For the qualification stage, there were thirty-three teams were put into seven groups, five of five teams, and two of four teams.
Group 1 saw the 1984 Finalists, France and Spain in the same group. They were joined by 1976 winners, Czechoslovakia, Iceland and Albania. After winning the 1984 tournament, France had failed to even qualify for 1988, neither had they made the 1990 World Cup in Italy. Iceland and Albania were expected to be the whipping boys, so the group winner was going to come from France, Spain or the Czechs. Each country had Iceland as their first opponents. They all won and each by just one goal. Then France met the Czechs in Paris. Two goals from Papin gave the home side a 2-1 win. But the Czechs bounced back when Spain visited Prague. Danek put the Czechs in front but Roberto and Munoz turned things in Spain’s favour. But Czechoslovakia came back and a 2nd Danek goal as well as one from Moravcik gave the Czechs an important 3-2 win. France then beat Albania by just one goal, but Spain were more clinical. They hit Albania, 9-0 with Butragueno scoring four. Two months later, France beat Spain, 3-1 in Paris and now Spain were really up against it to try and win the group. It seemed apparent that the game between Czechoslovakia and France would decide the outcome of the group, and they met in Bratislava in September 1991 Nemecek put the home side in front in the first half, but then two more goals from Papin, including one in the last minute, won the game for France. France had virtually qualified for the finals. Iceland then pulled off a surprise beating Spain, 2-0 in Reykjavik, but Spain were already out of contention. This was emphasised when they were then beaten at home, 1-2 by France as Papin scored again, his 9th so far. Then in November 1991, Spain then beat the Czechs, 2-1 in Seville. When France then beat Iceland, 3-1 in Paris, they won the group and the matches ended as the final game between Albania and Spain was cancelled due to social unrest. France had won the group by 6pts, winning all their eight matches.
Scotland were drawn in Group 2, in a group where none of the countries had qualified for the ’88 tournament. They were up against Bulgaria, Romania, San Marino and Switzerland. They got off to a great start when goals from Robertson and McCoist saw them come from behind to beat Romania, 2-1 at Hampden Park. Romania then compounded their problems by losing at home to Bulgaria as well. Scotland then continued their impressive form with another 2-1 win at Hampden when Switzerland were the visitors. They then travelled to Sofia and another Ally McCoist goal earned them a 1-1 draw. Both Switzerland and Romania thumped San Marino, and then Bulgaria visited Hampden Park in March 1991. John Collins thought he won it with a goal in the 83rd minute but Emil Kostadinov grabbed a late equaliser and the points were shared. A month later Switzerland missed the opportunity to go top when they were held at home by Romania. Goals from Strachan and Durie gave Scotland a win in San Marino, but they hadn’t done much to help their goal difference. Switzerland came from 0-2 down to win 3-2 in Bulgaria, and they and Scotland had moved clear at the top. In June, Switzerland beat San Marino, 7-0, and moved ahead of Scotland, although they’d played a game more. Scotland travelled to Berne to meet Switzerland in September 1991, and 2 goals in 8 minutes at the end of the first half gave Switzerland a 2-0 half-time lead. Gordon Durie got a goal back soon after the break and then Ally McCoist rescued a point for Scotland 7 minutes from time. Scotland were 1pt behind the Swiss with a game in hand, plus they still had to play San Marino at home.
In October, a Gheorghe Hagi penalty looked to have ruined Scotland’s chances as Romania beat them 1-0 in Bucharest. November was going to decide Scotland’s fate. They were at home to San Marino, whilst Switzerland were in Romania. Scotland won 4-0, but they were more interested in goings on in Bucharest. Dorin Mateut scored the only goal of the game and Romania had beaten Switzerland, 1-0 and bang went Switzerland’s chances. Scotland were almost there, but still had the matter of the final game in the group, Bulgaria v Romania. Adrian Popescu gave the Romanians a first half lead, and if they could win by 2 goals, they would win the group. Sirakov equalised in the second half and the game ended, 1-1. Scotland had won the group and qualified for the finals.
Group 3 contained two of the Semi-Finalists from 1988, Italy and USSR, as well as Norway, Hungary and Cyprus. Italy had also reached the Semi-Finals in their home World Cup in 1990, a tournament USSR didn’t make it to. USSR, beaten finalists in 1988, started with a 2-0 win over Norway, who themselves then drew 0-0 with Hungary. Hungary then held Italy to a 1-1 draw in Budapest. Italy, who failed to qualify for the 1984 finals, were then held at home by USSR and the Soviets held an important advantage. Norway, Italy and Hungary all then won in Cyprus, and then USSR continued their unbeaten form as an Alexei Mikhailichenko goal gave them the points in Hungary. Italy then won at home against Hungary before they travelled to Oslo in June 1991. They were 0-2 down inside 25 minutes and could only muster a consolation goal from Schillaci in a 1-2 defeat. That defeat was made even worse by USSR turning up in Olso a few months later and winning 1-0. The Soviets were then held at home by Hungary and Italy had hope but then they travelled to Moscow in October and could only draw 0-0.
Italy then needed to win their final two matches and hope USSR would lose in Cyprus, but it all fell apart at the first hurdle. They were held 1-1 in Genoa by Norway and had qualified. Both countries won their final group games and USSR had won the group by 3pts. Italy had again missed out on a European Championships.
Group 4 became notorious for what happened later. Yugoslavia were expected to qualify after they’d reached the Quarter-Finals of Italia ’90. Austria also made that tournament but didn’t get past the group stage. Denmark had qualified for the Euro ’88, but lost all their matches. Northern Ireland were also in the group along with the Faroe Islands who were competing in the qualifying stages for the first time. The opening match saw one of the big shocks in European football. Faroe Islands beat Austria, 1-0. Yugoslavia then won 2-0 in Belfast, before Denmark beat the Faroes. Denmark then arrived in Belfast and were a goal up before Colin Clarke grabbed a point for the Irish. Yugoslavia then beat Austria before the big two in the group, Yugoslavia and Denmark, met in Copenhagen. Bazdarevic and Jarni won it for Yugoslavia with goals in the last 15 minutes. Yugoslavia now held the upper hand. The Irish then gained a creditable draw in Austria before being soundly thrashed in Belgrade after a hat-trick by Darko Pancev. The Irish then were humbled when the Faroes gained a draw in Belfast. The next big game was when Denmark were in Belgrade, and they won 2-1. Things were now even between the big two. Both beat the Faroes, as did Northern Ireland, 5-0 as Colin Clarke scored a hat-trick. Denmark then won away in Faroes and Austria, without conceding a goal, and had one match left at home to the Irish. Yugoslavia had two games left, both away and it was the game in Austria that gave Denmark any chance of overhauling them. Yugoslavia swept aside Faroes before Denmark won at home to the Irish. It was down to the final game of the group, Austria v Yugoslavia. If Austria won, Denmark would win the group, but the Yugoslavs just needed a point. Lukic put Yugoslavia in front and then Dejan Savicevic doubled the lead and Yugoslavia had won the game and the group. As they and Denmark beat each other, it was Denmark’s failure to beat Northern Ireland in Belfast which cost them their place.
However, things were to take a turn for the unexpected. You’ll have to wait for Part Two on the final stages, to find out what
Group 5 had 1988 hosts, Germany in with Wales, Belgium and Luxembourg. Since the 1988 tournament, Germany had been re-unified and were one country for the first time ever in the Euros. Belgium, runners-up to West Germany in 1980, missed the 1988 tournament but reached the knock-out stage of the 1990 World Cup, losing to England. They travelled to Cardiff at the old Cardiff Arms Park and took the lead midway through the first half. But Ian Rush then equalised soon after. Four minutes to go and the game seemed to heading for a draw, then Dean Saunders and Mark Hughes scored within two minutes of each other and Wales won an important first game. Germany were then in Luxembourg and were 3-0 up early in the second half. But then the home side scored twice and the Germans had a rather nervous last 25 minutes to avoid an embarrassment. They ended up winning 3-2, but had, had a shock. Wales then arrived in Luxembourg and also only won by 1 goal as Ian Rush scored the only goal of the game. Belgium then beat Luxembourg, 3-0 and if goal difference was going to come into effect that could be important. Wales then travelled to Belgium and again took points off them in a 1-1 draw. When a Lothar Matthaus goal beat Belgium, it soon became apparent that the qualification spot would be between Germany and Wales. In June 1991 the two countries met in Cardiff. Ian Rush scored in the 66th minute and Wales hung on for one of their most famous victories in their history. The following October, the two met again and the Germans were up for revenge. Andreas Moller, Rudi Voller and Karl-Heinz Riedle put them 3-0 up by half-time, then Thomas Doll made it 4-0 before Paul Bodin converted a late penalty. Germany now had the advantage and if they could beat Belgium away, they would be through. Paul Bodin again was on hand from the spot for the Welsh at home to Luxembourg before the crunch meeting between Belgium and Germany in Anderlecht. Rudi Voller scored after 16 minutes and that was enough for the Germans to confirm victory. They then had to negotiate Luxembourg in Leverkusen and a 4-0 win emphasised their class. Germany won the group by 1pt and had been pushed hard by the Welsh but in the end their experience of qualifying for major tournaments proved the key.
Group 6 contained the holders of the trophy, Netherlands and they were pitted against Portugal, Greece, Malta and Finland. Finland caused a bit of a shock by holding the Portuguese to a 0-0 draw in the opening game. The Dutch then travelled to Porto and their first qualification game as holders ended in a 0-1 defeat. A month later they registered a win as Dennis Bergkamp and Marco van Basten scored the goals which beat Greece. Then the Dutch moved on to Malta and van Basten hit five as they won 8-0. Portugal then lost in Athens and had lost the advantage they had earned over the Dutch. Portugal then won home and away against Malta, before Netherlands had two home wins over Malta and Finland. In June 1991, Erik Holmgren scored only the 2nd goal Netherlands had conceded in this group as he equalised Frank de Boer’s opener. Finland held the Dutch to a 1-1 draw and Portugal were now back in it. The Portuguese themselves beat Finland before they met the Dutch in Rotterdam. Robert Witschge scored, what turned out to be, the only goal of the game and the Dutch looked to have won the group. They had to win their final game in Greece and goals from Bergkamp and Danny Blind meant they did just that. Netherlands had qualified for the finals, as Portugal finished 2pts behind them. The Dutch had Marco van Basten’s eight goals to thank for this.
Group 7 contained England who were under new management. Graham Taylor had taken over from Bobby Robson, after the FA failed to offer him a new contract despite taking England to a penalty kick away from a World Cup Final. They were up against Republic of Ireland, Turkey and Poland. The Irish had beaten England in the finals in Germany 1988, and had also met them in the group stages of Italia ’90. Poland were also familiar opponents, after England beat them in Mexico ’86.
The Irish started with a thumping 5-0 win at home to Turkey, as John Aldridge scored a hat-trick. On the same night England beat Poland, 2-0 with goals from Gary Lineker and Peter Beardsley. The following month Ireland and England met in Dublin. David Platt put England in front, only to see Tony Cascarino equalised 10 minutes from time. The game ended 1-1, and so the crucial match could well be the return at Wembley. Poland then won in Turkey, before England and Ireland met again at Wembley in March 1991. Lee Dixon scored his one and only goal for England inside the first 10 minutes but Niall Quinn equalised mid-way through the half. Another 1-1 draw and so goal difference could prove crucial. Poland then won again against Turkey, before grabbing a 0-0 draw in Dublin. The Irish had dropped a point and would that let England in? England then travelled to Turkey and Dennis Wise scored the only goal of the game. In October 1991 England beat Turkey, 1-0 with Arsenal’s Alan Smith scoring the only goal. On the same night, Ireland were 3-1 up in Poznan, before Poland came back to secure a 3-3 draw. Now all England needed was a draw in Poznan in November 1991. That night Ireland beat Turkey, 3-1 and England were trailing 0-1 with less than 15 minutes to go, but up popped Gary Lineker to score the all-important equaliser and England had won the group by 1pt.
So the qualifiers to join hosts Sweden were, France, Scotland, USSR, Yugoslavia, Germany, Netherlands, England.
But much was to change before the Finals took place. Details of which will appear in the Part Two of this.