With 53 countries set to learn on Sunday what path they must tread to reach UEFA EURO 2016 in France, UEFA.com casts its eye back over the UEFA European Championship's inception.
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The UEFA European Championship is one of the world's biggest sporting events, although the competition's genesis was more difficult than might be expected.
Championships for national associations had already begun in other continents by the time the concept of a corresponding European competition began to reach fruition in the 1950s. When UEFA was born in 1954 the impetus for a European championship was coming from the distinguished French sports newspaper L'Equipe, which proposed a competition with home and away matches to be played in midweek in the evening. Adding to the French drive for such a tournament was Henri Delaunay, first UEFA general secretary and former French Football Federation (FFF) general secretary.
In 1927, Delaunay had already submitted a proposal to FIFA, in conjunction with the great Austrian official Hugo Meisl, for the creation of a European cup, to run concurrently with the World Cup, which would involve a qualifying competition every two years. Delaunay wrote after UEFA's inaugural Basel assembly in 1954 that the idea was for a competition open to all European associations. A three-member committee, he said, had been entrusted with examining this difficult problem. Delaunay insisted that this competition should not lead to an infinite number of matches. Nor should it harm the World Cup, and participants should not always be forced to meet the same opponents in the same group.
Following Delaunay's death in 1955, his son Pierre joined the French journalists in the drive towards initiating the European Nations' Cup. Pierre Delaunay was subsequently appointed secretary of the European Nations' Cup Organising Committee, and was therefore able to observe at close quarters the blossoming of the competition that his father had wanted. After agreement had been reached that the championship would be founded, the new competition was named the Henri Delaunay Cup in recognition of his outstanding services in the cause of European football.
The inaugural tournament was entered by around half of UEFA's member associations, 17 in total, and one more than the minimum required. The Republic of Ireland were then eliminated by Czechoslovakia in a qualifying play-off (the two teams met after the drawing of lots). The first championship match proper was held on 28 September 1958 in Moscow's Central Stadium – the USSR beating Hungary 3-1, with the home side's Anatoli Ilyin scoring the first goal after four minutes – and the inaugural competition took place over 22 months between 1958 and 1960. From small acorns do great oaks rise.