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The European Championship: A potted history (part two)

Before we continue with something that probably should have been finished before the current tournament started, let’s have a peek at the European Championship trophy. Its official name is the Henri Delaunay Trophy, named for the first General Secretary of UEFA who came up with the idea for the tournament (in the Twenties) but died five years before the first one. Delaunay had been a referee prior to being a football administrator, but gave up on refereeing after an incident in which he was struck in the face by the ball; he broke two teeth and swallowed his whistle as a result. The current version of the trophy is the second one – the original was considered to be too small in comparison with other trophies like the European Cup. The new one, which has been used since 2008, is 24 inches tall, weighs 18 lbs and is made of sterling silver.

Anyway, on with the story, picking up from where the first part ended in the Nineties. When England successfully bid to host the 1996 European Championship, the assumption was that there would be eight teams as in previous tournaments. However, a sharp rise in the number of UEFA members (caused by the break-ups of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia) prompted a rethink and the tournament was doubled to sixteen teams; four groups of four followed by the knockout stage. Euro 96 (slogan: ‘Football Comes Home’) was also the first time that a tournament was referred to by the word ‘Euro’ followed by the year – this has been done with tournaments ever since and has even been applied retrospectively to previous tournaments. Four countries – Bulgaria, Switzerland, Turkey and newly-independent Croatia – qualified for the European Championship for the first time, while the Czech Republic (not Czechoslovakia) and Russia (not the Soviet Union) also made the trip to England.

The first round saw one of England’s finest performances – a 4-1 win over the Netherlands (that one Dutch goal would ensure that they would also get through to the next stage, eliminating Scotland on goal difference). Elsewhere, the Czech Republic beat Italy (who were knocked out in the group stage two years after reaching the World Cup final) while reigning champions Denmark went home early as Portugal and Croatia made it through. The knockout stage would see the first use of the golden goal rule (if it goes to extra time, next goal wins) at an international tournament. As it happened, two of the quarter-finals (Spain-England, France-Netherlands) and both semi-finals (France-Czech Republic, Germany-England) were decided on penalties, following which Germany beat the Czech Republic in the final by way of a golden goal. This marked Germany’s first international trophy as a unified country.

Four years later, the European Championship experimented with joint hosts – Belgium and the Netherlands – for the first time (appropriately, the tournament slogan was: ‘Football Without Frontiers’). There were two first-time qualifiers, Norway and Slovenia. Portugal were the big surprise of the group stage, winning their group (which included England and Germany, both of which crashed out in the group stage – historically, more of a  shock for the latter at the Euros). Elsewhere, Turkey progressed at the expense of hosts Belgium who became the first hosts to be eliminated in the first round. The quarter-finals saw the Netherlands thrash Yugoslavia (as Serbia & Montenegro were then called) 6-1. In the semi-finals, France beat Portugal 2-1 on the golden goal rule – and they would beat Italy in the final by the same scoreline and method to win their second European Championship, becoming in the process the second country (West Germany having been the first, back in the Seventies) to be the World and European Champions at the same time.

For 2004, the format stayed the same although the golden goal rule was replaced by the silver goal for the knockouts – in extra time, if a team were to be ahead after the first period they would be declared the winner. This would be the only time this rule was used at an international tournament – widely perceived as a failed experiment (it and its predecessor had been intended to produce more attacking play in extra time, which hadn’t really happened), it was dropped after Euro 2004, and thereafter the pre-1996 extra time format (15 minutes each way, regardless of how many goals scored) was reinstated.

Greece had hitherto not distinguished themselves in major international tournaments; a draw against West Germany in the 1980 European Championship had long been overshadowed by a disastrous performance at the 1994 World Cup (played three, lost three, scored none, conceded ten). In 2004, they went to Portugal as 150-1 outsiders (only Latvia, playing at a major tournament for the first time, had worse odds). Surprisingly, they beat the hosts in the opening game although they only managed to get out of the group on goal difference. In a tournament full of surprises, Germany, Italy and Spain all went out in the group stage. Elsewhere, England came second in their group, only to lose to Portugal on a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final. Meanwhile, Greece beat France and then triumphed over the Czech Republic in extra time to set up a final that was the same fixture as the opening game – Portugal v Greece (the first time this had ever happened at a major international tournament). In an underdog triumph to rival Denmark’s 1992 win, Greece won.

The reigning European champions have always had to qualify for the next tournament (they’ve usually managed to do so, France’s non-appearance in 1988 being the exception) – unlike the hosts, and by co-hosting the 2008 tournament (with Switzerland), Austria made its first appearance at a European Championship (slogan: ‘Expect Emotions’). Neither host nation was expected to get out of the group stage, and that is what happened (for the first time at a European Championship). Also appearing at the Euros for the first time was Poland (who were also eliminated in the group stage). Turkey were something of a surprise package, making it out of their group after a last-gasp winner over the Czech Republic (in a match that had seen the Turkish goalkeeper sent off). Meanwhile, Croatia, the Netherlands and Spain won all of their group games, while France crashed out with one point (which was one better than Greece). In the knockouts, Turkey beat Croatia on penalties, Spain saw off Italy in a similar manner and Russia knocked out the Netherlands with two extra-time goals. Turkey’s bid for glory failed with a semi-final defeat to Germany, although the last-minute winning goal wasn’t seen by many due to the transmission being interrupted by a thunderstorm at the TV broadcasting relay station. Spain, meanwhile, thrashed Russia to earn their first appearance at a major final since 1984. They beat Germany 1-0 to win their first major trophy since 1964, and added the World Cup to their trophy cabinet two years later.

Four years later, Poland and Ukraine co-hosted Euro 2012 (‘Creating History Together’), the last tournament to use the 16-team format. Ukraine were the only first-time participants, with Poland and Ireland both taking part in the Euros for the second time. Once again, both hosts failed to get out of the group stage. The Czech Republic became the first team to win a group with a negative goal difference (a heavy defeat to Russia followed by one-goal wins over Greece and Poland), the Netherlands lost all three of their games (drawn into the ‘group of death’, in which all four teams were in the top ten of the FIFA rankings, they lost to Denmark, Germany and Portugal), Ireland equalled the worst-ever performance by any country at a European Championship (no points and a goal difference of minus 8, the same as Yugoslavia in 1984, Denmark in 2000 and Bulgaria in 2004) and England topped their group for the first time since 1996. A familiar story followed in the quarter-finals, though, as they went out on penalties for the third time at the Euros (and the sixth time in their history) – to Italy, this time. Italy went on to reach the final thanks to a 2-1 win over Germany, while Spain reached the final by way of wins over France and Portugal (on penalties, that last one). Could the reigning World and European Champions become the first-ever country to retain the European Championship? Yes they could – by thrashing Italy 4-0 in Kiev.

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