Henri Delaunay's vision
How the European soccer championship grew from humble beginnings into one of the biggest tournaments in the worldBy John F. Molinaro, CBCSports.ca
What a sad irony it is that after years of fighting to establish a European soccer championship, Henri Delaunay never saw his dream come to its inevitable and remarkable fruition.
While attending a FIFA meeting in 1927, Delaunay, general secretary of the French soccer federation, first presented his idea for a tournament featuring Europe's top nations. The suggestion wasn't given much consideration by the FIFA delegates and was unceremoniously dismissed, and Delaunay's prophetic vision of a European championship was shelved for close to three decades.
Henri Delaunay was the driving force behind the creation of the European soccer championship. (AFP/Getty Images)
Delaunay's dream started to take shape in 1954 when UEFA (Unions of European Football Associations), soccer's governing body in Europe, was formed. UEFA began to give Delaunay's idea serious thought for the first time. Unfortunately, the Frenchman died in 1955, two years before UEFA approved his proposal.
UEFA invited 30 nations to compete in the first tournament (close to half of the invitees declined), which began with a series of qualifying matches in 1958. A two-year qualifying process whittled the field to four teams and in 1960, more than three decades after the birth of Delaunay's proposal, the inaugural European Nations Cup was staged in France.
The Soviet Union defeated Yugoslavia on a rainy day in Paris in the final in extra time and was crowned the first champion of Europe, hoisting the championship trophy that was named in Delaunay's honour.
From its conception by a man with great vision to its humble beginning as the European Nations Cup, the European championship — better known as Euro — has grown into one of the most important and prestigious soccer tournaments in the world, second only to the World Cup.
Parity separates crème de la crème
What makes Euro the crème de la crème of soccer tournaments is its parity. While only four or five contenders really have a chance of winning the World Cup every four years, half of the teams at Euro have a serious shot at walking away with the crown.
With 16 of the best European nations convening in one place every four years, the case for Euro being international soccer's best tournament is a strong one. But it wasn't always so.
The English, Italians and West Germans were so uninterested in the idea of a European championship that they didn't participate in the inaugural tournament. The first European Nations Cup only saw 17 nations take part and the competition bore little resemblance to the major sporting spectacle it is today.
Qualification involved teams playing in a two-game, home-and-away series, with only the semifinals and final played in the host nation of France. Cold War politics marred the 1960 event, as the Soviet Union was drawn against Spain in the quarter-finals and Spanish dictator General Franco barred the Soviets from entering his country to play the away-half of the two-legged playoff, forcing Spain to forfeit the match.
The Soviet Union went on to become the first champions of Europe, but in 1964, the Spaniards gained revenge by defeating the Soviets in the final in Madrid.
By 1968, the European Nations Cup had established itself as one of the biggest events on the soccer calendar. With more nations participating than in the previous two tournaments, the 1968 version saw teams competing in a mini-league system during the qualifying rounds, with the four winners converging in Italy for the semifinals and final. A young Dino Zoff led the Azzurri to victory over Yugoslavia in the finals, after beating the Soviet Union via a coin toss (their semifinal encounter failed to produce a winner during extra time).
West Germany dominates soccer
The renamed European Championships in 1972 staged in Belgium saw the rise of the powerful West German side that dominated soccer for the rest of the decade. Thanks to the efforts of Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Müller, the Germans rolled to an easy 3-0 win over the Soviets in the final.
Vying for their second consecutive European title, Germany was upended by Czechoslovakia in the 1976 final in Belgrade, losing 5-3 in a penalty shootout.
Italy staged Euro a second time in 1980, marking the modern era of the tournament.
Michel Platini led France to victory on home soil at Euro '84. (AllSport/UK Images)
UEFA decided to widen the field from four to eight teams to play in the finals. After a gruelling qualifying round, eight teams divided into two groups of four battled it out for European supremacy, with the winner of each group advancing to the final. The Germans claimed the championship for a second time, beating Belgium in Rome.
The tournament returned to French soil in 1984 with yet another format: two groups of four teams with the top two in each group advancing to the semifinals. French midfield maestro Michel Platini put in the single greatest tournament performance in Euro history, scoring nine goals in five games to lead France to a 2-0 win over Spain in the final.
Germany staged Euro '88 and looked a certain bet to win its third European crown before running into the indomitable Marco van Basten and the Netherlands in the semifinals. The Dutch disposed of their gracious hosts before dispatching the Soviet Union in due course in the final thanks to a brilliant effort from van Basten.
Denmark stunned the soccer world at Euro '92 in Sweden when they miraculously — inconceivably! — won the tournament after being called into action at the last minute when UEFA barred Yugoslavia over security reasons.
Euro '96 saw the tournament take its current form: four groups of four teams in the finals with the top two sides in each group advancing to the knockout stage. Soccer returned home to England, the nation where it was born, but the championship went to Germany after striker Oliver Bierhoff scored a golden goal in the final against the Czech Republic at Wembley Stadium.
Four years later, Belgium and the Netherlands co-hosted the event that saw another golden moment in the final. French striker David Trezeguet netted the golden goal in the 103rd minute to sink Italy and give France its second European championship.
Four years ago, it was rank outsider Greece — an 80-1 longshot at the start of the tournament — that defied the odds and posted upset victories over host Portugal (twice), France and the Czech Republic en route to being crowned champions of Europe.
All of which sets the stage for Euro 2008 in Austria and Switzerland, where the next European champion will be crowned.
Will the Germans claim a record fourth European title? Will world champions Italy add a second European championship to its impressive resume of accomplishments? Will Greece defy the odds yet again?
At this point, no one knows for sure. But what we can be certain of is that soccer's biggest stars will take millions of fans around the world on a three-week joyride.
And they have one man to thank.
Merci, Monsieur Delaunay.