The qualifying competition was still organized on a direct elimination basis but this time with 29 countries on board. West Germany remained aloof but England competed for the first time … and were instantly eliminated. Alf Ramsey’s first competitive experience at national team level ended in a 2–5, 1–1 defeat by a French team inspired by veteran Raymond Kopa.
Spain, under former Real and Atletico Madrid coach Jose Villalonga, were rebuilding. Villalonga had turned away from the mixed-nationality stars of Real and Barcelona and put his faith in the youngsters emerging from Spain’s unfashionable provincial clubs. In the first round they opened with a 6-1 win over Romania, Valencia’s Vicente Guillot scoring a hat-trick.
Something similar was happening with Italy. New manager Edmundo Fabbri – nicknamed Topolino after the Little Mouse character in a popular cartoon – had thrown out the well-worn stars who had proved such an embarrassment only months earlier in the World Cup finals in Chile.
He built a new side around the bright, emerging talents of Milan’s Gianni Rivera and Inter’s Sandro Mazzola. Fabbri used only one “non-Italian” in Angelo Benedetto Sormani, the Mantova centre-forward whose original claim to fame had been his status as “Pele’s official deputy” at Santos.
“New Italy” opened with a 6-0 win over Turkey in Bologna with two goals for Rivera and four from the Roma right-winger Alberto Orlando. Italy won the return 1-0 in Istanbul; Sormani scoring. Surprise failures were Czechoslovakia, who had finished World Cup runners-up in Chile. They fell to an athletic East Germany side coached by the Hungarian, Karoly Soos. The GDR won 2-1 at home and forced a 1-1 draw in Prague.
In the second round Spain nearly came unstuck against Northern Ireland. Held 1-1 in Bilbao, Spain won 1-0 in Belfast with a second-half goal from the Real Madrid flyer, Francisco Gento. But Yugoslavia, the 1960 runners-up, went down 0-0, 2-3 to Sweden and Holland suffered the indignity of defeat by Luxembourg.
France avenged their 1962 World Cup qualifying defeat by Bulgaria while the new-look Italy fell to the Soviet holders. Goals from Ponedelnik and Igor Chislenko handed the Soviet Union a 2-0 win in Moscow but Italy were confident of reversing the damage in Rome. They might have had done, as well, but then the young Mazzola had a penalty saved by Yashin and, in the end, it was all Italy could do to scramble to a 1-1 draw.
In the quarter-finals Spain found Irish opposition awaiting them once more. But the Republic put up much less testing opposition than the North. Spain won 5-1 at home in Seville with two goals apiece from Real Madrid’s new right winger starlet Amancio and the big Zaragoza centre-forward Marcelino. They also won 2-0 in Dublin. This time there were two goals for Barcelona’s Pedro Zaballa.
France, having disposed of England and Bulgaria in style, were outwitted by a Hungarian side inspired by Florian Albert but the Soviet Union beat Sweden 4-2 overall. Denmark needed a play-off to shake off Luxembourg. Centre-forward Ole Madsen was Denmark’s man of the moment. He had scored four goals against Malta in the first round and another against Albania in the second. He then claimed all six goals against the Grand Duchy, including the only goal of the play-off in Amsterdam.
UEFA had designated Spain as the venue for the finals only after the government had guaranteed no political problems whoever qualified and so the Soviet Union – after the diplomatic dust-up of four years earlier – duly took their place in the finals. So did Hungary and Denmark.
Whether by design or sheer luck of the draw, the Soviet Union played their semi-final in the more politically sympathetic Barcelona than in Madrid. They beat Denmark easily, by 3-0. The other semi-final saw hosts Spain defeat Hungary 2-1 after extra time. Amancio scored the winner, five minutes from the end. The Hungarians’ consolation was to beat Denmark for third place. The Danes could at least boast in Madsen the event’s 11-goal top scorer.
Amancio provided the eye-catching panache in Spain’s attack but their key player was midfield general Luis Suarez. He came home for the finals after a superb season in which he had inspired Internazionale to win the European Champions Cup for the first time – beating Amancio’s Real Madrid in Vienna.
Spain took an early lead in the final in the Estadio Bernabeu through Jesus Pereda. Khusainov struck back for the Soviet Union but a second-half strike from Zaragoza centre-forward Marcelino was the signal for the last Spanish celebrations until Euro 2008.