European Nations Cup 1960: Caught by the Black Spider


The European Championships are now a tentpole event in the global sporting calendar, the second biggest football tournament on the planet with Euro 2020 attracting a cumulative TV audience of 5.2 billion. However, like the World Cup the Euros were not an instant success and its inception not without controversy. Here is the story of the first Euros.

UEFA Arrive

Jules Rimet was the mastermind behind the World Cup and Rimet was among a group of French footballing administrators who floated the idea of a European Nations tournament as early as 1927. However it was the formation of the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) in 1954 that opened the possibility of a European nations tournament. UEFA formed the European Cup for the 1955-56 season and the huge appetite for the first Pan-European club competition lead inevitably to the formation of the European Nations Cup. The new tournament would be played from 1959-60 with competing nations playing a home and away knockout competition with the final four nations forming a mini-tournament slated for the summer of 1960.

Not all UEFA members were in favour of the tournament with football’s founding nation England declining to take part. The fledgling tournament suffered a further blow with the only two European nations to have triumphed at the World Cup; Italy and West Germany also refusing to join the party. In total 17 nations signed up for the Nations Cup, meaning a preliminary playoff was needed to slim down the field to sixteen as the Euros were born.

First Steps

The first ever Euros match took place on 5th April 1959 as Dublin’s Dalymount Park hosted Republic of Ireland vs Czechoslovakia. Ireland’s Liam Tuchy booked his place in footballing history by scoring the first goal in tournament history in a 2-0 victory. However the second leg in Bratislava saw the Irish concede a fourth minute penalty which Czech goalkeeper Imrich Stacho despatched as the Irish were rolled 4-0 and Czechoslovakia progressed.

The first round qualifiers took place between June and September 1959 and produced few surprises as the favourites progressed with ease, the most notable game being Hungary’s clash with the Soviet Union with the remnants of the brilliant Magyars team of ’54 going down 4-1 on aggregate. The most impressive performance of the round saw Spain beat Poland home and away with the brilliant Alfredo Di Stefano scoring in both legs. The new tournament seemed to be starting well, but then as the Quarter-finals loomed things took a very political turn.

Politics and Propaganda

UEFA’s pitch of using international sport as a vehicle to bridge divisions across Europe proved a popular concept in a continent only a decade and a half removed from the ravages of World War II, however some had other ideas. Spain was still under the hardline fascist rule of General Franco and El Generalissimo was well aware of the uses of football for political gain. Meanwhile at the opposite end of Europe the Soviet Union flush with the early success of its space program also saw a propaganda opportunity. The Politburo had long since seen sport as a means of showing the USSR could out perform the western nations and illustrate the superiority of a communist system.

The luck of the draw brought these two diametrically opposing nations together in the two legged quarter finals with the first leg to be played in Moscow. Franco was outraged and refused to allow Spain to travel behind the Iron Curtain for the game due on 29th May 1960. UEFA couldn’t talk the Spanish out of their stand and the game was cancelled with Spain disqualified from the tournament and the Soviets handed a pass to the finals. Sadly what could have been a classic encounter between two great teams never took place and Di Stefano’s brilliance would never grace a major finals.

Elsewhere a talented Yugoslavia team breezed past Portugal and Czechoslovakia continued their run with an easy win over Romania. France also progressed with World Cup goal machine Just Fontaine bagging a hat-trick as the French blew Austria away 9-4 on aggregate to complete the line-up for the first European finals.

France and Yugoslavia’s nine goal thriller

Paris Thriller

The tournament had been a largely French idea and France were rewarded by being made hosts of the inaugural finals. France would face Yugoslavia in Paris whilst the Czechoslovakia would face USSR in Marseille, both semi finals would take place on 6th July. Hosts France were red hot favourites in the first semi-final. The French had finished third at the ’58 World Cup with Fontaine setting a new scoring benchmark with 13 goals in Sweden. However the French suffered a terrible injury blow with Fontaine ruled out of the semi-final and creative lynchpin Raymond Kopa also absent. Robert Jonquet lead the defence whilst the main attacking threat came from outside right Francois Heutte with Maryan Wisniewski filling Fontaine’s boots up front.

Underdogs Yugoslavia had attacking options of their own in a fine young team lead by gifted left wing Bora Kostic and prolific striker Milan Galic. The game kicked off at the Parc De Princes at 8pm and the honour of the first goal in finals history went to Galic whose thunderous strike put Yugoslavia ahead after just 11 minutes. The lead was short lived with the hosts hitting back within in a minute when Jean Vincent’s cross deceived everyone and crept in for 1-1. France pressed and edged in front just before half time through Heutte’s long range effort.

France started the second half on front foot and on 53 minutes Vincent found Wisniewski who swept home for 3-1. Just as it seemed France had one foot in the final Yugoslavia grabbed a lifeline when Ante Zantetic scored from an acute angle; 3-2 on 55 minutes. France soon restored their two goal cushion through Heutte on 62 minutes and the game looked over. Then Yugoslavia staged an incredible comeback, Tomislav Knez pulled a goal back on 75 minutes for 4-3. France were rocking and just three minutes later Kostic got free and set up Drazan Jerkovic to equalise. Yugoslavia scented victory and within a minute an awful blunder from France goalkeeper Georges Lamina saw the ball rebound to Jerkovic in the centre of the box who made no mistake and Yugoslavia had turned the game on its head in four mad minutes; 4-5. France threw everything they had into the final minutes to force an equaliser but Yugoslavia stood firm and were shock finalists, the first game in European finals history remains to this day its highest scoring.

Soviets March On

Over in Marseille the Soviet Union were red hot favourites to progress. They were lead by technically gifted midfielder Igor Netto, whilst down the left wing Mikheil Meskhi was a dazzling talent and striker Valentin Ivanov a reliable goal scorer. The star man however was goalkeeper Lev Yashin, nicknamed the ‘Black Spider’ Yashin is still widely regarded as the greatest goalkeeper ever.

The Czechs had talent too notably midfielder Josef Masopust and forward Andrej Kvasnak. However there would be no repeat of the drama witnessed earlier that day in Paris. The Soviets held the ascendancy and took the lead before half time through Ivanov. On 56 minutes the tie was settled with Ivanov making it 2-0. At the other end Yashin was dominant and on 66 minutes a brilliant move from Viktor Ponedelnik made it 3-0 and the Soviets were through.

Last Tango in Paris

Before the final could be played the third place playoff took place in Marseille and there was further embarrassment for France as they were stunned 2-0 by Czechoslovakia. On Sunday 10th July the final took place in front of just under 18,000 spectators at a rain soaked Parc des Princes. The Soviet Union were favourites but it was Yugoslavia who bolted out of the blocks. Kostic twice forcing smart stops from Yashin. Then Dragoslav Sekularac dragged a shot wide with Yashin rooted to the spot. The goal finally came just before halftime when Jerkovic’s low cross found Galic who just beat Netto to the ball for 1-0.

With conditions still slippery, the Soviets changed their studs for the second half and just four minutes after the restart got a slice of luck. A vicious 25 yard strike from Valentin Bubukin was mishandled by Yugloslav goalkeeper Blagoje Vidinic and Slava Metreveli reacted quickest so equalise. Neither team could find a way through and the final went to extra time.

With both sides tiring mistakes began to puncture the game, Yashin was caught out from a corner but Jerkovic couldn’t direct his header goalward and at halftime in extra time it remained 1-1. After the restart Yugoslavia again went close through Galic. The game was finally settled with seven minutes to play, a trademark jinking run from Meshick finally opened the Yugoslavia defence and Ponedelnik was on hand to head home and the Soviet Union were the first European Champions.


The Soviet team returned to a rapturous reception in Moscow, several players later admitting the low attendance at the final was a sign of the times. It would be the two other Eastern European sides the Soviets beat who would make waves over the coming years; Yugoslavia winning Olympic gold that August with Galic a star performer. Meanwhile Czechoslovakia would make it all the way to the next World Cup Final, falling narrowly to Brazil.

For all the problems and politics of the first Euros the tournament did enough to ensure a second tournament would go ahead four years later with an enlarged pool of nations entering the draw. The final word on the tournament should go to Yashin, a truly brilliant goalkeeper and a fine Soviet team who rose above the politics of the day to etch a place in football history.

Jonathan Fearby

Jonathan Fearby is a United Kingdom native. Prior to joining The Athletes Hub as a staff writer, he founded and operated Football England.

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