International competitions like the World Cup and European Championship are almost second nature to us nowadays. But back in 1960, Europe had no organised tournament for the best teams on the continent to compete in; the World Cup was only a few editions old, but Europe was lagging behind. It took the creation of UEFA in 1954 to get the ball rolling and, six years later, the competition was born.
The birth of the European Championship has many people at its core, but no-one did more than Frenchman Henri Delaunay in getting it started. The idea of a pan-European football tournament was first proposed by Delauney, the general secretary of the French Football Federation (FFF), in 1927, but by the time the tournament was started in 1958 its founder had been dead for three years.
Delauney’s passion for football, both as a player and a referee, had seen him gain a prominent position within the FFF after his brief career on the pitch ended. In 1909 he was still in his 20s, but his vision of how he wanted the game to evolve was clear and he travelled extensively to talk to players, managers and administrators about his plans.
After Europe had been torn apart by the First World War, Delaunay submitted a proposal to FIFA in 1927, alongside the great Austrian manager 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.” The result was a competition to run at the same time as the Mitropa Cup. It would be called the Central European International Cup - the forerunner of the current European Championship – and would be played as a league on a home and away basis over a two-year period.
In 1930, Italy became the first European champions, beating Hungary 5-0. On the train journey home after winning the cup in Budapest, coach Vittorio Pozzo dropped the trophy, chipping a small part off it. As revealed on the History of Football DVD: “He took the small fragment, wrapped it up in some cotton wool and put it in his pocket. He brought the cup back to Italy, but nobody noticed the accident at first.”
Soon afterwards, Delaunay took charge of a high-profile meeting that ensured France would play at the inaugural World Cup in 1930, with fellow Europeans Romania, Yugoslavia and Belgium, in an otherwise South American-led competition to be held in Uruguay.
The hosts won the first edition, but France’s participation did wonders for the credibility of the world’s first intercontinental showpiece. By 1934, European interest had taken hold and Italy were chosen to take charge of the next edition. Under Pozzo, the Italians marched to glory - a glory that had its roots in the European Championship.
In his book, Pozzo later admitted that he considered that fragment of the first International Cup to have been a charm. He wrote: “Not for nothing, it brought me good luck. I needed to believe in something. It followed me to the 1934 World Cup, the 1936 Olympics and the 1938 World Cup.”
Pozzo’s success in bringing back-to-back World Cups ensured that Europe was firmly on the football match in the post-WWII years. The emergence of a genuine footballing superpower – the Honved of Hungary in the early 50s – gave rise to a new challenge from the East, and the changing political spectrum of the continent saw added pressure for a pan-European organisation to mirror that of CONMEBOL (which had managed unity back in 1916).
Ultimately, it was Delaunay’s pressure to organise Europe into a cohesive unit alongside the secretary general of the Italian Football Federation, Ottorino Barassi, and his Belgian counterpart, Jose Kraj, that made the difference. A meeting between the three in Zurich in 1953 cemented their ambition and, a year later, its foundations were laid in Berne.
The foundation of UEFA in 1954 marks a decisive break in the organisation of European football... The lead in creating a European football fiefdom was taken by the general secretary of the FFF, Henri Delauney, and his Italian and Belgian counterparts. A meeting was held in Berne in June 1954. The Greeks arrived late, but by the end of the day UEFA had been founded. Historian David Goldblatt writes in ‘The Ball is Round’
Laying out the plans for “a competition open to all of the European associations” in more detail after the meeting, Delaunay’s three-man committee was given the task of providing, according to UEFA.com, an event that “should not lead to an infinite number of matches. Nor should it harm the World Cup”, while “participants should not always be forced to meet the same opponents in the same group.”
Delaunay died in 1955, the year in which the European Cup was born. While his son Pierre strove for his father’s aim of initiating an international European Nations' Cup, the French journalists Gabriel Hanot and Jacques Ferran, from L’Equipe, put together plans for a club-based competition.
Spurred on by a famous win by Wolves over Honved on a saturated pitch in 1954, the Frenchmen’s ideas were given a warm welcome from European clubs – with the exception of the English, “whose attitude to European integration veered between uninterest and disdain,” according to Goldblatt, and the first match, between Sporting Lisbon and Partizan Belgrade, was played in September 1955.
With Real Madrid quickly establishing themselves as the best on the continent, the European Cup’s impact was felt elsewhere and, with a solid club base, attention could turn to the international game. Pierre Delaunay was appointed as the secretary of the European Nations' Cup organising committee, and was able to watch his father’s idea blossom.
Delaunay's native France was a natural choice for the first tournament - named the Henri Delaunay Cup - although interest was still not what it should have been and only a flurry of late applications ensured that there were over 16 nations (the minimum required) taking part.
Still, without the superpowers of Italy, West Germany and England, it felt as though something was changing. Athletic prowess was a defining ingredient in Communist thought and, through Western eyes, the Soviets signalled the beginnings of a new, more sinister, power rising from the East to replace the Hungarians of Puskas and co.
UEFA.com’s history of the 1960 finals recalls: “Built around a format of knockout home-and-away games until the semi-final stage, the competition finally became reality with the first match played at Moscow's Tsentralni Lenin Stadium on 29 September 1958. On that historic day, 100,572 people turned out to watch Anatoli Ilyin become the first scorer after just four minutes, as the USSR defeated Hungary 3-1 before advancing 4-1 on aggregate.”
The first match had been played, and the USSR would find themselves champions in July 1960 as Viktor Ponedelnik headed a goal in extra-time to hand them their first (and to date only) major trophy with a 2-1 win over Yugoslavia in Paris.
"There are matches and goals which are really special, sort of a climax of a player's sporting life," Ponedelnik said later. "That was the star moment of my life." Delaunay would have been proud.
What happened next? The competition continued to grow every four years and the name 'UEFA European Championship' was adopted in 1968, the same year that saw knock-out preliminaries replaced by the modern qualifying round. From 1980, eight teams competed in the final tournament as opposed to the previous four; in 1996, it expanded to 16 teams; and in 2016 the competition will increase to 24 teams for the first time.