The UEFA European Championship has turned into a massive success story as it enjoys the status of one of the world's major sporting events - although the championship's creation five decades ago was more difficult than might be expected.
Championships for national associations had already begun in other continents by the time the idea of a European competition for national teams began to reach fruition in the 1950s. There were various reasons for the comparatively late emergence of a championship on the European continent. For example, in addition to differing opinions and interest circles throughout Europe, there were fears in some quarters that such a competition might threaten the status of the FIFA World Cup.
At the time that UEFA was born, in 1954, the impetus for a European championship was coming from the distinguished French sports newspaper L'Equipe, which proposed a competition with home-and-away matches to be played in midweek in the evening. Adding to the French drive for such a tournament was Henry Delaunay, first UEFA General Secretary and former French national association general secretary. In 1927, Delaunay had already submitted a proposal to FIFA, in conjunction with the great Austrian official Hugo Meisl, for the creation of a European cup, to run concurrently with the World Cup, which would involve a qualifying competition every two years.
Delaunay wrote after UEFA's inaugural Basle assembly in 1954 that the idea was for a competition open to all of the European associations. A three-member committee, he said, had been entrusted with examining this difficult problem. Delaunay insisted that this competition should not lead to an infinite number of matches. Nor should it harm the World Cup, and participants should not always be forced to meet the same opponents in the same group.
Following Henry Delaunay's death in 1955, his son Pierre joined the French journalists in the drive towards initiating the European Nations' Cup. Pierre Delaunay was subsequently appointed secretary of the European Nations' Cup Organising Committee, and was therefore able to observe at close quarters the blossoming of the competition that his father had wanted. After agreement had been reached that the championship would be founded, the new competition was named the Henri Delaunay Cup in recognition of his outstanding services in the cause of European football.
The inaugural tournament was entered by around half of UEFA's member associations, 17 in total, and one more than the minimum required. The Republic of Ireland were eliminated by Czechoslovakia in a qualifying play-off (the two teams met after the drawing of lots). The first championship match proper was held on 28 September 1958 in Moscow's Central Stadium - the USSR beating Hungary 3-1, with the home side's Anatoli Ilyin scoring the first goal after four minutes - and the inaugural competition took place over 22 months between 1958 and 1960. From small acorns do great oaks rise...