The qualifying stages for Euro 2016 began last week and the expansion to 24 teams has led to a feeling in some quarters that there is little danger of European football’s big names failing to make it (although Portugal’s defeat by Albania may suggest otherwise). But the Euro qualifying stages have not always been like this. In one of our blogs looking back at more general international football matters, we recall six sides who were noticeably absent from the finals since they grew to eight sides in 1980.
(To clarify, this is not intended as a list of which six teams I think were the best who failed to qualify in terms of what players they had at the time etc – it is based mainly on reputations from recent tournaments. I’ve limited it to a maximum of one entry per nation and per tournament).
World champions in the summer of 1982, the Italians were out of the running to reach the 1984 European Championship within months. Golden memories of beating Brazil and West Germany in Spain were rapidly replaced by being held to a draw by Cyprus and losing 3-0 at home to Sweden. Italy headed a notable list of absentees from the finals including England, the Netherlands, USSR and Poland (third at the 1982 World Cup). The Italians were entering a period of transition and won just one match out of eight, finishing well behind Romania, Sweden and Czechoslovakia. World Cup winning manager Enzo Bearzot stayed at the helm and the Italians would qualify for the 1986 World Cup. The Italians would miss out again on Euro ’92, finishing behind USSR in their qualifying group.
In 1984, Michel Platini inspired France to the European Championship crown on home soil. Four years later they weren’t even at the finals to defend the trophy and they had barely even turned up in qualifying. Unlike the World Cup at this time there was no automatic qualification for the Euro winners at the next tournament and France paid for it. Having been World Cup semi-finalists either side of their Euro ’84 triumph, France were regarded as a genuine force and entertaining with it. But the good days were coming to a close, with the great Michel Platini about to end his career and this side not matching what had gone before. Within three games it was as good as over, having drawn with Iceland and East Germany and lost to USSR. In the end they trundled home in third spot with just one win to their name, seven points behind USSR. To prove this failure was no fluke, France would miss out on the 1990 World Cup finals as they lost out to Yugoslavia and Scotland in their qualifying group.
If qualifying for the European Championship today is perceived as getting too easy, it’s worth remembering less than 25 years ago it was harder than making the World Cup finals. As recently as Euro ’92, there were just seven places up for grabs with the host nation automatically taking up the other slot. One of the most significant absentees was Spain. Despite their reputation until recent domination as under-achievers, they were consistent in getting to major tournaments and this was the sole exception since the mid-1970s. They had the misfortune to be in the same group as an invincible France and a decent Czechoslovakia, finishing well behind both of them and losing to Iceland along the way. They did beat Albania 9-0, but the academic away game would never even take place. It had been a campaign to forget for the Spaniards.
Republic of Ireland 1996
The expansion to 16 teams from Euro ’96 meant fewer big names were missing out on a place in the finals. Perhaps the most obvious side to not get there were Sweden, semi-finalists at both Euro ’92 and USA ’94. But looking at things from an English perspective the failure of Jack Charlton’s the Republic of Ireland stood out, making for an anti-climatic end to his otherwise excellent reign. In his decade in charge they had become established on the international scene by reaching two World Cups and one European Championship and narrowly missing out on another with an unbeaten qualifying record. But this would be his first true failure with Ireland and reinforce the belief he should have left at the natural end of the cycle – after the 1994 World Cup. They had the double inflicted on them by Austria, were crushed 3-0 in Portugal, embarrassingly drew away to Liechtenstein and finished level on points with neighbours Northern Ireland (not considered in the same class as them at this time). They scraped second place and as the side with the worst runners-up record entered a play-off with the Netherlands at neutral Anfield. They were outplayed at times by an excellent Dutch side, who deservedly won 2-0 and Charlton inevitably departed shortly afterwards. He would not be leading his adopted country to a major tournament in his homeland 30 years on from the World Cup triumph.
Big Jack’s reign ends in disappointing fashion
Incredibly at every World Cup from 1982 to 2002 the third place team came from Europe and then would not qualify for the European finals two years later. Poland (1984), France (1988 – see above), Italy (1992), Sweden (1996), Croatia (2000) and Turkey (2004) were all quickly brought down to earth and each could have warranted a place in our top six. But Croatia had looked good in their first major tournament in Euro ’96 and then shone at the 1998 World Cup, beating Germany 3-0 in the quarter-finals. Now they moved onto the Euro 2000 qualifying campaign, with fate conspiring them to be drawn in the same group as Yugoslavia and Macedonia just a few years after the break-up of the old Yugoslavia. They were in trouble after losing their opening game to the Republic of Ireland and had to win their final match at home to Yugoslavia to make it. They drew 2-2 and finished in third place to miss out (despite having a better record than England did in coming second in their group and going on to qualify).
Surely the most high-profile failure to not qualify since the finals were expanded to 16 teams in 1996. England had been very lucky to make it to Euro 2000 but they would not be so fortunate eight years later. With the so called ‘golden generation’ at their disposal, there had been a sense of disappointment at three successive quarter-finals in major tournaments. But those achievements suddenly started to look all the more impressive as England quickly found themselves in trouble. A 0-0 home draw with Macedonia and a 2-0 away defeat to Croatia early on set alarm bells ringing, but results improved and when they led Russia away from home in October 2007 during the second half they were almost there. They proceeded to lose 2-1 and looked all but out, but were then thrown the ultimate lifeline as the Russians lost in Israel. England now needed merely a draw at home to Croatia to qualify automatically in second place. But it was to be an infamous night in the rain at Wembley, as Steve McClaren earned the ‘Wally with Brolly’ tag and England sank to a 3-2 defeat – the younger generation’s equivalent of Poland in 1973 but without the same feeling of bad luck, just cursing where it had all gone wrong.
A night to forget for England
Blogging about the history of the England national football team, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s.