With the expansion and popularisation of World Football in the mid 50s, the newly founded UEFA had to find a way to harness this interest for the benefit of the international game.
The newly founded European Cup had caught the imagination of the continent, with Real Madrid’s all conquering side just beginning their spell of domination.
The suggestion to host a European tournament had been made by Henri Delaunay, a long-time member of the FIFA board and the leading proponent of an international European competition. As far back as 1927, before the first World Cup, Delaunay had suggested that nations took each other on in competition. Initially this idea was stifled by politics, war and tensions throughout Europe.
Delaunay’s vision finally came true in 1957, when the decision was made to stage a tournament in France. He was not around to see it, having died in 1955. His son, Pierre, ensured his father’s legacy. The tournament’s trophy was named in Delaunay Senior’s honour.
The very idea of putting together this tournament, involving all of a fractured and suspicious Europe, is beyond modern comprehension. The Second World War was still fresh in the memory of all players on the continent, the political factions were numerous and wounds were still fresh from half a century of turmoil.
In 1951 the Treaty of Paris had been agreed, which hoped to encourage trade and better relations between European countries. In 1957 the Treaty of Rome created the EEC, aiming to further solidify relations. This was followed by the Euratom Treaty, something straight out of a 1950s B-Movie, which allowed nations to pool their collective atomic energy innovations. It’s also worth remembering that at the start of the tournament, the Berlin Wall had yet to be erected. David Hasselhoff was only seven years old.
England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales would have no part in the inaugural event, instead deciding that the Home Nations trophy was a far more prestigious competition. It was in keeping with much of the political exclusionism of the time, which aimed to keep Britain out of the affairs of the continent.
The United Kingdom made up four of ten teams which had decided not to take part. Perhaps more intriguing was the decision by both Italy and West Germany, signatories to the Treaty of Rome, to decline entry. Sepp Herberger of West Germany was scathing, saying he did not want to “waste time” in between preparations for a World Cup. In 1960 the tournament was a sprawling knockout event, with home and away legs, which started with qualifiers in September 1958 and ended with a four-game playoff in France some two years later later.
After an initial preliminary round, which saw Ireland defeated 4-2 on aggregate by Czechoslovakia, qualifiers entered what would now be known as the round of 16. While it is now routine to hear some commentator denounce a finals as “boring” because of the lack of goals, this competition could not have the same accusation levelled at it. Home and away legs between the 16 teams produced an almighty 55 goals, including a Just Fontaine inspired 7-1 win for France against Greece.
The final round of qualifying threw up some intriguing political clashes. France were drawn to face Austria, Portugal had to play Yugoslavia, Romania and Czechoslovakia were to square off and the communist Soviet Union was to play Franco’s Spain. France, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia progressed to the finals proper with the minimum of fuss, but under the order of General Franco, Spain refused to travel to the Soviet Union, or let the Soviets into Spain, and so forfeited their place in the final competition.
Torpedo Moscow’s Valentin Ivanov scored twice as the Soviet Union defeated Czechoslovakia in Marseille during the semi-finals, but the other knockout match between France and Yugoslavia remains one of the most dramatic in the history of the games.
France were heavily favoured, despite losing Raymond Kopa and Just Fontaine. The former was injured and the latter had called a premature halt to his international career at the age of 27, with a record of 30 goals in 21 internationals. France had built up a 3-1 lead through Reims’ Jean Vincent, Francois Heutte and Maryan Wisnieski. Yugoslavia pulled a goal back, but Heutte added a second and France were 4-2 up with just 15 minutes of play remaining.
Tomislav Knez scored in the 75th minute and by the 80th minute Yugoslavia were ahead thanks to a Drazan Jerkovic double. The hosts were eliminated and had to make do with fourth place after losing to the Czechs in a third placed decider in front of a disinterested Marseille crowd.
In keeping with the general theme of the tournament, the final was far from free of political subterfuge. Relations between Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union had been somewhat frosty for some time. In 1948 Stalin had banished Yugoslavia from the Communist Information Bureau, and encouraged Hungary to stockpile weapons with the intention of invading Tito’s Yugoslavia. Stalin’s death in 1953 had eased tensions, but despite the efforts of Nikita Khrushchev, they still remained.
Yugoslavia took the final to the Soviet Union, but could only muster a single goal before half-time, mostly thanks to the brilliance of Lev Yashin, arguably the best the world has ever seen, at the peak of his powers. While Yashin kept his team in the game, his counterpart, Blagoje Vidinic, misjudged a speculative effort from Valentin Bubukin shortly after half time, dropping it at the feet of a grateful Slava Metreveli.
With no further scoring inside 90 minutes the game went to additional minutes and it was the Soviet Union who triumphed, Viktor Ponedelnik finding a winner in the 113th minute. The Soviet Union had won their first, and to this day only, major tournament and the blueprint for others had been created.
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