** Italy’s attempt to retain the trophy in 1972 series was brought to an abrupt end in the quarter-finals by Belgium, who then won the vote to host the finals of the newly-rebaptised competition. What had thus far been formally known as the European Nations Cup now became the more accurate European Championship.
The most outstanding side in the competition was West Germany whose manager, Helmut Schon, had created a new team for this Championship. It was a team which proved to be even more spectacular than the one which had recently finished third in the 1970 World Cup.
The nucleus of the team was provided by the top German clubs of the era, Bayern Munich and Borussia Monchengladbach. The creative combination of Bayern’s revolutionary attacking sweeper, Franz Beckenbauer, and Borussia playmaker Gunter Netzer, lit up the European game. The assistance of adventurous young left-back Paul Breitner and supreme marksman Gerd Müller left no doubt that the right team had earned the crown of European champions.
The first round was again played on a mini-league basis, this time featuring eight groups of four national teams each. Then it was back to the two-leg, direct elimination quarter-finals. Again the entry was a record, with 32 nations competing and only Iceland, of the UEFA membership, remaining out – literally – in the cold.
Hungary, England, the Soviet Union, Belgium and Yugoslavia each finished two points clear in their groups, Italy ended three points ahead of Austria in group six and the West Germans ran away with group eight – albeit after being held 1-1 at home by Turkey in Cologne in their first match. They dropped only one other point, being held 0-0 at home in Hamburg by Poland when it no longer mattered.
The Germans finished four points clear of a Polish side they would see plenty more of in the next few years in both Olympic Games and World Cup.
The quarter-finals matched Hungary against Romania, holders Italy against Belgium, Soviet Union against Yugoslavia in a repeat of the inaugural Final, and West Germany against England.
Here the Germans made history with their first victory at Wembley, where they overran their English hosts 3–1. It was marvellous, if belated, revenge for the 1966 World Cup Final. Nor could England complain. Beckenbauer and Netzer provided the creative magic, Breitner, Uli Hoeness and Herbert Wimmer the attacking energy, and Gerd Muller the deadly finishing. Indeed, years later many experts considered the 1972 German side to have been superior to the one which, in 1974, defeated Holland to win the World Cup
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The remaining quarter-finals saw the Soviets maintain their dominance over Yugoslavia, Belgium prise loose Italy’s grip on the Henri Delaunay trophy and Hungary squeeze past Romania after a play-off in Belgrade.
Belgium hosted the finals which saw the semis split evenly between eastern and western Europe. Anderlecht’s Parc Astrid saw the Soviet Union defeat Hungary 1-0 with East German Rudi Glockner as referee. Antwerp witnessed West Germany defeat hosts Belgium 2-1. The difference in the interest aroused by the ties remains evident from the attendance figures. Almost 60,000 fans jammed into Antwerp’s Bosuil stadium; a meagre 3,000 were scattered around the Parc Astrid.
Belgium’s consolation was to finish third after they beat Hungary three days later by 2-1 in the losers’ play-off in Liege. Raoul Lambert from Brugge and Anderlecht’s great Paul Van Himst scored the winners’ goals.
Beckenbauer and his team were clear favourites to win the final in the Heysel Stadium in Brussels. The Soviet Union had rebuilt around a nucleus from the Ukraine club, Kiev Dynamo. Players such as sweeper Murtaz Khurtsilava, playmakers Viktor Kolotov and Antoly Konkov and forward Vladimir Onishenko had brought new technical skill and tactical intelligence to a team thought previously to have been highly-disciplined but pedestrian.
Even the new, improved Soviet Union, however, proved no match for this German side. Netzer dominated midfield and hit a post before two typically opportunist strikes from Müller and another from Herbert Wimmer decided the match.
The 3–0 scoreline remains the largest winning margin of any European Championship Final. It also barely reflected the manner in which West Germany dominated from start to finish. Muller finished as the tournament’s 11-goal top scorer. He scored more than twice as many goals as each of the joint runners-up – East Germany’s Hans Kreische, England’s Martin Chivers and Holland’s Cruyff and Piet Keizer who claimed five apiece.
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