The UEFA European Championship is now one of the world’s biggest sporting events, although the competition’s genesis was more difficult than might be expected. The European Championships are held every 4 years and as the World Cup, they are the brainchild of a Frenchman, whilst most continents were already holding football championships it took Henri Delaunay more than 30 years for his 1927 brainchild to come to fruition.

It was the distinguished French Sports Newspaper L’Equipe, who in 1954, gave Henri’s idea some form when they proposed a competition with home and away matches to be played midweek. Sadly Delaunay died in 1955 before the competition was established, however, his son Pierre joined forces with the French newspaper in attempts to get the event off the ground, finally after agreeing to start the competition it seemed only right and proper that the cup should be named after Henri Delaunay. The inaugural tournament consisted of 17 member associations wishing to take part, one more than the minimum. To round the numbers down, lots were drawn and the Republic of Ireland was paired against Czechoslovakia in a qualifying playoff, unfortunately for Ireland, they were eliminated.

The competition finally got underway in Moscow’s Tsentralni Lenin Stadium on 29 September 1958. It was here the USSR beat Hungary 3-1, the honour of scoring the first goal went to Anatoli Ilyin in just four minutes, the competition was staged over a period of 22 months starting in 1958 and ending in 1960. The UEFA European Championship was an instant success despite the controversy surrounding General Franco’s refusal to let the USSR play in Spain, effectively handing the USSR a bye. Some thought that Gavril Kachalin’s side might not deserve their place in the final tournament, however after they beat the Czechs 3-0 nobody doubted their pedigree. France was the first host nation but they were eliminated in a thrilling match with Yugoslavia, who won 5-4, this result still holds the record for the competitions highest ever scoring game.

The first final was held in Paris on 10 July 1960 between thrilling Yugoslavia and the dogged USSR, the man of the match was, without doubt, the USSR goalkeeper Lev Yashin, the game went to extra time and Viktor Ponedelnik headed in the goal, which claimed the USSR’s only ever football trophy.

UEFA European Championship Past Winners

2008 Spain
2004 Greece
2000 France
1996 Germany
1992 Denmark
1988 Netherlands
1984 France
1980 Germany
1976 Czechoslovakia
1972 Germany
1968 Italy
1964 Spain
1960 USSR

UEFA European Championship top goal scorers

Michel Platini (France) 9
Alan Shearer (England) 7
Thierry Henry (France) 6
Patrick Kluivert (Netherlands) 6
Nuno Gomes (Portugal) 6
Ruud van Nistelrooy (Netherlands) 6

David Villa, who was the top scorer in the 2008 Championships and also a member of the winning Spanish team, will not be taking part in the 2012 competition due to injury. The title holders also look likely to be without Carles Puyol following knee surgery, they begin their title defence against Italy in Gdansk on 10 June, before taking on the Republic of Ireland four days later and Croatia on 18 June.