As the European Championships for 2012 have finally gotten underway this past week, I can finally stop reading about past tournaments and start focusing on the one at present. However, researching some of the past winners and losers of the tournament since its inception in 1960 has been rather telling of the way Europe has grown to be “inclusive” of so many nations, including those such as Azerbaijan, Israel, and even Kazakhstan which are not even located on the tradition view of the physical continent.
Take a look at this blog post from oh you beauty. It illustrates the past tournaments from 1960 onward when it featured only four teams in the finals to today’s edition, which features 16 teams. (24 teams will be participating in 2016 in France) In the early years, the tournament featured 17 qualifying teams, and by 1964, 29 teams wanted to participate with two more in 1968. The tournament would continue to grow in popularity as more and more nations wanted to participate, particularly those in the Eastern half and smaller nations in the West.
Come 1980, the tournament made its first expansion to 8 teams in the final, coinciding with the growing number of nations in the European Union from its expansion in 1973 and the approval to allow Greece, Spain, and Portugal during the early 80’s. Europe was increasingly less Western-centric and moving to include all nations at this point.
It wasn’t until 1996 that the finals of the tournament would include 16 teams. For nearly two decades, the number of qualifying nations remained relatively stagnant (around 30-35). When the Soviet Union dissolved, 13 nations would form their own soccer unions, and anticipating this, the tournament increased its size once more.
Since then, 16 teams in the final has been the norm, and only 6 new teams have been eligible for qualifying as of 2012, most of them as newly formed nations in the Balkans, but some, like Kazakhstan, as new UEFA members switching to the organization from Asia.
It has been interesting to following the growth and expansion of Europe from the Soviet Union Era to the height of the European Union era, and correlating those moments with the growth of Europe’s most anticipated sporting event. UEFA officials have already made a big step by staging the tournament in Poland & Ukraine for the first time. Perhaps with the additional amount of qualifying nations next tournament, we may see the orbit of ‘Europe’ push farther into Central Asia or even the Middle East.