The European Nations Cup, as it was originally called, began in 1960 although for that first tournament several countries, notably England, Italy and West Germany, refused to take part. After qualification by way of a knock-out tournament, the four-team finals tournament was held in France and was won by the Soviet Union. For the next tournament, 29 countries entered the knockout qualification competition (up from 17 the previous time, although Greece withdrew after being drawn against Albania) which began in the summer of 1962 and was played in home-and-away legs until the semi-finals, which were held in Spain in 1964; thus, only the semi-finalists were deemed to have ‘qualified’ – a bit harsh on Luxembourg, who’d made it to the quarter-finals. From the four semi-finalists, Spain was chosen to be the host nation and went on to win it by defeating the Soviet Union in the final.
For 1968, the tournament had a new name – the European Championship – and a new method of qualification – a group stage, followed by a two-leg quarter-finals round with the winners going through to the finals with one of those winners being chosen as the hosts. For the first and only time, the results of two years of the Home International Championship – that annual four-way tussle between the Home Nations – served as one of the qualifying groups. England made it to the finals tournament for the first time, and lost the semi-final to Yugoslavia; hosts Italy beat the Soviet Union in the other semi-final by way of a coin-toss after the match finished goal-less after extra time. In the final, Italy and Yugoslavia drew 1-1, meaning that it went to a replay for the only time in the tournament’s history; Italy won the replay 2-0. England won the third-place play-off.
Four years later in Belgium, West Germany won the European Championship for the first time (beating the Soviet Union 3-0 in the final), and would go on to become the first European Champions to also hold the World Cup when they won the latter two years later. In Yugoslavia in 1976, they made it to the final again – only to lose to Czechoslovakia on penalties, the first time an international final was decided in this way (and also the only time the Germans have ever lost on a penalty shoot-out).
As of 1980, the European Championship was expanded so that the finals tournament had eight teams, and this also marked the first time that the host nation – Italy in this instance – was chosen in advance and so didn’t have to qualify. The first round now consisted of two four-team groups, the winners of which went straight through to the final while the runners-up got to contest the third-place play-off. That last one, between Czechoslovakia and Italy, went to a penalty shoot-out and was only decided in favour of the Czechs after someone finally missed the 18th penalty; perhaps unsurprisingly, the third-place play-off was scrapped for future tournaments. England, who’d qualified for the first time since 1968, failed to get out of the group stage with a draw, a defeat and a win (perhaps the most interesting thing to happen to them was when play was held up in their match against Belgium after the police had to use tear-gas on the crowd). West Germany beat Belgium in the final to become the first country to win it for the second time.
Semi-finals were introduced for the 1984 tournament which was hosted by France (the flawless organisation of this tournament would play a key role in that country’s successful bid to host the 1998 World Cup). Thanks to nine goals by Michel Platini (including two hat-tricks), the hosts won – beating Spain 2-0 in the final. This was to be the last time to date that the tournament was won by the host nation. The 1988 tournament in West Germany was notable for there being no goal-less draws, sendings-off or extra time, and it was won by the Netherlands (long regarded by the Germans, who they beat in the semi-final, as their biggest rivals on the football pitch) in emphatic style. England, by contrast, lost all of the their games – a surprise defeat to Ireland (playing in their first European Championship) followed by thrashings at the hands of the Dutch (courtesy of a Marco Van Basten hat-trick) and the Soviet Union (who would go on to be the losing finalists).