The story of the European Championship’s emergence to global prestige starts with humble beginnings and a dream. International football, in and of itself, had only been in existence for just under a quarter of a century before intercontinental governing bodies started to form in Europe, Asia and North America.

It wasn’t until shortly after the African governing body, CAF, was formed in 1954 that UEFA would too. The World Cup that was staged that year in Switzerland, and the infamous ‘Miracle of Bern’ soon established the nation as Europe’s football capital.

Although there were initially 25 members, 17 entered the first ever tournament in 1960, leading to a four-team final stage. Had Spain not forfeited their fixtures against the Soviet Union in protest, perhaps they would have reached the final and meet its eventual winners Yugoslavia.

Instead they hosted the next one four years later, where the previous edition’s notable absentees such as England and Italy decided to participate. East Germany joined in too, even in light of the West’s protestations that there already existed a German national team. No less, their applications were accepted.

The Azzurri would put seven past Turkey without reply in the preliminary round thanks to Alberto Orlando, Gianni Rivera and Angelo Sormani, but fall short later on against the consequent runners-up, USSR.

For Italy itself, the landscape was beginning to change, quite literally. The constitutional referendum a year after the Second World War led to the abolition of its 85-year-old monarchy in favour of republican statehood. Umberto II was its king for a little over a month.

The Italian Prime Minister at the time, Alcide De Gasperi, signed one of the 10 Paris Peace Treaties in 1947, gradually restored its war-devastated economy in alliance with the United States, and later became a member of NATO in 1949. It wasn’t until co-founding the European Economic Community in 1957 that jobs increased and unemployment declined.

But it really was, for a while, and in sports at least, La Dolce Vita — the good life — much like the 1960 comedy-drama picture starring Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni. Calcio was reaching continental levels of success, with both Milan and Internazionale featuring in three consecutive European Cup finals and winning each time.

The Summer Olympics held in Rome that year welcomed over 5,000 athletes from 83 countries for the Games and was considered a sporting success for the nation after ranking third in the medals table.

It hadn’t been since 1934 that they had hosted a major football tournament, so when they were elected to stage the championships three decades later, it was left to the cities Rome, Naples and Florence to invite all of Europe down south.

Looking at it, the 1950s and ‘60s were both socially and economically disparate and profoundly influenced by events that rocked its cultural infrastructure. But, in a few short words, this was Italy’s coming of age into what it is today.

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Read  |  The incomparable legacy of Helenio Herrera

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The Azzurri would have to wait 12 years for automatic qualification as hosts and would have to battle for their place against Cyprus, Switzerland and Romania instead. Their 1966 World Cup squad under Edmondo Fabbri was among the youngest there, with nine of its representative under 23-years-old and at Inter or otherwise. It was unsurprising given that they were coached by someone by the name of Helenio Herrera.

For the squad that would feature two years later under Ferruccio Valcareggi, the philosophy was different for the national team coach and the younger group had grown and matured.

For one, Sandro Mazzola was a one-time Serie A leading scorer for the Nerazzurri before a certain Gigi Riva would be too, and become a mainstay on FIFA’ s Golden Ball shortlist at his peak.

Behind them and orchestrating the play was Gianni Rivera, Milan’s elegantly masterful midfielder, flanked by the tireless partnership of Tarcisio Burgnich on one side and captain Giacinto Facchetti on the other. Enrico Albertosi and his hot temper didn’t need much to discipline the Italian rear-guard either, even if it meant bursting Roberto Rosato’s ear drums.

This was mostly a side that was involved at England 66 and fell flat. Expectations, by many critics’ standards, were not reached, and some vigorously ridiculed Fabbri for not galvanising a better showing from his talented group. Blessing or curse, it was now absolutely imperative for Valcareggi’s men to appear in a competition that they are hosting. Not just to avoid embarrassment, but also showcase their burgeoning young generation.

The Italians found the net 17 times and conceded only three as they ran out comfortable winners of their group. With five wins and a draw, they progressed to the next stage riding on Mazzola’s five goals. Defeat in Bulgaria worried some, but a 2-0 win in at the San Paolo ensured their place in the finals. Then it became four: England, Italy, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.

Come the 5 June 1968, captain Facchetti’s Italy would meet the much-vaunted USSR in the semi-finals. Tens of thousands of fans clamoured into the San Paolo in Naples’ western suburb of Fuorigrotta, with hundreds of others still pushing to get inside and, although the city was inhabited by over a million people, it felt like everyone in town was a tifosi.

It was there, and not at Milan’s San Siro amphitheatre, where they felt at home and with an entire nation behind them. Much like a lot of other large-capacity grounds at the time, the San Paolo had no roof but kept remnants of the Summer Olympics from a near-decade ago. Instead, it resembled a Roman coliseum and a modern theatre for football.

An opening ceremony welcomed the two sides with marching bands and eager photographers besides themselves trying to catch glimpses of what was about to unfold shortly, before both engaged in carolling their national anthems.

For a 26-year-old Dino Zoff, it was an important moment in his career that would earmark him for future success. He had only won a solitary cap for his country before, so starting in goal at such a crucial stage was its own milestone. But the Soviets’ front line, mind, would be testing with all three of Banishevskiy, Byshovets and Malofeyev relentlessly puncturing the final third.

The Soviets’ quality showed through when they pressed. Both Ernesto Castano and Giancarlo Bercellino struggled to remove the danger with Banishevskiy in their periphery so often. Soon they would win a corner, but their threat amounted to little. It became a recurring theme, though; when Italy advanced deep into opposition territory, they were met with a mob of white shirts and lost possession almost instantly. Advantage USSR, then, but only for so long as they consistently struggled to hit the target.

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Read  |  Sandro Mazzola: from tragedy to triumph

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For the Azzurri, it would be neat and tidy passes between their technical midfield comprised of Rivera and Antonio Juliano before attempting to find Mazzola on the edge of the penalty area. It was only then that captain Albert Sheshternyov would emerge from the defence and disrupt the entire rhythm of play and put it back into his team’s hands. That became telling of how well-matched the two sides were in terms of individual quality in certain areas and the strategies of both coaches. Neither wanted to give away too much but also feared sitting too deep and encouraging any untoward pressure.

When an indirect free-kick was won, Angelo Domenghini quickly found Mazzola who then laid it off to an onrushing Piero Prati. On the edge of the box, marked tightly, he managed to hurdle a challenge to open up an opportunity on goal that was inches from the post. Close still, and perhaps their best chance of the game thus far.

Twice the Red Army felt aggrieved for referee Kurt Tschenscher refusing to award them penalties where one defender was adjudged to have handled the ball, and another bringing down Byshovets in the box. Neither were given, so it was up to Sheshternyov to force Zoff to parry away a long-distance strike after turning his marker. Time continued to elapse and still the USSR were again asking questions of defenders Castano and Bercellino. At times, it felt as though the ball would not go further than a few yards on a hard, dry surface that did little to help.

It was the opposition’s profligacy in front of goal that was in large part their saving grace. At one of their corners, the ball was punched out by Zoff before it came back in with thunderous force yet looking to go wide. Giorgio Ferrini’s misplaced clearance spun off his boot but safely into the shot-stopper’s gloves. Crisis averted.

Later on, a clearance down field found Prati one-on-one with a defender, only to shrug him aside and play in Mazzola who had sprinted from the other end. Prati managed to escape the defender when he had the ball back but it was his tame left-footed effort that was safely collected by goalkeeper Yuri Pschenichnikov.

The scoreline continued to remain goalless, with both teams having seen clear sights of goal but lacking the clinical edge to break the deadlock. In truth, both goalkeepers were in fine form for a lot of what they were dealt with, but even still the narrative for Italy 68 remained low-scoring.

Spain 64 had 13 goals in its four fixtures, with the one before seeing 17. It remains the lowest-scoring of any edition since its inception in 1960. So when the tie had to be played out for another half hour in extra time, it was simply thematic of what had been seen over the previous 90 minutes.

Added time couldn’t determine a winner either, but there had to be a winner. In today’s game, the prospect of deciding a victor with a coin toss is simply incomprehensible and borderline insulting. If you asked some, perhaps they would much rather play until death caused by exhaustion before they leave it to the fate of a coin flip. It might have been what raced through the minds of the players as the referee blew time at the end of two hours.

The issue was that goalless draws in normal time, let alone additional, were rather uncommon in major tournaments. It was usually what replays were for but, for some reason, it wasn’t preferred in this instance. None of the first 12 European Cup finals ended without a goal and the same with the each of the last eight World Cups. Even then, the problem was that added time would usually declare someone victorious somehow, as coaches invested their time and resources on finding ways to score goals, rather than preventing them. It’s why Herrera will forever remain a luminary for pioneering the importance, and art, of defending.

Football’s first penalty shoot-out in England wasn’t until the 1970 Watney Cup semi-final contested between Hull City and Manchester United. The first player to score one was George Best and the first to miss was Denis Law when his effort was saved by goalkeeper Ian McKechnie. More history was made when McKechnie became both the first player to miss a deciding penalty in a shoot-out as well as the first goalkeeper too. Consequently, United went through, only to be outplayed by Derby County 4-1.

Back in Naples, players from both sides are exchanging handshakes. Their legs are heavy and their jerseys are soaked but the level of respect and gamesmanship between them was unwavering. Kurt Tschenscher instructed both teams’ captains into his dressing room for what would separate the two once and for all: a coin toss.

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giacinto Facchetti inter

Read  |  Giacinto Facchetti: the Inter legend decades ahead of his time

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“Heads or tails,” he asked. Within moments, the second finalist of the tournament was decided and an elated Facchetti raced back out to the waiting spectators to announce that they had won and would face Yugoslavia in the final. Naturally Shesternyov was bitterly disappointed but the decision prompted further changes by UEFA to incorporate more effective methods for situations like this.

It couldn’t come soon enough as Budapest Honvéd defeated Aberdeen 5-4 in a shoot-out at the 1970 European Cup Winners’ Cup after drawing with the Scottish club 4-4 on aggregate. That same year, Everton won the European Cup’s first-ever shoot-out to upset Gerd Müller’s Borussia Mönchengladbach, only to later lose out to Panathinaikos on away goals.

In any case, Italy progressed to the final in Rome against a Yugoslavia side that ran out winners against the world champions, England, in comfortable fashion. This time, the stage was Rome and it could have been an upset had Dragan Džajić’s goal not been cancelled out by a late Domenghini equaliser to rupture the net from a free-kick. It forced a replay and denied Plavi their revenge for losing to the USSR in the final eight years earlier.

Same place; same time; but a different squad. Valcareggi opted to make five changes. It paid dividends as Riva was reinstalled to help add to a one-goal lead begun by defender Pietro Anastasi. Riva suffered a broken leg previously, but didn’t look out of sorts when he found the net after 12 minutes. “Rombo di Tuono” (Roar of Thunder) would be the words of legendary journalist Gianni Brera to describe him at the time. Even in front of an attendance that was less than half of the first game, they triumphed to become the tournament’s third champions after the USSR and Spain.

It was at the end of the game when the referee called time that the Azzurri men became heroes of the people. When awarded the trophy, Facchetti was held aloft among joyous players and fans. Suddenly, the memories of North Korea causing one of the World Cup’s greatest upsets washed away.

It didn’t matter and, for now, they were champions, so nothing really mattered at all – and neither should it. For some players, it was the crowning achievement of an established international career, and for others it was only the beginning.

In a wider context, it was also a reprieve from events that served as a precursor for uncertain times. Italy’s ally, the United States, had seen its president John F. Kennedy assassinated on the day of the semi-final against the Soviets, while public protests and attacks were causing a social epidemic.

Ten years would pass before an Italian club, let alone the national team, would reach the finals of a major continental competition. In between the Serie A’s major clubs exchanging the title, stances were divisive and sometimes violent according to Mark Doidge’s Football Italia: Italian Football in an Age of Globalization.

“The industrial success that fuelled the growth in consumption started to collapse in the late 1960s. Economic recession, state inefficiency, and dramatic cultural changes caused by the Miracle culminated in the ‘hot autumn’ in 1969,” he writes.

“Elsewhere, the Lazio team of the 1970s exhibited fascist sympathies. Many of the Biancoceleste players carried guns, which they took to training and away games. Their frivolous approach to weapons resulted in the death of their midfielder, Luciano Re Cecconi, in 1977. As a practical joke, he pretended to rob a jewellery store and was shot by the owner.”

The Azzurri has achieved further successes on all levels since then, but that night in Naples will remain as the first time they would become Kings of Europe.

By Nicolas Kituno. Follow @n_kituno