With the politics of Europe settling into a relatively peaceful, if divided, duality across Europe, the third tournament would keep the balance of footballing power firmly in the south of the continent.
It was a tournament of firsts, not least because of a change to the qualifying rounds, with the introduction of the Group Stage that survives to this day.
31 different sides applied to take part in the tournament, and were immediately divided up into eight groups. The nations were then required to play each other at home and away to determine who would emerge as group winner, reaching the knock-out playoff rounds.
It also marked the first occasion that Scotland and West Germany would take part in qualification, although there would be markedly similar outcomes for each. Scotland, who were placed in a group with World Cup holders England, Wales and Northern Ireland, finished second. In a typical case of Scottish missed opportunity, the team of Law, Lennox and Baxter beat England at Wembley 3-2 only to go down to a 1-0 defeat against Northern Ireland and draw 0-0 with Wales, losing out on qualification by a single point.
There was another important first in the development of the game. Yugoslavia deployed a formation that would be the basis for what is now known as the 4-3-3 formation, utilising a dynamic four defenders, a central midfielder, two wide midfielders and three forwards in the shape of Ilija Petkovic, Vahidin Musemic and Dragan Dzajic.
England proceeded, along with France, Italy, Hungary, Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, Bulgaria and defending champions, Spain. West Germany finished second in their group, behind Yugoslavia, because they failed to beat Albania.
All but one of the playoff matches were tight affairs. Italy recovered from losing 3-2 in Bulgaria to win 2-0 in Naples and advance to the finals. There was a clash between the reigning World and European Champions as England beat Spain 3-1 on aggregate thanks to goals from Bobby Charlton, Martin Peters and Norman Hunter. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union reversed a 2-0 defeat against Hungary with a 3-0 win in Moscow.
In the final qualifier, France and Yugoslavia drew 1-1 in Marseille, setting up a tense second leg. The rematch was significantly more one-sided as Ilija Petkovic, Vahidin Musemic and Dragan Dzajic scored in a 5-1 victory.
The final four matches may not have produced much in the way of goals, but there was at least one historical moment that was never again repeated. After 120 minutes of goal-less football between Italy and the Soviet Union the result was decided by the toss of a coin, with the hosts progressing. Many refer to “the lottery of penalties” or the fact that games can be won or lost by blind fortune, but there can be few more cruel exits than a simple coin-toss. The other semi-final saw England eliminated by Yugoslavia, Dragan Dzajic scoring the only goal. It was the last appearance England would make at the European Championships until 1980.
The Yugoslavs could, and perhaps should, have won the tournament. They took the lead through Dzajic’s opportunistic strike and missed a series of chances to further increase their lead. With ten minutes to go, the Yugoslavs were punished for a foul on Giovanni Lodetti, and Angelo Domenghini scored from the resulting free-kick.
Two days later the match was replayed, with the Italians taking advantage of a Yugoslav team that were clearly physically exhausted. Luigi Riva slid the ball past Ilija Pantelic after just 12 minutes to give Italy the lead. On the half hour mark Pietro Anastasi fired a second into Pantelic’s right hand corner to confirm the most important first of all: Italy’s European Championship.
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