Host nations: Holland and Belgium
An experiment in sharing a tournament which was a success both on and off the field, its conclusion was as thrilling as almost any final could wish to be. And in France, it found a side that were as worthy winners as the West Germans of 1972 and Les Bleus of 1984.
The highlight of the qualifiers would be England's play-off with Scotland after both had stuttered through their groups. Two Paul Scholes goals put England in the driving seat in Glasgow before the return at Wembley saw England, coached by Kevin Keegan, give a horror show and come within a whisker of exit after Don Hutchison's goal and a sterling Scottish effort.
England, heavily fancied by Keegan at least, were joined by the French, then World champs, the Czechs, who had won all their qualifier as had the Danes. It was to be Slovenia's chance to be at the championships for the first time at the expense of the highly-rated Ukraine.
Keegan's team got off to a flier against the Portugese, then approaching their peak. Early goals from Scholes and McManaman had England two goals up. But the attacking nature of Keegan's approach backfired as the defence was swamped. Luis Figo beat two players and smashed a shot at goal. It came off Tony Adams and Seaman was unable to reach it. With 68 minutes to play, the pressure now lay on England. João Pinto's equaliser and Nuno Gomes' winner were just rewards for Portugal who picked England apart with their passing game.
The Germans, so poor at France '98, had a point to prove but could only get a point from Romania. So England and Germany were rejoined in battle. And the game did resemble some form of attritional battle. It was almost without any merit save for David Beckham's drifted cross and Alan Shearer's header. Some poor German finishing saw England home in a game to forget for all save its result.
Few except their supporters would be unhappy to see the exits of both sides when they came. Germany were crushed by a Portugal's second XI fielded because they had already qualified. Sergo Conceição grabbed a hat-trick as the Germans went home under a storm of ridicule.
So too England, who led Romania and were hanging on for dear life after Dorinel Munteanu had scored an equaliser. Wave on wave of Romanian attack came before the inevitable happened and Phil Neville became the latest fall-guy as his clumsy trip on Moldovan handed the Romanians the chance to go through. Ganea stroked home the penalty and with a minute to go England were out.
The most intriguing group was that which featured France and hosts Holland. France had breezed past Denmark and got a deserved win over the Czechs to be sure of a place in the last eight while Holland had beaten the Czechs only in the last minute before similarly sweeping aside the Danes. The game between the two was something of an exhibition but an exciting one as both sides attacked freely. A Boudewijn Zenden won the match and secured the Dutch the easier tie in the quarters.
France would have to face the Spanish, who had steered their way through a rollercoaster group. An early defeat to Norway had put them in trouble though they managed to beat the Slovenes, who had been involved in a thriller with Yugoslavia. Slovenia had been 3-0 up and a man up as Sinisa Mihajlovic had done his usual trick of being dismissed at an important moment. But two goals from Savo Milosevic and one from Ljubinko Drulovic was enough to win a point.
After Norway's stultifying football was seen off by another Milosevic goal, it seemed that Spain's game with the Yugoslavs would be a group decider. In the event, it wasn't.
But it was a miraculous match, ebbing and flowing with the Yugoslavs taking charge and leading right until time added on. But then a penalty for a foul on Abelardo was awarded for Mendieta to stroke home. And then, with time ticking on for Spain, their hopes ticking away, Alfonso forced home a knock-down to win a game in the most dramatic fashion. Spain were through, and so too, after a numbing wait on the pitch, were Yugoslavia after Norway were held by Slovenia.
While Holland had made it through, their co-hosts fell at the first hurdle. Goalkeeper Filip De Wilde bore much of the blame. His error in the opening win over the Swedes was a portent. Italy were too good for them in the next game but then against Turkey, De Wilde erred twice as he was outjumped by Hakan Sukur and then sent off for a foul on Arif after Sukur had put the Turks through. Italy, who won every game finished Swedish hopes.
And in the next round they would end the international career of Gheorge Hagi, who self-destructed after goals from Francesco Totti and Filippo Inzaghi had ended the game as a contest. Hagi fouled Antonio Conte and then just six minutes later made a blatant dive for a penalty. Both were bookable offences and he left the field and football under a cloud.
The remaining co-hosts ended the career of Yugoslav legend Dragan Stojkovic. Holland were rampant as Patrick Kluivert scored a hat-trick in a 6-1 win. The Orange nation was in its full glory. It seemed as though Frank Rijkaard's side were headed for glory. But in their way would be Italy's brick wall of a defence.
Both France and Portugal continued their expected progress. A Nuno Gomes brace saw off the Turks in a comprehensive win. French progress was not so serene. Zidane and Djorkaeff goals had put them ahead of the Spanish, for whom Mendieta had scored one of his trademark penalties.
And when Abelardo won a penalty, just as he had against Yugoslavia, the Spanish could have done with Mendieta again. But he had been subbed and so stepped up Real Madrid golden boy Raul. With just a couple of minutes to go, he blazed over. France had made it. Not for the last time in the competition it was by the skin of their teeth.
The semi-finals were both dramatic. Holland, now surpassing England for fear of the spot-kick, had the game with Italy in their grasp many times but still the host nations exited in a climax that saw coach Rijkaard break into very public tears.
Both Frank De Boer and Patrick Kluivert missed normal time penalties while Italy also had the disadvantage of losing red-carded Gianluca Zambrotta on 34 minutes. Francesco Toldo was Italy's hero in a superb rearguard effort from the azzurri. Extra-time's tension turned into the purgatory of the shoot-out.
Italy were clinical with their first three but De Boer, bravely considering his earlier miss, missed again. Then Jaap Stam drilled a kick of incredible power over the bar. The ball is still perhaps to land. When Maldini missed with the scores at 3-1, there was a glimmer of hope for the Dutch but Toldo, the keeper of the tournament, saved.
The penalty-spot was also key in the other semi. A goal from Thierry Henry, rediscovering the form of early tournament, levelled an early Nuno Gomes strike and the game went into the now customary extra-time.
Both sides had chances before substitute Sylvain Wiltord passed over from the right of the Portugese penalty area. Defender Abel Xavier deflected the ball away with his hand and threw himself laughably to the ground as if to prove it hadn't hit his hand. It had.
And referee Günter Benkö was right to point to the spot. What was wrong was the Portugese protest. Gomes was sent off and Pinto and Xavier eventually received long bans for their part in the rumpus. Figo too all but walked off.
Zidane, who had been by far the best player in the tournament with his range of skills bewitching everyone, stepped up to steer his penalty past Vitor Baia and place France in their rightful place in the final.
And the drama wasn't done. The final saw Italy reject much of their defensive game to mount a series of attacks before being pegged back by the attacking of Henry and Zidane and Toldo made a couple of his trademark great saves before the break.
Alessandro Del Piero's introduction brought new Italian impetus and they carved open the French defence to score in the 55th minute from close range through Marco Delvecchio. When Del Piero missed another chance four minutes later, the game could have been up. France coach Roger Lemerre threw on attacking subs in Sylvain Wiltord, Robert Pires and David Trezeguet as Toldo seemed sure to keep out the French.
But then the Italian brick wall collapsed as Wiltord, in the 90th minute, stole away to equalise past Toldo. Italy were broken, France's tails were up and the Golden Goal looked to be set for just one side, though Del Piero's lack of awareness did cost him a scoring chance. Zidane began to come into his own and he sent Pires down the left past an achingly tired Italian defence. He slotted the ball across and Trezeguet crashed first-time into the net with two minutes of first half extra-time remaining.
The World Champions were now Europeans champions. They had achieved it in the most dramatic way possible.