet Holland in the semi-finals, who were expected to just turn up and win – but as we know football doesn’t work like this. After a 2-2 stalemate the game would go to a penalty shootout, with van Basten, of all people, missing the crucial penalty.

Peter Schmeichel was key to Denmark's success in 1996

Peter Schmeichel was key to Denmark’s success in 1996

So onto the final for the Danes, where they would meet a now unified Germany. Peter Schmeichel played the role of the hero, with numerous saves in the game’s early stages. Then out of nowhere. Goal.  1-0 to Denmark with John Jensen lashing home from the edge of the area. The German’s shock would soon turn into despair as Kim Vilfort made it 2-0.  Denmark reigned supreme. A victory made all the sweeter, as it was in rival Sweden’s backyard.

Football’s coming home! Well it did for about three weeks – then left with the Germans. But what a few weeks it was. England actually played well at a major finals, they beat Holland 4-1, Paul Gascoigne scored one of England’s greatest goals and they even won a penalty shootout. England 1996 would be the first tournament where 16 teams would compete.

Then the German’s showed up in the semi-final. Alan Shearer opened the scoring only for Stefan Kuntz to equalise shorty after. England would come agonizingly close to winning the game with Gascoigne lunging at the ball in the six yard box in front of a gaping goal, only to miss the ball by a few millimetres. Penalties would follow, with Gareth Southgate missing the only spot kick. Germany would go into the final where they would beat the Czech Republic 2-1 after extra time, thanks to an Oliver Bierhoff winner.

Paul Gascoigne scores for England during the 1996 European Championships

Paul Gascoigne scores for England during the 1996 European Championships

The finals in 2000 would see the competition jointly held for the first time, by Holland and Belgium. A rare England win over a poor Germany side wasn’t enough to see them through the group stage. However the tournament was all about France and how they cemented their place in footballing folklore.

After winning the World Cup two years previously, the Euros would see them become part of an elite group of teams to win both tournaments back to back. The final in Rotterdam against Italy was full of drama, Marco Delvecchio’s strike looked set to bring the trophy back to Rome, before Sylvain Wiltord’s late show rescued the tie for the French. Inevitably with the Italians on their knees, David Trezeguet lashed home the golden goal in extra time to create history for Les Bleus.

Denmark or Greece what was the biggest shock? The 2004 tournament was supposed to be Portugal’s big moment in a competition held on home soil. However, they faced an immovable object in Greece in the final, who had battled through a scarcely believable month of football.

Having knocked out Spain in the group stage, and two extremely talented sides in England and Holland in the semi-final, Portugal seemed set for their first title. The Greeks on the other hand were supposed to be the whipping boys, having never won a game at a major competition. Nevertheless, they produced a defensive masterclass. Beating the Portuguese in the group stage certainly raised some eyebrows.

Greece provided one of the biggest shocks in international football as they beat Portugal in the Euro 2004 final

Greece provided one of the biggest shocks in international football as they beat Portugal in the Euro 2004 final

Despite this defeat to the Greeks you wouldn’t have met too many people betting against Portugal. Yet, the sheer enormity of the situation seemed to make the Portuguese freeze on Europe’s biggest stage. In the final, they found themselves unable to break down the Greeks. They would fall to the sucker punch, as Angelos Charisteas rose highest at a corner midway through the second half, to give Greece a 1-0 victory. Greece ruled Europe – and no one could quite believe it.

Euro 2008 and 2012 belonged comfortably to one nation, Spain, back to back winners. This four year period is made all the more special as they were to win the World Cup in between these two victories. What Spain did is likely to never be repeated. Pass and move, Spain simply tortured their opponents.

Euro 2008 held in Austria and Switzerland would end their 44 year wait for a major trophy. The perennial underachievers were no more. Fernando Torres, David Villa, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta were the four standouts in a long list of world class players. They would meet Germany in the final, a tall, strong, physical team. Skill certainly ruled strength here as the Germans were made to look distinctly average. A Fernando Torres goal settled the game in a 1-0 win for Spain. 44 years of pain forgotten in an instant.

Winning the 2012 Euro’s was expected by Spanish fans and almost met with a shrug of the shoulders such was the belief in victory. Co-hosted in Poland and Ukraine, the build up to the 2012 tournament wasn’t about football, but about the fears of potential racism, luckily for the most part these fears were unfounded and the football did the talking.

Spain navigated their way through a tricky group, France were easily beaten 2-0 in the quarter final and a Cristiano Ronaldo inspired Portugal were beaten on penalties. Spain would meet Italy in the final who themselves had reached this stage by beating Germany, when Mario Balotelli made a name for himself with both his goals and celebrations. But Spain were not Germany, and the final was a ruthless exhibition of football from the Spaniards. 4-0 it would finish. The first team to retain the trophy.

So what can we expect in France this summer? What we can be sure of is there will be great interest from these isles, with England, Wales and Northern Ireland all competing. Could Iceland a country of 320,000 in their first ever major tournament write a few headlines? Will France win again in front their home fans? Or could Spain win the trophy for the third time in a row and become undisputed kings of the competition?  One thing we do know is that we should expect the unexpected and it all gets underway on the 10th of June. 

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