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 Dublin. The Czechoslovaks, who had taken part in the 1958 World Cup finals, came back strongly with a 4-0 win in the second leg.

Strange as it may seem, some first-round matches were played before the preliminary round.

The first official match was at least played before a capacity crowd. 100,000 crammed into the Lenin Stadium in Moscow to see Soviet Union (USSR) play Hungary in September 1958.

Players jump for the ball in the final between the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia ©Getty Images
Players jump for the ball in the final between the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia ©Getty Images

The first goal came after only four minutes and was scored by Anatol Ilyin. Like many of his team mates he had won Olympic gold at the Melbourne 1956 Games. Three first-half goals set the pattern for a 3-1 win.

By this time, Hungary were only a shadow of their "golden" team which had illuminated the early 1950s. That side had been swept away in the aftermath of the Hungarian uprising.

Inspirational captain Ferenc Puskás was by now playing in Spain for Real Madrid. Puskas did not yet figure in the Spanish national team, but such were the playing riches available to Spain that they were still a powerful team at this time.

The jewel in the crown was Argentinian emigre Alfredo di Stéfano. The national team at this time also included his Real teammate Luis del Sol and Barcelona’s Luis Suárez and László Kubala.

In the first round, they were drawn against Poland. The first leg in the Silesian mining town of Katowice promised an intimidating atmosphere. The Poles did take the lead through Ernest Pol, but Suárez and Di Stéfano scored within a minute of one another put the Spanish in control before half time. Both also found the net in the second half to secure a 4-2 win.

"Spain with this first European Championships victory seem to be on the road to totally recovering their footballing reputation," wrote Manuel Roson in the Spanish sports paper Mundo Deportivo.

Spain also won the second leg 3-0.

That December, the quarter-final draw was made in Paris. It produced a sensation.

Spain came out of the hat with the Soviet Union. This raised the prospect of the first direct sporting confrontation between the two nations since before the Spanish Civil War.

Suárez was on course for the Ballon d'Or that season and exemplified the confidence of his team mates. "We were sure we could beat them and go on to become European champions."

The legendary Alfredo di Stéfano ©Getty Images
The legendary Alfredo di Stéfano ©Getty Images

The distinguished Spanish sports reporter Andres Merce Varela reported that it took Spanish Football Association chief Alfonso De La Fuente Chaos and his Soviet counterpart Valentin Granatkin only 20 minutes to agree dates for the following May and June.

In those days there were no penalty shootouts so Rome or Paris were put on standby for any playoff match needed if the scores were level after the two games.

As the date of the first leg drew closer, Spanish newspapers enthusiastically gave details of the Soviet opposition which included legendary goalkeeper Lev Yashin. Those same newspapers also carried advertisements for excursions from other Spanish towns to the return leg in Madrid.

In the meantime, Spain beat England 3-0 at the Bernabeu in a friendly international.

Over the next few days, Real Madrid beat Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 in a European Cup final which was to assume legendary status. Gradually though, Spain’s players became aware of rumours about the match in Moscow.

"We heard things but we didn’t think that the match was not going to be played," Suárez told the sporting paper Marca years later.

Spanish dictator General Franco was said to have asked if it was "appropriate" for the national team to travel to Moscow.

A few days later, a short news agency paragraph on the front page of La Vanguardia abruptly stated:  "The Spanish Football federation has informed FIFA that the matches between the national teams of Spain and the USSR have been suspended." 

There were similar notices in the other papers but no further mention of the affair.

It was said that La Fuente Chaos had made a personal appeal to Franco, but in vain.

Di Stéfano was told "a decision has been taken by those above. We are not going to Moscow. Franco has said."

The Russians were furious. The match had been set for another 100,000 sellout. UEFA eventually ordered the Spanish football authorities to pay a fine of CHF 2,000.

Viktor Ponedelnik, left, scored the winning goal in the final ©Getty Images
Viktor Ponedelnik, left, scored the winning goal in the final ©Getty Images

Meanwhile, France was chosen to host the final stages. They had been World Cup semi-finalists in 1958 but this time star players Just Fontaine and Raymond Kopa were both missing.

Even so, they seemed set for victory over Yugoslavia in the first semi when they led 4-2 with less than half an hour to go at the Parc de Princes in Paris. The Yugoslavs then scored three in less than five minutes to win an amazing encounter 5-4.

Later that night, two goals from Valentin Ivanov helped the Soviets beat Czechoslovakia 3-0 in Marseille.

The final was described in Mundo Deportivo by Merce Varela as "stupendous football from teams with contrasting styles."

Yugoslavia took the lead shortly before the interval with a neat flick from Milan Galić but Slava Metreveli equalised in the second half to take the match to extra time.

Viktor Ponedelnik headed the winner. He described it as "the star moment" of his life.

Ponedelnik happens to be the Russian word for Monday and although the final had kicked off on Sunday night, it was already Monday in Moscow by the time the final whistle blew. "Perfect for the headline writers", said Ponedelnik.

Skipper Igor Netto received the trophy, appropriately named in honour of Delaunay. When the team returned to Moscow, they paraded it at a packed Lenin Stadium and as a salute to their triumph, team members all received a bouquet of flowers.