Football Special Report #12: Evolution of Euro Qualifiers

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’re going to end up at a comparatively late period for us (2006/07, although we once did venture as far as 2010 when finding our feet) but first have to delve into the history books. Click here for all available entries in the Football Special Report category.

Intro:

The 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 to emerge 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. Many say that this latest expansion in particular dilutes the quality, but, since we usually care more about fans and emotion rather than play, we can see an upside to allowing more nations a place on a higher stage (putting aside the fact that additional games = money for UEFA; Hungary in 2016 comes to mind).

The finals have actually quadrupled in size since the earliest 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 as we shall see.

1950s/60s:

A tournament of 17 teams was organised for first “European Nations’ Cup” to take place over 1958-1960, with two-legged home and away ties up to the semi-finals effectively serving as qualifiers and a host then chosen based on the final four. 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).

Over 100,000 spectators watched first game in UEFA Euro history, a first round first-leg clash on 28 September 1958 between two communist states: the soon-to-be inaugural champions of the Soviet Union, and Hungary. This was even though a later Ireland vs Czechoslovakia preliminary round (chosen at random to narrow the field to 16) in April/May 1959 was technically earlier in the competition.

The Czechoslovaks overcame a 2-0 first-leg defeat in Dublin to win 4-0 in Bratislava on their way to the eventual finals in France, along with the hosts, Yugoslavia, and of course the USSR. The Soviets had only made it past Franco’s Spain in the quarter-finals by default however, as the latter refused to travel to the socialist super-hub resulting in a walkover.

After the success of the first competition, the number of entrants for 1964 rose to 28 with many of those bigger names mentioned earlier now present – still oddly apart from West Germany, but not East. Sweden, Scotland and Finland also remained away, while the likes of Iceland  Malta and Albania were set to make their debuts. Like Spain in 1960 though, the Albanians refused to take on political and local enemies Greece in the preliminary round, which was now extended to thirteen ties before the Round of 16.

The quarter-finals remarkably contained Ireland, who had beaten Iceland and Austria before a 7-1 aggregate elimination at the hands of Spain (happy to travel to an Irish state nearly as right-wing as they were), and even more amazingly Luxembourg, who had overcome the Netherlands in their greatest ever result in the previous round. A a respectable 5-6 agg. exit at the hands Denmark followed, with the Danes themselves another surprise package by making it the Spanish finals along with Hungary and the USSR.

For 1968’s third edition – the first to be known officially as the European Championships – the number of teams again rose to 31, and finally qualification groups were arranged with eight group winners to progress to quarter-finals (home and away play-offs). Most “major” nations were now involved, including Cyprus, although Iceland and Malta withdrew again.

West Germany were chosen for their Euro qualifier-debut along with Yugoslavia and Albania for the one group made of only three teams, Group 4, but lost out on a finals-debut by finishing behind the Yugoslavs. Group 8, meanwhile, ingeniously doubled as the 1966/67 and 1967/68 editions of the British Home Championship, like World Cup 1950 qualifying had done for 1949/50. And after three attempts, all scheduled games were completed this time on the road to the finals in Italy.

1970s:

The 70s kicked off with a nice, round 32 teams taking part in Euro 72 qualifiers, with Iceland the missing team you might have expected to be present. The eight group winners again advanced to home and away quarter-finals in April and May 1972, which saw upcoming-champions West Germany eliminate England, and original champions the Soviets defeat Yugoslavia on their way to a fourth consecutive finals.

The 1976 system remained virtually unchanged, with the exception of Albania – on one of their self-imposed exiles – being substituted out for the returning Iceland. For the first time the USSR were not to make the finals, held in Yugoslavia, as they were knocked out in the quarters by eventual winners Czechoslovakia.

In 1977 it was announced that Euro 80 would be the first to feature a group stage and a per-ordained host, with Italy defeating England, Greece, Netherlands, Switzerland and West Germany in the bidding process and hence becoming the first nation to qualify automatically. This meant that the qualifiers were reduced the 31 teams, and arranged into seven groups of fours and fives.

For the first time the group winners also qualified automatically for the finals. The biggest surprises came in Group 6 as Greece topped the pool to advance to a Euros debut, while the Soviets continued their fall from grace by finishing last behind Hungary and Finland.

1980s:

France were selected to host the next Championships in 1984, bypassing qualifiers, while Albania returned to bring the number of entrants back up to 32. But, due to the introduction of seeding and the need for only seven group winners, the seven group system remained rather than eight groups of four again.

The surprise success story this time was Romania’s progress to the finals, with Denmark also making their return – the start of six successive qualifications for the Danes (even if the most successful was quite by accident). A suspect result also occurred in Group 7 when Spain beat Malta 12-1 on the last day – exactly what they needed to pip Netherlands for top spot.

Again for Euro 88 the system remained unchanged and with the same countries involved, so not much to report. This time Ireland were the now-traditional debut qualifiers, while the Netherlands completed their first successful qualifying campaign since 1979 en route to finally picking up a major international trophy at the finals in West Germany.

1990s:

With Eastern Europe’s removal of communism in the late 80s and early 90s, one of the first football competitions to feel the reverberations was the Sweden 92 Euro qualifiers. As the state of East Germany was wiped out by the stroke of a pen, so too Group 5 was suddenly minus one entrant on the eve of qualification in September 1990. The East German’s up-coming group game against Belgium was still played, but reclassified as a friendly send-off before assimilation back into the West.

Despite this, the number of entrants actually rose to 33 thanks to the welcome arrival of San Marino and Faroe Islands. The latter was even to provide one of the best moments in qualification, defeating Austria at home with a shock 1-0 on the opening day.

The complications weren’t at an end though, as Albania’s final game against Spain was cancelled due to the ongoing collapse of the Albanian state, while two groups winners in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia were on their last legs. The USSR team morphed into the CIS in early 1992, mirroring the political and economic Confederation of Independent States which had been formed by former-Soviet republics and allowing them to still compete in Sweden.

Yugoslavia would have no such solution as the country broke up and into civil wars by April 1992. The remaining team of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, in accordance with international embargoes, was banned from football-competition ten days before they were set to take part in the finals and Denmark were famously granted the place as runners-up in the qualification group. This unexpectedly allowed them to continue their streak of finals appearances and, more importantly, go all the way to winning the competition outright.

Euro 96 would see the most revolutionary change to the qualifiers since the introduction of groups in the first place, as the number of entrants grew to 47.  Partly to account for this, the tournament finals itself doubled to 16. Qualification was to be made up of seven groups of six teams and one group of five, in which the top six runners-up would join the first placed teams to qualify automatically with the final two runners-up playing-off on neutral soil for the last spot.

At the qualification draw, Russia now appeared in seeding Pot 1 in place of the USSR, with their fellow-former-Soviet republics the Ukraine in Pot 2; Lithuania, Belarus and Georgia in Pot 4; Latvia and Estonia in Pot 5; and Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan in Pot 3. From the former-SFR Yugoslavia, Croatia were in Pot 3, FYR Macedonia in Pot 4, and Slovenia in Pot 6; FR Yugoslavia were still banned, while Bosnia-Herzegovina were still embroiled in the war.

A more peaceful break-up was that of Czechoslovakia, with the new Czech Republic in Pot 3 and Slovakia in Pot 5. Also making up the numbers were Israel, who had already competed in several UEFA World Cup qualifying systems due to the refusal of their Arab neighbours to play them; and Liechtenstein, who would hold first seeds Ireland to another famous result (0-0) at home.

Ahead of Euro 2000 Andorra were also added to the mix, FR Yugoslavia were allowed return and Bosnia-Herzegovina joined. This increased the number of qualifier entrants to 49 rather than 50, as the Belgian and Dutch dual-hosts – a style being tested for the first time – would both qualify automatically.

For seeding, UEFA arranged the fray into nine teams for the first four pots (including the Yugoslavs straight back in Pot 1) and 13 of the weakest nations in Pot 5. Compare this the the 1980s when, Pots 1-4 were comprised of seven teams and Pot 5 only contained four. Nine groups were therefore created, with each group winner plus the best runner-up qualifying automatically, and the rest of the runners-up entering home and away play-offs.

The draw immediately threw up the one fixture everyone wanted to see with Yugoslavia and Croatia paired together in Group 8, along with Ireland and Macedonia. The qualifiers also coincided with the Kosovo Conflict and several games were postponed and moved, as Ireland constantly (it felt like) traveled back and forth between the war-torn region (click here for our Groups of Death post where we go more in-depth on this).

2000s:

For Euro 2004, hosting went back to a solo situation with Portugal now the team to skip qualification. This meant that the number of qualification entrants hit a nice round 50 and the groups were arranged into a satisfying ten of five, the winners of which would be joined by five runner-up play-off winners to make up the 15 plus host.

One small change was that FR Yugoslavia became simply Serbia and Montenegro for this edition. Meanwhile another former Soviet republic in distant Kazakhstan, which technically does cover part of geographical Europe, had joined UEFA, but not soon enough to make it into these qualifiers.

Finally we come to the 2008 system, where countries would be looking to make it to an Austria-Switzerland hosted finals. The qualifiers remained at 50 participants though, as now the Kazaks made their entrance. Serbia were also competing on their own for the first time, with the split of the last remnants of Yugoslavia (when the draw was made Montenegro had still been connected and so were too late to enter on their own, waiting until 2007 for their international debut).

The number of qualifying groups was reduced to seven – Group A to Group G – for the first time since 1992, to produce 14 group winners and runners-up that would join the two hosts. Back in 92 some groups still only comprised of four teams, as had most throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s. But now, with all the extra teams, one group was going to be double that as seeding Pots 1-6 were made of seven each and Pot 7 was made of eight.

Group 1 was to therefore be the eight-team group that made history as the biggest ever in European qualifiers, for either a Euros or a World Cup. Poland, Portugal, Serbia, Finland, Belgium, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Azerbaijan (listed in order of their final standings) were the proud nations to be part of this accomplishment. The group also contained one of the biggest shocks via the match between the new boys and the newly-solo boys, with a great Kazakh home victory over the Serbs.

Not all games in the mammoth pool were completed however. Armenia and Azerbaijan’s fixtures against each other were cancelled due to the ongoing “political and security disagreements” between the two states, and are now on UEFA’s list of teams that must be keep separate in draws.

The rest of the groups all contained seven teams, which tied the previous record for biggest group in UEFA qualifier history first set by World Cup 94 qualifying Group 3 (Spain, Ireland, Denmark, Northern Ireland, Lithuania, Latvia and Albania) and equaled by World Cup 2006 qualifying Groups 1-3. The Euros continued to grow after the 2008 tournament (up to 55 entrants as of the latest qualifiers), but an increase in the number of groups again meant that we would never see the likes of seven or eight team groupings again.

***

YouTube Links:

USSR vs Hungary, 1958
Greece vs USSR, 1979
Spain vs Malta, 1983
Faroe Island vs Austria, 1990
Lichtenstein vs Ireland, 1995
Croatia vs Yugoslavia, 1999
Kazakhstan vs Serbia, 2007

*****

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