UEFA European Championship

How Do Football Teams Qualify for the Euros?

Outside of the FIFA World Cup, the UEFA European Championships are possibly the biggest international competition in football. While the Copa America, which features the best teams from South America including Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, may disagree with this claim, the sheer scale of the Euros is massive. With massive footballing nations including Germany, Spain, Italy, England, the Netherland and Portugal just a few of the big boys that usually play at the competition, it is easy to see why the Euros is held in such high regard.

Some of the greatest players in the history of the game have all excelled (or struggled) on the main stage of the tournament, with the competition featuring the best of the best in Europe. While most will tune in for the feast of football, the majority of these people will not have a particularly good understanding of how and why these teams have made it to the main event of the Euros. In this guide to the European Championship qualification, we will take a look at the process of qualifying and who is eligible to battle for a place at the showpiece event.

What Is the UEFA European Championship?

Euro 2012 trophy
Euro 2012 trophy (Piotr Drabik / Flickr.com)

Otherwise known as the European Championship or the Euros, the UEFA European Championship is the biggest major international footballing tournament organised by the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA). The winner is crowned as the continental champion of Europe. While a side cannot claim to be the best in the world after winning the Euros, claiming the trophy is seen as one of the greatest honours in the game.

Like the World Cup, the Euros are held every four years and have been contested every year since 1960. The only exception to this came in 2020, when the competition was postponed until 2021. This iteration of the tournament saw multiple countries and stadiums host the competition, with England’s Wembley Stadium then hosting bot semi-finals and the final.

The tournament is scheduled so that it will be contested between World Cup cycles, meaning the 2022 World Cup will be sandwiched by Euro 2020 and Euro 2024. Originally called the European Nation’s Cup, the competition changed its name in 1968 to the current branding we see today.

How Do Teams Qualify for the Euros?

Qualification for the Euros is a fairly straightforward process in which the best teams over a group-stage are entered into the competition. Qualification starts in the autumn season following a World Cup. This means that the battle to make it to the Euros begins nearly two years before the tournament begins.

Top Qualifying Spots

A team has to finish in one of the top qualifying spots in their group in order to secure automatic qualification to the tournament, with the top two usually going through. The host nation for the tournament is given automatic qualification to the competition.

Group Stage

The group-stage sees different seeded teams drawn into groups where a round-robin system is played as nations play home and away against each side. For Euro 2020, there were a total of 10 groups, five of which contained six teams, with the other five containing five teams. For the sides that fail to make it out of their group, they need to hope that their ranking at the UEFA Nations League is high, as the highest ranked sides by this metric are given a playoff berth.

Twenty Teams Qualify

Twenty teams therefore automatically qualify for the Euros. There are another four places up for grabs, with 16 teams battling for these places. The playoff participants are decided by the 16 UEFA Nations League group-winners, with four different group winners provided across each of the four different divisions. If a side that won their group has already qualified, then that spot will go to the next best ranked team in that league.

The Playoff

If all teams from a league have qualified, then the spot will go to the best ranked UEFA Nations League side that has not been allocated a playoff berth. The playoff sees four paths created, with single-legged semi-finals leading to a single-legged final. The winner from each final is given a place at the Euros.

How Does the Group-Stage of European Qualification Work?

Euro 2016
Euro 2016 (ERIC SALARD / Wikipedia.org)

As with most footballing tournaments and competitions, three points are awarded for a win, one for a draw and no points are given for a loss. The teams with the most points at the end of qualification take their place at the Euros. If two or more sides have equal points at the end of the campaign, they are split via the following metrics:

  • Highest points secured in the group-stage in games between the sides in question
  • Best goal difference in matches played between the sides in question
  • Highest number of goals scored by the teams in matches between the sides in question
  • Highest number of goals scored in away games played between the sides in question.

At the time of writing, this qualification process will result in the best 24 teams in Europe qualify for the main competition.

Which Teams Can Qualify for the Euros?

There are a total of 55 teams that can make it to the finals of the Euros. These are:

  1. Albania
  2. Andorra
  3. Armenia
  4. Austria
  5. Azerbaijan
  6. Belarus
  7. Belgium
  8. Bosnia and Herzegovina
  9. Bulgaria
  10. Croatia
  11. Cyprus
  12. Czech Republic
  13. Denmark
  14. England
  15. Estonia
  16. Faroe Islands
  17. Finland
  18. France
  19. Georgia
  20. Germany
  21. Gibraltar
  22. Greece
  23. Hungary
  24.  Iceland
  25. Israel
  26. Italy
  27. Kazakhstan
  28. Kosovo
  29. Latvia
  30. Liechtenstein
  31. Lithuania
  32. Luxembourg
  33. Malta
  34. Moldova
  35. Montenegro
  36. North Macedonia
  37. Northern Ireland
  38. Norway
  39. Poland
  40. Portugal
  41. Republic of Ireland
  42. Romania
  43. Russia
  44. San Marino
  45. Scotland
  46. Serbia
  47. Slovakia
  48. Slovenia
  49. Spain
  50. Sweden
  51. Switzerland
  52. The Netherlands
  53. Turkey
  54. Ukraine
  55. Wales

These sides are all split into different pots, with each battling to make it to the finals. With only 24 places at the competition on offer, there is a lot of disappointment by the end of the qualifying campaign for many teams.

However, there is a fairly good chance for the smaller sides to make it to the competition as just short of half of the 55 sides in qualifying will make it to the tournament. Strange things tend to happen in qualifying for a major tournament, especially if a big nation suffers badly from nerves and the underdog goes in wanting to ruffle some feathers.

How Many Teams Play in the Euros?

Euro 2000
Euro 2000 (Nick / Flickr.com)

This has changed over time, with the tournament slowly expanding to incorporate more teams. Originally, the competition consisted of only four of the 17 teams that entered. The Soviet Union were the first-ever winners as they beat Yugoslavia, although the likes of England, Italy and the Netherlands were notable absentees.

The expansion to eight teams came as the tournament in 1980 began. This was the first tournament that involved a group-stage. 16 teams were able to play at Euro 1996, with 24 teams competing at the 2016 iteration of the competition, with this the same amount to this date.

Italy are the current champions after they beat England 3-2 on penalties following a 1-1 draw in the final. The 2020 iteration of the tournament was particularly special as it was actually played in 2021 (although it kept its name as Euro 2020), while matches were played across Europe.

Usually, one host nation or a small cluster of nations will host the event, with all matches being played in this/these country/countries. In 2021, matches were played all-over Europe, with the semi-final and finals held in England at Wembley Stadium, with this to mark the 60th anniversary of the competition.