Due to the political upheavals and the collapse of old Eastern bloc countries many new football associations were founded after 1990. Additionally the financial frame for major football tournaments had improved substantially since the beginning of the 1990s. This prompted the European Football Association (UEFA) to extend the 1996 European Championship finals in England to 16 participants. What had started with four teams in the final round, was now turning into a major tournament. The field of 16 entries and knock-out matches for the best eight teams was the ideal format retained by the World Cup until 1970.
The teams were allocated to four groups, with the best teams reaching the quarter-finals. In 1996 Germany won their third title after 1972 and 1980. The decider was a “Golden Goal” to make it 2-1 in the final against the Czech Republic. This was another new regulation which concluded the match after the first goal, following a drawn 90 minutes, was scored in extra time. The extension of the European Championship proved a great success. The tournament was played on a high level, almost all matches were sell-outs, and the EURO motto “Football is Coming Home”, paying homage to England as the mother country of football, was appreciated by millions of fans who created a memorable atmosphere.
In 2000 the European Championship finals were shared by two countries for the first time: the Netherlands and Belgium co-hosted. UEFA thus entered uncharted waters as the International Football Association (FIFA) did not register its first jointly held World Cup until 2002, with South Korea and Japan as hosts. France won the Henri Delaunay Cup for the second time after 1984, again by a “Golden Goal” which made it 2-1 against Italy in extra time of the final in Rotterdam.
Under the skilful direction of UEFA the European Championship became a greater and greater success. The group matches in particular were played on a clearly higher level than many encounters at the World Cup. It was sometimes more difficult for countries to qualify for a European Championship than for a World Cup finals.
The 2004 European Championship in Portugal once again proved a globally noticed football festival, with Greece the surprise winners. The “Golden Goal” regulation had been replaced by a “Silver Goal” rule. Matches in extra time were no longer concluded directly after a goal. The trailing team was given the opportunity to equalise, or win, before the full 120 minutes. Greece defeated the Czech Republic by a “Silver Goal” in the semi-final.
The 2008 Europeans were co-hosted for the second time by two countries, this time Switzerland and Austria. Fifty one teams went through the qualification for UEFA EURO 2008 – and at the end Spain were crowned European champions for the second time. They beat Germany 1-0 in the final in Vienna.
Four years later the event was again in two countries – and Spain triumphed once more. With a brilliant 4-0 over Italy in Kiev at the 2012 finals shared by Poland and Ukraine the “Furia Roja” achieved an historic success: Spain became the first nation to successfully defend the European title. They were also the last European champions in the 16-team format as it had been decided long before that 24 teams will compete for the first time in France 2016.
The increase triggered a few changes in the qualification: it was played in nine groups with the two best-placed teams of each group qualifying directly for the finals. In addition the best third-placed team from the nine groups (Turkey) and of course the hosts France purchased their ticket. The remaining four places were decided in four play-off encounters between the remaining eight third-placed teams. A few other things will also change in France. The tournament will be held for the first time over four weeks (June 10-July 10) – and also for the first time with six first-round groups. The two best-placed teams in each of the six groups, as well as the four best third-placed teams, will qualify for the new round of 16 knock-out stage.
Besides the elation about more matches and greater diversity at the finals, there is also criticism for the new format. It is feared that the previously consistent high sporting quality and attractiveness of the tournament could be lost. Only the four best third-placed teams will reach the knock-out stage, with two third-placed teams eliminated. The World Cup finals held with 24 teams showed that the purely statistical comparison of the third-placed teams can have big disadvantages. Even lots had to be drawn to decide which third-placed team would advance into the round of 16.