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The long road to the first European Championship

UEFA Euro 2016

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As early as 1926 four countries proposed to hold a European Cup for nations –but it took until 1960 for the first winners of the UEFA competition for nations to be crowned. The Soviet Union defeated Yugoslavia 2-1. The European Championship triggered enthusiasm all over Europe. Four years later Spain won at the Bernabeu – in front of 105,000 fans. The success story of the European Championships had begun. 

The sport of football has increased rapidly in pace, not only on the pitch. Administration was to say the least leisurely more than a hundred years ago. At the beginning of the 20th century it took fully 25 years before plans for a World Cup were implemented by the International Football Association (FIFA). As early as 1905 it was discussed for the first time to introduce a world tournament for national teams. But it was 1930 before these plans came to fruition. The first World Cup under the direction of FIFA took place in Uruguay. Four years previously the European countries of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Italy and Austria had made an approach suggesting a European Cup. FIFA slowed this proposal down by seizing the initiative to finally introduce the World Cup – this was helped along, however, by the increased importance of the football tournaments at the Olympic Games. FIFA did not want to leave the International Olympic Committee (IOC) with the sole responsibility for the world’s most successful international football tournament. But even today football still enjoys great importance at the Olympics, attracting by far the highest attendance at Summer Games.

Europe thus played a major part in creating the World Cup. But it took another 30 years for the inauguration of a European Championship. A tournament was held in 1960 which is considered the precursor of the European Championship. The European Football Association (UEFA) was founded in 1954, with its first congress taking place in Vienna in 1955. After the Second World War the “Idea Europe” had many supporters, propelled by political developments. The will for a European unification, culminating in the ratification of the Treaty of Rome on March 25, 1957, grew during the second half of the 1950s. This agreement became the basis of the European Union.

The French pressed ahead with European Championship plans 

At football level the introduction of the European Cup of Champions, initiated by the Paris sports paper “L’Equipe”, was agreed in May 1955. The first match took place on September 4 that year. The project of a European Championship for national teams was put on hold, however. Consideration for FIFA and its World Cup played an important role – a situation which still prevails today. The argument was that top players could be overstrained by too many matches.

In 1955 representatives of European Football with UEFA President Ebbe Schwartz (outside left) and Henri Delaunay (outside right) introduce a Championship for Nations. (Photo: Getty Images)


The idea of a European Championship was put on ice, but only for a short period. FIFA needed 25 years to get their World Cup up and running, while UEFA took just five years until their first championship final. The first draw was held during the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, with 17 countries confirming their participation. As at the beginning of the FIFA World Cup, some great football countries held back. Italy, the Federal Republic of Germany, England and the other British associations did not compete. The first match kicked-off in Moscow between the USSR and Hungary on September 28, 1958. It was a round of sixteen first leg game. The Soviets won 3-1 and were also victorious 1-0 in the second leg. The competition then was named the “European Cup of Nations”, also the “UEFA Competition for Nations”. The first two events, culminating in the finals of 1960 and 1964, retained an almost unofficial character but were considered European Championships – especially by UEFA.

The first European  Championship final took place in Paris at 21:30hrs on July 10, 1960: The team of  the Soviet Union defeated Yugoslavia 2-1 after extra  time. (Photo: Getty Images)

The Frenchman Henri Delaunay (1883-1955) was Secretary General of UEFA. The trophy for the victors of the European Football Championship bears his name. (Photo: Getty Images)


The precursor to the European Championship was known as the “Henri Delaunay Cup”, in appreciation of the merits of the co-founder. Delaunay, who was born in 1919 and died in 1955, was the first Secretary General of UEFA. When he died, his son Pierre succeeded him. The French were already a driving force in high-performance sports. Their initiatives led to the European Cup competitions in football, the Tour de France in cycling, and without this French push the European Championships would have been inaugurated much later. The first President of UEFA was, however, a Dane, Ebbe Schwartz (1954-1962).


Participation and spectator boom

The final round of the first European Championship was held in France on July 6-10, 1960. Marseille and Paris were the venues for the two semi-finals, the match for third place and the final, which the Soviet Union won 2-1 after extra time against Yugoslavia in front of 18,000 spectators at the Parc des Princes on July 10. 

Hosts Spain won the final of the second European Championship against the 1960 title holders USSR  at Bernabeu Stadium in Madrid on June 21, 1964. (Photo: Imago)


For the next European Championship 29 countries entered. Italy, England and the other British associations took part. The Federal Republic of Germany still contained itself, contrary to the German Democratic Republic. The final rounds were played in Spain on July 17-21, 1964, in Madrid and Barcelona. In front of 105,000 spectators Spain dispossessed the Soviet Union of their title with a 2-1 victory in the final at the Bernabeu Stadium.

Afterwards the European Championship gained considerable momentum. (See second and third parts of the European Championship History).