UEFA European Championship
The UEFA European Football Championship is an international competition staged every four years to determine the top national team on the continent. Governed by the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) and considered the second biggest international tournament in the sport (after the World Cup), the competition consists of a qualifying phase with all eligible nations drawn into groups, followed by playoffs and a final tournament consisting of 16 surviving nations. Originally called the European Nations' Cup and featuring just four teams at the final stage, the event has grown since its inaugural edition in 1960 and will expand to feature 24 teams at the 2016 finals in France. Germany and Spain have won "the Euros" three times, the most by any country.
After the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) was formed in 1954, the organization's first general secretary, Henri Delaunay, proposed an idea to stage a continent-wide competition for national teams -- a plan that he had pitched to FIFA decades before as a representative of France's national federation.
Delaunay believed that the competition, open to all of the European associations, should not lead to an infinite number of matches or harm the World Cup, and participants should not always be forced to meet the same opponents in the same group. Delaunay died in 1955, but his son Pierre joined with French journalists to lead the drive towards initiating such a competition. When the championship was finally approved to be contested every four years by UEFA in 1957, the trophy for the new competition was named the Henri Delaunay Cup in recognition of the general secretary's service for the cause of European football.
The format for the inaugural European Nations' Cup was designed to follow the setup UEFA had instituted for the continent's top club competition, with aggregate scores from home-and-away matches determining which teams would advance through initial rounds that led up to a pre-determined site for semifinals and finals. While some of the more prominent national teams -- such as Italy and England -- decided against participating, 17 member associations entered the initial tournament, and play began with a match on September 28, 1958, won by the Soviet Union over Hungary.
The inaugural competition took place over 22 months between 1958 and 1960, with the four semifinalists meeting in France to contest the final stages. The Soviet Union defeated Czechoslovakia, 3-0, in one semifinal while Yugoslavia topped France, 5-4, in the other final-four matchup. Legendary goalkeeper Lev Yashin allowed Yugoslavia a deflected goal, but the Soviets scored to force extra time in the final. With the Yugoslavs fading, Viktor Ponedelnik headed in a goal to give the Soviet Union the inaugural title in the European Nations' Cup.
The 1964 competition began with more nations involved, with Italy and England among the 29 countries entered at the qualifying stage. Denmark and Hungary were impressive in the early stages and joined the USSR and hosts Spain in the semifinals. The Soviets cruised past the Danes to reach a second consecutive European Nations Cup final, but Jesús Pereda and Marcellino scored in Spain's 2-1 victory to give the home side a first-ever international title.
The competition was renamed the UEFA European Championship for the 1968 edition, which also featured a revised format as qualifying groups replaced two-legged knockout ties for the initial stage of the competition. Talented sides Portugal and Belgium failed to make it out of their groups, while England's finish atop the British Home Championship (serving as its group) earned it a place in the quarterfinals, where it topped holders Spain. Yugoslavia was able to end the English team's run with a 1-0 semifinal win, and looked likely for a first European title until a late Italy goal forced a replay. Host Italy received goals from Luigi Riva and Pietro Anastasi in a 2-0 defeat of Yugoslavia just two days later to claim the trophy.
West Germany emerged as an international power in the 1970s, with Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Muller leading a strong team that captured the European Championship in Belgium in 1972. The West Germans were among the favorites at the 1976 event, along with Johan Cruyff's Netherlands side and host Yugoslavia. All three made the semifinals in an outstanding tournament, but upstart Czechoslovakia surprised the favored Dutch in extra time in the semifinals and then battled Germany to a 2-2 scoreline after 120 minutes in the final. That resulted in the first-ever appearance of the penalty shootout in a major international tournament, with Antonin Panenka's lofted chip from the spot giving the Czechs the European Championship in dramatic fashion.
The success of the 1976 tournament led to calls for a more extensive final stage to be incorporated into the European Championship format, and UEFA revised the setup for the 1980 competition so that eight teams figured into the finals in Italy -- with the winners of pool play within two groups of four advancing to a championship match. The host nation also was automatically awarded a place in the finals stage for the first time in the event's history, but Italy was placed in a tough group featuring England, Spain and Belgium and settled for a spot in the third-place match (the last time that consolation match would be played in the competition's history). With no semifinals in place for this edition, group winners Belgium and West Germany battled for the trophy, and a late goal from Horst Hrubesch gave the Germans a 2-1 victory and a second European Championship title.
Semifinal matches returned for the 1984 tournament, where a strong France team led by Michel Platini played host to seven other squads that survived continental qualifying. Holders West Germany were eliminated after the group matches, as Spain and Portugal grabbed the top two spots in Group 2. The home side breezed through its three Group I matches, but then needed two goals in extra time for a come-from-behind win over Portugal in the semis. Platini notched the winner in that match and then scored his ninth goal of the tournament in France's 2-0 win over Spain in the final to give his country a first-ever European Championship crown.
The French then failed to qualify for the final stages of the 1988 tournament -- an indication of how tough the two-year long competition can be -- as another stylish side would re-emerge to claim its first European title. The West Germans as hosts were considered the favorites in 1988, and Franz Beckenbauer's side topped its group to meet the Netherlands in the semifinals. Featuring the AC Milan trio of Ruud Gullitt, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard, the Dutch were able to avenge a loss to the Germans in the World Cup Final 14 years earlier and win 2-1 to reach the title match against Russia. In the final, Gullitt gave the Netherlands an early lead before van Basten produced one of the more memorable goals in the competition's history to seal the victory. The striker's stunning volley off a lofted cross from a tight angle beat keeper Rinat Dasaev and provided the 2-0 scoreline that gave the Dutch the Delaunay Trophy.
The 1992 European Championship was affected by the ethnic wars within Yugoslavia, whose team was barred from competing just weeks before the final tournament began in Sweden. Denmark was awarded a spot in Yugoslavia's place, and the latecomers' win on the last day of group play earned them a semifinal berth. Denmark's surprise run continued after goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel played the hero in a penalty shootout with the Netherlands in the semifinals. Facing a favored Germany side -- competing as a unified nation for the first time -- in the title match, the Danes completed the storybook ending with a 2-0 upset to become unlikely champions.
As the number of eligible national teams rose during the 1990s -- mainly due to the breakup of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia -- UEFA expanded the continental competition's format for 1996, which began with 48 teams entered in eight qualifying groups prior to a final tournament stage that included 16 teams for the first time. Two teams from each final group of four advanced to the knockout stage, where a number of penalty shootouts decided matches. Host England advanced past Spain on penalties to reach the semifinals, but then succumbed to Germany in yet another shootout. The Czech Republic -- formed as its own national team after the split of Czechoslovakia four years earlier -- came out of a penalty shootout over France in the other semifinal to set up a final reminiscent of the 1976 title match. This time, the Germans prevailed, 2-1, after substitute Oliver Bierhoff scored the competition's first-ever "golden goal" in extra time.
A sudden-death winner also decided the 2000 European Championship, which featured finals co-hosts for the first time as Belgium and the Netherlands shared the honors. France finished second in its group to the Dutch, before star midfielder Zinedine Zidane scored in wins over Spain and Portugal to lead the French side into the final. Co-host Netherlands looked strong until missing two penalties in regulation and three in the shootout to fall to Italy in the semifinals. In its first final since 1968, Italy were minutes away from the title when Sylvain Wiltord equalized for France. And 13 minutes into extra time, forward David Trezeguet volleyed home to finish off the dramatic, come-from-behind win and give France the European Championship, two years after it captured a World Cup title.
Defending champion France was among a number of traditional powers aiming for the 2004 European Championship, but was eliminated at the quarterfinal stage by a defensive-minded Greece team. The determined Greeks then upset another favorite, the Czech Republic, via an extra-time goal by Traianos Dellas in the semifinals. With host Portugal providing the final hurdle for Otto Rehhagel's side, Angelos Charisteas' header from a corner kick was the lone goal as Greece claimed the title to complete one of the biggest shocks at a major international football competition.
The 2008 European Championship featured co-hosts in Austria and Switzerland, but neither made it out of the group stage as form held stronger than the event four years earlier. Spain and the Netherlands each won all three group stage matches and looked likely to meet in the semifinals until Russia scored twice in extra time to defeat the Dutch in the quarterfinals. Spain then blanked Russia, 3-0, to secure a berth in the final opposite traditional power Germany, who topped Portugal and Turkey by identical 3-2 scorelines to reach the title match. In the championship match for a sixth time, the Germans conceded a first-half goal to Fernando Torres, and Spain held on for a 1-0 victory to end the country's 44-year wait for an international trophy.
Contested every four years since, the UEFA European Championship has been showcasing the region's top talent and determining the continent's best team since 1960 (when it was known as the UEFA European Nations Cup). The format of the competition, which takes place over two years, consists of a qualifying phase, play-offs and a finals tournament.
Two nations -- Poland and Ukraine -- will co-host the finals tournament portion of the 2012 European Championship, and their teams receive automatic qualification into that final stage. The other 14 places in the 2012 finals will be determined by qualifying play within nine groups of teams, made up by the remaining 51 national associations governed by UEFA (and randomly drawn together). Within each group (of five or six teams), qualifying play includes home-and-away matches between each team.
Group winners -- along with the group runner-up holding the best record against the top five teams in its group -- progress automatically to the finals. The remaining eight second-place sides contest two-legged play-offs, with the victors earning berths to complete the lineup for the final tournament.
Teams were drawn into four groups of four for the finals of the "2012 Euros," held in Poland and Ukraine from June 8 to July 1, 2012. The top two teams based on round-robin play within each group advanced to the quarterfinals, which began the knockout phase of the finals that concluded with the championship final in Kyiv.
The format of four groups of four teams was used for the last time in the 2012 tournament. The competition format will change for the next edition in 2016 as the lineup of participants competing in the final tournament will be increased to 24 teams.
2012 UEFA EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIP
Qualifying Play-offs: November 2011
Finals Draw: Dec. 2, 2011
Finals: June 8 - July 1, 2012
2012 Champion: Spain
UEFA European Championship