** The 1972 tournament had produced an outstanding team in West Germany but the 1976 event went three better by producing no fewer than four superbly competitive sides. Hosts Yugoslavia finished fourth after losing the third place play-off to Holland – but there could be no embarrassment in that.

These stand as probably the most thrilling finals of the “first” generation of the tournament – with the final between Czechoslovakia and holders West Germany a dramatic classic.

Once again the formula provided for a first round of eight mini-league groups of four nations apiece. Iceland came in from the cold this time but Albania did not enter – much to the relief of the rest of the Europe who found dealing with the isolationist Communist regime a political, bureaucratic and logistical nightmare.

The Czechoslovaks got off to a most unprepossessing start when they were trounced 3-0 by England at Wembley. Three goals in the last 18 minutes from Mick Channon and Colin Bell (two) condemned them to a 3-0 defeat which gave no hint of the remarkable revival in store. England, their confidence sky-high, were held goalless at home by Portugal but then thrashed Cyprus 5-0 with Malcolm MacDonald scoring all five goals.

The decisive match was the return between Czechoslovakia and England in Bratislava in October 1975. The afternoon of October 29 was chilled and foggy and Italian referee Michelotti had no option but to abandon the game after 17 minutes. The following day Czechoslovakia hit back from 1-0 down to win the replay 2-1. They went on to finish a point clear of England at the top and head into the quarter-finals.

Wales were surprising winners of group two, Yugoslavia, Spain, the Soviet Union, Belgium and West Germany all coming through as predicted. Holland edged out Italy.

In the quarter-finals Czechoslovakia, under the expert guidance of Vaclav Jezek, defeated the favoured Soviet Union 2–0, 2–2 in the most “political” of the ties. Holland, World Cup runners-up two years earlier and inspired by Johan Cruyff and Johan Neeskens, defeated neighbours Belgium. West Germany, reigning world as well as European champions, overran Spain and Yugoslavia won a bad-tempered tie with Wales to earn both a semi-final place and host rights.

The pattern of excitement was set when Czechoslovakia defeated Holland 3–1 after extra time in the first semi-final – the Dutch succumbing after referee Clive Thomas sent off Neeskens and Wim Van Hanegem. Then it was West Germany’s turn to need extra time as they hit back from 2–0 down to beat hosts Yugoslavia 4–2.

The Germans had found a new Muller – Dieter Muller from Köln. He scored a hat-trick against Yugoslavia and led the German fightback in the final after they had gone 2–0 down in 25 minutes to Czechoslovakia.

One minute remained in normal time when Bernd Holzenbein’s equaliser sent the game into extra time. No more goals came and extra-time ended amid chaos. The federations had agreed the previous day that, in the event of a draw, the match – and the championship – would be decided by a newly-fangled penalty shoot-out.

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The Germans had taken the initiative under some pressure from club officials to bring the long drawn-out season to a close and allow their star players some sort of brief summer holiday. The Czechoslovak players, however, had no knowledge of this. As defender Koloman Gogh explained later: “When extra time ended we were all heading for the dressing rooms when we were waved back. We didn’t know what was going on.”

That makes it all the more remarkable that the Czechoslovaks regained their composure to become the first nation to win a major event on such a shoot-out.

In fact, the Czechoslovaks were better prepared. Masny, nehoda, Ondrus, Jurkemik and midfield general Antonin Panenka were all experienced penalty-takers. Coach Vaclav Jezek had even taken the trouble, before the finals, to assemble a crowd at training especially ordered to whistle and jeer as his players practised penalties.

The Germans, for the first and only time, were at sixes and sevens over the shoot-out.  Dietz and Schwarzenbeck refused to take one and goalkeeper Sepp Maier had to insist on Franz Beckenbauer volunteering to take the possibly decisive No5.

Marian Masny opened up for Czechoslovakia, Rainer Bonhof equalised; Zdenek Nehoda scored, Heinz Flohe levelled; Jan Ondrus converted, Hannes Bongartz squared it; Ladislav Jurkemik made no mistake, Uli Hoeness shot … over the bar. Panenka strolled up for the next kick, dummied one way, sending Maier in the wrong direction, and pushed the ball so gently through the centre of goal. Ever since, that nervelessly cheeky style of penalty has been labelled a ‘Panenka.’

Czechoslovakia were champions of Europe not with a galaxy of stars but thanks to disciplined teamwork honed and perfeted to such a degree by Jezek and assistant Jozef Venglos that they had gone 21 matches without defeat … since that 3-0 beating by England with which they started the European Championship campaign.