The 16th European Championship, UEFA Euro 2020, is finally about to start, having been delayed until this year because of the pandemic.
The soccer tournament, held every four years, began as a four-team event in 1960, won by the Soviet Union, and was hosted by one or at most two countries. But it has since grown. This year’s event, from Friday to July 11, will be a 24-team Pan-European extravaganza, with 11 host nations staging matches.
Six groups of four teams will play a round-robin format, with group winners, runners-up and the four third-place teams with the best records advancing to the single-elimination rounds. Baku, Azerbaijan; Munich; St. Petersburg, Russia; and Rome will host the quarterfinals; the semifinals and the championship game are set for Wembley Stadium in London.
And fans will be in the stands. Except for Budapest’s Puskas Arena, which will allow full houses, stadiums will fill only 25 percent to 50 percent of their capacity.
Dreamed up by Henri Delaunay, the first head of European soccer’s governing body, UEFA, the European Championship is second in popularity and prestige to only the World Cup.
The last UEFA championship, held in 2016, was won by Portugal, even though its star, Cristiano Ronaldo, left the game early with an injury. Here are a handful of the tournament’s most memorable moments.
Magic Marco, 1988
The Netherlands, the “nearly team” of world soccer, won its first and only title with a 2-0 victory over the Soviet Union in Munich. In the 32nd minute of the final match, the Dutch captain Ruud Gullit took advantage of a poorly cleared corner to head in the return ball. Later, at the other end, goalkeeper Hans van Breukelen gave away and then saved a penalty from Igor Belanov. Both plays were vital but ultimately were overshadowed by Gullit’s goal.
In the 54th minute, midfielder Arnold Muhren lofted a high cross from the left, a few yards outside the Soviet penalty area. Marco van Basten, level with Muhren when the pass was made, strode down the far right side of the area, met the ball in midair, and swung in a wicked volley from an acute angle that flew over Rinat Dasayev (one of the game’s better keepers) into the far corner for the second goal.
The game was effectively over at the point, but the stadium didn’t stop buzzing because a goal like that is rare, especially in a final. It was masterful technique, timing and skill, from the weight and arc of Muhren’s pass, to van Basten’s run and audacious finish. The ball didn’t hit the ground from the moment it left Muhren’s foot until it was pulled out of the net. Rinus Michels, the Dutch coach, covered his eyes in disbelief.
Jensen’s Big Boot, 1992
Sweden hosted Euro ’92 with the slogan “Small Is Beautiful.” The tournament also had a fairy tale ending. After Yugoslavia was expelled from the competition in the spring because of an escalating civil war, Denmark was a late addition. The squad wasn’t quite scooped off the beach, but not too far off.
The Danes weren’t a ragtag gang, though. They had a smattering of journeymen from the Bundesliga and goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel, in his first year with Manchester United.
Denmark’s campaign sparked to life with a late 2-1 win over France that put it in the semifinals against the defending champion, the Netherlands. The Danes won, 5-4, on penalties.
Having dispensed with the European champion, Denmark faced the reigning world champion, a reunified Germany (now with added East Germans). Predictably, Germany dominated early, but unpredictably John Jensen gave the Danes the lead. Jensen, for whom self-belief and ambition trumped technique, usually had his shots clear not only the goal, but also the running track and several rows of seats. Not this time. He hit the roof of the German net with a decisive wallop.
Denmark defended capably, and Schmeichel rescued the team when it didn’t. After Kim Vilfort added an insurance goal, the Danish fans sang, “Deutschland, Deutschland, Alles ist vorbei” (“Germany, Germany, it’s all over”).
Small might have been beautiful, but Euro ’92 was the last eight-team tournament. Four years later in England, the field doubled. And Jensen? He headed to England too, and continued to shoot wildly from distance, finding the net only once in 138 league appearances for Arsenal.
Home to England, 1996
Billed as a return to the game’s spiritual roots, Euro ’96 was in England. “Football’s Coming Home” was the chant featured in the song “Three Lions.”
And indeed, the English notched a 4-1 win over the Dutch and beat Spain, with penalty kicks.
But the semifinal presented a big impediment: Germany. England played well, but so did Germany. Stefan Kuntz of Germany tied the score after Alan Shearer’s early goal for England. Sure enough, the tie resulted in a shootout. Each team scored five times. Gareth Southgate of England then hit a weak shot that was saved. Amid the general sympathy for Southgate afterward was a notable dissent: from his mother, Barbara. “Why didn’t you just belt it?” she said.
Andreas Möller smashed home Germany’s winner, then stood defiantly, hands on hips.
Germany won its third title with what is known as a golden goal (in sudden-death overtime), beating the Czech Republic, 2-1. Both goals came from the substitute Oliver Bierhoff, the first a well-directed downward header, the second a low shot that hit off the hand of keeper Petr Kouba and rolled in off the post. It brought to mind the dictum of the former England striker Gary Lineker:
“Football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.”
Zizou’s Light Touch, 2000
France’s feel-good home World Cup win in 1998 was hailed as a multicultural phenomenon, Parisian sidewalks spilling over with fans shouting, “Black, Blanc, Beur,” referring to the team’s Black, white and North African players. On the field, defenders got the big goals (Lilian Thuram and Laurent Blanc), and France won without really clicking; not until the final did Zinedine Zidane find his footing.
Fast-forward two years, and the team had blossomed into beautiful worldbeaters. Thierry Henry was a star striker, Emmanuel Petit, Patrick Vieira and Didier Deschamps powered the midfield, and Zizou, as Zidane is known, did everything else. He was simply at the top of his game. The strength and acceleration, the close control, the feather-light touch, the ability to pick up a ball and gracefully drag opponents across a field, then shake them off and craft the perfect pass — he was peerless.
In the semifinal against Portugal, he was tirelessly inventive. When a move broke down, he demanded the ball and tried something new. And he carried his team into the final with a coolly taken golden-goal penalty.
Zidane’s self-belief infused his teammates. Even when they trailed Italy in the final, the French looked as if they would find a way to win. Sylvain Wiltord’s late equalizer disheartened Italy and emboldened France. Then David Trezeguet’s fine volley in the 103rd minute confirmed what everyone knew: France was the best in Europe and world champion, and its midfield maestro was on another planet.
Coach Ronnie, 2016
He has won a ton of trophies with his clubs, but international success has always eluded Cristiano Ronaldo.
At 19, he cried uncontrollably as Greece ruined Portugal’s party when it hosted the tournament in 2004. In 2012, he was an unused penalty taker in a semifinal loss to Spain.
In 2016, he was in a mood, seizing a television microphone during a team walk and flinging it into a nearby lake. But Portugal squeaked into the elimination rounds, defeating Croatia, Poland and Wales to get to the final — against the hotly favored host nation, France.
The teams emerged to a carpet of moths, drawn by the Stade de France lights. It didn’t take long to end Ronaldo’s night. An ugly collision with Dimitri Payet in the eighth minute left him writhing in pain. He returned with his leg bandaged but collapsed and was carried off.
Then the world saw a different Ronaldo. He prowled the sideline, cursed, cheered, shadowed Coach Fernando Santos, barked instructions at his teammates and roared them on, a limping amalgam of coach and superfan. The TV cameras lapped it up.
And when Eder scored the winner 20 minutes into overtime, Ronaldo celebrated like the other Portuguese spectators.
Often derided as a one-man team, Portugal had accomplished the unthinkable: winning without its talisman.
King Otto and His Underdogs, 2004
Greece’s 2004 triumph was a giant upset. Make that a series of upsets, as the Greeks twice defeated France, the host nation and reigning champion, and beat Euro 2004’s best team, the Czech Republic, en route to its first international title.
A nation that had never won a single game at a major tournament, Greece was regarded as a soft touch and routinely troubled by indiscipline and infighting. But it was transformed by the veteran German coach Otto Rehhagel.
“King Otto” instilled organization, discipline and a strong work ethic. The team won ugly, but it was a nightmare to play against. Nothing gave the Greeks more pleasure than watching the air drain out of puffed-up opponents. Faced with banks of blue and white jerseys, harried in the midfield and with dedicated defenders stalking their attackers, other teams were reduced to disaffected spectators.
Although Greek scoring chances were rare, the team excelled at the most effective tool of the underdog’s arsenal: the set piece, winning the semifinal and final with headers from corner kicks. In the semifinal, the Greeks took advantage of a silver goal (a form of sudden death that allowed an opponent the remainder of an overtime period to tie the score). Traianos Dellas ghosted between a pair of Czech defenders to head home a corner at the end of the first 15-minute overtime.
“I realized when we were given the corner that exactly 14 minutes 36 seconds of overtime had been played,” Dellas said. “I said to myself that now we must do it. Someone heard me.”
Arshavin Sparkles, 2008
For the Russia midfielder Andrei Arshavin, Euro 2008 began with a two-game suspension for violent conduct in a qualifier. Guus Hiddink, Russia’s Dutch coach with a reputation for creating overachieving national teams (most recently South Korea and Australia), saw something special in Arshavin, who resembled a cartoon throwback to another era: a bowl haircut, rosy cheeks and uniforms that looked like a big brother’s hand-me-downs.
But what talent. He had a low center of gravity, magnetic ball control, a rocket of a shot and a willingness to try anything.
Arshavin scored in a 2-0 win over Sweden to secure a quarterfinal matchup with the Netherlands, one of Hiddink’s former employers.
“When I’m a traitor, I like to be a very good traitor,” Hiddink said before the game. “I want to be the traitor of the year in Holland.”
A late Ruud van Nistelrooy goal for the Netherlands sent the game into overtime at 1-1. Then Arshavin popped up in spectacular fashion. First, he tore down the left flank to the endline, turned and sublimely chipped his defender, giving Dmitri Torbinski the ball to back-heel into the net. Then Arshavin settled matters with a low drive that nutmegged keeper Edwin van der Sar. Arshavin gave a comical shrug for the camera, before pressing an index finger to his lips.
Russia lost its semifinal, 3-0, to the eventual champion, Spain, which had a stockpile of midfield tyros of its own. That winter, Arshavin moved from Zenit St. Petersburg to England, treating fans to occasional brilliance before he faded and headed home, where he made headlines exiting a strip club on horseback.
A Panenka, 1976
The 1976 European Championship was the last to have only four teams — and the first decided on a penalty shootout.
West Germany and Czechoslovakia were deadlocked after 120 minutes. The Czechs went ahead, 4-3, in penalty kicks when Uli Hoeness fired his shot over the bar. Enter Antonin Panenka. He made a long run-up and goalie Sepp Maier committed early; what followed has been variously described as a spoon, a shovel, a slice, a chip or a gently lofted shot that floated over the line and plopped into the back of the net. These days, fans simply call it a Panenka. Czechoslovakia won the tournament.
Panenka hadn’t had a sudden inspiration. He had been practicing his specialty during training sessions with his goalkeeper, according to Ben Lyttleton’s book and blog, “Twelve Yards.”
“My run-up was always longer to gain a bit of extra time, and faster so the goalkeeper doesn’t have a chance to change direction,” Panenka told Lyttleton. “The shot should not be too fast; you have to chip the ball so it glides.
“I always tried to entertain fans, to do something unexpected so they could talk about it after matches,” he said. “And all my goals, all my assists and passes have been forgotten because of this penalty. So, I am obviously proud of the penalty, but also a little bit sorry, too.”