The History of The UEFA Euro: 1968, A Year of Firsts and Lasts

This week we look at UEFA Euro 1968, a year of firsts, a year of chance and a very different competition to the slick tournament we know and love today. The format itself consisted of a qualifying phase whereby teams on the continent would face off for the prize of securing a coveted place in the eventual tournament.

With only four teams qualifying for the finals in 1968, before the eventual expansion, the sense of drama was etched into the first kick of a ball. The tournament itself was due to take place in Italy and the first matchup for the Azzuri was against a USSR side that had featured in the Final of both previous editions. The World champions England and one of the greatest ever Yugoslavian sides to grace the sport made up the other two Semi-Finalists.

The home nation were debutantes but there was already history in their tie as four years before they had been knocked out of the qualifying round by a superior USSR side. The USSR were favorites in the tie again and this was underlined by the pre-match comments of Italian coach Ferruccio Valcareggi who claimed his opponents were “not unbeatable.” Needless to say, his comments hinted at the enormity of the task his side had in store. The Italians had just cause to be wary after also being dumped out of the World Cup just two years before by a confident USSR.

Italy will have taken courage from the injury worries the USSR had going into the game. The talismanic Igor Chislenko, whose goal had seen Italy off in the 1966 tie, would play no part for the Soviets.

Italy secured their place among the four Euro 1968 contenders by beating Bulgaria on a 4-3 aggregate score. Angelo Domenghini scored the second goal in the Azzurri’s decisive 2-0 win in Naples

Napoli’s San Paolo Stadium would play host and offered up torrential conditions for what turned out to be a hard-fought game. Gianni Rivera and Sandro Mazzola began by controlling the tempo of the match from the onset in the torrid conditions in the Campania region. Predictably the weather also fed into the physical duels as a particularly nasty collision between Valentin Afonin and Gianni Rivera meant the Milanese man was forced off the field following the incident.

It was a blow for the Italians who had more injury to deal with as the game went on. Giancarlo Bercellino injured a knee in extra time, forcing Angelo Domenghini to move to left-back, somewhat disjointing the Italian backline. No surprise then that the Soviets took complete control forcing six corners in succession just before the interval.

This was to be one of the games that solidified Dino Zoff’s status in football. The formidable goalkeeper was on hand to deny Albert Schesternev and twice from Aleksandr Lenev, who capitalized on Rivera’s injury, utilizing his movement.

There was to be no penalties to decide the outcome. Instead, an even more nerve-racking conclusion. The winner was decided via a coin toss in the first and last use of this manner of declaring a victor. Italy captain Giacinto Facchetti recalls the moment he held his country’s fortunes: “I went up with the Russian captain,” said Facchetti. “We went down to the dressing rooms together, accompanied by two administrators from the two teams. The referee pulled out an old coin and I called tails. It was the right call and Italy were through to the final. I went racing upstairs as the stadium was still full and about 70,000 fans were waiting to hear the result. My celebrations told them that they could celebrate an Italian victory.

Azzurri players celebrate with coach Ferruccio Valcareggi after fate flipped in their favor and sent them to the Euro 1968 Final despite a goalless draw with the USSR

The other Semi-Final tie gave World Cup holders England reason to be anxious about coming up against a Yugoslav side led by Dragan Dzajic, who was coming to be regarded by many as Yugoslavia’s greatest ever, a player Pele had referred to as “the Balkan miracle – a real wizard.” Pele went on, “I’m just sorry he’s not Brazilian because I’ve never seen such a natural footballer.Dzajic had come to the fore as Euro 1960 gained momentum, delighting fans from all over Europe with his mazy runs and unpredictable dribbling ability.

 Sir Alf Ramsey’s team selection appeared to reflect the caution of his country, with a tactical set-up that is commonplace in the English side today. Two ball-winners among a five-man midfield were utilized behind the lone Roger Hunt upfront.

A depleted England fought hard and managed to create a couple of chances, Alan Ball heading against the bar from an offside position before then shooting over wastefully after a clever move. The 1966 FIFA found no answer to Dzajic’s wing play. Showing exceptional dribbling for someone so physically formidable, Dzajic beat three men with bewildering sleight of foot. When a long ball arrived from the left-hand side, he cushioned it behind Bobby Moore, controlled it on his chest and tucked it high past Gordon Banks in the England goal.

The Final, or perhaps even “finals,” would be remembered for an unconventional development never to be seen again at an international footballing tournament. A late kick-off in Rome at 10.15 PM set the stage. An Italian team who had suffered physically on their way to the final were once more regarded as underdogs.

Yugoslavia appeared the fresher, sharper and more poised side in the final and unsurprisingly went ahead through the mercurial Dzajic late on in the first half, who was on hand to shift the ball past Zoff after some tidy build-up play.

The Italian crowd grew anxious and cheered on their valiant side as the second half commenced. The Azzurri, propped up by their fans, came out fighting. Tireless work through the middle of the park meant they were awarded a free kick on the 80th minute. Angelo Domenghini rifled the ball into the net as a rapturous tifosi willed their side on.

With extra time underway Yugoslavia regrouped and fashioned two glorious chances matched only by Dino Zoff’s heroics. The sides were level after two halves of extra time. In a twist that would seem ludicrous today, a replay was decided as the manner in which a winner would be distinguished, marking the first and only conclusion of its sort in a major international tournament.

It took two games for Italy to overcome Yugoslavia and be crowned European Champions for the first time in their history. Gigi Riva’s opener steered the replay FInal in the Azzurri’s direction

Italian Coach Ferruccio Valcareggi extensively altered his line-up making five changes to his side for a game that would take place only 48 hours after the initial tie. Valcareggi attempted to compete against Yugoslavia for power and pace – just when the Yugoslavians seemed spent.

Yugoslavia looked depleted, even Dragan Džajić had what you may call a shocker; Tarcisio Burgnich, one of the great right-backs, had an easy run-out this time round. Mirsad Fazlagić did all he could in overlapping throughout the encounter.

Cagliari’s Luigi Riva was returning from a broken leg just in time for the replay and despite his technical rustiness accounting for missed chances, he was better rested than the Balkan side. After a hatful of missed opportunities Riva did eventually find his feet as a miscued shot from Domenghini trickled out to him and he expertly spanned and struck a left-footed effort into the far corner- and this only in the 12th minute.

The Italian team poses for pictures after beating Yugoslavia 2-0 in the 1968 UEFA European Championship Final replay

Yugoslavia had been run ragged and found it desperately difficult to find an answer. The game was put beyond them early on. Pietro Anastasi, who many regarded as a man of the match in this encounter, passed away recently but his efforts in this particular tie will continue to live on. The culmination of his hard work came in the 30th minute after a little genius. As the ball rolled Anastasi’s way, he flicked up and caught it flush on the turn and volley from outside the box.

The Italians coasted through the game with Dino Zoff facing little trouble against a Yugoslavian side that had been run ragged. The Balkan side were left to rue their lack of depth and there is more than a hint of frustration in Dragan Dzajic’s recollection of the tournament.

Some excellent teams were behind us, but against the home side, we were in a subordinate position due to a ‘higher power.’ The referee Dienst was the Azzurri’s twelfth man and they won only due to his help.

Dzajic was surely on his way to being the star man in Euro 1968 but the Azzurri had risen and responded on home turf. No player epitomized more an iron will to not be beaten than Dino Zoff, the goalkeeper’s resilience instilled a sense of calm even as thousands of Italian’s looked on nervously.

Read the previous episodes of our History of the UEFA Euro:

1960, The Humble Beginnings
1964, Spain’s Forgotten Glory

Read more from Din Havolli on