The European Championship was launched with the European Cup Competitions of Nations in 1960 and 1964, but adopted its present title at the third attempt. Thirty one countries entered for the 1968 Europeans, following 17 at the first event and 28 at the second. All the big football nations were now competing, including Germany for the first time. Previously the competition had been held with a knock-out system, including the quarter-finals with first and second legs, just like the European Cup for clubs. For the 1968 Europeans qualification groups were introduced. The eight group winners contested the quarter-finals.
When the qualifying matches began in the autumn of 1966, there were a few odd situations. The British associations of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland formed Group 8. Reigning World Cup champions England came top ahead of Scotland (8-4) in this “British Championship”. There were seven groups with four teams each, and one group with three. In Group 4 Germany met Yugoslavia and Albania. The Germans, then World Cup runners-up, failed to reach the quarter-finals after a goalless draw with Albania.
In the quarter-finals Yugoslavia, England, the Soviet Union and Italy qualified for the finals in Italy on June 5-10, 1968. The Italians, who had failed miserably at the World Cup two years earlier in England after a defeat by North Korea, needed to successfully draw lots after their semi-final against the Soviets (0-0 after extra time), followed by two finals lasting 210 minutes against Yugoslavia to narrowly grab the 1968 European title.
The competition system remained the same in 1972 and 1976, but the qualification process was extended. In the battle for the two final rounds 32 teams (eight groups with four teams each) competed; the British associations now allotted to different groups. In the matches held between October 1970 and May 1972 Hungary, Germany, Belgium and the USSR made it into the finals held in Belgium on June 14-18, 1972. A brilliantly performing German team won the title with a 3-0 victory over the Soviet Union in Brussels.
In 1976 Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, the Federal Republic of Germany and Yugoslavia battled through the qualification and the quarter-finals to ensure their participations in the finals in Yugoslavia. After leading 2-0 at half-time, the hosts lost 4-2 to the German title holders, who met Czechoslovakia in the final. For the first time a final was decided on penalties after a 2-2 draw with extra time. Czechoslovakia won and became the fifth different European champions in the fifth tournament.
Prior to 1980 major changes were agreed. The European Championship slowly matured. The previous finals had been a small affair compared with the World Cup. Now eight teams qualified for the final round, and were awarded a longer spell to prepare. The team of the host nation automatically qualified for the finals. Thirty one teams participated in the qualifying seven groups, the winners progressing to the finals. They were England, Belgium and Spain, forming Group 1 with hosts Italy; the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, Greece and Germany playing in Group 2. The group winners met in the final. Most of the matches were played tactically, as outright football remained a rarity – an experience also collected at the World Cup during that time, where group matches and not knock-outs also led to the final. Germany became the first country to win their second European title with a 2-1 victory over Belgium.
In 1984, 1988 and 1992 the European Championship were played with the same system. After the group matches the semi-finals were held – criss-crossing the two first and two second-placed teams. A fantastic European Championship took place in France in 1984, with the French victors and their superstar Michel Platini, becoming the third hosts to succeed in the finals after 1964 and 1968. In 1988 yet another team, the Netherlands, were crowned European champions in Germany, and this trend continued with the surprise victory of Denmark in Sweden 1992.