Football Special Report #14: Evolution of Euro Qualifiers – Part 2

For part one in this series, with explanatory intro, click here, or here for all in the Football Special Report series. We now continue our Euro qualifiers review (up to 2008) with the three campaigns of the 1970s.



For the decade’s first Euros, the qualifiers grew from seven groups of four and one group of three to a far more satisfying and symmetrical eight groups of four. Like the previous cycle, all group winners would be progressing to a “quarter-finals”, which were really home and away play-offs to determine the final-four come summer, 1972, with hosts only then decided based on who had made it that far.

The country to make up the difference from 31 to 32 was Malta, previously seen losing both their games in the 1964 qualifiers before sitting-out last time. But to prove they weren’t around simply for walkovers in Group 3 with England, Switzerland and Greece, the Med-Islanders went 1-0 up at home to the Greeks in the first match on October 11th, 1970, and held on after a late equalisier to secure their historic first point in competitive football.

The English dominated the group as expected, winning all games bar a 1-1 with the Swiss in the penultimate which secured top spot. Despite it’s meaninglessness, the last fixture between Greece and England on December 1st, 1971, still drew 34,000 to Karaiskakis Stadium, Athens, as locals flocked to see the still-recent world champions defeat the home team 0-2.

England’s 11 point tally was actually the highest from any group, with the Soviet Union the next successful team overall (by goal difference) in Group 4. Their two draws had come away to Northern Ireland and Spain in October, 1971, the latter clinching qualification even with the Spanish yet to play Cyprus (home, 7-0) and Irlanda del Nord (away, 1-1).

The West German’s path in Group 8 was similar, drawing 1-1 against Turkey in Köln on October, 17th, 1970 and 0-0 against Poland in Hamburg on November 17th, 1971, with wins over the same opposition and Albania in between to comfortably progress. Despite finishing fourth, the Albanians could at least be satisfied having held the Poles 0-0 in Tirana on front of 28,000, and beating the Turks there 3-0 on front of 38,000.

The German national anthem is played ahead of West Germany vs Albania, Wildparkstadion, Karlsruhe, 12/06/1971.

Group 6 was the other group with an equally clear-cut winner, as Italy’s only dropped points came via draws against Sweden in Stockholm on June 9th, 1971, and, having already claimed top-spot, Austria in Rome on November 20th. The Austrians had been the closest hopefuls, defeating a hapless Ireland 1-4 away and 6-0 at home, as well a 1-0 over Sweden, while the Irish campaign started brightly by taking the lead against the Swedish on October 14th, 1970, but the point claimed at the end of that drawn game would turn out to be their last.

Two interesting “Eastern-block” duels emerged from Groups 1 and 2, with the western/northern sides in both ending-up in 3rd and 4th. In Group 1, this was Wales and Finland, who, like their Irish equivalents, would have been hopeful after opening draws against Romania and Czechoslovakia respectfully, however the goal scored by the Finns proved to be their only successful attacking moment in the whole campaign (with 16 conceded), while Wales could only go on to beat the not-so-flying Finns.

The Czechoslovaks took a 1-0 victory when Romania came to Bratislava on May 16th, 1971, before a 2-1 win for the Romanians on front of 63,000 in the Bucharest return fixture on November 14th put them two points behind (which were still being awarded for a win in this time, rather than three) with one last game in hand and a level goal difference. Czechoslovakia’s fate lay in the hands of the Welsh and their visit to Bucharest on November 24th, but a 2-0 home win meant that Romania progressed.

In Group 2, Norway were to play of the Finnish role of “Nordic nation with only 1 point by the end”, while France provided more of a challenge to the slightly superior Hungary and Bulgaria. Having drawn against the French 1-1 on April 24th, 1971, and lost away to the Bulgarians on May 19th, the Hungarians came back strong in the Autumn with three clean-sheet victories in a row; enough to claim first place after France and Bulgaria stalemated each other with back-to-back 2-1 results in the final two games.

Another half’n’half group, in terms of the political divide, was Group 7 and once again the east was destined for success. Netherlands’ opening day 1-1 draw on October 11th, 1970, with Yugoslavia in Rotterdam set up the Belgrade return game as an effective play-off for top spot, as East Germany and Luxembourg were not expected to challenge, but on November 11th in Dresden, 30,000 in the Rudolf-Harbig-Stadion watched the East Germans take down the Dutch 1-0.

East Germans in resplendent all-white kit celebrate the only goal of the game in their fine home win over the Dutch, Rudolf-Harbig-Stadion, Dresden, 11/11/1970.

The rest of the action included a 2-0 Yugoslav win against the Netherlands and a 3-2 Dutch victory over the East Germans, until Luxembourg finally earned their first point on October 27th, 1971, in Titograd, Montenegro, Yugoslavia, with a hard-faught 1-1. But the point was enough for the hosts as well to ensure they would top the group, with Netherlands’ upcoming 0-8 thrashing of the Luxembourgers on November 17th rendered academical.

If you’ve been keeping track of this very un-chronologogical breakdown you’ll know that the only group left to cover is Group 5, which was like in Groups 3 and 6 in containing no eastern sides. With no real “minnows” here – although Denmark were not yet the force they would become in the 80s and 90s – this may have been the hardest group to predict, as Belgium, Portugal and Scotland all looked to progress.

Indeed the Danes’ got off to an awful start, losing their first four games without scoring a goal, but they would play their part in the fate of the group with a 1-0 win over the Scots in Copenhagen on June 9th, 1971, effectively ending the visitors hopes of qualification. Dual home wins over the Portuguese – in Glasgow on October 13th – and Belgians – in Aberdeen on November 10th – wasn’t enough for Scotland or anyone else to stop Belgium, who’s opening four victories meant that their last day 1-1 against Portugal on November 21th was enough to stay ahead of the hosts and progress.

Scheduled for April and May, 1972, the four quarter-final/play-offs produced some politically juicy match-ups (check back on our Groups of Death sub-series of Politics on the Pitch for more of those), Belgium-Italy being the only fixture without major historical significance. The Belgian “White Devils” (as they would play much of the decade with all-white as first preference kit) were able to frustrate the 63,000 in San Siro on April 29th by holding onto a 0-0, before delighting a crowd of less than half that in Brussels Stade Émile Versé on May 13th with a great 2-1 win to seal qualification for their first European Championships.

The epic moment that Belgium go 1-0 up at home to Italy, en route to a 2-1 win and qualification, Stade Émile Versé, Brussels, 13/05/1972.

On the same days as the Belgium-Italy games, the pairing of England and West Germany played out their two-legs, each having knocked the other out of the previous two World Cups. Unlike 66, the 96,000 in Wembley were left disappointed after a 1-3 German win in the first game, followed by a scoreless draw in West Berlin on front of 76,000 to finally advance Die Mannschaft to their own debut Euros-finals, while England’s decade without a tournament had begun.

The Soviets and Yugoslavs had both already reached the latter stages multiple times, playing out the first final in Paris in 1960 with the inaugural championship going to the former. As two of Europe’s socialist super-states, the countries had become estranged in 1948 after Tito’s falling out with Stalin and withdrawal from Cominform, and, despite normalisation of relations following Stalin’s death, the Yugoslavs remained neutral for the rest of the Cold War.

58,000 in Red Star Stadium watched another 0-0 draw in the first leg on April 30th, before a heaving mass of 90,000 Soviet citizens celebrated the home side scoring three without response in Central Lenin Stadium to send the USSR to their fourth consecutive finals on May 13th. But would Moscow host?

The last remaining tie was Hungary vs Romania – two neighbours with an intense rivalry which manifested in the Hungarian–Romanian War of 1918-1919, and conflict during World War II. Now officially allies on a state level, 65,000 partisan Hungarians bayed for Romanian blood in Budapest’s Népstadion as they watched a 1-1 draw for the first leg on April 29th.

On May 17th, 60,000 equally passionate Romanians were present for in “Stadionul 23 August”, Bucharest (named for “Liberation from Fascist Occupation Day” in 1944), for the return game. After going 1-2 down on the night, the home fanatics were relived as the their side equalised with less than ten minutes to go.

As extra-time and penalties had not yet been implemented, the tie was to go to a third game hosted on the neutral soil of Partizan Belgrade’s Stadion JNA on May 17th. With the score at 1-1, a fourth encounter was looking likely until the 89th minute when Hungary at last snatched a winner to end the epic contest, and claim their first spot at a continental finals.

Considering the West Germans were set to host the World Cup in 74, and the closed societies of the USSR and Hungary clearly not options for UEFA, it was clear that Belgium would given de facto hosting rights. In a fixture with more political history, while already a replay of the 1966 World Cup semi, West Germany defeated the Soviets at Heysel on June 18th to claim for the first time the trophy they would soon become all too familiar with.



For the first time ever the Euro qualifying system remained unchanged heading into the 76 edition, although Iceland replaced Albania who disappeared from the international scene for a while due to internal political reasons. Five of the eight groups were also set to produce the same quarter-finalists, although there would be a surprise or two.

The most famous of these came in Group 1, where an England fresh off failure to qualify for World Cup 74 now too, were placed with Czechoslovakia, Portugal and Cyprus. The English got off to a fine start with a 3-0 win over the Czechoslovaks on October 30th, 1974, before a 0-0 with Portugal on November 20th and a 5-0 over Cyprus on April 16th, 1975, all at home.

None of the other teams had played each other by this point, but Czechoslovakia came roaring back by beating Cyprus and Portugal 4-0 and 5-0 respectively at Letenský Stadion, Prague, in April, 1975. At the other end of the scale, the Cypriots would end up losing all their games without scoring a goal.

On October 29th, 1975  England kicked-off their away game in Bratislava against the Czechoslovaks, yet 17 minutes later were heading back to the dressing room due to dense fog. The game was replayed the following day, with the home side picking up an important 2-1 win.

The two countries above were still to play away in Portugal within a week of each other in November, but both games would end 1-1 to keep things the same – England one point ahead. With Portugal out of the running and England out of games, Czecholsovakia’s 0-3 defeat of Cyprus on November 23rd, 1975, leapfrogged them above the English to lock them out of Europe, and major competition, for another two years at least.

As in Group 1, Group 2 contained a team that had zero points by end in Luxembourg, but they at least did score seven goals along the way (albeit while conceding 28 compared to Cyprus’ 16). This left the hopeful contestants as Austria, neighbours Hungary, who were confident after their heroics to qualify last time, and, to a lesser extent, Wales.

However, after an opening day defeat at the hands of Austria on September 4th, 1974, the Welsh would not look back, proceeding to win the rest of their games and progress with 10 points. The highest attendance in the group had come when 65,000 watched a scoreless Austro-Hungarian Empire derby on April 2nd, 1975 – more than twice the crowd when Wales had been the visitors.

A yellow and white Wales score their second in a 1-2 away win in Hungary to help them on their path to progression, Népstadion, Budapest, 16/04/1975.

Group 3 was the only other group where a team finished with as many as 10 points, as Yugoslavia comfortably eased passed opponents all with cross flags – Northern Ireland, Sweden and Norway. Their one defeat had at come at the hands of the Northern Irish, on front of 25,000 in Belfast’s Windsor Park on April 16th, 1975, but the Yugoslavs still held a four point advantage over both the North and the Swedes by the end.

In Group 4 Spain went unbeaten to claim their place in the quarter-finals, relying on three draws against Scotland and Romania to supplement their wins over the same opposition and Denmark. Six of the Twelve games in this group were in fact draws, making it one of the closest in terms of quality.

Group 5 was to provide the toughest battle for progression, however, as three World Cup 74 qualifiers were present, including the finalists, Netherlands; the third place team, Poland; and previous winners Italy. This left Finland as potential group whipping boys, however a fantastic 0-0 in Rome against the Italians on September 27th, 1975, made sure this would not entirely be the case.

Italy are frustrated again with a scoreless draw at home to Finland, the latter here defending an indirect free-kick inside the box (and look at that shade of blue shorts!), Stadio Olimpico, Rome, 27/09/1975.

The dropped point would end up costing the Italians dearly, as well as home and away 0-0s with Poland, and a 3-0 loss away to the Netherlands on November 20th, 1974. Despite a great 4-1 Polish win over the Dutch on September 5th, 1975, watched by 75,000 in Stadion Śląski, Chorzów, a 3-0 home result in the return game in Amsterdam on October 15th gave the Netherlands top spot by goal difference over the Poles, even after a 1-0 defeat away to Italy on the last day.

Groups 6 and 7 also featured teams narrowly missing out who had performed well, as the Soviet Union and Belgium advanced by a point ahead of Ireland and East Germany, respectively. The Irish held victories over the the Turks, the Swiss and the Soviets, including a 3-0 home demolition against the latter to open the campaign on October 30th, 1975, and with Don Givens finishing as overall qualifying top-scorer on eight, while East Germany had beaten the Belgians and a weak France, yet could only draw and lose to Iceland.

To finish with, Group 8 (we’ve gone in surprisingly chronological order this time) was one of the most entertaining, with champions West Germany joined by World Cup 74 qualifiers Bulgaria, Greece, and, the Greeks’ nightmare side from last time, Malta. The group opened on front of 14,000 or 30,000 (reports vary wildly on several of these games) on October 13th, 1974, with a 3-3 Bulgarian-Greece thriller in Sofia.

One of six goals goes in during Bulgaria and Greece's 3-3 draw, Vasil Levski Stadium, Sofia, 13/10/1974.

On November 20th, the West Germans came to Olympiacos’ Karaiskakis ground and were held 2-2 by the Greeks. The Hellenic outfit remained undefeated by December, with a 2-1 win over Bulgaria in the same stadium, but on February 23rd, an even bigger disaster than the previous campaign: 8,000 in the Empire Stadium, Gżira, watched in delight as Malta recorded as amazing 2-0 over Greece, securing their first ever competitive victory against the same opponents as their first draw.

This was to be the Maltese’ only highlight of the group as they would not score again afterwards, or indeed before-hand having already been beaten 0-1 by West Germany on December 22nd, 1974, with 12,000 in attendance. Despite another 1-1 with the Greeks in Düsseldorf on October 11th, 1975, the Germans picked up 1-0 and 8-0 wins over Bulgaria and Malta, in Stuttgart and Dortmund respectively, to claim pole position, with the latter of these oddly not taking place until February 28th, 1976.

The quarter-finals/play-offs produced some more great, classic European match-ups, with Yugoslavia-Wales, Czechoslovakia-USSR, Spain-West Germany, and the Low-countries derby of Netherlands-Belgium. This round also had the distinction of none of the games taking place in the capitals of the three socialist unions, as Zagreb, Kiev and Bratislava were all give hosting duties over Belgrade, Moscow and Prague.

The Welsh adventure was stifled by conceding in the first minute of the first leg on April 24th, 1976, as part of a 2-0 Yugoslav win, which meant the 1-1 in Ninian Park, Cardiff on May 22nd, wouldn’t be enough. The Czechoslovaks also recorded a 2-0 home win over the Soviets, with a 2-2 in the return game seeing them through to their second Championships having came 3rd in 1960.

Czechoslovak supporters celebrate going 1-0 up at home to the Soviet Union, Tehelné Pole, Bratislava, 24/04/1976.

A brilliantly named player, Erich “Ete” Beer, scored for the West Germans in their first leg in in Estadio Vicente Calderón, Madrid, to answer a Spanish opener. 76,000 in Munich’s Olympiastadion then watched a 2-0 home win to secure German representation for June.

The hyped Netherlands-Belgium battle turned out to be the most anti-climactic, as a 5-0 Dutch romp in De Kuip, Rotterdam, satisfied the 48,000 in attendance and all but kill the tie. Unsurprisingly, only 19,000 turned up in Brussels for the second-leg, where the Netherlands stamped their first qualification with a 1-2 win, 1-7 on aggregate.

We have joked about how UEFA was never going to send the Championships to the USSR at this time, thanks to Cold War politics. But, since the same politics had removed Yugoslavia from the Moscow-backed community of states as we discussed, the finals would in fact take place in a communist country, with Czechoslovakia defeating the Germans to take the title in Red Star Stadium, Belgrade, after to Antonín Panenka’s famous penalty shoot-out winning chip.



For 1980, the European Championships finally went through a radical shift to become a far more familiar affair to modern eyes: the number of finalists was changed from four to eight, with a designated non-qualifying host nation. Italy were chosen, giving them their second second hosting rights in twelve years after the 1968 edition.

This also meant no more play-off “quarter-finals” in between the groups and the actual tournament. Without Italy, the remaining 31 countries were divided into seven groups of five and four teams, with each group winner automatically progressing to the finals.

Once again, West Germany were placed with Malta in Group 7, along with Wales and Turkey. After a 7-0 smashing at the hands of the Welsh in Wrexham’s Racecourse Ground on October 25th, 1978, unbelievably the Maltese rallied to record perhaps their finest result yet, frustrating the West Germans by holding onto a scoreless draw at home on February 25th, 1979.

West Germany were also held to a 0-0 just over a month later on April 1st as 68,000 Turkish fans packed Izmir’s Alsancak Stadium. Home and away wins over Wales, however, and scoring a combined ten against Turkey and Malta without reply to finish off the group, assured that West Germany would be at the first extended Euros.

The victims of previous Maltese upsets, Greece, were finally due to fair better, placed in a group with the Soviet Union, Finland and Hungary. Astonishingly, it was actually the Finns who started the strongest, defeating Greece 3-0 in Helsinki on May 24th, 1978, and Hungary 2-1 on September 20th, while the Greeks succumbed to a 2-0 defeat at the hands of the Soviets in Yerevan, Armenia, on the same day.

On October 11th, 1978, Hungary’s 2-0 defeat of the USSR in Budapest could have really opened up a path for shock Finnish progression, except for the fact that the Finns were busying collapsing under an 8-1 Greek destruction in Athens. Greece continued to recover with a 4-1 win over Hungary on October 29th, which would also be noteworthy as the last game the country would play under it’s old, monarchical blue/white cross flag – by the time of the return 0-0 in Budapest on May 2nd, 1979, the current flag of the Greek Republic had replaced it.

Finland did manage to recover from the 8-1 humiliation, holding the Soviets 1-1 at home on front of 12,000, and 2-2 away on the last day on front of only 1,500 in Moscow. After having also drawn 2-2 with Hungary in Tbilisi on May 19th, with 75,000 in attendance,  the low crowd to come was was inevitable for the Soviets following a 1-0 loss in Athens on September 12th, eliminating the USSR and all but assuring the Greeks of an unexpected qualification.

With tough back-to-back Hungary and USSR away games in hand, the Finns still had chance of claiming top spot for themselves, even after going down 3-1 to the Hungarians on October 17th as a win in Moscow would put them level on Greece with 7 points. Yes, a near impossible 12 goal margin would have been needed to advance too, but, with the Soviets down and out, a once in a lifetime rout was surely on the mind of the one optimistic Finn out there (in the end it was a respectable 2-2 draw to send Greece through for certain).

People on the pitch and raucous celebrations as Greece defeat the Soviets to all but assure qualification for their first major tournament, Apostolos Nikolaidis Stadium, Athens, 12/09/1979.

Continuing in reverse order, Group 5 placed the holders, Czechoslovakia, with France, Sweden and Luxembourg, and, despite a 2-1 loss in Paris on November 17th, 1979, the champs won all other matches to progress comfortably. The Luxembourgers improved from last time, as 2000 fans in Stade de la Frontière, Esch-sur-Alzette, watched a notable 0-0 draw against the Swedes on October 22nd, 1979.

Group 4 reunited two pairings from the 1976 qualifying campaign – Netherlands and Poland, East Germany and Iceland – with the addition of Switzerland. While the Icelanders unfortunately couldn’t manage a point, the recently two-time World Cup runners-up Dutch unsurprising topped the table a point ahead of Poland, but only made secure on the last day with a heroic November 21st, 1979, 2-3 away win in Leipzig on front of 92,000 East Germans.

In Groups 2 and 3, the winners would also succeed only by a point, with Belgium’s path to redemption in the former seeing them go undefeated against Austria, Portugal, Scotland, and Noway. In the latter – a group that also saw Cyprus hold the Romanians to a 0-0 on in Limassol, and Zagreb, Novi Sad and Kosovo hosting Yugoslav games – a Spanish loss to Yugoslavia in Valencia on October 12th, 1979, plus a 2-2 on front of 47,000 in Craiova, Romania, were to be Spain’s only dropped points.

We’re finally left with Group 1 of the Euro 80 qualifiers, which was of particular interest due to the combination of England, Ireland and Northern Ireland, along with Bulgaria and Denmark. The Irish got off to an interesting start, drawing 3-3 away in Copenhagen on May 24th, 1978, with the 38,000 home crowd Danes watching a side still a couple of campaigns away from truly breaking out.

The highly anticipated first match ever between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland was next in Dublin, with 48,000 in Lansdowne Road on September 20th, 1978, but neither trouble or much action broke out as a 0-0 was played out. On the same day, Denmark again scored three at home, but were unlucky that their English opponents outscored them by one.

Northern Ireland fans in Republic of Ireland's Lansdowne Road for the first time ever, Dublin, 20/09/1978.

With the other teams all picking-up wins off each other, the Danish draw would be England’s last dropped points as they won all remaining matches to easily claim qualification on 15 points. The runners-up on 9 points were Northern Ireland, who were at least happy to take bragging rights from the second All-Ireland affair on November 21st, 1979, with a 1-0 win, while 90,000 in Wembley watched England’s qualification drought-ending victory lap and a meaningless 2-0 win over Ireland on February 20th, 1980 (meaning we have accidentally gone past the 1970s after all here).


YouTube links:

West Germany vs Albania, 1971
East Germany vs Netherlands, 1970
Belgium vs Italy, 1972
Hungary vs Wales, 1975
Italy vs Finland, 1975
Bulgaria vs Greece, 1974
Czechoslovakia vs USSR, 1976
Greece vs USSR, 1978
Ireland vs Northern Ireland, 1978 (BBC)


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