It really did happen: The German Football Association passed up the chance to play in the first two European Championship finals in 1960 and 1964. When Germany did later enter the fray for the European crown, it marked the start of a unique success story. However what is now the most successful European Championship nation began with a bit of a fiasco.
In view of the worldwide interest in EURO 2016 in France, it is nowadays almost unimaginable that Germany had no interest at all in the first two European Championship finals in 1960 and 1964 – even though the country won the 1954 World Cup which sparked a big euphoria for football. However the Deutsche Fußball Bund (DFB – the German Football Association) – with three wins now the joint record holders with Spain – at first declined to take part in the European Championship. They were the only major football nation not to participate in the second edition in 1964.
The reason for their reticence lay in the person of the national coach Sepp Herberger. The man who had guided Germany to World Cup success in 1954 was convinced the additional competition alongside the World Cup would be too much for his players. Looking at the present day with almost double the amount of games that professionals have to play, Herberger’s argument is rather difficult to understand. However back in the 50s and early 60s, many top players still worked part time. Professionalism only started in German football when the Bundesliga was introduced in 1963.
As the majority of the other European football associations followed the call of the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), the DFB had trouble in finding opponents for international friendlies. Only four matches were played in 1963 and five in 1964. In November 1964, Helmut Schön took over at the helm from Herberger. He in contrast was in favour of taking part in the Europeans and the DFB duly entered a team for the next edition of the tournament in 1968. After Germany finished runners-up at the 1966 World Cup in England, the qualification for the third European Championships began in spring 1967. It appeared however that the German national team had been subsequently punished for their initial reluctance to compete in the event.
Germany were drawn in the only three-team group and had to face two Balkan countries – Yugoslavia and Albania. The opening match against Albania in Dortmund on 8 April 1967 was won 6-0. In only his second international Gerd Müller scored four goals. A 1-0 defeat followed against Yugoslavia in Belgrade on 3 May. Amends were then made with a 3-1 win in Hamburg on 7 October. Having the better goal difference against Yugoslavia, the World Cup runners-up only needed to beat the Albanians 1-0 in Tirana to progress to the quarterfinals. It was not to be as on 17 December 1967, the Germans only managed a goalless draw in the Quemal Stadium.
The negative experience is still remembered by many football fans in the country that has produced four World Cup winning teams. Beckenbauer, Müller, Maier and Seeler were missing injured but Schön could nevertheless turn to a striking quartet – Löhr, Küppers, Held and Gladbach’s newcomer to international football Meyer – that had already scored a total of 50 league goals. The goalless draw was seen a very bitter defeat. It hurt even more in the next months as Yugoslavia first knocked-out France, then defeated world champions England in the semi-final and were only beaten by Italy after two finals.
The Federal Republic of Germany’s start in the European Championship was bumpy. After declining to enter on two occasions they then promptly missed out on reaching the round of the top eight teams. It has remained the only time that Germany has been unable to compete for the Henri Delaunay Cup. An unparalleled success story has however followed as the DFB eleven is now the most successful trophy collector of all Europe’s national teams having won the title on three occasions in 1972, 1980 and 1996. The feat has since been equalled by Spain who added two wins – in 2008 and 2012 – to their triumph in 1964.
The German record is however unsurpassed, despite not participating in the first two tournaments: 11 participations, three titles, runners-up in 1992, 1976 and 2008, twice a semifinalist in 1988 and 2012. They have also appeared at every finals since 1972 – something no other team has achieved. No other team has played so many matches at finals (43), no other team has more wins to its credit (23). Using the three-point rule, Germany also heads the ranking with 79 points well ahead of Spain (62 points/36 games/17 wins/9 finals),the Netherlands (59/35/17/9) and Italy (54/33/13/8).
For the tournament in France, Germany is setting its sights on heading the titles ranking on their own – their fourth World Cup win should be followed by a fourth European Championships success. It would also be the first time that Germany has added a European Championship win one at the World Cup. They once held both titles at the same time but the feat was achieved the other way around – the European Championship title in 1972 was followed by the World Cup title in 1974.