Spain will begin UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying in high spirits as both reigning champions and recently crowned FIFA World Cup holders, but if they are to triumph in Poland and Ukraine, they must perform an unprecedented feat.
While there has been a successful title defence in every other existing UEFA national-team championship – three for men, three for women plus one for futsal – no country has triumphed in the flagship tournament twice in succession. In fact, by the time the 2012 final is played in Kyiv it will be 36 years since the previous occasion the holders even made it that far.
The first attempt to retain the European title was nearly a success. Having won the inaugural 1960 edition, the Soviet Union travelled to Spain four years later and reached the final, only to lose 2-1 to the hosts with a goal six minutes from time. As holders, Spain themselves and then Italy, the 1968 champions, missed out on the following four-team final tournament after suffering two-legged quarter-final defeats.
In 1974, West Germany became the first team to win a FIFA World Cup as European champions – a feat Spain matched in South Africa – and came agonisingly close to making it three major tournament triumphs in a row two years later. They reached the 1976 final in Belgrade without losing a game – and with Spain among their victims – but a 2-2 draw with Czechoslovakia precipitated the first penalty shoot-out on such an occasion and famously Uli Hoeness missed before Antonín Panenka's chip went into history.
After that edition the final tournament was expanded to eight teams, and the fortunes of the holders dipped further. Czechoslovakia were second in their group in 1980, but unlike in later competitions that only took them into a third-place play-off. Four years later West Germany fell in the group stage and after their brilliant 1984 win, France did not even qualify in 1988.
The Netherlands had high hopes of keeping the title in 1992, but as with West Germany 16 years earlier, a penalty shoot-out did for them, Denmark winning the countries' semi-final. And in the four 16-team final tournaments from 1996, only once – with France in 2004 – have the holders even progressed from their group. Indeed, last time out Greece departed without a point.
This is a uniquely European phenomenon with other senior continental competitions featuring at least one successful defence at some point – in fact the same team triumphed at the first two editions of the CONMEBOL Copa América (Uruguay), CAF Africa Cup of Nations (Egypt) and AFC Asia Cup (Korea Republic).
Spain can at least take some comfort from the record of the six previous World Cup holders who entered the UEFA European Championship. France, most notably, won in 2000 to follow on from their World Cup win two years before, while Germany reached the 1976 and 1992 finals and England achieved a third-place finish in 1968 that remains their best performance. Only Italy's 1984 non-qualification stands out as a failure – two years ago they fell in the quarter-finals but a penalty shoot-out defeat by Spain can be said, in the light of how La Roja have fared since, to be no disgrace.
|UEFA European Championship title defences|
|Year||Winners||How they fared next time|
|1980||West Germany||Group stage|
|1984||France||Did not qualify|
*Two-legged qualifier for four-team final tournament
|FIFA World Cup holders at subsequent UEFA European Championship|
|World Cup/EURO||World champions||How they fared at EURO|
|1982/1984||Italy||Did not qualify|
**Won 1990 World Cup as West Germany, entered EURO '92 as Germany
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