For the first time, the entire UEFA membership – then it stood at 33 in the years before the fragmentation of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and the former Yugoslavia – entered. France were seeded direct to the finals as hosts and the other qualifiers were the winners of the mini-leagues which comprised four groups of five teams and three groups of four.
Belgium won group one easily but the others all went right to the wire. A single-point advantage was just enough for Portugal (over the Soviets in group two), Yugoslavia (ahead of Wales in group three), Denmark (ahead of England in group four) and Romania (ahead of Sweden in group five).
The remaining groups, even more dramatically, were settled on goal difference with West Germany edging Northern Ireland while Spain pipped Holland in crazy circumstances which helped persuade UEFA of the need to ensure that all last-round matches should place simultaneously in future.
Holland played their last match on December 17, 1983, and duly beat minnows Malta 5-0 with two goals from midfielder Frank Rijkaard. That meant that Spain went into their own last game against Malta, four days later, knowing that victory would pull them level with Holland on 13 points … but that they needed to win by a massive clear 11 goals to go top on goal difference.
A 30,000 crowd turned out in Seville to see if a miracle was on the cards. It did not look like it when Carlos Santillana’s 16th-minute goal was cancelled out by a shock equaliser from Degiorgio. Spain’s Juan Senor even managed to miss a penalty so the first half ended with the Spaniards “only” 3-1 ahead, all the goals coming from Santillana, Real Madrid’s magnificent spearhead.
Degiorgio’s goal had meant that Spain needed to reach 12 to top the group. Remarkably, that is exactly what they achieved. A second-half goal rush brought four goals for Hipolito Rincon, two for Manuel Sarabia, two for defender Antonio Maceda, one for Senor and one more for Santillana. The Dutch were furious but powerless – and also, of course, eliminated.
The changing balance of the international game was reflected in the make-up of the finals. France’s brilliance emanated from the midfield trio of hard-working Luis Fernandez and Jean Tigana plus effervescent little Alain Giresse … all topped off by the all-round attacking genius of skipper Platini.
The presence of Denmark’s rising force in the finals was another gesture towards a new balance of power within Europe, as was the failure of West Germany to reach the reconstituted knock-out semi-finals.
Denmark had reached the finals by winning their qualifying group in magnificent fashion and courtesy of a 1–0 win over England at Wembley. Former European Footballer of the Year Allan Simonsen converted the crucial penalty. Unfortunately, injury hampered Denmark’s prospects in the finals which they opened with a 1–0 defeat by France, during which Simonsen broke a leg.
Platini was the match-winner with the first of his nine goals in five games. His haul included hat-tricks against Belgium and Yugoslavia, a last-minute of extra-time winner in the semi-final against Portugal, and the first goal of the Final itself against Spain.
The Spaniards misfired in their opening 1-1 draw against Romania and then had to be satisfied with another draw against Portugal. Their third match saw a last-minute winner from Maceda upset a badly misfiring West Germany. Loss of the European crown duly cost West German coach Jupp Derwall his job. Within a matter of weeks Franz Beckenbauer had been appointed in his place.
As for Spain, the fates continued to conspire in their favour as they beat Denmark in a penalty shoot-out in their semi-final in Lyon.
Against France in the final, however, their luck ran out. Injuries and suspensions played havoc with coach Miguel Munoz’s tactical plan before a rare slip by goalkeeper-captain Luis Arconada, after 56 minutes, proved the decisive blow. Arconada, latest in a long line of outstanding Basque goalkeeper, allowed Platini’s low drive from a free kick to spin through his grasp and over the goal-line.
This time Spain were doomed. France even overcame the sending-off of Yvon Le Roux after 84 minutes to score a late second goal through Bruno Bellone but their lead had never been seriously threatened.