The European Championship has hosted some of football’s most decorated and gifted players throughout the decades.
From the unbeatable goalkeepers and colossal defenders to the mesmerising midfielders and deadly forwards, these players have etched their names into the history books thanks to their individual moments of brilliance on the biggest stage.
Let’s look at a few of the names which have become synonymous with the European Championship.
Few people alive today will have seen Lev Yashin play, but those who did regard him as the greatest goalkeeper in the history of football.
The Soviet Union’s legendary stopper once said: “What kind of a goalkeeper is the one who is not tormented by the goal he has allowed? He must be tormented! And if he is calm, that means the end. No matter what he had in the past, he has no future.”
His mentality was reflected in the records he amassed. Yashin kept an incredible 270 clean sheets during his career and saved 151 penalty kicks – more than any other goalkeeper.
He and the Soviet Union won the 1960 European Nations’ Cup Final (as it was known until 1968), with Yashin making some crucial saves during their 3-0 win over Czechoslovakia in the semi-final.
‘The Black Spider’, as he was known due to his propensity for wearing black from head to toe, then became the only goalkeeper to win the Ballon d’Or in 1963.
It’s little wonder, therefore, that he was voted the best goalkeeper of the 20th century by the International Federation of Football History & Statistics (IFFHS).
As goalkeepers go, there may never have been any better than this man.
When you think of the Spanish national team at the European Championship, you probably think of their most recent successes.
However, Spain won this tournament long before the likes of Xavi and Andres Iniesta came along, triumphing on home soil in 1964.
Amancio Amaro was one of the lynchpins of their success. Nicknamed ‘El Brujo’ (The Wizard), Amaro is considered one of the best right wingers ever to play the game and among the greatest players to wear Real Madrid’s iconic No.7 shirt.
Amaro was a key member of Spain’s swashbuckling team at the 1964 European Nations’ Cup. Back then, only four teams could enter the tournament proper, so the road to the final was … the semi-final.
There was no room for error and an even greater demand for attackers to step up to the mark.
Enter Amaro. With Spain drawing 1-1 with Hungary deep into extra-time in the semi-final, his 112th-minute winner took La Furia Roja through.
They went on to beat defending champions the Soviet Union in front of 79,000 spectators at the Santiago Bernabeu to get their hands on the trophy for the first time.
To cap his success with Spain, Amaro won a European Cup, nine La Liga titles and three Spanish Cups at club level. He even went on to captain Real Madrid later in his career.
For these achievements, he will rightly be remembered as one of the greats of Spanish football.
The 1960s was a golden age for world-class goalkeepers. While Lev Yashin and Gordon Banks were leading their teams to international glory, so too was Dino Zoff for Italy.
Zoff helped Italy win Euro 1968 on home soil, keeping two clean sheets in three games to earn selection in UEFA’s Team of the Tournament.
He followed up this success by winning six Serie A titles, two Coppa Italias and a UEFA Cup with Juventus in a club career spanning 22 years.
The crowning moment of his career came in 1982, when he captained Italy to victory at the World Cup at the age of 40. In doing so, he became not only the oldest ever winner of the World Cup, but just the second goalkeeper in its then 52-year history to lift the trophy as captain.
As team-mate Paolo Rossi said of Zoff: “He was the only one who truly represented the team. He was an example to all of us, myself more than anyone.”
When football fans think of mean Italian defences, this is in no small part down to Zoff and his legacy within the game.
In any conversation around the top 10 footballers of all time, Franz Beckenbauer’s name will invariably come up.
Nicknamed ‘Der Kaiser’ (The Emperor), Beckenbauer is probably the greatest ever player in his position.
Although he’s best known as a defender, he started out as a forward before moving to centre-back. This explains certain attributes of the German No.5’s game.
Among other qualities, he was renowned for his expert tactical reading of the game, elegance on the ball and exquisite range of passing. In fact, he’s often credited as having invented the ‘libero’ position, whereby a defender instigates attacks from deep.
Today, we might refer to this as the deep-lying playmaker role.
Beckenbauer captained West Germany to victory at Euro 1972, as they ran out 3-0 winners against the Soviet Union in Brussels.
Two years later, Germany beat the Netherlands 2-1 to win the World Cup. In the process, Beckenbauer became the first captain to lift the European Championship and World Cup at international level.
At club level, he won three consecutive European Cups, five Bundesligas, four German Cups and one UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup.
Individually, he won the Ballon d’Or in 1972 and 1976 – and is one of only three defenders ever to win this award, along with another German on this list.
He even managed to win the World Cup as manager with Germany in 1990, becoming the first person to win the World Cup as both a player and manager.
When it comes to sporting CVs, Beckenbauer’s is as impressive as any. He’s a true icon of football – and unquestionably the greatest football player Germany has ever produced.
Names like Antonín Panenka may not have as much gravitas as others on the list. But his influence on football is bigger than you might think. So much so, you might recognise his surname from when you’ve tried to dink a penalty and it’s gone horribly wrong.
Yes, that’s right. The Panenka penalty was invented by this man, during the Euro 1976 final between Czechoslovakia and West Germany.
The two teams were level at 2-2 after extra-time and could only be separated by a penalty shootout.
With the score 4-3 to Czechoslovakia, Panenka stepped up as the fifth penalty taker. Not many spectators could have predicted what would happen next.
Panenka demonstrated levels of composure under pressure us mere mortals can only dream of, nonchalantly chipping the great Sepp Maier to win the European Championship for Czechoslovakia and write his name into football folklore.
His dinked penalty subsequently became known as the Panenka penalty. In the years that have followed, many great players have tried and failed where he succeeded.
Although he had a relatively modest club career, playing for Boheminas Praha and Rapid Vienna, his name will forever be a part of football history.
Karl Heinz-Rummenigge went into Euro 1980 as one of the world’s best players, having just scored 26 league goals to win the Bundesliga for Bayern Munich. A lot was expected of the 24-year-old – and he lived up to expectations.
Rummenigge scored the only goal against Czechoslovakia to help West Germany to the final against Belgium. In the final itself, with the score level at 1-1 going into the final few minutes, his corner was headed in by Horst Hrubesch and the European Championship was West Germany’s once again.
His performances epitomised the coming-of-age of this young German team, which beat Belgium 2-1 in the final to follow in the footsteps of their predecessors eight years earlier.
As reward for his consistent performances for club and country, Rummenigge won the Ballon d’Or in 1980 – and again the following year. There’s no denying that, around this time, he was the best in the world.
World Cup success eluded Rummenigge, as his team finished runner-up in 1982 and 1986. However, he ended his career with a European Championship, two European Cups, two Bundesligas, two German cups and 45 goals in 95 games for West Germany to his name. Not bad, overall.
If Karl-Heinz Rummenigge was the best footballer in the world in 1980, Michel Platini was the best footballer in the world by 1984.
His France team narrowly lost to West Germany in the World Cup semi-final two years before. To avoid such heartbreak this time around, any hopes of success rested on his shoulders. He was the captain, the No.10, the artist, the figurehead of his team. He needed to deliver – and boy, did he deliver.
He scored nine goals in five games at Euro 1984 – including the final against Spain – to help France win the championship. This phenomenal goal tally is still a tournament record, which is unlikely to be beaten any time soon. You can watch all nine goals for yourself – the free-kick and diving header against Yugoslavia are pretty special.
You won’t be surprised to learn that Platini won the Ballon d’Or in 1984, as he did in 1983 and 1985. He also won a whole host of silverware at Juventus, including a European Cup and two Serie A titles.
Unfortunately, Platini’s name has become more frequently associated with corruption allegations than his footballing abilities in recent years. But there can be no denying that back in 1984, he was a magician with the world at his feet.
Like Beckenbauer, Platini can be considered one of the greatest footballers of all time.
Just as 1980 was to Karl Heinz-Rummenigge and 1984 was to Michel Platini, 1988 was Marco van Basten’s time.
Ironically, he didn’t exactly come into Euro 1988 on a rich vein of form. Due to an ankle injury, he’d played just 11 games and scored three goals for AC Milan, for whom he’d signed in the previous summer.
However, he quickly put his struggles behind him, bagging a hat-trick against England in the group stage. This was followed by a dramatic late winner in the semi-final against the hosts West Germany to set up a final with the USSR.
Those of us who know Marco van Basten know what happened next: THAT volley in the final.
THIS moment = 😍🤪🤯
🇳🇱 #OTD at EURO '88, Marco van Basten scored a famous volley in the final as the Netherlands became champions! 🏆
— UEFA EURO 2020 (@EURO2020) June 25, 2019
Van Basten’s unstoppable strike guided the Netherlands to their first – and so far only – major international trophy, as they ran out 2-0 winners.
He won the Ballon d’Or in 1988, 1989 and 1992 and was voted sixth in the FIFA Player of the Century poll in 1998.
If anything, Van Basten could have achieved even more in football had injury not cut his career short at the age of 30. But what a career it was. On his day, he was as ruthless a striker as they come.
Before he won a glut of trophies with Manchester United, Peter Schmeichel was part of the Denmark team which defied the odds at Euro 1992.
Schmeichel and co. only made the championship in Sweden by default; Yugoslavia were to compete in the tournament but were banned by UEFA due to the breakup and warfare within the country, with Denmark taking their place.
It was a huge slice of luck, but one which the Danes took full advantage of. Schmeichel was an integral part of their progression through the group stage, making a string of important saves in Denmark’s 2-1 victory against France and keeping a clean sheet against England in a crucial 0-0 draw.
In the semi-final against reigning champions the Netherlands, Schmeichel announced himself. Following a 2-2 draw after extra-time, he saved Marco van Basten’s penalty, which was the only miss of the shoot-out as Denmark advanced to the final against Germany.
Even having beaten the reigning champions, not many people fancied Denmark’s chances against world champions Germany. But Schmeichel kept another clean sheet as Denmark won 2-0 to upset the odds. He played an integral role in the victory, pulling off an incredible flying save to keep out a Jurgen Klinsmann header.
He would follow this up with a Champions League, five Premier League titles and numerous other domestic honours to confirm his status as the world’s best goalkeeper in the 1990s.
All the talk prior to Euro 1996 was around football coming home, at least in the UK. But Matthias Sammer and Germany clearly hadn’t read the script.
This Germany side perhaps didn’t possess the same flair as sides of yesteryear. Ironically, one of the team’s few stars Jurgen Klinsmann said of the team: “We fought all through the tournament and played really good football, even if we were not the best team. Italy were a bit better, England had a great team, but we had the best will.”
Nobody epitomised this will more than Matthias Sammer. He was Germany’s sweeper and one of the most accomplished defenders of his generation. He had the elegance and composure of Beckenbauer and the leadership of Lothar Matthaus. Quite simply, he was the driving force of his team.
Despite playing as the deepest of Germany’s defenders, Sammer even chipped in with two goals at Euro 1996, netting against Russia in the group stage and against Croatia in the quarter-final.
Germany then beat England at Wembley in the semi-final, before edging the final 2-1 against the Czech Republic with a golden goal in extra-time.
Sammer was named as the Player of the Tournament and won the 1996 Ballon d’Or. He then captained Borussia Dortmund to Champions League glory a year later, having already won two Bundesligas with the club. What a player.
No list of European football icons is complete without Zinedine Zidane.
Indeed, Zidane is one of only three players (alongside Messi and Ronaldo) to win FIFA World Player of the Year three times. One of those occasions was in 2000, when he himself admitted he was at the peak of his powers: “I’d say 2000 was one of the best years of my career. Everything I did, I did well.”
Euro 2000 simply belonged to France’s No.10, who was on top form from start to finish. France beat Denmark 3-0 in the group stage, with Zidane setting up a goal for Thierry Henry with a sublime through ball.
In the quarter-final against Spain, Zidane scored a sumptuous free-kick as France won 2-1 and he was awarded man of the match. He followed this up with one of the best individual performances ever seen at a major football championship in the semi-final against Portugal. His 117th minute, golden goal penalty sent France to the final where they faced Italy.
Les Bleus won 2-1, again via a golden goal, to be crowned European champions for a second time.
Mere words don’t seem enough to capture Zidane’s brilliance at Euro 2000. Check out this highlights reel from the BBC to get a perspective of just how good he was.
Zidane also won the Ballon d’Or, World Cup, Champions League, La Liga and two Serie A titles, among other honours. Most importantly, he won the hearts and minds of millions of football fans along the way.
As with Antonin Panenka, the name of Theodoros Zagorakis may not mean much to some football fans. But this is a man who captained a Greece side ranked 150-1 outsiders to an unlikely triumph at Euro 2004.
Up until then, Zagorakis had enjoyed a respectable, if somewhat unspectacular, club career. He played for PAOK, Leicester City and AEK Athens, winning the English League Cup and the Greek Cup. It was hardly an honours list to strike fear into his midfield opponents.
If Zagorakis’ footballing achievements left little to be desired, so too did Greece’s international pedigree. They’d never won a game at a major tournament and were regarded as the whipping boys of Euro 2004.
Cue the playing out of a David vs Goliath-esque narrative. Greece began the tournament with a bang, beating hosts Portugal 2-1 in their opening group game. They then scraped through the group with a draw and a defeat before the real magic started.
Greece sent shockwaves around Europe when they beat favourites France 1-0 in the quarter-final. They then beat the Czech Republic in extra-time in the semi-final to set up a reunion with hosts Portugal.
Once again, they were the underdogs. Once again, they played like Gods. Angelos Charisteas’ header clinched the tournament for Greece and the impossible had happened.
Zagorakis turned in a man of the match performance in the final and was named Player of the Tournament.
He then found himself in the company of Ronaldinho and Thierry Henry, as he finished fifth in the Ballon d’Or voting.
The Spanish national team were perennial underachievers for decades before Euro 2008. They always threatened to succeed, but never quite delivered on the biggest stage. For their luck to change, someone needed to step up – and that someone was Xavi.
In many ways, Xavi’s rise to international prominence mirrored that of Spain’s, in that he defied a few stereotypes along the way.
Xavi reinvented what a world-class midfielder looks like in Euro 2008. In the early to mid-00s, the world’s best midfielders were generally tall, fast and athletic. Xavi, on the other hand, was 5’7”, lacked pace and wasn’t physically strong.
What he did have, though, was a virtually unparalleled first touch, vision, range of passing and ability to retain the ball. These qualities had always been part of his game, but the world finally took notice of them in Euro 2008.
Xavi was the heartbeat of Spain’s midfield as they sailed through the group stage and his imperious form continued in the knockout stage. He ran the semi-final against Russia, scoring the opening goal as Spain ran out 3-0 victors.
In the final against Germany, his inch-perfect pass set up Fernando Torres to score the winning goal as Spain won 1-0 to clinch their first major championship in 44 years.
Xavi won Player of the Tournament and cemented his place as one of the world’s elite midfielders. From then, the trophies and accolades just kept on coming.
Another European Championship followed for Xavi, as did a World Cup, five La Liga titles, three Champions Leagues and three successive top three Ballon d’Or finishes.
He’s one of this era’s defining players and we’re privileged to have watched him and the man below with our own eyes.
If we’re singing Xavi’s praises, it’s only fair to include his midfield partner Andres Iniesta. You just can’t have one without the other.
Like Xavi, Iniesta transformed football between 2008 and 2012, as small, technical players dominated the game and tiki-taka ruled the roost.
The iconic midfield duo were at their scintillating best at Euro 2012, with Iniesta taking ball retention to new levels. Spain played six matches in the tournament and Iniesta was awarded man of the match in three of them.
His most notable display came in the final against Italy, which Spain won 4-0 to complete a historic treble of consecutive international championships.
Andrea Pirlo, his opponent in midfield, had been talked up prior to the game due to his performances in the tournament. But with respect to Pirlo, you forgot he was even playing at times, such was the level of control Spain’s midfield exerted on proceedings.
Iniesta was the epicentre of their domination. His perfectly weighted through-ball to Cesc Fabregas proved to be the pre-assist for Spain’s opening goal, as David Silva headed in Fabregas’ cross. In fact, Iniesta (207) and Xavi (212) made more passes into the final third than any other players at Euro 2012.
Unsurprisingly, Iniesta won Player of the Tournament. Had he not co-existed with Messi and Ronaldo, the 2012 Ballon d’Or would have been his.
Like Xavi, he would go on to win countless Champions League, La Liga and Copa del Rey titles. He currently plies his trade in Japan, as his career sadly approaches its end.
But Peak Iniesta was a sight to behold. That he stood out to such an extent in a team which is perhaps the greatest European international side of all time speaks volumes of his influence and ability.
Let’s face it – picking an icon from Portugal’s 2016 team was a no-brainer. Cristiano Ronaldo has arguably been the best European footballer of the last 30 years and is undoubtedly one of the greatest footballers who ever lived.
Prior to Euro 2016, Ronaldo had won every major trophy there was to win at club level. However, international silverware had continued to elude him. The European Championship, in particular, hadn’t been kind to Ronaldo.
There was the famous image of him crying after Portugal lost to Greece in the 2004 final. Then there was the semi-final penalty shootout against Spain in 2012, when Portugal were dumped out before he even had a chance to take the fifth spot-kick.
Four years later, Ronaldo banished the demons of his and Portugal’s past, stepping up to the plate when it mattered.
In the final group game, with Portugal having drawn their opening two matches, they trailed Hungary 2-1. Step forward, Ronaldo. His audacious backheel made it 2-2 and he became the first player to score in four consecutive European Championships.
Hungary went 3-2 up. Step forward, Ronaldo. Having screamed into the ground in frustration minutes before, he channelled his frustration as only he can – by scoring a bullet header to make it 3-3 and send Portugal through to the knockout stage.
The rest is history. Ronaldo kept his nerve to score in the quarter-final penalty shootout against Poland and then scored a bullet header against Wales in the semi-final to set up a meeting with hosts France.
Although he got injured early in the game and had to be substituted, his leadership from the touchline was invaluable, as Portugal won 1-0 in extra-time to finally get their hands on the European Championship.
Ronaldo finally achieved the international success he’d craved for so long. It’s a good thing he did win Euro 2016, really. Otherwise he’d only have five Champions Leagues, three Premier League titles, two La Ligas, one Serie A, one Nations League and five Ballon d’Ors to fall back on.
Player illustrations courtesy of Daniel Astudillo.