As with the FIFA World Cup, the European Champion Clubs’ Cup and the modern Olympics, the first major European national competition was the brainchild of a Frenchman: Henri Delaunay, the secretary of the French Football Federation.
He initially mooted his vision in 1927, but it took the advent of UEFA in 1954 to truly get the project off the ground. Even then, some of Europe’s member associations remained reticent, and by the time the green light was shown at the 1957 UEFA Congress, Delaunay had passed away two years previously. Far from forgotten, however, he was a natural choice when it came to naming the trophy.
Delaunay’s native France was selected from among the semi-finalists to host the first final tournament, but that was still a long way off when teething troubles emerged early on. Only a flurry of late applications took the number of entries over the required minimum of 16, and when the inaugural European Nations’ Cup eventually got under way it did so without Italy, West Germany and England.
Built around a format of knockout home-and-away games until the semi-final stage, the competition finally became reality with the first match played at Moscow’s Tsentralni Lenin Stadium on 28 September 1958. On that historic day, 100,572 people turned out to watch Anatoli Ilyin become the first scorer after just four minutes, as the USSR defeated Hungary 3-1 before advancing 4-1 on aggregate.
Through to the last eight, the Soviets were refused entry in Spain by General Franco, effectively handing Gavril Kachalin’s side a bye. Fellow semi-finalists France, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia all progressed to the final tournament in more traditional fashion, yet any notion the Soviets did not deserve their place was quickly dispelled in Marseille, where the Czechs succumbed 3-0 with Valentin Ivanov scoring twice.
The hosts were eliminated in a thrilling 5-4 loss to Yugoslavia, still the competition’s highest-scoring match. Raymond Kopa and Just Fontaine were missing for the French, but there was no denying the flair of the Yugoslavs – which contrasted neatly with the defensive fortitude of their opponents when the final kicked off in Paris on 10 July 1960.
Indeed, thanks to legendary USSR goalkeeper Lev Yashin, Milan Galić’s deflected effort was all the Yugoslavs had to show for 90 minutes of domination. Slava Metreveli’s equaliser took the game into extra-time and, as Yugoslavia began fading, Viktor Ponedelnik headed in to claim the Soviet Union’s first and only trophy.
“There are matches and goals which are really special, sort of a climax of a player’s sporting life,” Ponedelnik said later. “That was the star moment of my life.” For the tournament itself, there would be many more to come.