The success of the 1976 UEFA European Championship fed the clamour for more places at the final tournament, and UEFA responded by doubling the number of participants as the competition returned to Italy for a second time.
With eight teams now involved instead of four, the hopefuls were divided into two groups, from which the winners were to advance directly to the final. In another change to procedure, one of those eight places went automatically to Vincenzo Bearzot's hosts, but without suspended striker Paolo Rossi they faced an uphill struggle in a section also featuring England, Belgium and Spain.
If little was expected of Spain, England had stormed through qualifying and possessed a world-class striker in 1978 and 1979 European Footballer of the Year, Kevin Keegan. The Hamburger SV ace was unable to find the target, however, and after opening with a 1-1 draw against Belgium, England’s ambitions evaporated with a 1-0 loss to Italy. Italy had kicked off with a goalless draw against Spain, and they too crashed out after being held to the same scoreline by Belgium, who were suddenly through to their first major final thanks to a fine squad and excellent coaching from Guy Thys.
In the other half of the draw, West Germany had voyaged south with a revitalised team driven by Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and 20-year-old Bernd Schuster. A playmaker in the Günter Netzer mould, Schuster had few equals in world football at the time. "I don't think I have ever seen such a perfect player," enthused team-mate Horst Hrubesch. "Bernd was the outstanding player in the team. He connected the whole thing."
The Germans began by gaining revenge on Czechoslovakia, who had beaten them in the 1976 final, and made sure of a berth in the final with an equally satisfying 3-2 success against rivals the Netherlands. Two late Dutch goals almost cancelled out a hat-trick from Klaus Allofs, but Jupp Derwall's side held on before completing the group phase by drawing 0-0 with Greece.
With no semi-finals under the new format, the next match brought together Italy and the Czechs to decide third place. It was the holders who prevailed, reasserting their penalty shoot-out prowess after a disappointing contest ended 1-1. That proved to be the last time the third-place play-off was ever held.
Fortunately, the final itself provided more entertainment despite the much-fancied Germans taking an early lead when Hrubesch fired home after ten minutes. Second-half pressure resulted in a penalty for Belgium, which René Vandereycken dispatched, but just as in 1976 West Germany scored late on – and this time it was the winner. Hrubesch, who was only in the side because of Klaus Fischer’s broken leg, was the hero again as he headed in Rummenigge's corner to reclaim the European crown.
©UEFA.com 1998-2011. All rights reserved.