back to top
World

The Story Of Postwar Europe, Told Through The European Championships

As nations have split and dictators fallen over the past six decades, the European Championships have been there to document just how much our continent has changed.

Posted on

In a week's time, France and Romania will walk into the Stade de France in Paris to open the largest European Championship ever: For the first time, 24 teams will be competing to lift the Henri Delaunay Cup.

Since the first European Championship took place in 1960, the competition has been providing a four-yearly snapshot of the continent's changing geopolitical status as tensions between countries are played out on and off the pitch.

Taken together, the individual tournaments reflect the tale of Europe's tangled postwar history and how it has evolved over the past six decades.

Advertisement

Four of the nations that made it to Euro 1960 no longer exist in the same form: Host nation France's colonial empire was on its last legs, Czechoslovakia would split in two in 1993, and the final between Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union was a game between what are now 22 different countries. The Soviets won 2-1 in extra time.

The nascent European Union, then called the European Economic Community, was just over 3 years old when the tournament kicked off in Paris. It had six members: Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands.

Eastern Europe was living under communism. Citizens in many of countries that are today building fences to block asylum-seekers from crossing their borders, and planning referendums to decide whether to accept refugees, were fleeing despots and seeking refuge in the west.

The continent would remain divided for three decades.

Since the first European Championship, European football’s governing body, UEFA, has seen its membership nearly double to 55 football associations. The EU, meanwhile, has expanded to 28 member states, with a handful more nations in the pipeline to join in future.

Franco's own goal and the fall of Europe's remaining right-wing dictatorships

Gianni Ferrari/Cover / Getty Images

Real Madrid's Jose Maria Zarraga and Paco Gento with the 1960 European Cup.

Europe's best team in 1960 were Spain, comprised mostly of a Real Madrid team who had just won a record fifth consecutive European Cup after demolishing Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3. But the country, under the authoritarian rule of General Francisco Franco, refused to allow its team to travel to the Soviet Union for their final qualifying match for Euro 1960. The USSR were awarded a walkover.

Franco's decision to do so – some have called it his own goal – came just two days before the squad were set to depart for Moscow. The Spanish players had been confident of winning the tournament. They were incredulous. Official diplomatic relations between Spain and the USSR had been nonexistent since the end of the Spanish civil war, when the Soviets had actively supported the Republican cause.

Four years later, Spain hosted and won the tournament. On that occasion, Franco did not stop his team from playing against the Soviet Union. But not everyone in 1964 was prepared to face each other yet. Greece decided to withdraw from the contest after being drawn with Albania in the qualifying stages. The two countries were technically still at war.

Europe’s remaining right-wing dictatorships would not fall until the mid-1970s, with the overthrow of the Estado Novo regime in Portugal, the death of Franco in Spain, and the end of a military junta in Greece.

A decade of revolutions

Vi-images / Getty Images

Johan Cruijff, referee Patrick Partridge, and Kazimierz Deyna before the Euro 1976 qualifying match between Poland and the Netherlands.

The year 1968 will be mostly remembered for the revolts and uprisings that took place in many parts of Europe, and elsewhere around the world. Across the globe, people rallied for freedom of speech and greater equality and rights.

It began a decade when revolutions were not only political and social but cultural and artistic. And Europe’s football pitches were not immune to changes in attitude.

The 1976 tournament saw the Netherlands' first appearance at a European Championship, and no team has ever broken the established rules and tactical structure of how the game is interpreted quite like the Dutch did under captain Johan Cruyff.

Author David Winner wrote of the new style of football: “In the 19th century, the English invented football as a chivalrous substitute for war and played in straight lines with fixed formations.

"Brazilians thought of football as a platform for individual artistry. Italians obsessed about tactics, mainly defensive ones. The Germans had their “kampfgeist” (spirit of struggle), which stated undying effort, physical power and teamwork were the keys to success. Cruyff and [coach Rinus] Michels reimagined the game as a highly skilled, swirling spatial contest in which whoever managed and controlled the limited space on the field would win.”

The football revolution went without trophy. But its teachings are still followed today.

Advertisement

France have won the European Championship twice: in 1984, when they were hosts, and in 2000.

The 1984 team were captained by the Michel Platini, who scored in every game and was the tournament’s top scorer with a record nine goals. In 2000, two years after lifting the World Cup in Paris, France won with a team captained by Didier Deschamps but commandeered and symbolised by Zinedine Yazid Zidane.

The differences between Platini and Zidane are instructive. Platini hailed from Jœuf, in the north of France; his father, a maths professor of Italian ancestry, was a coach at the Nancy-Lorraine football club where Platini started his professional career.

Zidane, meanwhile, was the son of Algerian immigrants, and was born in Marseille, in the south of the country. His father, who was from a remote village in the Kabylie region in northern Algeria and emigrated to France in the mid-1950s, worked as a warehouseman, often on night shifts.

But despite their very different backgrounds, Zidane and Platini are among the game's most superlative, and elegant, exponents – and both are as French as butter in croissants.

Alongside Zidane and Deschamps in the 2000 team were the likes of Youri Djorkaeff, of Kalmyk and Armenian descent; Arsenal invincible Patrick Viera, born in Dakar, Senegal; and Lilian Thuram and Christian Karembeu, both born in France's overseas territories. The author Andrew Hussey recalled how the press called the team the "French black-white-Arab generation", while the philosopher Pascal Boniface described the moment as the birth of "a new Enlightenment".

The two French teams demonstrate how Europe has become increasingly interconnected and diverse: At the 2014 World Cup, Russia were the only European team to not have have any foreign-born players in their squad, according to analysis by Quartz.

But multiculturalism has not come without tension. The deputy head of the right-wing Alternative for Germany party recently said that while people find black German footballer Jêrome Boateng a good footballer, “they don't want to have a Boateng as their neighbour”.

And less than a fortnight ago, Austria very nearly became the first western European country to democratically elect a far-right head of state since the end of World War II. The candidate stood on an anti-immigration platform. His party, the Freedom Party of Austria, leads in national polls.

Civil war in the Balkans

Shaun Botterill / Getty Images

Kim Vilfort of Denmark is mobbed by teammates after scoring the second and winning goal during the 1992 final between Denmark and Germany.

Yugoslavia were disqualified from Euro 1992 due to civil war, and just 11 days before the start of the tournament in Sweden, Denmark were invited to take their place. The Danes went on to win. Danish midfielder Kim Vilfort, who had missed the final group game against France to return home to visit his 7-year-old daughter, who was fighting leukaemia, scored the tournament's last goal.

Yugoslavia had begun to tear itself apart in 1991 and would descend into civil war and ethnic conflict between its nations. The war resulted in the first case of genocide on European soil after World War II, and fighting in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo left more than 100,000 people dead. Hundreds of thousands more were displaced in what would remain until 2015 the largest refugee crisis seen in Europe since the second world war.

Now independent, some of the nations that made up Yugoslavia have become EU member states. Others hope to join the union in future. Earlier this year, one of those countries, Kosovo, became the 55th member of UEFA, and Kosovan club Feronikeli are set to be the country's first to play in the Champions League. However, Kosovo's full recognition among the global community of nations still remains for some an issue of contention.

Advertisement

In 2001, Greece adopted the euro and became a member of the then 2-year-old eurozone. In 2004, the nation returned to the European Championship after 24 years and won the tournament. Before then, they had only qualified for two other major competitions, Euro 1980 and the 1994 World Cup, failing to win a single match.

After qualifying from their group only by having scored more goals than Spain, Greece went on to defeat France, the Czech Republic and then, in the final, hosts Portugal, all 1-0. All three matches were decided by headers. The side, who were 80-1 outsiders before the finals, were managed by German coach Otto Rehhagel.

Tens of thousands of fans welcomed the victorious team’s return to Athens. More than 100,000 people in and around the Panathenaic stadium, where the first modern Olympics were held in 1896, sang the national anthem and chanted "God is German" in tribute to Rehhagel. "Greeks can enjoy the fact that they can look other Europeans eye to eye, without an inferiority complex," one witness told BBC Sport.

Quite a contrast with more recent scenes in Athens.

Since Greece announced it could no longer repay its debts in 2009, triggering a eurozone-wide crisis, thousands of Greeks have protested against austerity – and often against Germany, which they blame for imposing the tough economic measures their nation has had to adopt in return for financial support.

Greece has received more than €300 billion in international bailouts, while its debt has skyrocketed to nearly 180% of GDP. Since that triumphant night in Lisbon, the Greek economy has shrunk by more than a quarter – the largest fall in modern history not linked to a war or a social revolution. The country’s unemployment rate has tripled to 26.5%, and more than 1 in 2 young people are jobless.

In 2012 the finals were hosted by Poland and Ukraine, and Spain became the first team to win two consecutive European Championships.

That all seems a long time ago now. On 27 June 2012, Donetsk, in the Donbass region in the east of the country, hosted the semi-final between Portugal and Spain; less than two years later, the region became the stage of a war, and an armed separatist insurgency, that still continues today.

More than 9,000 people have died since the conflict started in 2014, according to UN estimates. Crimea has been annexed by Russia. Most of eastern Ukraine is stuck in what has become a frozen conflict. Europe and Russia have imposed sanctions on each other. Ukraine remains divided in two.

Fifty-six years since the first European Championship, and east and west are again at odds.


Advertisement


Advertisement


Advertisement


Advertisement

Alberto Nardelli is Europe editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

Contact Alberto Nardelli at alberto.nardelli@buzzfeed.com.

Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.