The European Football Championship is now a major worldwide sporting attraction. Here, we look at how the EURO, as it has become known, took shape and took flight in the 1950s.
Article top media content
The European Football Championship is now a major worldwide sporting attraction. And it was in June 1958 that the illustrious and prestigious competition was born. Here, we look at how the EURO, as it has become known, took shape and took flight in the 1950s.
The idea of a European competition for national teams had already been mooted years previously by Frenchman Henri Delaunay, who became UEFA's first general secretary when the organisation was founded in June 1954. In 1927, Delaunay was involved, along with eminent Austrian football administrator Hugo Meisl, in submitting a proposal to the world football body, FIFA, for the creation of a European national team cup.
Delaunay's dream would take 30 years to reach fruition, but it was clear that a key early UEFA objective was to create such a national team competition – it was even written into the first UEFA Statutes, the overriding feeling being that a continental confederation of FIFA should have its own national team competition. In the autumn of 1954, UEFA set up a subcommittee to consider draft regulations. Its work eventually led to the presentation of a proposal at UEFA's inaugural Congress in Vienna in March 1955. That proposal involved splitting the competition into two phases, with a knockout phase in the season before the FIFA World Cup and a final tournament in a single country the following season. To prevent fixture congestion, the proposed new competition would also serve as the European qualifying competition for the World Cup.
Initial signals from FIFA, which had to authorise such a competition, were, however, reticent. Its general secretary at that time, Kurt Gassmann, wrote to UEFA saying that he did "not entirely agree with the ideas that were presented concerning a UEFA competition and the qualifying competition for the 1958 World Cup". Gassmann felt that the proposal went against FIFA's interests and that staging the final phase of a European competition in the same year as the World Cup finals would present unwelcome competition for the FIFA tournament and threaten crucial FIFA revenue. His suggestion was that the European competition's knockout phase should take place two years before the World Cup finals and that the final tournament should be staged one year ahead of the FIFA finals. It would also be advisable, Gassmann reflected, "to separate the knockout stage of the European competition from the preliminary stage of the FIFA competition."
Consequently, the Vienna Congress sent the idea – deemed "premature" – back to the UEFA subcommittee's drawing board. A revamped proposal avoided clashes with the World Cup finals, and the group-stage idea was jettisoned for a direct knockout format to prevent overloading the calendar.
Opposition to the idea remained. Clubs were consulted, and they were reluctant to release players for an increased number of national team matches. The project was postponed again at the Lisbon and Copenhagen Congresses in 1956 and 1957, and was put on the agenda for the next Congress in Stockholm in June 1958. However, in 1957, supporters of the project had won a vote by 15 to 7, with four abstentions and one blank ballot paper. The debate at the Congress in the Swedish capital on 4 June 1958 was intense. The Congress minutes record that the Italian FA president, Ottorino Barassi, "did not consider the creation of this competition as desirable, as it would restrict the international calendar and risked exciting national passions." West Germany said it was inappropriate to create a competition without regulations having been submitted to the Congress. Nevertheless, a majority of the delegates present at the Stockholm Congress came out in favour of launching the competition.
UEFA's first president, Denmark's Ebbe Schwartz, asked the subcommittee to rediscuss the project during the Congress lunch break, suggesting that the start of the competition be put back to 1959 – an idea that the subcommittee did not wholly endorse. There were calls from delegates for the 31 UEFA member associations at the time to be given the opportunity to re-examine the project. At the start of the afternoon session, however, the UEFA president ended the toing-and-froing conclusively, declaring, according to the Congress minutes, that "the draw would take place on Friday 6 June", before moving on with the agenda.
It had been a long and difficult birth, but it was now 'full steam ahead', and the draw duly took place at the Foresta Hotel in Stockholm two days after the Congress. There were 17 entrants for the inaugural competition – Austria, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, East Germany, France, Greece, Hungary, Norway, Poland, Portugal, the Republic of Ireland, Romania, Spain, Turkey, the USSR and Yugoslavia. And there were three notable absentees – England, Italy and West Germany.
The first official match in the European Nations' Cup, as it was called, took place on 28 September 1958, when the USSR met Hungary at Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium. The hosts won a round of 16 match 3-1 in front of 100,572 fans (a subsequent preliminary match – drawn by lots to decide the two teams to play it – saw Czechoslovakia emerge victorious against the Republic of Ireland over two legs to create the 16-team knockout field). Anatoli Ilyin scored the first-ever EURO goal for the USSR after just four minutes.
Delaunay's dream comes true
Sadly, Henri Delaunay would never see his dream become reality. He had passed away on 9 November 1955, and was succeeded as UEFA general secretary by his son Pierre, who continued to staunchly champion his father's idea until it was given the green light. In recognition of Henri Delaunay's role in the creation of the new competition, the trophy – provided by the French Football Federation – was named after him.
Pierre Delaunay was optimistic for the future of the competition. "It can be expected," he wrote in the Official UEFA Bulletin in September 1958, "that, allowing for the experience gained from this first edition ... the number of nations will be greater in 1962." His optimism was not misguided – 29 associations entered the second EURO, staged from 1962 to 1964.
The inaugural competition concluded with a final tournament in France in July 1960, featuring four teams – the hosts, Czechoslovakia, the USSR and Yugoslavia. The USSR triumphed by the odd goal in three after extra time in the final against Yugoslavia at the Parc des Princes. From small acorns do large oaks grow – and the stage was set for the development of a competition that has graduated, over six memorable decades, into one of the biggest and most popular sporting events in the world.