It took 210 games stretched over 438 days to reduce 50 teams to the 15 that would join Portugal in the EURO 2004 finals......
Sunday, 30 November 2003
Holders France were the most convincing qualifiers. Winning all their eight Group 1 games against Slovenia, Israel, Cyprus and Malta, they completed only the third perfect qualifying record in the tournament's history. Slovenia's 3-1 home win against Israel in September 2003 proved decisive in earning them the play-off berth.
Group 2 was much closer with the top four split by only two points. Denmark's 5-2 victory in Romania was followed by a home defeat against Bosnia-Herzegovina, but they otherwise remained unbeaten and a final day draw in Sarajevo sealed the group. Norway finished second on head-to-head record over Romania after beating Luxembourg 1-0.
A two-horse race from the off, Group 3 was dominated by the Czech Republic and the Netherlands, neither of whom dropped points against Austria, Moldova and Belarus. The Czechs drew 1-1 in Rotterdam in March, and then a 3-1 victory at home on 10 September 2003 clinched first place.
Sweden began Group 4 with draws against Latvia and Hungary, but they soon hit group-clinching form with five consecutive wins, including doubles against San Marino and Poland. That overhauled early pacesetters Latvia, but they ended with a 1-0 win in Sweden to pip Poland to second.
Germany, Scotland, Iceland and Lithuania all entertained hopes of progressing from the tight Group 5. Indeed, Iceland led into September 2003 when they drew 0-0 with Germany, but the 2002 FIFA World Cup finalists then beat Scotland, and in their final game overcame Iceland to qualify. On the same day, Scotland beat Lithuania 1-0 to end second ahead of Iceland.
Spain's opening 2-0 win in Greece seemed to put them in control of Group 6. But one week in June saw them lose 1-0 at home to Greece and draw 0-0 with Northern Ireland. This was Greece's chance, and further 1-0 victories against Ukraine, Armenia and Northern Ireland took them through a point ahead of Spain.
When the Group 7 fixtures were announced, England's final day trip to Turkey always looked crucial. And so it proved, as they dominated Slovakia,
Macedonia and Liechtenstein. England beat Turkey 2-0 in Sunderland, and then emerged from Istanbul with the 0-0 draw they needed to qualify.
Bulgaria made a flying start to Group 8 with a win in Belgium. They remained in control and eventually won 3-0 in Andorra to qualify with a game to spare. Croatia ended Bulgaria's unbeaten record on the final day with a 1-0 triumph, and that took them into the play-offs ahead of Belgium on head-to-head record, a 4-0 win in March the key.
Italy won Group 9 but not before Wales had pushed them all the way to the final game having led by five points at the halfway stage. The Azzurri revived to took apart Mark Hughes' side 4-0 at the San Siro last
September, a sweet revenge for their 1-2 humiliation in Cardiff
nearly a year ago, and thus overtook the Wales to assume the top position
in the group.
Switzerland, Russia, the Republic of Ireland, Albania and Georgia ended Group 10 separated by only eight points. Unbeaten for their first six games, Switzerland beat Ireland 2-0 in Basel in their decisive fixture to win the group, while Russia overcame defeats in Albania and Georgia to score 15 goals at home and end second.
The surprise-filled play-off first legs saw Scotland beat the Netherlands and Latvia overcome Turkey 1-0, while Slovenia and Wales drew in Croatia and Russia, and Spain scraped a 2-1 home win against Norway. In the second legs, though, the Dutch won 6-0 and Spain gained a 3-0 victory, while Russia and Croatia both triumphed 1-0 away from home. Latvia fell 2-0 down in Turkey, but then scored twice to progress 3-2 on aggregate.