The Biggest Controversies in the History of the Euros

We all love a good footballing controversy, don’t we? Except of course when the controversy involves your team losing out on something. Famously invented by and named after Andrea Del Contro Verso, a Florentine donkey merchant in 1526, controversies have usually found their place in World Cup folklore.


From the fat Italian dictator arranging games at the 1934 World Cup to England’s dubious goals in the 1966 World Cup Final, these incidents have left a somewhat nasty mark on football’s biggest competition. And so, with Euros fever in full swing, I wanted to take a look at the history of the Euros and its contentious moments. So, you are cordially invited to join me along this journey or you can go back to losing at Ultimate Team.


The early beginnings of the Euros were already proposed in 1927 when Henri Delaunay, the secretary general of the French Football Federation saw how much fun the South Americans were having with the Copa America and proposed a similar tournament in Europe. Sadly, Delaunay did not see his dream come to fruition as the first tournament was created in 1960.



The European Nations’ Cup as it was called was somewhat similar to the 2021 edition with qualifiers being played home and away and the 4 teams that qualified for the semifinal playing it out in France. As soon as the tournament was proposed there were issues. The English still only caring about their Home Championships abstained and they were surprisingly joined in opposing the new tournament by West Germany, Italy and the Netherlands.


Just like the first World Cup, the tournament went ahead without any regard for the big teams who thought themselves too good for the tournament. All went well until the last quarter-final drew together Francesco Franco’s Spain with the Soviet Union. As the games were played home and away, the Spaniards threw up a stink about travelling to a communist country, with Franco fearing that a loss might make his political ideology look weaker than the other political ideology.


Franco sent clear orders to the Spanish FA to refuse any travel to the Soviet Union and UEFA tried to mitigate by proposing the game be played at a neutral venue. This time, the Soviets said no to that and since the Spanish were the ones who created the issue in the first place they were kicked out. This decision proved instrumental as the Soviets knocked out Czechoslovakia in the semis before winning against Yugoslavia in the final.


The irony of the situation was that Spain were clear favourites with a team containing Alfredo Di Stefano, Paco Gento, Luis Suarez and Lazlo Kubala, all coached by the brilliant Helenio Herrera. Some football elitists might argue that this first edition didn’t prove much without the likes of Italy and West Germany, but the main rule of football is you have to be there to win it.



Four years later, West Germany still stubbornly refused to take part and Spain were selected as the host of the semifinals and finals. Despite only retaining Luis Suarez from the aforementioned list Spain made it to the final where they met the Soviet Union once again. This time Franco was forced to send his team out and to his delight they beat the Soviets 2-1 at the Santiago Bernabeu, with this trophy remaining their only international honour until 2008.


For the 1968 tournament, UEFA introduced qualifying groups for the first time and changed the name of the competition to the Euros. The qualifying groups were real, none of this kumbaya  “everyone qualifies eventually and we send some teams with coefficients through and we take the Nations League into account, and if you reply within 30 days you get a free plushie.” No 8 groups of 4 with only the winners going to Italy to duke it out for the win.


The Soviet Union qualified for the semis where they would meet hosts Italy for a chance to play a third consecutive final. By then the original form of the Catenaccio was in full swing implemented by Helenio Herrera at Inter and Nereo Rocco at AC Milan and the Italians held the Soviets to a 0-0 draw. Extra time wasn’t any help either and with penalties still two years away from being introduced at final tournaments, a good old-fashioned coin toss was employed.


Giacinto Facchetti, probably the best left back of all time guessed correctly and Italy were through. In the other semifinal Yugoslavia and England knocked seven bells out of each other and Alan Mullery was somehow the only player sent off, which sealed a win for the Yugoslavs. In the final the game ended in a draw but luckily a replay was on hand to save both teams from the ignominy of winning a final tournament on a coin toss.



After a pretty uneventful 1972 edition, won by West Germany, the Euros headed behind the Iron Curtain for the first time, as the final four would play it out in Yugoslavia. The only home nation to emerge out of the qualifying groups surprisingly was Wales. In their first quarter-final leg held in Zagreb Yugoslavia confirmed their home advantage with a 2-0 win. The tie was still by no means over and the Welsh were hoping the crowd at Ninian Park would help them overcome the deficit.


What they hadn’t reckoned with was East German referee Rudi Glöckner. Rudi decided to hold off the start of the game until an East German flag was flown on top of the stadium. Having had his wish fulfilled he immediately awarded a very soft penalty to the Yugoslavs and the tie was sealed despite the Welsh getting one goal back and throwing everything they had at their opponents. The Welsh fans in the stands immediately started riots after the game, a game which is remembered as the Battle of Ninian Park.


In the semifinals, Czechoslovakia, the surprise package of the tournament, eliminated Johann Cruyff’s Netherlands whilst Germany overcame Yugoslavia. As all the games of the semifinals and the third-place playoff needed extra time to settle things the organizers might have felt the final would go the same way and decided on the day of the final no less that the final would be decided by a penalty shootout and not a replay.


This meant that the Germans did not have time to practice their spot kicks. Naturally, the game went to penalties, with scores drawn 2-2 after extra time and after Hoeness sent his kick over the bar. Antonin Panenka then stepped up and chipped German keeper Sepp Maier entering football folklore with his Panenka penalty.



After the boring and cagey 1980 edition where hooliganism was the only exciting occurrence and France’s masterclass on home soil in 1984 Euro 1988 was one for the ages. Held in West Germany the group games and latter stages would be finally held in the same place. The games themselves were of very high quality with no one being sent off and no games ending in a draw.


The Flying Dutchmen won the tournament against the Soviets with Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten scoring in the final. However, this was not the main source of joy for the Oranje supporters, as they knocked out their bitter rivals West Germany in their home ground in the semis. Bolstered by their Total Football style of play under Rinus Michels, the Oranje had finally got their revenge on Germany and Franz Beckenbauer, now in the dugout, from the 1974 World Cup Final.


The Dutch players and fans went wild, with supporters burning German flags in the stands and Ronald Koeman swapping shirts with Olaf Thon and then proceeding to wipe his backside with the German jersey in front of the travelling fans. Koeman did not receive any form of ban or suspension for his act and he could star in defense for his nation in the final.


The Netherlands had finally got their hand on a major international trophy and all was well in the world. Well, not exactly, the Yugoslav wars had begun in 1991 and communist regimes were falling like dominoes all over Eastern Europe. The ensuing instability and violence naturally had its effects on the tournament held in Sweden in 1992.



In this final vintage tournament before the expansion to 16 teams and the introduction of the three-point system, we got the biggest surprise in the history of the Euros up until that point. Whilst the newly crumbling USSR managed to hold their team together under the Commonwealth of Independent States banner, Yugoslavia had just fractured into conflict one year prior.


Their team managed to top a group containing Denmark, Northern Ireland, Austria and the Faroes, with the Danes coming in second. As you can’t have a multi-ethnic national team on the pitch in Sweden, as those same ethnicities fight against each other back at home, UEFA decided to ban Yugoslavia. Denmark, the runners-up in Group 4 had to interrupt their break, and no, no players were lifted off the beaches to join the national team in Sweden, that’s an old wives tale.


Luckily for them, they only had a short trip to their neighbours back yard, but one major absence amongst their squad seriously hampered their chances in the eyes of many. The Laudrup brothers had recently announced their retirement from the national team following the unsuccessful qualifying campaign. As the news of their unlikely qualification got to the players, Brian decided to join the team, whilst Michael stayed on vacation, deeming their chances too low.


The tournament was surprisingly devoid of big sides as Spain, Italy and Portugal did not qualify and the final four consisted of Sweden, Denmark (both benefitting from a tournament played in their geographical region), Germany and the Netherlands. England and France found themselves eliminated from as Denmark and Sweden progressed from their group.



In the England-France game, Basile Boli somehow got away with headbutting Stuart Pearce in the face and the match ended in a draw, meaning the big sides cancelled each other out and the outsiders went through. Denmark managed to overcome the Netherlands in the semi-finals on penalties with Marco van Basten of all people missing his spot kick and stunned the Germans 2-0 in the final to complete the most unlikely win in the history of the Euros.


In 1996, England was selected as the host nation in a final reconciliation of the country with UEFA after the English hooliganism blighted Europe throughout the 80s. England had gone through a refresh in terms of footballing infrastructure after the Taylor report and was keen to show off their hosting credentials. The IRA however, had other plans, as they detonated a car bomb in central Manchester.


There were no casualties, but more than 200 people sustained injuries and the city sustained more than 700 million pounds in damages. The group game that was due to be played the next day in Manchester, between Russia and Germany, went ahead without incident. The culture around England at that time had markedly changed from the dark days of the 80s, Cool Britannia was at its peak, the charts were full of English bands and England was becoming the fashionable place to be.


Somehow, with all that good music around them “It’s coming home” was created that year and has been haunting us all ever since. England managed to top a group containing the Netherlands, Scotland and Switzerland, with their 2-0 victory at Wembley against Scotland being particularly sweet.



It nearly didn’t come about though, as in the 77th minute Scotland were awarded a penalty. Gary McAllister’s effort was saved by David Seaman and replays later showed that the ball seemed to move as he was hitting it. Spoonmaster Uri Geller later claimed that he had been in a helicopter above Wembley and moved the ball through his telekinetic powers.


Telekinesis was not needed for England’s second goal and Gascoigne’s celebration was a huge middle finger at the British press, who by then had already begun their harassment of the national team. That same vitriol was then directed at the Spanish, after England’s quarter final win with the most disgusting newspaper revelling in the chance to mention the Spanish Armada or other grand victories as somehow their mediocre journalism had anything to do with them.


Maybe the posturing in the press came from a place of insecurity over their win, as Spain had two disallowed goals, the second one being definitely onside. Despite that England finally went through on penalties for once in their lives and would meet their perceived rivals Germany in the semis. Shearer scored in the third minute, followed by the favourite player of English commentators … 13 minutes later.


No one scored a golden goal in extra time, so England once again had to face a penalty shoot-out. To cut a long story short, Southgate missed, starred in a pizza hut advert, English fans rioted, damaging German cars and stabbed a Russian student who they thought was German and Germany beat Czechia in the final.



All in all a classic England performance, which sets us up nicely for Euro 2000, where nothing much happened. Apart from English and Russian hooligans causing havoc in Belgium, but not in the Netherlands, where it was suspected that the local herbs calmed them down there was nothing to write home about from a tournament where France deservedly won.


And then came Euro 2004, Probably the craziest final tournament we ever got. Greece deservedly grabbed all the headlines, showing the world what can be done with discipline and dedication, even when your talent is deemed subpar by many. But you might be wondering where all the big nations were during Greece’s unlikely rise.


Well, Spain crashed out of a group containing hosts Portugal, Greece and Russia. Russia controversially qualified for the tournament after defeating Wales in the playoffs. Yegor Titov who starred for Russia in the tie later tested positive for a banned substance. Wales appealed to UEFA to overturn the result, but UEFA allowed Russia to still take part in the Euros, starting a trend of the footballing establishment having to deal with continuous and centralized efforts by the Russian government to artificially enhance their footballers.


Meanwhile, Italy saw Totti banned for spitting at Denmark’s Christian Poulsen in their 0-0 draw. Italy then drew again with Sweden, meaning that a draw between the two Nordic neighbours would see them both go through at the Italian’s expense. The press was of course rife with rumours of collusion, to which both managers responded furiously.



Lars Lagerback, Sweden’s assistant was quoted saying “Machiavelli might have been Italian and Italians might like to think in a Machiavellian way, but it would not be possible to play for a 2-2 draw against Denmark and I don’t think it will end 2-2 – that is a very unusual result.” Can you guess how the Sweden – Denmark game ended? Can you?


Finally, Germany crashed out, needing a top to bottom rebuild after playing more finals than any other nation during the 20th century. This meant that the quarters only featured Portugal, England, France and the Netherlands, from the nations conventionally considered the strongest before the tournament.


Cristiano Ronaldo faced off against Wayne Rooney in the first quarter final as Portugal hosted England in Lisbon. Sadly, for England, Rooney, probably the best player of the tournament so far was forced off through injury and Portugal went through on penalties. England’s heartbreak turned to rage at the perceived injustice from referee Urs Meier who disallowed Sol Campbell’s goal.


The English press then published his home address and he received numerous death threats, so yeah that was nice. Portugal would suffer an arguably even bigger heartbreak and their golden generation went empty-handed against Greece in the final. Euro 2004 was truly the final tournament which could be described as vintage, and four years later, Spain put everyone to sleep with their passing all the way to the trophy.



Turkey’s late late late equalizer against Croatia in the quarters was the only point of contention. The 2008 edition, held in the beautiful scenery of Austria and Switzerland can genuinely be described as nice, unoffensive, decent, but nothing too wild. Naturally, 2012 was a basket case.


The first tournament held in Eastern Europe since 1976, UEFA selected Poland and Ukraine as the co-hosts. The Western nations, immediately concerned started protesting at the perceived inadequacies in facilities, and the detainment of pro-European politician Yulia Tymoshenko through a politically motivated court case.


The English media naturally pounced on the story and Panorama, a BBC programme produced one of those classic English documentaries that can be summed up as an English man goes places, talks to camera, shows bad stuff. The programme highlighted the behaviour of ultras groups in Ukraine and Poland, mainly in regards to white supremacist sentiments and violence.


Many groups and newspapers in the two countries, including anti racism campaigners and Jewish community leaders slammed the documentary as a sensationalist piece of media meant to show Eastern Europe as a hateful backwards place. It was also reported by The Guardian, that an interview with a Jewish player from Poland was cut as he did not confirm the crew’s anti-Semitism discourse.



Now, I won’t pretend that such behaviour by Eastern European football fans is unheard of, but to create such a holier than thou documentary given England’s past issues with hooliganism and the racial abuse issues that still crop up in 2024 is a bit like the bigoted pot calling the bigoted kettle bigoted.


The whole 2012 tournament was plagued by fan behaviour, from local fans abusing Dutch players in training sessions to Spanish, Russian and Croatian fans chanting some absolutely horrible things at Mario Balotelli and other Black players. Everyone seemed to lose their heads and even the Germans brought some quote “inappropriate banners and symbols”.


In the streets, Russian hooligans clashed with police and their Polish counterparts and fans from almost every nation found themselves in hot water with the police. So all in all a pretty distasteful tournament off the pitch, oh and Lord Niklas Bendtner showed us his Paddy Power undies and got fined.


UEFA’s reaction was naturally a very harsh one for the 2016 edition, background checks were implemented for travelling fans, steward numbers were nearly quadrupled, police were specially trained in crowd control and threatened any unsavoury chanting with disqualification. Just kidding, they did nothing and expanded the tournament to 24 teams.



Even though the tournament was held in France and not ‘dirty stinky barbaric eastern Europe’, the clashes between fans were even more violent. England and Russia supporters were the main culprits, but every other nation seemed to have rotten apples in the midst of their travelling fans.


Russia fired up their bot farms trying to paint a they started it narrative against the English fans, whilst English players described the Russian fans as state-backed hooligans. With the backdrop of the tournament resembling pitched battles, Portugal crawled their way through every game to win the tournament, you know, like a big team and not like someone like Iceland, they also had 11 men behind the ball but they are a small team apparently with a small team mentality.


In 2020 the Euros turned 60, and to celebrate such a momentous milestone, former winner of the Euros and former Miss Corruption 2015 proclaimed that this tournament would be a “romantic” affair, held in stadiums all over Europe, a celebration of the Euros. After two violent tournaments marred by hate speech, you’d think the Euros needed to have a reckoning with their identity, not a European grand tour.


UEFA’s plans, delusions might be more fitting, were hampered by that thing where we all had to be inside, and everyone got a bit crazy on the internet. A European tournament could be seen as a beacon of hope amidst a global pandemic, but instead it let everyone’s pent-up lockdown crazies loose. With almost every game, issues came up, old and new.



From the classic tensions between ex-Yugoslav teams that saw Marko Arnautovic banned for a game after insulting Macedonia’s Ezgjan Alioski to issues that have only recently come to the forefront, namely LGBT rights. Viktor Orban, so scared of any rainbows and gay people was very upset that German stadiums were illuminated in the rainbow flag. Honestly, he needs to get out of the house more, maybe go to Belgium, attend a party, I hear they’re very fun.


Similarly, Azerbaijan, the darling of UEFA in recent years, who somehow got hosting rights for the quarter finals, despite never qualifying for the Euros, confiscated rainbow flags, but no one seemed to care about them since they’re a bit far away and have juicy oil money. The tournament nearly turned completely tragic as Christian Eriksen collapsed during Denmark’s game against Finland suffering cardiac arrest and being later fitted with implantable cardioverter-defibrillator device.


Naturally, UEFA wanted the game to go ahead after images of Eriksen were broadcast on live TV, still not understanding the concept of fixture congestion and overworking of players. Christian Eriksen thankfully survived this incident and his teammates embarked on a fairy-tale story that ended in the semi-finals against England after Raheem Sterling received the easiest penalty call in the history of the Euros after being basically caressed by Joakim Maehle, with no one noticing that there were two balls on the pitch at the time of the incident.



Naturally English fans were gracious to a team that nearly lost one of its members forever and accepted that their contentious victory with tact and good manners. I mean after all, they are civilized English gentlemen, they don’t engage in unsavoury activities, they only make documentaries highlighting the issues of lesser nations. Yeah right.


The Danish national anthem was booed, they shined lasers into Kasper Schmeichel’s eyes English fans claimed that because England is always cheated by referees they deserve this win, they destroyed their own stadium before the final trying to get in, and after they lost the final, the very same black players that were heroes of the nation a mere days ago became the target of disgusting and cowardly online abuse and of course going on another rampage through English towns after the game, just for good measure. But hey, all is well; Ronaldo took a stand against Coca-Cola and their crimes to the intestines of billions. The world is truly healing.


By: Eduard Holdis / @He_Ftbl

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Jean Catuffe – Getty Images