Soviet Union & Yugoslav captains Neto and Kostic before start of 1960 European Nations Final.
Soviet Union & Yugoslav captains Neto and Kostic before start of 1960 European Nations Final.

The first Euro’s amidst Cold War tensions

We look at the first-ever European Championship in 1960

On this day, 20 June 2020, France was supposed to play a Euro2020 game in the city of Budapest. We thought today was the right time to roll the clock back to 1960. To the year of the first-ever European Championship. The tournament was hosted by France and it was, and still very much is, quite an interesting story.

Starting with a quartet

The first notable difference is the size of the tournament. EURO 2020 is going to be the largest tournament to date, where we will watch a grand total of 24 national teams compete for the biggest prize in Europe. While in 1960 there were only four participating countries. So, they started the tournament off in the semi-finals. The four participants were France, USSR, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia.

One could say that the early 1960s was the period of the pinnacle of communist football, with the extraordinary Soviet, Yugoslav and Hungarian teams dominating international competitions from 1948 to 1962. The high point of the tournament was the match between France and Yugoslavia, old rivals from the previous World Cup, where Yugoslavs managed to beat the French team with Kops and Fontaine. The French wanted revenge but they were denied – the Yugoslavs gave a wonderful performance, managing to score five goals. The match itself is still the match with most goals scored in the European Championships.

Connecting a divided Europe

UEFA’s inaugural European Championship faced numerous challenges. The high profile footballing nations England, West Germany and Italy refused to participate. Further problems stemmed from the post-war Cold War context, with the Soviet Union’s path to reaching this tournament mired with political disputes. Their opponents in the last qualifying stage ( quarter-finals) were due to be Spain, presenting a match between two nations who are ideologically divergent.

General Franco refused to allow his team to travel to Moscow for the first leg, he therefore made it clear that he would refuse to allow the Soviet team into his country for the second leg. This gave the Soviet Union two three-nil wins plus a place in the semi-final. Further to this, a U-2 spy plane piloted by Gary Powers was shot down over Soviet territory on the 1st of May. This led to dissolving the plans for “Big Four” heads of state summit (France, Soviet Union, United Kingdom and the United States), which was scheduled to start in Paris on 16 May 1960. Just a month before the ball was supposed to roll, this escalation was adding to the tension between East and West.

Football for ideological prestige

The final between the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia was also inextricably bound up with post-war politics and the projection of ideology. Yugoslavia had been expelled from the Cominform in 1948 following the split between Tito and Stalin. Relations between Yugoslavia and the rest of the Eastern Bloc began to thaw after Stalin’s death in 1953, but Yugoslavia continued to pursue a political path that was aligned to neither Soviet-led Eastern Europe nor the economic liberalism of the West.

The final of the inaugural European Championships, therefore, held political significance. In the end, it was won by the Soviet Union with a 2-1 win over Yugoslavia. This match is one of the many politically charged football games between these two countries, the most famous being the very first encounter at the 1952 Olympic Games in Finland when Yugoslavia came back from being 1-5 behind to draw 5-5 in the closing minutes. For that occasion, both leaders sent telegrams to the players stressing the political significance of the game. But in 1960, it was the Soviet Union team who could lift the UEFA European Nations Cup for the first time.

Find out more

Read more about Soviet goalkeeper Lev Yahsin on our Football Lives Section. Explore the tournament’s football facts at the UEFA special editorial, or read this article about the Soviet’s “golden generation”. Make sure to follow Football Makes History as educational resources will explore these political histories in more depth.

On this day, 20 June 2020, France was supposed to play a Euro2020 game in the city of Budapest. The Euro2020 tournament is postponed for one year, which gives us a chance to go into the history of the European Nations Cup, which is full of remarkable stories and people. This is the story of the first tournament. It is a story about the legacy of the Cold War.

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Soviet Union & Yugoslav captains Neto and Kostic before start of 1960 European Nations Final.
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The Ajax team, 1926 with Eddy Hamel is front row, left (Photo: Courtesy of Ajax, Wikimedia Commons).
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