European Championships 1976
Host nation: Yugoslavia
And whereas in Belgium four years earlier the outcome had seemed foregone, the final four who made their way to the Republic of Yugoslavia all seemed to have significant claims of being eventual champs.
Albania's withdrawal meant that Iceland were easily assimilated into the group stage in which England, absentees from the World Cup, got off to a flier with a 3-0 thumping of the Czechs. But come the return, England needed a point to secure passage to the last eight despite a 5-0 destruction of Cyprus in which Malcolm MacDonald scored all five goals. A false start in Bratislava saw fog delay the game for a day before the Czechs stunned England with a comeback to win 2-1.
The English had thus been outperformed by the Welsh, who made the last eight for the only time in their history, their best international showing except the 1958 World Cup as Hungary and Austria were left in the Red Dragons' wake. Sadly stars like Brian Flynn, John Toshack and Leighton James would go no further as they lost 3-1 over two legs to Yugoslavs in the quarter-finals with the home tie being marred by crowd trouble.
The toughest qualifying group was undoubtedly that which featured Italy with Holland and Poland, second and third at World Cup 1974 respectively. Despite losing 4-1 to the Poles in Warsaw, Holland qualified on goal difference after the Italians held Poland to a 0-0 draw. The Brilliant Orange team of Johan Cruyff, Wim Van Hanegem and Johan Neeskens looked as if it could go all the way. It certainly had the talent.
The Czechs continued their surprising progress with a quarter-final defeat of the Soviet Union, the USSR's worst showing yet in this tournament. Holland, for whom Barcelona pair Cruyff and Neeskens were in their pomp, saw off Belgium in a local derby while Germany, who had lost Gerd Muller to international retirement after a record 16 finals goals, still managed to steamroller Spain.
The irreplaceable Muller was forgotten as a namesake, Cologne's Dieter, led a fightback from a 2-0 deficit to pull off a 4-2 win over Yugoslavia as the new Muller bagged a hat-trick as the Germans won in extra-time.
The other semi-final has become legendary as Welsh referee Clive Thomas took centre-stage as the Dutch prediliction to self-destruction took hold. Both Neeskens and Van Hanegem were sent off as was Czech Pollak. After Pollak had been dismissed, it looked as though Yugoslavia would struggle to hold the 'Total Football' of the Dutch despite leading through Anton Ondrus.
But then things took a bizarre twist as first Neeskens were sent off for an act of revenge for the foul that had seen Pollak red carded. The next minute Ondrus had put through his own net. Holland were back in it. But their spirit dissipated as Cruyff, making his final bow in a major tournament having already refused to go to Argentina in 1978, was booked for dissent, his second of the tournament meaning he would miss the final.
Then, after Frantisek Vesely had scored a disputed goal, Feyenoord legend van Hanegem was sent off for refusing to take the kick off as the Dutch raged around Thomas. The Netherlands nightmare was completed by another Vesely goal. Third place after an extra-time win in the play-off was no consolation for the Dutch.
The Czechs' unexpected progress was expected to be halted by the holders in the final. But they soon launched into an early two-goal lead. But Muller continued his scoring run and Bernd Hölzenbein levelled matters a minute from time. The momentum surely laid with the Germans yet they failed to breach the goal of the inspired Ivo Viktor.
Here, the world was introduced to the penalty shoot-out and perhaps the most surprised were the Czechs who headed for the dressing-room to prepare for a replay. Yet it was the Germans who cracked. Beckenbauer had to be rail-roaded into taking the fifth spot-kick while other players refused to take them.
Yet once Marian Masny, the tricky midfielder who had starred all tournament, had scored all kicks were converted until Uli Hoeness took Germany's fourth. Another player who had not fancied taking a kick, he cleared the bar.
Up stepped Antonin Panenka to take a kick that has often been copied but rarely has been emulated with such aplomb.
As Sepp Maier went to his left, Panenka took up a short run-up and dinked the ball straight ahead into the empty net. The preparations of coach Vaclav Jezek and assistant Jozef Venglos, who knew what Panenka would do and refused to watch him take his kick, had paid off.
The Germans would now take penalty-taking seriously. They are yet to lose a shoot-out since. For Franz Beckenbauer, who never got to take the long walk to the spot, major international tournaments were now a thing of the past.