If the 1968 tournament was one of firsts, it was the 1972 campaign in Belgium which introduced the dominant force in European football for the next two and a half decades.
The qualifying campaign was the largest yet, with 32 teams taking part in the race for the final tournament.
Holders Italy comfortably negotiated a group which included Ireland, Sweden and Austria, while 1968’s defeated finalists Yugoslavia topped a group which included the Netherlands, East Germany and Luxembourg. While the Netherlands didn’t make the finals themselves, there were signs of things to come as they scored 18 goals in six games and began to showcase the talents of one Johan Cruyff.
Romania, Hungary, the Soviet Union and West Germany also won their groups, with the latter coming through their qualification group unbeaten. A 25-year-old striker by the name of Gerd Muller caught the eye in particular, scoring six goals in six qualification games.
England easily passed through a group which contained Malta, Greece and Switzerland, while Scotland summed up their frustrating unpredictability. In a group which contained Belgium, Portugal and Denmark, Scotland won all their matches at Hampden and Pittodrie but lost all of their matches away from home. Still, there can’t have been many Scotland groups which contained the likes of Finn Laudrup and Eusabio.
Indeed, qualification in the early years of the European Championships was far more awkward than it is in the modern game. Taking a point away from home was a hugely significant result, even for the most talented of teams. During the qualification for the 1972 Championships there were 96 matches played. Of those, only 27 were won by the travelling team (28%). In the qualification for the Euro 2012 tournament that figure was 79 of the 240 games (33%). The cliché goes that there are no easy games at international level. That is not as true as it once was.
There were a series of rivalries rekindled in the playoffs. Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union had their tensions on and off the pitch, but it was the latter who qualified for the finals, with the USSR defeating the Yugoslavs 3-0 on aggregate. Uli Hoeness inspired West Germany to a 3-1 win over the English team which had defeated them in the World Cup final six years previously.
Romania and Hungary played out a Danube derby, with the Romanians feeling blue, losing 2-1 in a third match after a 1-1 and a 2-2 draw. Much was expected of the Hungary side, which was made up of many of the players which had won a gold medal at the 1968 Olympics. Indeed, the Hungarian team would go on to win a silver medal at the Munich games in 1972.
The final match of qualification was between reigning champions Italy and upstarts, Belgium. The latter had developed a strong, defensive style and could call on five of the successful Anderlecht team which would go on to great success in the mid-70s. The first leg was an uneventful 0-0 draw, with neither side playing particularly adventurous football. A fortnight later in Brussels and Belgium took a two goal lead through Wilfried Van Moer and Paul Van Himst. A Luigi Riva consolation was not enough for the Italians.
In 1971 West Germany had decided to give the captaincy to 25-year-old Franz Beckenbauer. He led a team of relatively youthful, powerful athletes, who were largely based around the two biggest clubs in the country, Bayern Munich and Borussia Monchengladbach. Of the 18 players who took part in the 1972 competition, 13 came from the two clubs. Only two of the squad were over the age of 27, with a 20-year-old Paul Breitner, Rainer Bonhof and Uli Hoeness all breaking through together.
Arguably the most important piece of the entire team was Gerd Muller, arguably the most compete striker Europe has ever produced. In the pre-war days it wasn’t uncommon for a goalscorer to regularly maintain a record better than a goal every game. Even in the 50s and early 60s, the attacking nature of the game, coupled with the relative naiveté of many opponents, meant it was almost possible to do the same. Gerd Muller played 62 games for West Germany in eight years between 1966 and 1974, scoring 68 goals. Between 1967 and 1977 the least number of goals he managed in a season was 30, the most was 67.
It was Der Bomber who sank Belgium in the semi-finals, scoring either side of half time with a deft header and a trademark burst from the edge of the box onto a through ball. The fabulously named Odilon Polleunis managed a consolation for Belgium, who won the third placed play-off.
The second semi-final was between the stylish Hungarians and the powerful Soviet Union. It was a poignant match politically, as Hungary was under Soviet occupation between 1945 and 1991. The Soviet presence in Hungary had been pocked with uprisings and periods of unrest, particularly in the mid 1950s.
The USSR triumphed 1-0 thanks to a goal from Anatoli Konkov, and proceeded to the final to face West Germany. It was a clash of styles, perhaps even of eras, as the hard-working, slow build of the Soviet side faced a quick, impatient and highly skilled West Germany.
Gerd Muller got the opening goal after Yevhen Rudakov dropped a Jupp Heynckes shot. Herbert Wimmer doubled the lead eight minutes after half time, before Muller confirmed the win for his country with an instinctive finish. It was the dawning of an era of domination for West German football, with Bayern set to dominate the European Cup and the national side ready to move in to the 1974 tournament with a confidence boosting victory. For a team that had scoffed at the original inception of the European Championships it would be that particular tournament which signalled their return to the forefront of World football.
In this section
- Germany 1-2 Italy: Mario Balotelli comes of age to send Azzurri to final
- STV Sports Daily at the Euros: Germany v Italy, Euro 2012 semi-final
- Germany look to record first-ever competitive win over the Italians
- Download and create your very own cut-out Joachim Loew
- Euro 2012 Talk: Podolski does Europop and have Spain become boring?
- Germany find their talisman as Mesut Ozil takes centre stage
- Euro 2012 Talk: It's all about Pirlo, England crash out, 'boring' Spain
- STV Sports Daily at the Euros: Spain v France plus last night's goals
- Germany 4-2 Greece: Reus slams in winner to see Germany into the semi-final
- STV Sports Daily at the Euros: Germany v Greece plus last night's goals