Surprises in the History of Men’s Euro Football

│ by Lotta Vuorio, Gale Ambassador at the University of Helsinki │

From a sport seen as unfit for physical education and women, to a sport for everyone – regardless of gender, class or nationality. That sport is football, and as the last rounds of the UEFA Euro 2020 qualifiers are being played 14th – 19th of November, it seemed an apt time to share with you what Gale Primary Sources has to offer when it comes to the history of football and the European Championship.

Surprises are part of life, and football! In this blog post, I will focus on some of the surprises we’ve seen in the relatively short history of Men’s Euro Football. The definition of a surprise is an unexpected event, and one unexpected event may indeed happen in the very near future; Finland may just surprise us all by making it to the European final tournament for the first time ever! What other surprises have occurred over the last few decades and what do the Gale archives, and especially The Times Digital Archive, have to say about them?

Surprising Winners

In football, a classic surprise is formed around the discussion of winners and losers. That is partly what gives betting its appeal – there is always a chance that the match results do not go the way that was predicted. In the history of the Euro Championships, there have been plenty of matches which had a surprising outcome, but there have been two particularly surprising winners.

The first took place in Sweden in 1992, when Denmark took its first championship title, entirely out of the blue. After making it through to the final against Germany, Denmark scored an early goal in the eighteenth minute, going on to beat their opponents 2–0. Denmark was not originally going to be playing in the Euro tournament at all, participating only after the sudden withdrawal of Yugoslavia which, it turned out, opened the door for Denmark’s remarkable victory!

 A visual and textual analysis of the attacks and efficiency in the Euro 1992
A visual and textual analysis of the attacks and efficiency in the Euro 1992. Times, 16 Jan. 1993, p. 34. The Times Digital Archive,

On 16th January 1993, The Times recalled “Denmark’s triumph” with a sharp analysis based on UEFA’s statistical study. The study revealed that Denmark attacked the fewest number of times, but “when they reached the danger zone, the Danes were the most efficient”. England instead was depicted as offering “a passable impression of the brainless birds in Sweden”, and the comment of the author was supported by the analysis of a Finnish member of UEFA’s committee for technical development, Pekka Luhtanen. The victory of Denmark reminds us of the statement from the Laws of the Game (page 91) that “The team scoring the greater number of goals in a match is the winner”, and it is wins that pave the way for championship victory, instead of the number of attacks a team executes during the tournament.

The second surprising winner of the Euros is Greece, emerging from the so-called “group of death” to claim victory in the 2004 UEFA Euro Championship. The headline of The Times’ news piece praises: “Fairytale goes on as Dellas [the goal scorer] turns silver into gold for Greece”! As Denmark’s victory was in the memory of the writer Matt Dickinson, he wrote: “Denmark once came off the beach to win the European Championship, but no story in the competition’s history can match Greece’s progress to Sunday night’s final”. Dickinson argued that the fact that Greece “had never won a match at a leading tournament before this summer” was what made the win so surprising and “the most famous triumph”.

The golden header in the final
The golden header in the final. “Fairytale goes on as Dellas turns silver into gold for Greece.” Times, 2 July 2004, p. 46. The Times Digital Archive,

When the toss of a coin decided the result

It is sometimes not a problem for a football match to end in a draw, but when the match is deciding which team goes through to the final of a tournament, it simply cannot end in a draw! In the history of Euro tournaments, the audience faced the first crucial draw in the 1968 UEFA European Football Championship in Italy, where the semi-final between the host country and the Soviet Union ended 0–0. This was before the invention of a penalty shootout, and Italy was proclaimed the match winner via the toss of a coin! This surprising event was covered in the match report in The Times after the final between Italy and Yugoslavia.

 The crucial toss of a coin
The crucial toss of a coin. “Italy the masters.” Times, 11 June 1968, p. 14. The Times Digital Archive,

Furthermore, the 1968 final was actually played twice – the original final played on 8th June 1968 ended 0–0, but the winner of the whole tournament was not left to Lady Luck this time… The result of the second try of the final on 10th June 1968 was clear: 2–0 for Italy. On the same day as the first final was played, The Times considered that “the Russians will hope for better luck” in the third-place play-off match between England and Soviet Union, if the result would be a tie again. The journalist Geoffrey Green had a straight opinion about “the spin of a coin”: “What a way to decide things.”

 “What a way to decide things.”
“What a way to decide things.” “England in need of patching.” Times, 8 June 1968, p. 6. The Times Digital Archive,

Early discussions of a European Championship

Something else I found surprising, or at least intriguing, was the discussion in the British press as early as the 1930s about a proposed European Football Championship (which did not start until the 1960s). Both the Nottingham Evening Post and the Evening Telegraph (both found in Gale’s British Library Newspapers archive) discussed the idea of a European football championship on 23rd November 1935, many years before the first Euro tournament took place.

“Football Championship of Europe.” Evening Telegraph, 23 Nov. 1935, p. 8. British Library Newspapers,
The novel idea gathered opinions for and against.
The novel idea gathered opinions for and against. “European Football Championship ?” Nottingham Evening Post, 23 Nov. 1935, p. 9. British Library Newspapers,

Since the discussion was in 1935, during the time of the British Empire, I was also left wondering what Arsenal manager George Allison meant by “British teams”. Did he mean only England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales? Or was he referring to all areas belonging to the Commonwealth – previous territories of the British Empire? These sources do not elaborate on this, focusing instead on opinions for and against taking part in such a Championship, but it is an interesting angle for further research.

England joins the European Nations’ Cup

England made her debut in the European Nation’s Cup (the previous name of the UEFA European Championship) in 1964, but did not make it to the final. The Times reported on the “New Football Venture” in 1961, before the start of qualifiers.

England’s time for a “New Football Venture”.
England’s time for a “New Football Venture”. “New Football Venture.” Times, 5 Dec. 1961, p. 4. The Times Digital Archive,

From “an obstacle only for an hour” to their Euro 2020 performance

With Finland’s match against Liechtenstein taking place this afternoon, I wanted to take the time to return to the first (potential) surprise I mentioned in this blog post – Finland making it to the Euros – and I’ve looked at how Finnish football has previously been presented in The Times. An article from 1976 stated that Finland was “an obstacle only for an hour” to the English team in the FIFA World Cup Qualifications match played in Helsinki. Over 40 years later, the Finnish national team is perhaps about to reify the saying “expect the unexpected”. Surprises do happen, and that is the beauty of the sport – the equality of possibility.

In 1976, Finnish national team of football was an obstacle for English team only for an hour.
In 1976, Finnish national team of football was an obstacle for English team only for an hour. “Finland an obstacle only for an hour.” Times, 14 June 1976, p. 9. The Times Digital Archive,

If you are interested in the history of women’s football specifically, check out our previous blog post by Acquisitions Editor Rachel Holt which explores the history of the FIFA Women’s World Cup.

Blog post cover image citation: “Football Euro 2004.” Times, 23 June 2004, p. 37. The Times Digital Archive,

Lotta author photo

About the Author

Lotta Vuorio is a first year PhD student in the doctoral programme of History and Cultural Heritage at the University of Helsinki. She is fascinated by physical education and gendered sport exercises in nineteenth-century Britain and is working hard on her own sport goals as an international football referee. She believes expressing herself by writing columns and academic texts is one way to make a change in the world! Reading through historical primary sources inspires her because it shows how world has changed already – one of the reasons why Gale’s primary sources are great to work with!

Pauli and Lotta’s Helsinki Ambassadors Twitter handle is @GaleHelsinki