After the 1984 tournament was considered a success, UEFA decided to keep the format the same. West Germany were chosen as hosts and so they qualified automatically. The other seven qualifiers would come from the Group winners of the qualifying stage.
For the qualification stage, thirty-two teams were put into seven groups, four of five teams, and three of four teams.
Group One had Spain, losing finalists four years earlier, up against Romania, Austria and Albania. Romania were expected to be Spain’s challengers and they were Spain’s first opponents in Seville. Real Madrid’s Michel scored the only goal of the game. Romania had already beaten Austria, 4-0. Spain then travelled to Albania and found themselves 0-1 down, but bounced back to win 2-1. They then needed a goal 2 minutes from time to win in Vienna, but then lost their advantage as Romania beat them 1-3 in Bucharest. The final games of the group saw Spain thrash Albania, 5-0, but Romania couldn’t beat Austria, as the game ended goalless and Spain had won the group by just 1pt.
Italy were drawn in Group 2. They had missed out on qualification for the 1984 tournament after one of their worst campaigns ever. They were up against Sweden, Switzerland, Portugal and Malta. Italy were going through a difficult period. They had won the 1982 World Cup, but didn’t qualify for the 1984 Euros and then only reached the Second Round of the 1986 World Cup. Their opening match saw them beat Switzerland, 3-2. Sweden began with two wins and a draw against Switzerland, Portugal and Malta. Italy then had back-to-back games against Malta, which they won 2-0 and 5-0. By this time, Alessandro Altobelli had scored in every game and he followed this with the only goal of the game in Portugal. Portugal were then stunned to be held at home 2-2 by Malta, which probably put paid to their hopes. Sweden looked to offer Italy with the toughest opposition, especially when they beat Italy, 1-0 in Solna. But the nature of this group was that few teams could mount a determined challenge, evidenced by Sweden then drawing in Switzerland and then losing at home to Portugal. Italy then also dropped points in Switzerland, but two goals from Gianluca Vialli saw them beat Sweden in Naples, which secured first place in the group. Italy eventually won the group by 3pts from Sweden.
Group 3 looked to be a tough group as European Championship holders, France were up against USSR. France had finished 3rd in Mexico ’86 and were looking forward to defending their Euro title, they worked so hard to earn 4 years previously. Things didn’t start well as they were held to a 0-0 draw in Iceland. But then USSR were also held in Iceland so that evened things up. The first big clash between the two was in Paris in October 1986. Goals from Belanov and Rats gave the visitors a 2-0 win. France then travelled to East Germany and were again held to a 0-0 draw. Three matches into their defence of the trophy and they had yet to score a goal. USSR beat Norway, 4-0 and 1-0, then East Germany, 2-0 and were clearly in good form. France finally found the net when they beat Iceland, 2-0, but then ruined it all by losing 0-2 to Norway. The 2nd big meeting between USSR and France ended in a 1-1 draw, and so USSR retained the advantage. Then USSR dropped points away to East Germany, but then 4 days later France were held at home by Norway. USSR had now qualified for the finals and the holders were out. France’s final act of a thoroughly miserable campaign saw them lose to a last minute goal at home to East Germany. They’d won one of their eight games, scoring just four goals.
Group 4 had England up against Northern Ireland, as well as Turkey and Yugoslavia. England had missed the 1984 tournament, but reached the Quarter-Finals of the 1986 World Cup. Their opening game was a 3-0 win over the Irish at Wembley with two goals from Gary Lineker. Yugoslavia then beat Turkey, 4-0 before Northern Ireland travelled to Turkey and earned a 0-0 draw. England were at home again for their second game when Yugoslavia were the visitors, and they kept up their winning run with a 2-0 victory. They then travelled to Windsor Park and goals from Steve Hodge and Chris Waddle gave them another 2-0 win. They dropped their first points in Turkey when they played out a 0-0 draw. The Irish were then 1-0 up at home to Yugoslavia, but then lost 1-2 and then were also beaten in Sarajevo, 0-3. England then played host to Turkey and had one of their biggest wins in history. Lineker scored a hat-trick, John Barnes got two and goals from Bryan Robson, Peter Beardsley and Neil Webb gave England an 8-0 win to confirm qualification for the finals. England continued the goal-fest with a 4-1 win in Yugoslavia. England scored all their goals in the opening twenty-five minutes too!
England won the group, unbeaten winning five of their six matches and conceding just one goal. They had high hopes for the finals.
Group 5 contained Netherlands who had missed the last Championships as well as the ’86 World Cup. They were drawn against Greece, Hungary, Poland and Cyprus. Poland were the favourites having finished 3rd in the ’82 World Cup and competing in the ’86 World Cup too.
Poland were first up as they beat Greece, 2-1, then the Dutch won in Hungary before they met Poland in Amsterdam. The game ended 0-0, a result that suited Poland more than Netherlands. The Dutch then won in Cyprus, before they were held at home by Greece. Poland were then held at home by Cyprus and then went to Athens and were beaten 0-1 by Greece. Goals from Gullit and Muhren saw the Dutch win 2-0 at home to Hungary, before Hungary bounced back to beat Poland in Budapest, 5-3. The return fixture also contained goals but this time Poland won 3-2. So October 1987 in Warsaw and the Dutch were the visitors. Ruud Gullit scored another two goals and Netherlands had qualified for the finals. They finished up beating Cyprus, 4-0 and then Greece 3-0. Netherlands had won the group, going through unbeaten conceding one goal
Group 6 saw Denmark, who many people thought were good enough to win in 1984, up against Czechoslovakia, Wales and Finland.
Finland were involved in five of the first six matches, although they only picked up 1pt when they drew with Wales in Helsinki. Wales were able to get the better of them when they played at Wrexham as they won 4-0. Denmark had beaten Finland home and away, 1-0 and then drew away to the Czechs. When the Czechs arrived in Wrexham, Ian Rush’s goal eight minutes from time gained a 1-1 draw and the advantage was now with Denmark. Jan Molby put Denmark in front at home to Czechoslovakia to then be held to a 1-1 draw. But the Czechs then blew their chances when they lost 0-3 in Finland. Denmark just needed 2pts from their back-to-back meetings with Wales. In Cardiff, Mark Hughes scored the only goal of the game, but in Copenhagen Preben Elkjaer did likewise for Denmark and the 1-0 win was enough to see them qualify. The Czechs then beat Wales, but it was their defeat to Finland which did for them, and Denmark won the group, despite only winning 50% of their matches
Group 7 promised to be a tight one. Belgium, runners-up in ’80, were drawn with Bulgaria, Republic of Ireland, Scotland and Luxembourg. With Luxembourg expected to be the whipping boys, results between the other could prove crucial. Belgium were up first at home to Ireland. Twice they lead, but twice the Irish pulled them back and then game ended 2-2. On the same night, Scotland then drew 0-0 at home to Bulgaria. Belgium did their goal difference no harm winning 6-0 in Luxembourg as Nico Claesen hit a hat-trick. Ireland and Scotland then met in Dublin and the Scots played out another 0-0 draw. But then Scotland beat Luxembourg, 3-0 at Hampden Park, before Belgium dropped more points as they were held 1-1 at home to Bulgaria. In February 1987 Republic of Ireland visited Hampden Park, and Mark Lawrenson scored the only goal of the game. But then two weeks later, the Irish ruined that good work by losing in Sofia and then being held 0-0 at home to Belgium. Between those games, Belgium had thumped Scotland, 4-1 as Nico Claesen continued his goalscoring form with another hat-trick. The Irish and the Belgians then played out a 0-0 draw in Dublin. Twenty four hours later and Bulgaria won in Luxembourg to go top of the group. The Irish also won in Luxembourg although only by 2-0 and there were concerns goal difference could decide the group. When Ireland then beat Luxembourg in Dublin, 2-1 and they went to the top of the group.
Bulgaria then beat Belgium, 2-0 to go back on top. October 1987, Bulgaria arrived at Lansdowne Road, on the same night as Scotland entertained Belgium. Paul McGrath and Kevin Moran scored the goals that gave Ireland a 2-0 win over Bulgaria and Ally McCoist and Paul McStay scored the goals was gave Scotland a 2-0 win over Belgium. Ireland had now finished their matches and lead Bulgaria by 1pt. The Bulgarians had just 1 game left, at home to Scotland. Belgium’s defeat in Glasgow put paid to their qualification hopes and Scotland couldn’t go through either. November 1987 and Bulgaria were at home to Scotland, knowing a draw would be enough to see them progress. For 86 minutes the game was goalless and as the Irish were beginning to feel their dream had gone, Hearts midfielder, Gary Mackay stepped up to score the only goal of the game, and the only international goal of his career. Scotland had pulled off an unlikely 1-0 win and the Republic of Ireland had won the group. Just 2pts separated 4 countries, and the Irish had qualified for a major tournament for the first time in their history.
After 14 months of competition, we now had our 7 qualifiers to join West Germany.
Denmark, England, Italy, Netherlands, Republic of Ireland, Spain, USSR.