That meant a qualifying tournament featuring 32 teams, arranged in three groups of five and four groups of four. England dropped only point in their eight games to run away with group one; West Germany dropped two points in their six games and strolled through group seven. In all the other groups, there was only one point in it Belgium pipped Austria in group two, Spain beat Yugoslavia in group three, Holland outlasted Poland in group four, Czechoslovakia edged France in group five and Greece surprisingly headed Hungary in group six.
Italy became the first nation to host the finals twice and were matched in their group with England, Belgium and Spain. The other finals group featured old rivals West Germany and Holland, title-holders Czechoslovakia and newcomers Greece.
The format was a little disappointing because the 12 group games produced only 22 goals. That, however, certainly did not reduce the passion among the crowds – particularly in Turin where riot police unleashed tear gas to quell unrest among supporters during England’s opening draw against Belgium in the old Stadio Comunale.
Belgium beat Spain 2–1 in their next game but England’s dreams of a place in the final in Rome disintegrated as they lost 1–0 to their hosts, Juventus midfielder Marco Tardelli scoring the winner 10 minutes from the end. Belgium’s goalless draw with Italy was enough to send them into their first major final.
West Germany quickly established themselves as event favourites by topping the other group thanks to a 1–0 revenge victory over Czechoslovakia, a 3–2 win over Holland – when the international game “discovered” an inspirational young midfielder named Bernd Schuster – and a goalless draw with Greece.
A 48,000 crowd, well below capacity, turned out for the Final. It would have been different if Italy had been playing but they fell to Czechoslovakia in the third place play-off the previous evening in Naples. A lacklustre game reached its nadir in a penalty shoot-out which the Czechoslovaks eventually won 9–8.
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Once again, as in the 1976 Final, the Czechoslovaks proved merciless from the penalty spot. Italy lost when centre-back Fulvio Collovati effort was parried by keeper Jaroslav Netolicka. The Italians claimed that keeper Jaroslav Netolicka had dropped the ball over the goal-line and that the shoot-out should have continued. Austrian referee Erich Linemayr disagreed.
Even with that contrived finish, however, the match had proved massively anti-climactic and has gone down in football history as the last such match. UEFA scrapped the “losers’ final” for all the subsequent championships.
West Germany’s revival owed much to a new hero from Bayern Munich in flying forward Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. He scored the winner in the Germans’ opening group match against Czechoslovakia and then justified his reputation in the final against Belgium in Rome by contributing the inch-perfect corner from which giant Horst Hrubesch headed a last-minute winning goal.
Earlier the Germans had taken the lead through Hrubesch in the 10th minute only for Belgium to equalise with a Rene Vandereycken penalty in the 72nd. The penalty punished a trip by West German sweeper Uli Stielike on the onrushing Francois Van der Elst. Television replays appeared to show that the foul had been committed just outside the box but it was what Belgian manager Guy Thys described as “a moral penalty” and was just reward for the way the Belgians had attacked the entire event.
As for the West German winners, Rummenigge’s efforts would earn him the European Footballer of the Year award. As for Hrubesch, the two-goal hero of the Final could hardly believe his luck. At 29 he had suddenly emerged as an international hero only because Klaus Fischer, the Germans’ regular centre-forward, had broken a leg in a league match earlier that spring.