By Andrew Haslam
The international football calendar in 2003 was dominated by the culmination of the qualifying campaign for UEFA EURO 2004™, which came to a head in October and November.
Ten automatic qualifiers
The ten automatic qualifiers, who would join host nation Portugal in next summer's finals tournament, were finalised on 11 October, although a number of countries cleared their paths to Portugal with games to spare.
Games to spare
Holders France sealed their place at the top of Group 1 with a 2-0 win against Slovenia on 10 September, while the Czech Republic held off the Netherlands in Group 3 thanks to a 3-1 win against the Dutch in Prague the same night.
Sweden and Bulgaria also confirmed their status as section winners on 10 September, with the Scandinavian side wrapping up Group 4 with a 2-0 win in Poland and Plamen Markov's side brushing aside Andorra 3-0 to give themselves an unassailable lead at the top of Group 8.
Big names through
The remaining six automatic berths were decided on the final day of qualification. Italy defeated Azerbaijan to win Group 9, while Germany secured first place in Group 5 with a 3-0 home win over Iceland. England held out for a goalless draw in Istanbul to condemn Turkey to second place in Group 7, while Denmark won Group 2 with a narrow 1-0 win against Bosnia-Herzegovina. In Group 10, Switzerland defeated the Republic of Ireland to clinch the section, and a 1-0 win against Northern Ireland meant Greece won Group 6.
Underdogs have their day
The play-offs for the final tournament took place in mid-November, and the first legs gave a number of underdogs hope of causing upsets. Latvia defeated Turkey 1-0 in Riga, while Scotland won against the Netherlands by the same scoreline. Spain were narrow 2-1 winners at home to Norway, while Croatia and neighbours Slovenia drew 1-1 in Zagreb and Wales kept alive their hopes of reaching their first major finals since 1958 with a scoreless draw in Russia.
However, with one notable exception, the dreams of the smaller nations were ended in the second legs. The Netherlands crushed Scotland 6-0 in Amsterdam, while Spain won 3-0 in Norway. A goal from Russia's Vadim Evseev knocked Wales out, while Croatia's Dado Pršo scored the only goal of the second leg in Slovenia.
The night's one upset came in Istanbul, as Latvia recovered from two goals down to draw 2-2 with Turkey and reach their first major finals as an independent nation, with Jurijs Laizans and Maris Verpakovskis the goalscoring heroes.
Confederations Cup tragedy
Elsewhere, there was more success for France as they claimed the 2003 FIFA Confederations Cup with a 1-0 victory against Cameroon, but their triumph was overshadowed by the death of Marc-Vivien Foé during the African side's semi-final win against Colombia. Turkey finished third, winning 2-1 against the Colombians having earlier eliminated world champions Brazil.
Special mention must also go to the Czech Republic, the only European nation to go unbeaten in 2003, with their 5-1 friendly victory against Canada in November extending their undefeated run to 19 games since January 2002.
UEFA EURO 2004™ final round participants:
Click here for a full EURO 2004™ match schedule
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