The History of The UEFA Euro: 1980, The Belgium Challenge

UEFA Euro 1980 would see a return to Italy and an introduction to a new-look tournament. With the fleeting successes of past editions came calls for more participants and these were finally answered as the initial four places had been doubled.

Another change saw a slice of good fortune for Italy, as from here on in the host would retain automatic qualification. In these small changes throughout the history of the competition, we begin to see the route toward the Euros in the modern era that we have become more accustomed to.

The eight participants in Euro 1980 meant that a group format would be included for the first time. The eight teams were split into two groups, from which the winners were to advance directly to the final, while the runners-up contested a third-place play-off.

With Italy again the beautiful setting for Euro 1980 there were hopes that a side led by Dino Zoff, who was approaching the twilight of his career, could mount a serious bid for the title. In truth, Euro 1980 would come just a little early for Italian success but it would prove pivotal in cementing the base of a side that would go on to become World Cup champions only two years later.

Dino Zoff, Claudio Gentile, and Fulvio Collovati were a key part of the Italian backline in Euro 1980 and would indeed go on to be named in the team of the tournament at the World Cup only two years later. While questions were raised about Zoff’s aging abilities (he was 38 at Euro 1980) he answered critics with important performances that meant he was also included in the team of the tournament for 1980. These performances would help convince Enzo Bearzot to keep faith with his shot-stopper and include him in the 1982 squad – and what an important decision that proved to be!

In 1980, the European Championship was hosted by Italy for the second time, but the Azzurri wouldn't manage to go past the group stage - also losing to Czechoslovakia a third-place playoff (Photo: Empics Sports Photography Ltd./PA Photos)
In 1980, the European Championship was hosted by Italy for the second time, but the Azzurri didn’t manage to go past the group stage – also losing to Czechoslovakia a third-place playoff

The Euros have often been seen as an opportunity for a minnow to topple a European footballing superpower and this sense of opportunity has been cultivated by performances such as that of Belgium at Euro 1980. Prior to the tournament, Belgium had managed just two wins in the entirety of their history competing in international tournaments. The qualification itself seemed a difficult proposition after seeing Portugal included in a group they would have to top. With coach Guy Thys leading a group that was slowly growing in belief and desire to work for one another qualification was achieved.

With a squad of largely unrecognizable names, Belgium would arrive in Italy with a strong work ethic. Goalkeeper Jean-Marie Pfaff and midfielder Jan Ceulemans would go on to particularly impress with Pfaff earning a big move to Bayern Munich in the aftermath. Belgium was drawn in Group B among hosts Italy, Spain, and an England side that boasted the majestic Kevin Keegan. Keegan was the top scorer in the qualifying round and was coming from a European Cup Final with his side Hamburg.

If this Belgium side were to have any chance of making the final they understood that they would have to fight for points. Players like Pfaff, Ceulemans, and Eric Gerets would form the base within which a golden generation of Belgium football would grow, with the famed Enzo Scifo joining ranks only a few years later.

What was dubbed as the Golden Generation of Belgium – featuring names like Eric Gerets, Jan Ceulemans, and later Enzo Scifo – exploded at Euro 1980 and would go as far as reaching a World Cup Semi-Final in 1986

We worked for six or seven years to build that team,” said Pfaff, who was later touted as one of the best 125 players of all time by Pele. “It was certainly one of the best Belgium teams we have produced. This was the first time we had reached the final – before then, we were amateurs.

We had some good players, but not a good team, and then the individual players, like Ceulemans, Gerets and Rene Vandereycken, worked hard on discipline and it all came together in our first game against England.

The opener against England, on 12 June 1980, would prove memorable for events off the pitch as much as on. Police were forced to use tear gas on rioting England fans who were quickly acquiring an unwanted reputation throughout Europe. The game itself was a far less temperamental affair after a calculated Belgium performance earned a surprise point. An important goal by the late Ray Wilkins was canceled out by Ceulemans to give Les Diables Rouges a real sense of belief going into their penultimate games against Spain and Italy.

After that game, we had the motivation and the mentality to go into the next game. When you play well, you get momentum and confidence (…) They had Kevin Keegan, lots of top players, and everyone said before the game that England would win by four or five goals – but it ended 1-1,” Pfaff commented.

The underdog Belgium started their Euro 1980 campaign with a surprising 1-1 tie vs England which proved key for their qualification for the Final
The underdog Belgium started their Euro 1980 campaign with a surprising 1-1 tie vs Kevin Keegan’s England which proved key to their qualification for the Final

Many had criticized the defensive styles on display at Euro 1980 but Belgium stuck at their well-worked game plan and overcame Spain 2-1. With host Italy beating England 1-0 in another tight affair it saw that Group B’s finalist would be decided in Rome in a game between the Azzurri and Belgium.

No one had anticipated that Belgium would get this far, so when they adopted a familiar defensive approach against the hosts many understood. Belgium knew that they only needed a point and this was impetus enough as their ragged efforts kept the Italians at bay in a 0-0 game. Belgium would win the group and sneak past Italy on goals scored. It was a miserable home showing for the Italians who would go on to lose the third-place play-off to Czechoslovakia on penalties.

Unsurprisingly the might of West Germany laid waiting in the final. The only real hiccup for the Germans had been a 1-0 opening win against Czechoslovakia. Many had included them in criticism voiced over the cautious playing styles on offer at this tournament, but such criticism was quickly answered in what proved to be the game of the tournament as Klaus Allofs got a hattrick against a spirited Netherlands side in a 3-2 win, booking an early place in the final for West Germany and securing himself as top scorer of a low scoring Euros.  A nil-nil draw in their final group game served only to register a solitary point for surprise tournament qualifiers Greece.

Although losing 1-2 to West Germany in the Final, the stage of Euro 1980 was mostly taken by Belgium and their flamboyant goalkeeper Jean Marie Pfaff (Photo: Getty Images via
Despite a 1-2 loss to West Germany in the Final, the stage of Euro 1980 was mostly taken by Belgium and their flamboyant goalkeeper Jean Marie Pfaff

The Final brought a clash of styles and indeed reputations. The unfancied Belgian side would go on to boast only one player in the team of the tournament dominated by West Germans- despite making the Final. Many had already written Belgium off so that when Vandereycken clinically converted a spot-kick in the 75th minute to equalize there was a genuine sense of shock and perhaps even hope that this colossal West German side had met their match.

Despite momentum seemingly swinging in the favor of Belgium, they would not finalize their dream in Italy as Horst Hrubesch would break hearts by securing his brace only minutes before the final whistle.

In the final, we were very happy just to be there for the first time,” said Pfaff. “We worked hard for our success, our money, and our family (‘…) We played as a team, and not as individuals. We had lots of heart – that was important. We certainly did not expect to get to the final. We achieved it by working for success, team spirit, and the country’s identification. When we got back to Belgium, we realized everyone in the country was happy.

This Belgium side certainly did have a lot to be proud of and their achievement would set in motion togetherness and sense of belief that precipitated a Semi-Final appearance at the 1986 World Cup. Another golden generation had emerged it seemed, but not one capable of toppling the stranglehold that West Germany had on international European football.

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

1960, The Humble Beginnings
1964, Spain’s Forgotten Glory
1968, A Year of Firsts and Lasts
1972, Dream Debut for West Germany
1976, The Year of The Panenka