The European Championships, or Euros, take place every four years, typically two years apart from the World Cup. First held in 1958, the tournament seems nations that fall under the UEFA umbrella battle to qualify for a summer tournament that featured just four teams from 1960 to 1976, then eight from 1980 to 1992, 16 between 1996 and 2012, and 24 since then.
The format of the Euros has been tweaked various times over the years and with 24 teams now taking part it is not the most natural structure. A group phase whittles those 24 down to 16 before a standard knockout ensues. Germany, including when they participated as West Germany, and Spain, are the most successful nations and have both won the Euros three times. Italy and France have a brace of wins each whilst England… well they won the World Cup once!
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Euros League Structure & Format
As with the World Cup (and indeed most major football tournaments, cups and leagues) the Euros has changed numerous times over the years. Broadly speaking though it remains fairly similar to the World Cup and is played every four years between international sides that fall under the UEFA umbrella. Unless stated to the contrary, when we talk about the structure, dates and other aspects of the format we will be basing the information on the upcoming tournament due to be held in Germany 2024, or, where relevant Euro 2020.
Generally speaking, all stats, records and information will be correct as of 2022 – which is to say including the 2020 tournament. We will look at the major changes that have taken place both in terms of qualifying and the finals themselves later in the article.
European Championships (Euros) Finals Dates
The Euros tournament typically takes place in the summer of even-numbered years, once every four years, in the even-numbered years between World Cups. Put another, perhaps simpler way, they began in 1960 and have taken place every four years since then. Up until the global health issues that affected so many sporting events in 2020 and beyond, the Euros had been remarkably regular.
Events such as the Olympics, golf’s Ryder Cup, the World Cups of cricket, rugby and even football, have all deviated from the anticipated scheduling for wars, unforeseen circumstances or just marketing/promotional reasons. The Euros, however, had stuck rigidly to its quadrennial summer spot perfectly for 60 years.
Euro 2020, still so named despite being held in 2021, was the first that broke from that pattern but hopefully we will be back on track when it comes to Euro 2024 in Germany. Ruthless German efficiency, if nothing else, should see to that. As with the World Cup, the exact dates tend to vary from tournament to tournament but broadly speaking the Euros take place in June and July. The dates for the next and previous four tournaments can be seen below:
- Germany 2024 – 14th June to 14h July
- Euro 2020 (pan-European) – 11th June to 11th July
- France 2016 – 10th June to 10th July
- Poland and Ukraine 2012 – 8th June to 1st July
- Austria and Switzerland 2008 – 7th June to 29th June
Typically, we see a group phase for the first two weeks of the tournament, followed by a knockout phase of about the same length. The final is normally held on a Sunday, with the two semis in the midweek prior and the quarters between Friday and Sunday before that.
Euros Finals Format
As alluded to we will consider previous tournament formats and structures, and history, separately. Here we will focus on what it would take for a side to lift the Henri Delaunay Trophy (the name given to the trophy the winners of the Euros receive, named in honour of UEFA’s first General Secretary who is broadly credited with conceiving the tournament) in 2024.
In line with every edition of this tournament since 2016, 24 teams will make it Germany, with 23 places up for grabs and the hosts automatically taking part. The draw for qualification took place on 9th October 2022 and England will have to try and get the better of Italy, Ukraine, North Macedonia and Malta. There are 53 teams involved in qualification, with Germany, and Russia, who are banned, the teams missing from the 55 UEFA members.
England are in Group C, with Wales in Group D, Scotland in Group A, Republic of Ireland in B and Northern Ireland in H. There are 10 groups in all, with most having five teams and three having six. The top two teams from each group will qualify for the finals, with three places being decided by a play-off process that will include three separate play-off pathways and 12 teams in total, some of those having made the play-offs by virtue of their performance in the 2022/23 Nations League.
The draw for the finals itself will not be made until December 2023, with seedings in place, largely based on European qualifiers rankings. The format of qualifying and the finals is very similar to Euro 2020. This means that at the finals the 24 teams will be split into six groups of four teams. They will play each other once in a standard round-robin format, with the top two progressing to the last 16. The four best-ranked third-placed sides will join them.
From here the Euros is played as a standard knockout tournament with games played over a single leg. The bracket, as it is known, is predetermined, rather than a fresh draw being made after every round. This means, for example, that we know the top team in Group A will play the runner-up from Group C in the last 16. The winner of this tie will meet whoever wins out of the winner of Group B and whichever third-placed side from Group A, D, E or F they face. Until the draw in December 2023, however, we will not know who is in which group, other than that hosts Germany are the top seeds in Group A.
In the group phase, teams receive the standard three points for a win and one point for a draw. There is no extra time. In the event of two or more teams being level on points, there are many tiebreakers used, starting with the points gained in head-to-head matches between them, then goal difference, right down to disciplinary record and overall European Qualifiers ranking position.
Should teams draw during the knockout phase of the European Championships the game will move into extra time. If the scores are still level there will be a penalty shootout (and England will lose). The Euros do not have a third-place decider; this unloved clash was dispensed with for the 1984 tournament in France and has never been reintroduced.
Awards at the Euros
As said, the winners receive the Henri Delaunay Trophy, originally designed by Henri’s son Pierre. It was redesigned in 2008 and is now far larger and heavier than the original. Winning players receive a gold medal, with losing finalists getting, you guessed it, silver medals.
There are also several individual awards on offer, including for the Player of the Tournament. Although this was inaugurated in 1996, UEFA have retrospectively awarded it for 1992, 1988 and 1984 as well. Past winners include Michel Platini (1984), Marco van Basten (1988) and Xavi (2008), although perhaps unusually two goalkeepers have won it too, Peter Schmeichel in 1992 and Gianluigi Donnarumma in 2020.
More recently, the best player under 23 receives the Young Player of the Tournament, Renato Sanches and Pedri having won in 2016 and 2020 respectively. There is also the hugely prestigious Golden Boot award, granted to the tournament’s top scorer. Past winners include the above-mentioned Platini, who helped France to victory on home soil in 1984 with an impressive haul of nine goals; Alan Shearer who scored five in 1996; and more recently Cristiano Ronaldo at Euro 2020.
Players can also claim glory by being named in the Team of the Tournament. In the past this was more like a squad, with up to 23 players being credited, but since 2016 it is just 11. In 1996 David Seaman, Shearer, Steve McManaman and Paul Gascoigne all made the cut, whilst Wayne Rooney, Sol Campbell, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Raheem Sterling and Kyle Walker are just some of the English players to have been chosen.
History of the European Championships
The first ever European Championships were held in France in 1960 and, in line with the next four tournaments, just four teams made the finals. Soviet Union triumphed, defeating Yugoslavia in the final. Henri Delaunay, in whose honour the competition’s trophy is named, proposed some form of European contest as early as 1927 but he died in 1955 before he saw his idea come to fruition. Delaunay, alongside Jules Rimet, had been one of the key drivers of the World Cup too, that competition hosting its inaugural tournament in 1930.
Nonetheless, Delaunay’s idea finally came to fruition and in 1960 we saw the first ever European Championships, officially the UEFA European Football Championship. Over the years there have been various changes to the format and structure, some of which we will look at shortly. However, the aim of the tournament is simple – to crown the best national side in Europe.
Over the years 10 different nations have lifted the trophy, with Germany and Spain tied on three wins apiece; France and Italy boast two wins and six other nations have one win to their names. Germany, including when appearing as West Germany, have made a further three finals, with no side able to match their six appearances in the final. England’s best performance came in 2021 when they made the final of Euro 2020 and lost on penalties to Italy.
Rather unlike the World Cup, the Euros have been no stranger to upsets, most famously when a very dour Greece side lifted the trophy in 2004. They beat hosts Portugal in the final having begun the tournament as huge underdogs. Prior to that Denmark shocked world football when they won Euro 92, seeing off big favourites Germany in the final. Amazingly the Danes only entered the Euros at the last minute as stand-ins for Yugoslavia who had been disqualified due to the civil war there and the breakup of the nation. Even Portugal’s win in 2016 was a surprise given they came up against hosts France in the final and, moreover, had only scraped through to the knockout phase after finishing third in the four-team group.
A number of nations have hosted the finals too, with France (three times), Italy and England all holding the final on more than one occasion and Germany set to join the club in 2024. In 2000 Belgium, hosts in 1972, became the first co-hosts of a Euros tournament, alongside Netherlands. In 2008 Austria and Switzerland shared the honours, whilst four years later Ukraine and Poland split hosting duties.
To celebrate 60 years of the tournament it was decided that Euro 2020 would be a pan-European contest. The action was delayed by a year but 11 countries, including less obvious ones such as Azerbaijan and Romania, all staged games, though both semis and the final took place at Wembley.
Key Changes to the Euros
There have been many changes to this brilliant tournament over the years. Some have been down to geopolitical changes: three of the four countries that made the 1960 finals no longer exist in the same guise (Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia). Others have in a sense stemmed from this, with one of the biggest changes, the expansion of the Euros, partly explained by the fact that the continent now includes more nation states.
The increase in the number of teams at the finals may also be explained by the ease of modern-day travel, financial imperatives and a desire to grow the game. Whatever the cause, the Euros now see 24 teams take part – three times as many as played at the finals between 1960 and 1976 inclusive. The tournaments that took place from 1980 to 1992 gave us finals with eight teams, before the expansion to 16 teams for Euro 96. 2016 was the first Euros championship with 24 teams and an increase to 32 has been mooted, possibly for 2028 or 2032.
This growth has had the obvious impact of changing the formation of the finals. Initially sides simply played a semi final, then either the final or the third-place play-off. Since the expansion to eight teams the Euros have always had a group stage, initially featuring just two groups of four, then four groups of four for the 16-team tournaments. In both these instances the knockout phase was straightforward with the top two from each group playing in the semis (eight-team format) or quarters (16 teams).
Since the move to 24 teams, things have been a little more complex and, as detailed above, the top two from six groups are joined in the Round of 16 by the four best-ranked third-placed nations. Another related change is that since the Euros expanded to eight teams in 1980 the host nation, or nations, have qualified automatically for the finals.
For the 1984 finals the third-place match was dispensed with and other than these changes most other alterations over the years have been relatively minor. Golden goals were used, briefly, actually deciding consecutive finals in 1996 and 2000, when Germany and France respectively triumphed by this method.
The only other big alterations have been in the qualification process. In the earliest days this can almost be reviewed as a preliminary stage of the finals, with the last stages of qualification sometimes classified as being the quarter finals, even though they took place separately from the main tournament finals. Indeed, the entire qualification process was initially a knockout one, with a proper preliminary round before a Round of 16, quarters and then the semis which constituted the tournament proper.
The qualification process and format have been tweaked many times over the years but the next significant alteration was the use of the Nations League to decide who made the finals. Traditionally, in order to qualify for the finals you had to top your group or, depending on the format, finish in the top two. Occasionally some of the teams that finished second (if only first qualified) or third (if the top two qualified) would meet in play-offs, often in a two-legged knockout format.
Since 2020 the play-off route is now based not on group performance in qualifying but on how sides fared in the Nations League. This was done to enhance the prestige of the Nations League and also, in theory at least, to give some weaker nations a better chance to make the finals.