The first ever European Championship, formerly known as the European Nations’ Cup, was hosted by France in 1960. The Soviet Union were the powerhouse team back then, and they proved it with a 2-1 victory against Yugoslavia after extra time. The Nations’ Cup was contested between 1958 and 1960 until the name was changed to “European Championship” in 1968 along with a couple of changes.
The inaugural tournament, which took place over the course of 22 months between 1958 and 1960, was comprised of 17 participating nations that are affiliated to UEFA. The tournament was formatted as teams played a home and away leg and the resulting top four would then travelled to France to compete in the finals. Viktor Ponedelnik rose as the hero for the Soviets during the intense finals.
The Soviets comfortably beat the Czechoslovaks in Marseille in their semi-final, dominating the game and winning 3–0 as they made their way to the first ever final of the European Championship. The third place playoff saw Czechoslovakia winning 2-0 over the demoralised hosting nation. Then there is the first final match in the history of European Championship – USSR vs. Yugoslavia.
Yugoslavs, boasting most of the flair players on the pitch such as Dragoslav Sekularac and Bora Kostic, opened the scoring on 43 minutes by the Serbian Milan Galic. Yugoslavia continued to dominate the game, but the legendary goalkeeper Lev Yashin, did not let another conceded score from the opponent. Georgian Slava Metreveli equalised the game four minutes into the second half.
Still equal in the second half, an extra time was called. Lev Yashin, known as ‘the Impregnable Spider’ led the Soviet Union to glory along with Viktor Ponedelnik winning header with seven minutes of extra-time remaining, bagging the first ever European title of the inaugural European Championship. Ivanov, Ponedelnik, Galic, Jerkovic, and Heutte finished as the tournament’s top scorers with two goals each.
“My surname was a dream for headline writers,” recalled forward Viktor Ponedelnik, whose header in the 1960 EURO final heralded a glorious Monday for Soviet fans. Ponedelnikretired in 1966 after gaining weight and undergoing surgery for appendicitis. He scored 20 (according to some accounts, 21) goals in 29 games for his country.
Ponedelnik’s goal and his name went down in Soviet soccer folklore much like Geoff Hurst’s hat trick in England’s 1966 World Cup victory. Like England, the Soviet Union and Russia have yet to win a second international trophy. After his first goal, the crowd went silent; but when the game ended, the crowd stormed the barbed-wire fence that was supposed to keep the volatile fans away from the pitch.
Back in the Soviet Union, a nation of soccer fans and patriots had tuned into the radio to listen to the game. Ponedelnik is regarded as one of the best strikers in Soviet football history. In later years, Ponedelnik worked as a coach, a sports journalist, an editor of a sports publication, and an advisor to the President of the Russian Federation.