The dramatic success of the 1964 event was reflected in an increased entry for 1968 and UEFA’s decision to organise the first round not on a knock-out basis but in mini-leagues. Some 31 of UEFA’s 33 member nations entered, the only absentees being Iceland and Malta. West Germany, runners-up in the 1966 World Cup, decided they could no longer afford to miss the party and were one of the eight first-round seeds along with Spain, Portugal, the Soviet Union, Italy, Hungary, France and England.
For convenience it was decided to use the British Home Chamionship as the qualifying section for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. England, the World Cup holders, finished one point clear of Scotland who at least had the immense satisfaction of becoming the first nation to beat the new world champions when they won 3-2 at Wembley in April 1967 with goals from Denis Law, Bobby Lennox and Jim McCalliog.
The Scots let themselves down, however, in being held to a 1-1 draw in Wales then losing 1-0 in Northern Ireland. A 1-1 draw between Scots and English at Hampden Park in February 1968 then saw England safely through to the quarter-finals as group winners.
Holders Spain, the Soviet Union, Italy and Hungary all progressed without too many problems but West Germany’s Euro debut was a disappointment. They came to their concluding fixture, away to weak Albania, needing a simple win to qualify for the quarter-finals. Instead they managed only a goalless draw and Yugoslavia went through as group winners instead.
For the quarter-finals, UEFA reverted to the two-leg direct elimination (knock-out) system. The top tie was the meeting of world champions England and European champions Spain. An 84th-minute goal from Bobby Charlton handed England a narrow victory at Wembley. Back in Madrid, Spain pulled level on aggregate with a 54th-minute strike from Amancio but England snapped back seven minutes later through Martin Peters.
The Leeds winghalf Norman Hunter, renowned more for his defensive qualities, was surprise scorer of England’s winner with nine minutes remaining. Yugoslavia thrashed France 1-1, 5-1 while Italy and the Soviet Union both hit back decisively after first-leg defeats away to Bulgaria and Hungary respectively.
Italy had rebuilt yet again, after the humiliating defeat by North Korea at the 1966 World Cup finals. New manager Ferruccio Valcareggi who was spoiled for choice he had so many superb players from whom to pick, beginning in goal where Dino Zoff narrowly won the vote over Enrico Albertosi.
For all that, the Italians struggled to make their talent pay despite the added advantage of playing the finals in front of their own fans. It took the good fortune of the toss of a coin for the Italians to earn a place in the final after their semi against the Soviet Union finished goalless following extra time. The penalty shoot-out had yet to be introduced into top-level competition.
In the other semi-final Yugoslavia beat England 1–0 in Florence in a match which was doubly disappointing for the reigning World Cup-holders, who were making their finals debut. Not only did they lose but righthalf Alan Mullery became the first England player to be sent off while representing his country in a senior international.
Yugoslavia, inspired by the left-wing skills of Dragan Dzajic, were given a better-than-evens chance of beating the pressure-frozen Italians in the final in Rome’s Stadio Olimpico. Dzajic – who had scored the only goal of the semi-finals – provided the Slavs with an early lead but Angelo Domenghini equalised controversially from a free kick with 10 minutes remaining.
Controversy was nothing new to the referee: he was Switzerland’s Gottfried Dienst who had officiated two years earlier at the World Cup Final in which England beat West Germany with one of the most debated goals of all time.
Two years further on and the European Championship saw extra-time fail to provide any more goals so the final went to a replay, again in Rome. Yugoslavia were now tiring badly. They resisted spiritedly in the opening minute and protested furiously that Gigi Riva’s opening goal, after 12 minutes, should have been disallowed for offside.
The referee who waved away their protests was, intriguingly, the Spaniard Jose Maria Ortiz de Mendibil who had been the centre of another Italian controversy three years earlier over two controversial goals he “allowed” Internazionale to score in a Champions Cup semi-final against Liverpool.
Once ahead, the hosts took control. Anatasi, about to cost Juventus a then world record £500,000 from Varese, scored their second goal on the halfhour. Italy were European champions for the first and, so far, only time.