Remembering football’s first European Championship 60 years later

Philip Barker

60 years ago, a new football tournament for European nations was reaching its climax in France.

Euro 2020 was to have been a celebration of the diamond anniversary, a unique tournament spread across the continent. It is now hoped that it will be played in 2021 but the manner in which the tournament will be staged remains far from certain even though UEFA insisted last week that all the designated centres for the tournament are still to be used next year.

In a strange way, the enforced rescheduling is a reflection of the first competition when, in the words of UEFA, the fixture list was “less rigorously enforced”. Back in the 1950s, the first round of eight home and away matches took more than a year to complete.

Four nations contested the semi-finals in July 1960, but of them, only France still exists as the same country.

It is also a mark of how football has changed that when the tournament was launched, there was a marked lack of interest from some of the biggest names in European football. West Germany and Italy did not take part. Future FIFA President Sir Stanley Rous, then secretary of the Football Association in England, said he expected more interest when further details of the tournament were known. In fact England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales were also “absent friends”.

For East Germany, though, it was a rare opportunity to compete in their own right. At the Olympics their sportsmen and women were obliged to take part in a “unified” team with West Germany. They lost over two legs to Portugal.

As with the World Cup, the inspiration for the tournament came from a Frenchman. Henri Delaunay was a long-serving official who’d helped Jules Rimet launch the World Cup.

Euro 2020 was set to mark the 60th anniversary of the first European Championship ©Getty Images
Euro 2020 was set to mark the 60th anniversary of the first European Championship ©Getty Images

Delaunay had first proposed such a Nations Cup back in the 1920s. A club competition in Central Europe did take place in the interwar years, but it was not until 1954 that the foundation of UEFA gave Europe a continental governing body. A competition for champion clubs was established, followed by a tournament for the nations of Europe.

“Our mosaic of European countries needs this outlet of sporting expression”, said Delaunay, who sadly died in 1955 before his big idea became a reality.

The format of the first tournament was a straight knockout played over two legs home and away. After the quarter-finals, the surviving four teams were to play a mini tournament hosted by one of the four.

A preliminary round was needed to reduce the 17 entrants to 16. In this, the Republic of Ireland were drawn against Czechoslovakia.

Ireland were managed by legendary former Manchester United player Johnny Carey. They were 2-0 victors in the first leg, played in front of 30,000 at Dalymount Park in…

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