Weak need not apply

MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 11:18 AM ET

The World Cup may be the most prestigious sporting event in the world.

But if you ask soccer experts, many believe the European Cup is a tougher tournament to win.

"It's probably the third most anticipated event behind the World Cup and the Olympics," said Jason deVos, former captain of Canada's national soccer team and recently retired 18-year professional. "But because of the way the qualification works with the World Cup, you can get some weak teams in the tournament.

"You don't get any weak teams in Euro."

At least not now. There was a time when this tournament wasn't that attractive to European national teams. In the first two tournaments, 1960 and 1964, not all the nations participated. The format was a home-and-away, two-game set with four teams eventually advancing to the semifinals and final. Only 17 teams participated in the qualification round.

The first tournament was held in France with small crowds attending, even though France was one of the semifinalists.

That changed quickly, though. In 1964, the tournament was held in Spain and the Spanish national team won its first and so far, only major tournament trophy. The largest crowd in tournament history -- 125,000 at Santiago Bernabeu stadium -- watched Spain defeat the Soviet Union 2-1.

Four years earlier, Spain had been eliminated from the tournament because dictator General Francisco Franco's government refused to let the Spanish team travel to a communist country.

The tournament was then called the European Nations Cup. The name was changed in 1968 to the European Championship. It went through several other changes, moving to an eight-team tournament with two groups of four and eventually four groups of four teams. Teams now must go through grinding qualifying rounds, playing as many as 12 games just to qualify.

How difficult is it to win the European Championship?

In 2000, the year France won the tournament, it played Denmark, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and Italy to win.

Since its inception in 1960, 12 tournaments have been played. There have been only two multiple winners. Germany has won it three times and France twice.

Compare that with the World Cup. Of the 18 tournaments, only seven nations have won it. Five teams have won more than once but 12 of those tournament wins have been shared by Brazil, Italy and Germany. Only France and England have broken the monopoly held by the big three. Uruguay and Argentina each has won twice.

It has been a tournament that has provided some memorable soccer. When Marco van Basten leads his Netherlands team on the pitch in Group C against Italy, France and Romania, he will do so knowing that his goal in the 1988 final against the Soviet Union, won by the Dutch, was voted the best goal in tournament history. He scored from about eight yards off the goal line from the perimeter of the 18-yards box. Taking a long cross on the fly, he looped the ball over a stranded goalie.

The Italians won their lone European Championship in Italy in 1968. It was the only tournament which went to a replay. The final between Italy and Yugoslavia wound up 1-1. Two days later the teams played a second final, won by Italy, 2-0.

It came down to a coin flip for Italy. The Italians tied their semifinal with the Soviet Union. When extra time didn't produce a winner, a coin flip determined who would go to the final. Italy won the flip.

The last of the four-team tournaments took place in Yugoslavia in 1976. All the games went into either extra time or penalty shootout without Yugoslavia beating Germany on kicks from the penalty spot.

The 1980 tournament in Italy was marred by hooliganism, poor attendance and bad football. The teams scored an average only 1.93 goals a game.

In 1984, French great Michel Platini scored nine goals in five games to lead France to the tournament championship.

Short of Greece's win in the 2004 European event, the 1992 tournament may have provided the biggest surprise.

Denmark failed to qualify for the tournament. But the redrawing of the political map in Europe with the fall of communism had deep repercussions. Yugoslavia had qualified but had been disqualified because of political problems. Denmark was given its spot and given no chance to win.

But the Danes made it to the final, defeating Holland in the semifinal on penalty kicks and going on to defeat Germany 2-0 in the final.

The French broke Italian hearts in 2000 in Belgium and Holland. Italy took a 1-0 lead early in the second half and rode its defence four minutes into injury time. As the referee was about to blow the final whistle, Sylvain Wiltord managed to squeeze a ball under the Italian goalkeeper, sending the game into extra time.

The French won when David Trezeguet scored the golden goal.

This tournament will offer its own history. It may be Germany's fourth title or Portugal's first major trophy win. Perhaps Romania will come out of the Group of Death and be 2008's version of Denmark.

One thing is certain, this is a tournament that takes a back seat to no other.


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