|HOST COUNTRY - ITALY
Originally called the European Nations Cup, the tournament’s name was officially changed to the European Championships for the 1968 edition. But although significant changes were also introduced for the qualifying competition, the established format was retained whereby the last four alone contested the finals, with the hosts only chosen after their identities were known.
Again therefore the host country had to qualify along with the other entrants. In 1968, the honor of staging the semi-finals, third-place match and final was ultimately awarded to Italy, whose association picked three stadiums – the Comunale in Florence, the San Paolo in Naples and Rome’s Olimpico.
|IN THE NEWS IN 1968...
|* Czechoslovakia's 'Prague Spring' liberalization is crushed by a Soviet-led invasion of Warsaw Pact troops
* Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy are assassinated in the United States
* Stanley Kubrick's film '2001: A Space Odyssey' is premiered, and the Beatles release their eponymous 'White Album'
* At the Mexico City Olympics, American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos give the black power salute from the winners' podium
* In Italy, Paolo Maldini, son of Cesare, is born
One group comprising the four British home nations was won by World Cup holders England – though not before they had famously lost 3-2 at Wembley to a Jim Baxter-inspired Scotland, whose ecstatic fans duly proclaimed their team world champions.
Elsewhere, West Germany, participating for the first time, thrashed Albania 6-0 in its first match – a young Gerd Muller scoring four goals – but finished as Group 4 runners-up to Yugoslavia.
Other group winners were defending champions Spain, the USSR (in whose group the Austria-Greece match in Vienna was abandoned and declared void by UEFA at 1-1 because of crowd trouble), Hungary, France and two unbeaten sides – Bulgaria and Italy.
Italy’s group, including whipping-boys Cyprus, produced no fewer than 55 goals, averaging 4.6 per game.
The quarterfinals paired Bulgaria with Italy, the Azzurri triumphing 4-3 on aggregate. Yugoslavia thrashed France 6-2, while the USSR overcame Hungary (3-2) and England beat holders Spain 1-0 at Wembley and 2-1 in Madrid.
Pietro Anastasi Bobby Charlton
Italy was apprehensive before their semifinal against the USSR; the Soviets had beaten them in both the 1964 tournament and the 1966 World Cup. This game in Naples was blighted by injuries to key players like Gianni Rivera and dominated by unyielding defenses. Although Angelo Domenghini’s late shot hit the post, it finished goalless, then acquired the dubious distinction of becoming the first match to be decided by the toss of a coin; Italy’s captain Giacinto Facchetti called correctly and Italy was into the final.
Meanwhile in Florence, a bruising, cynical encounter saw England reduced to 10 men and, deprived by injury of fire-power, beaten four minutes from time by a goal from Dragan Dzajic, Yugoslavia’s outstanding winger.
Reigning world champions England gained a measure of consolation three days later by beating USSR 2-0 with goals from Bobby Charlton and Geoff Hurst to finish third.
Italy 1-1 Yugoslavia (aet)
Italy 2-0 Yugoslavia (replay)
Uniquely, the 1968 final involved two matches. Before the introduction of penalty shootouts, the first game ended all-square and, notwithstanding Italy’s semifinal having been resolved by a coin-toss, a replay was arranged.
In the first meeting, the young Yugoslav side took the lead after 39 minutes when Trivic played in Dragan Dzajic, their semi-final hero, who beat Dino Zoff. With Vahidin Musemic and 19-year-old debutant Jovan Acimovic impressive, Yugoslavia went close to increasing their lead.
Italy had Pietro Anastasi making a tentative debut, and were heading for defeat until Angelo Domenghini, who had struck the post with one powerful free kick, equalised with another nine minutes from time.
Extra time produced no winner, so the teams regrouped in Rome two days later. Italy coach Ferruccio Valcareggi’s five changes, including the introduction of Sandro Mazzola and Luigi Riva, underlined the strength in depth at his disposal, whereas Yugoslavia’s resources were stretched.
Riva opened the scoring early with a low shot beyond Ilija Pantelic, and Anastasi, suddenly sharper and more assured, doubled the lead after 30 minutes with a superb volley from Giancarlo De Sisti’s pass.
With Tarcisio Burgnich subduing Dzajic, Italy were relatively untroubled and closed the game out to lift the crown.
|PLAYER OF THE TOURNAMENT
Luigi Riva only appeared in the replayed final of a somewhat muted tournament, but his impact was decisive. Nicknamed ‘Thunderclap’, the Cagliari ace had just recovered from the first of two broken legs that blighted his career, but was an Azzurri talisman whose charismatic presence in the replay lifted the whole team.
Riva gave the Yugoslavs a torrid time, and might already have claimed a hat trick before scoring his 12th minute goal – one of 35 in 42 internationals that make him Italy’s all-time leading scorer and distinguished him as the best Italian striker of his generation. He netted 10 in Italy’s 1970 World Cup campaign, and 21 as Cagliari won the Scudetto in 1969-70. The Sardinians later retired his No.11 shirt in tribute.
Riva, now 67, is still a member of the Italian national team staff, as he was in 2006 when they won the World Cup. In 2008 the FIGC ranked Riva second among the 10 all-time greatest Italian players.
|MOMENT OF THE TOURNAMENT
Tightening of the rules has made red cards a wearisomely familiar feature of today’s game, but dismissals were still relatively infrequent in the late 1960s. And when Alan Mullery sensationally became the first England player ever to be sent off, it weakened his team’s chances of winning their semi-final against Yugoslavia, and tarnished their international reputation.
True, Mullery had just been hacked down by Dobrivoje Trivic, but his retaliatory kick left the referee no scope for leniency.
|MATCH OF THE TOURNAMENT
Italy 1-1 Yugoslavia (aet)
In truth, the 1968 finals were hardly a feast of football, but the first game between Italy and Yugoslavia made up in tension and drama for what it lacked in panache. Serbian Rajko Mitic’s side pushed the Azzurri all the way, and looked like succeeding until Domenghini’s late leveler lifted the anxiety of the Roman crowd, infusing it with relief and renewed hope that was ultimately fulfilled.