Football Special Report #12: Evolution of Euro Qualifiers – Part 1

At the time of writing the year is 2020 and that makes the ’00s (as is the decade before last) officially retro. To celebrate this we were going to look at a comparatively late period for us (2006/07, although we once did venture as far as 2010 when finding our feet) but first we must delve into the history books. Click here for all available entries in the Football Special Report category.


Our main motivation for this post came from examining the grotesquely bloated qualifier groups for Euro 2008. Not only were these the most densely packed groups in Euro history, they also trumped any World Cup qualifiers.

With the amount of new states seen on the European map since the early 90s, in a way it is no wonder that the tournament has grown in that time from 8, to 16, to 24 teams. Some say this latest expansion in particular dilutes the quality, but, since we usually care about fans and emotion rather than play (putting aside the fact that additional games=money for UEFA), we can see an upside to allowing more nations a place on a higher stage (Hungary in 2016 comes to mind).

The finals have actually quadrupled in size since the earliest “European Nations’ Cup” of four countries in 1960, and so naturally the qualifiers have taken a similar path. For the first two editions qualification groups were not even used, with a simpler knock-out system preferred.


A fun fact could have been that “Ireland vs Czechoslovakia in Dalymount Park, Dublin, on April 5th, 1959, was the first ever match in what would become the European Championships”, which you’d assume of the 1st-leg of a preliminary-qualifier before the opening stage proper of the 1960 European Nation’s Cup. That is except for the fact that it already had taken place between two communist states, the USSR and Hungary, on front of more than 100,000 in Moscow on September 28th, 1958, in the 1st-leg of their First Round tie (along with several other games).

A packed Central Lenin Stadium awaits the teams ahead of the first game in the first European Nation's Cup, USSR vs Hungary, 28/09/1958.

Like with early World Cups, many sides you’d later expect to be present did not enter (West Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Italy, Albania, England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Sweden, Finland and Iceland), while most smaller nations were not yet members of UEFA (Cyprus, Lichtenstein, San Marino, Faeroe Island, Malta, Andorra, and Gibraltar). With 17 remaining entrants hopeful of a final-four spot in July, 1960 (host to be determined when semi-finalists known), the Irish and Czechoslovaks were chosen at random to play-off, trimming the heard down to 16 and facilitating a straight knock-out, but oddly scheduled only after several First Round matches were set to take place.

So with the Soviets the first to kick-off in the First Round, they were also amazingly the last as the 2nd-leg in Hungary did not take place until 364 days later on September 27th, 1959, when they would finally eliminate their opponents. The first side actually knocked-out was Greece, who suffered an 8-2 aggregate defeat to the French over October and December, 1959.

Romania had also eliminated Turkey before the conclusion of the preliminary-qualifier in May, 1959, when Czechoslovakia comfortably dismantled Ireland’s 2-0 lead to take the tie 4-2 in Bratislava and progress to their actual First Round matches. This meant that Ireland again were technically the first side eliminated, even though chronologically this is false.

Throughout the summer and autumn Austria defeated Norway, Yugoslavia defeated Bulgaria, Spain defeated Poland, and Portugal defeated East Germany in what was the quickest turnaround, with the games only a week apart. Czechoslovakia also defeated Denmark, including another fine home performance as a 5-1 win nullified a 2-2 draw in Copenhagen.

The second qualifying round, also referred to as “quarter-finals” showing that this was considered one, full tournament, took place from December, 1959, until May, 1960. France defeated Austria, while Yugoslavia eliminated Portugal and Czechoslovakia brushed passed Romania, leaving the intriguing pairing of Franco’s far-right Spain with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Mirroring what the Soviets themselves would later do in refusing to play Pinochet’s Chile, the Spanish were ordered by on-high to withdraw rather than participate against their political enemy, granting the USSR the last semi-finals spot by default. This meant that the French now found themselves “surrounded” by communist opposition and were somewhat unsurprisingly given hosting duties, with the USSR ultimately crowned the inaugural champions in Paris on July 10th, 1960.

The ball ahead of kick-off at the first European final, France vs USSR, 10/07/1960.


For the 1964 competition the number of entrants rose to 30, although this was quickly reduced to 29 due to politics once again as Greece refused to play Albania (discussed here). Still absent were the significant quartet of West Germany, Scotland, Finland and Cyprus, but the increase in participants made the preliminary-qualifiers a full stage of 12 games, with Luxembourg, Austria, the Soviet champs, and now Albania given byes to the Round of 16.

This time the Irish were able to make it through thanks to a 5-3 agg. defeat of Iceland while England were cut down to size by the French 3-6, but the highlight of the round was the epic Bulgaria-Portugal tie. The two exchanged 3-1 home wins, and, with no extra-time or penalties, a third game on the neutral soil of Rome’s Stadio Olimpico was ordered, won by the Bulgarians with a goal in the 87th minute on front of only 2336 spectators.

The First Round proper saw Spain, Sweden, Denmark, France, Soviet Union and Hungary advance at the expenses of Northern Ireland, Yugoslavia, Albania, Bulgaria, Italy and East Germany. As for Ireland, a scoreless draw in Vienna in September, 1963, led to another dramatic encounter in Dublin the following month when an Austria goal on the 85th minute to make it 2-2 looked set to send the tie to a third game, only to be cancelled-out by a last minute Irish penalty winner.

That leaves two debutantes in the Netherlands, who were not yet the power they would become, facing neighbouring Luxembourg. The small size of the latter meant that both games were to be played on Dutch soil, making the eventual result all the more incredible.

The 1st-leg took place in Amsterdam on September 11th, 1963, with the hosts taking the lead after five minutes before an equalisier on the 33rd shocked the 36,000+ in attendance. But on October 30th, 42,000 in De Kuip, Rotterdam (surely Luxembourg’s “home” record attendance), were even more stunned to see a 2-1 Luxembourgish win send the Netherlands crashing out.

Luxembourg equalise in Amsterdam against the Netherlands in the first leg of their First Round match, following by happy Luxembourgish fans, 11/09/1963.

Dutch newspaper headline "David Luxembourg win with 2–1" (against Goliath Netherlands)" following the shock Euro 64 qualifier defeat.

Little Luxembourg were now just one tie away from a major semi-finals, but in the second qualifying round/quarter-finals they came up against a Denmark who had already vanquished one smaller nation with a 9-2 agg. defeat of Malta in the preliminary. In Luxembourg City the home side got off to a dream start, scoring after just one minute of the 1st-leg on December 6th, 1963, before a 3-3 thriller was eventually played out.

Six days later in Copenhagen the dream looked to be over, as with 5 minutes to go the Danes led 2-1. As a relatively smaller nation themselves Denmark would have been thrilled to be on their way to their first finals of any sort, but amazingly a late Lux’ goal made it 2-2 on the night and 5-5 overall. Amsterdam of all places was chosen for the third game on December 18th, but perhaps it should have been Rotterdam as Luxembourgish luck finally ran out and the Danes won 1-0 to qualify.

The other games in the round were not played until the following Spring, when Ireland’s run was also halted 7-1 (agg.) by a ruthless Spain in March and April. In April and May, Hungary defeated France and the Soviet Union defeated Sweden to decide other two semi-finalists.

Perhaps to make up for last time, Spain were given hosting rights which ironically led to them coming up against the USSR once again, now in the final. This time Franco allowed the game to go ahead and was able to breathe a sight of relief on June 21st, 1964, as the Spanish secured their first title after a late goal made it 2-1 in Madrid.


For 1968, UEFA dropped the “Nations’ Cup” moniker as the competition turned into the European Championships that we know and love. The qualifying system also became far more familiar as groups were introduced, although Iceland’s continued absence – the only “major” nation still yet to take part – meant that what could have been a nice, convenient 32 entrants, was only 31.

Seven of the groups contained four teams and one contained three, with games played on a home and away basis, but this wasn’t all there was. Since the actual Championships were still only a semi-finals and a final (plus a 3rd/4th place play-off, scrapped after 1980), further play-offs would take place among the eight group winners to determine the final four.

The other oddity was Group 8, which ingeniously doubled as the 66/67 and 67/68 British Home Championships between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and hence the only group not to have been drawn randomly. There was precedent for this, as the same method was used to determine a UK entrant for World Cups 1950 and 54.

Group 8 began on October 22nd, 1966, when Northern Ireland took on England, watched by 47,000+ in Belfast, right as “Ireland” simultaneously faced England in the British Home Championship on front of the same crowd. This glitch in the matrix occurred since the British tournament was outside of FIFA regulations and so the “Ireland” team of the IFA (ie, Ireland under British rule) did not have to be referred to as “Northern Ireland” to distinguish them from the Republic of Ireland, as ordered in 1954, but on the UEFA side of the fixture they did.

British Home Championship 67/68 table with "Ireland" (above) compared to Euro 68 qualifying Group 8 with "Northern Ireland"(source Wikipedia).

The English won the game 0-2 before a Welsh-Scottish draw later that day, but come April 15th, 1967, it was the Scots beating England 2-3 in Wembley on front of 99,000+ to win them the 66/67 Championship and a commanding position in the Euros group. The following year, when a dizzying 134,000+ plus packed into Hampden to watch the return fixture on February 24th, 1968, this time a 1-1 draw was enough to give England both the 67/68 Championship and 1st place in the qualifying group by a point.

The qualifiers had officially gotten underway back on October 2nd, 1966, when Finland drew 0-0 with Austria in Group 3 and Poland defeated Luxembourg 4-0 in Group 7. Of course then it wouldn’t be until June 11th, 1967, when the Soviets – the one remaining team yet to kick a ball in this campaign – would finally make their entrance to Group 3 with a 4-0 spanking of the Austrians.

Austria took the return game 1-0, but these were the USSR’s only dropped points as they comfortably claimed a play-off position. More intriguing are the events of the final, meaningless encounter of the group between Austria and Greece in Vienna on November 5th, 1967, as the game was abandoned in the 86th minute and declared void due to unexplained crowd trouble.

Ireland, of the Republican variety, started encouragingly in Group 1 with a 0-0 draw against holders Spain before a 2-1 victory over Turkey, both in Dublin. On the last day came another good win, 1-2 away in Prague, but three losses during the meantime had scuppered any hopes as the Spanish took top spot ahead of Czechoslovakia.

Bulgaria resumed their rivalry with the Portuguese in Group 2 and remained undefeated, taking down Norway and Sweden along the way to top the group. In Group 4, the group of three, West Germany were finally to be found but were soon “found out”, first after a 1-0 loss to Yugoslavia in Belgrade on May 3rd, 1967, before a shock 0-0 draw with Albania in Tirana on the last day that allowed the Yugoslavs to keep first position.

Albania record a great draw against World Cup finalists West Germany to help keep them out of Euro 68, 17/12/1967.

From a tough Group 5, Hungary emerged on front of East Germany, Netherlands, and Denmark, while Italy progressed through Group 6 undefeated against Romania, Switzerland and Cyprus. Group 7, finally, was another tight contest, with France’s 3-1 win over Luxembourg on December 23rd, 1967, giving them the points needed to stay ahead of Poland and skip Belgium.

In the play-offs, Italy and Yugoslavia eliminated Bulgaria and France in April 1968, with England defeating Spain over April and May. Once again the last to compete were the Soviets, who overcame a 2-0 Hungary lead from the 1st leg to win 3-0 in Moscow on May 11th, 1968, to make their third Euros in a row.

Italy were awarded the tournament and went on to be crowned champions, defeating Yugoslavia 2-0 at the second time of asking on June 10th, 1968, following a drawn game (after extra-time) only two days earlier. But this triumph only came due to the fact that there was no time to schedule a reply of their drawn semi against the USSR on June 5th, which instead was decided by a coin-toss.


YouTube links:

USSR vs Hungary, 1958
Netherlands vs Luxembourg, 1963
Albania vs West Germany, 1957



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