fields of dreams

LONDON - The days of the coin toss are over.

LONDON - The days of the coin toss are over.

Italy may have reached the 1968 European Championship final ahead of the Soviet Union with the flip of a coin, but the continental tournament has changed drastically since those early days.

From four teams vying for the trophy in France at the first European Nations Cup in 1960 to the 16 that will compete at this year's tournament in Austria and Switzerland, the event has grown into a three-week competition that draws huge audiences at the stadiums and on television.

It wasn't always that way.

When former UEFA general secretary Henri Delaunay's idea finally came to fruition, the qualifying tournament featured 17 teams. Sixteen of them - Ireland lost to Czechoslovakia in a playoff - then played in a two-leg home and away series to advance, and the same happened in the second round.

That left four teams - the Soviet Union, France, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia - to play for the first trophy on July 10 at the Parc des Princes in Paris, about five years after the death of Delaunay, for whom the cup is named. The host of the tournament was chosen from among the four semifinalists.

The Soviets went on to win the inaugural title, beating Yugoslavia 2-1 with Viktor Ponedelnik scoring the winning goal in extra time in the 114th minute.

"That was the star moment of my life," Ponedelnik has said.

The next four tournaments again went straight to the semifinals in the host country, though starting in 1968 more teams entered the qualifying stage and the group phase for qualifying was introduced.

And it was at the third tournament, which Italy went on to win after winning the coin toss following a 0-0 draw with the Soviet Union in the days before shootouts, that the name was officially changed to the European Championship.

From the beginning, the biggest names in soccer played in the tournament - Lev Yashin being the most notable champion from the first tournament, and a runner-up to hosts Spain four years later. Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Mueller were the men who later led West Germany to its first European title in 1972.

But when the format expanded to eight teams in 1980, it made room for even more famous players to participate.

Karl-Heinz Rumminegge and Bernd Schuster were on the West Germany team that beat Belgium 2-1 in the final.

"I don't think I have ever seen such a perfect player," West Germany player Horst Hrubesch said of Schuster. "Bernd was the outstanding player in the team. He connected the whole thing."

Italy hosted that tournament, but finished second to Belgium in the opening round and failed to advance despite having Dino Zoff, Marco Tardelli and Claudio Gentile in their team.

UEFA president Michel Platini was the star of the 1984 tournament at home in France. The captain scored an amazing nine goals in five games as the tournament was given an extra round with the reintroduction of the semifinals following the group phase.

The Netherlands put together one of the greatest teams ever for the 1988 tournament, with current national team coach Marco van Basten leading the way to the title alongside Ruud Gullit, Ronald Koeman and Frank Rijkaard.

In 1996, the tournament expanded to 16 teams, with the participants split into four groups of four and a quarterfinal stage added.

England, playing at home and looking for their second major title after the 1966 World Cup, were favoured but lost to old foe Germany on penalties in the semifinals. The Germans went on to win their third continental title - and first since reunification with East Germany - at Wembley Stadium by beating the Czech Republic 2-1 in the final.

Besides the titles belonging to the main powers of European soccer, there have been two surprise champions. In 1992, Denmark played at the tournament in Sweden despite not qualifying when Yugoslavia were kicked out because of UN sanctions.

The Danes, who had finished second to Yugoslavia in their qualifying group, made a sensational run and beat Germany in the final. Greece were the other surprise winners, beating hosts Portugal in the opening and closing games of Euro 2004 to win their first major title. - Sapa-AP