The European Championship is widely regarded as being on a par with the World Cup in terms of prestige - some even say it is basically the latter tournament minus Argentina and Brazil.
Failure to even qualify for it brings a lot of soul-searching amongst nations who don't make it yet it wasn't always this way.
The format used in the formative tournaments did not help in terms of building its popularity. Unlike the World Cup where one nation would host a month-long event with 16 or more teams taking part with at least one group stage and three knockout rounds determining who would win it, the Euros were more low-key.
Eight teams would contest the right to qualify for the European Championship and once they did, instead of decamping to a host nation for the summer to contest an opening round group stage, they would be drawn against another team to play each other home and away over two legs - similar to the European club competitions. Then the successful four teams would go to a host nation - who themselves had to qualify unlike the World Cup hosts who were spared that - and play semi-final stage and the final. This would be played over the course of a week and would be over before the supporter watching on the television could get involved and hyped up as they would when the more prestigious World Cup was on.
It didn't help that before the 1976 tournament that the four events that had previously been staged had not sprung up any surprise winners. No eyelids were batted at the roll of honour with the triumphs of the Soviet Union, Spain, Italy and West Germany coming as no great surprise. The World Cup had teething troubles as well and it was the shock upset caused by the West Germans over, what had been thought of as, the unstoppable Hungarian side of Puskas and Hidegkuti in the final dubbed 'The Miracle of Berne' that grabbed the footballing world's attention.
The organisers of the European Championship needed a similar upset and an iconic image to propel itself into the consciousness of the footballing world and in 1976, they got it.
While Czechoslovakia might not have been mentioned in the same breath as Italy, West Germany or England, they still had a decent footballing history. Some bizarre refereeing which brought some luck towards their Italian hosts saw them lose a closely-fought World Cup final in Rome back in 1934, while they had to settle for the runners-up spot again in 1962 after falling to a Garrincha-inspired Brazil. Club football had also seen Slovan Bratislava upset the form book when they defeated Barcelona to win the European Cup-winner's Cup in 1969. However, the national side had only qualified for one tournament since 1962 - the World Cup in Mexico, 1970 where they lost all three of their group stage games.
When qualifying for the 1976 Euros began, the Czechoslovaks, started badly when they went down 3-0 to England at Wembley thanks to a brace from Colin Bell and one from Mick Channon. Little did anyone know when they left the Twin Towers that it would be 23 games before anyone beat them again.
England's failure to beat Portugal home and away (they drew both games) let Czechoslovakia in with a chance having hammered the Portuguese 5-0 in Prague (two goals each from Přemysl Bičovský, Zdeněk Nehoda and one from Ladislav Petráš). If they beat England in the rematch in Bratislava, they would top the group. That they did when despite going 1-0 down early on to Channon's strike, Nehoda and Dušan Galis netted either side of half-time. They duly leapfrogged the English and would stay in top spot for the rest of the qualifying campaign.
They caused another upset when they saw off the Soviet Union 4-2 on aggregate over two legs in the quarter-final. The tournament proper (the semi-finals and the final) would be staged over a week in Yugoslavia and many thought the rank outsiders' involvement would come to an end after being drawn to face Holland.
The Dutch, despite having lost the final of the 1974 World Cup, were still regarded as one of the top sides in the world as they bristled with talent such as Johan Cruyff, Wim van Hanegem and Johan Neeskens. Plus they had the added incentive of securing a chance to settle a score with their nemesis of '74, West Germany, who had made the final with a thrilling 4-2 win after extra-time against the Yugoslavs.
If England still has not been able to heal the scars of the night Poland came to Wembley back in 1973 to deny them qualification for the World Cup, then it is this match against Czechoslovakia that has given memories that have been equally as hard for the Dutch psyche to erase, as a full half-hour documentary on the game shown on Netherlands television back in 2008 illustrated.
Welsh referee Clive Thomas was one that was not afraid to shy away from controversy. When refereeing an FA Cup semi-final between West Ham and Ipswich, he ruled out a goal from the latter's Bryan Hamilton for offside even though Thomas' better placed linesman had not flagged for one. West Ham would win the game. Thomas would later go on to deny Everton a perfectly good goal - again scored by Hamilton - against Liverpool in the same stage of that competition in 1977. A year later, when officiating a World Cup match between Brazil and Sweden, the former won a corner in the last minute. When the cornerball swung into the penalty area, Zico fired home only to find to his astonishment that Thomas had blown up for full-time just before the Brazilian took his shot which he thought had won the game for his country. The game finished as a draw.
A precursor to the wannabe celebrity refs that plague the game today, Thomas was an official who many fans felt that he was labouring under the impression that they had paid good money at the gate to see him instead of the 22 players on the pitch. What reinforced this view was the fact that he was even known to break up goal celebrations feeling that teams, once they scored, should run back up the pitch immediately for the restart instead of celebrating a goal.
Curiously enough, although he would be a convenient scapegoat for the Dutch, what happened that night can largely be attributed to the men in orange. Multi-talented though they were, the Dutch - and subsequent Holland teams since - were their own worst enemy at times as various spells of infighting and squabbling would derail chances of success. Whereas the likes of the Germans or the Italians would often use adversity to close ranks and adopt a "I'll show you" attitude, the Dutch would instead implode.
The semi-final against Czechoslovakia had not turned out to be the stroll towards the final that everybody had predicted for Holland. It was more like a slow wade through a paddyfield as heavy rain broke out from the Zagreb sky and made the pitch to be not conducive for the likes of the Netherlands to play their renown slick passing game. Anton Ondruš had given the underdogs the lead but then had the misfortune to score an own goal to let the Dutch back in it and force the game into extra-time.
It had been a laborious process for Holland but with momentum swinging towards them, surely they would go on and break down the dogged resistance put up by the Czechoslovaks? They would have to break down the inner conflict they were having with themselves first. As referee Thomas said in a BBC interview 36 years later:
"It was the most difficult (second) half of a match that I ever refereed in my career. It rained the whole day before, it rained the day of the game. Holland had no chance of playing their ideal game of total football.
"I had the impression as the second half wore on that the Dutch thought they were bigger than the game, and that they were bigger than you. They could do what they liked. That wasn't my game of football.
"Johan Cruyff was one of the worst, but then he always had been. You had to nail him right at the very beginning, because if he knew that he had control of you then you had had it. I saw too many matches where Cruyff had control of referees.
"You don't expect players of that calibre to act like they did."
The big talking point came with six minutes of extra-time left. Cruyff had been fouled by Panenka. Thomas though waved play on and the Czechoslovaks duly cashed in as moments later, Nehoda restored their lead.
To say the Dutch were livid would be an understatement and Thomas admitted years later that having seen footage of the incident, he should have given Holland a free-kick for the foul on Cruyff. But at the time, he was adamant that nothing untoward had happened to the Dutch captain. Midfielder, Van Hanegem told Thomas exactly what he thought and was booked for dissent. It didn't stop there.
Thomas warned Van Hanegem not to step over into the Czechoslovak half before the restart was taken. The Feyenoord man foolishly tried it on with the whistler and did just that. He was sent off. Van Hanegem refused to leave the field and Thomas threatened to abandon the game if he didn't do want he was told. Reluctantly, the Dutchman trudged off the pitch and the men in orange's misery was complete when František Veselý made it 3-1 with two minutes left to send Czechoslovakia through to the final.
The West Germans were the current holders of the European Championship and had won the World Cup two years earlier. Not surprisingly, they were heavily favoured to win the final in Belgrade but the now established party-poopers decided they were not quite done in rocking the footballing apple cart and went 2-0 up inside the first 17 minutes via goals from Ján Švehlík and Karol Dobiáš. Dieter Müller quickly pulled one back for West Germany and although it looked like Czechoslovakia would hang on for a famous victory, Bernd Hölzenbein levelled in the last minute to send the game into extra-time.
However, the two sides could not be separated. Even though the original plan from the organisers had been to stage a replay in the event of a drawn game, that was changed on the morning of the final with a penalty shootout that would be remembered to this day.
The first seven penalties had been converted but then West Germany's Uli Hoeness blazed his effort over the bar. That meant if Panenka converted his spot-kick, Czechoslovakia would win the title.
West German goalkeeper Sepp Maier was not doubt anticipating a standard penalty from his Czechoslovak opponent which would leaving him having to guess whether it was going to his left or to his right. However, Panenka did something completely different. As he ran up, he feigned to shoot and with Maier committed to the dive, he then dinked the ball which then, as if in slow motion, floated into the centre of the net with the West German stopper lying helpless on the ground.
Czechoslovakia were the European champions.
It was an audacious move - especially in the context of a penalty shootout in a major final - which legendary Brazilian player Pele described as something that came from either a "madman or a genius".
Rest assured, there was genius within the madness as Panenka had spent the past two years planning for this moment on the training ground of his Prague-based club side, Bohemians. As he said in an interview on Radio Praha back in 2007:
"Nobody had ever taken a penalty like that before. I came up with the idea because I used to practice penalties after training at Bohemians with our goalkeeper Zdenek Hruska.
"To make it interesting, we used to wager a beer or a bar of chocolate on each penalty. Unfortunately, because he was such a good keeper, I ended up losing money as he kept saving more shots than I could score.
"As a result I ended up lying awake at night thinking about how I could get the upper hand. I eventually realised that the goalkeeper always waits until just before the last moment to try and anticipate where the ball is going and dives just before it's kicked so he can reach the shot in time.
"I decided that it was probably easier to score by feinting to shoot and then just gently tapping the ball into the middle of the goal. In this way the keeper had always dived by the time the ball was kicked and had no chance of recovering in time to save the shot. I tried it out on the training ground and it worked like a charm.
"The only problem was that I started getting a lot fatter because I won back all those beers and chocolates."
Panenka had tried it out with success during Czechoslovak league matches. However, given that this was during the time of the Iron Curtain and televised footage of football from Communist-run nations was scarce, nobody in the west, let alone the Germans, knew of this manoeuvre. As he added in the same interview:
"About two years before the European Championships I began trying it. At first I did it during friendly matches and then I did it once or twice during Czechoslovak league matches.
"It worked so well that I decided that I would use the technique if I got a penalty at the European Championships. Of course, it was pure chance that the opportunity came in the final after the Germans equalised in the last minute and then, when it went to penalties, the German player missed his kick before it was my turn.
"It was like the will of god. I was one thousand percent certain that I would take the penalty in that way and that I would score."
Not surprisingly, the western audience were completely surprised by what they had just seen, especially Maier who after all, was reckoned to be the best goalkeeper in Europe of that era. Panenka, in the interview with Radio Praha continued:
"I don't think Sepp Maier took it very well. He was and perhaps still is, somewhat discomfited. I suspect he doesn't like the sound of my name too much.
"I never wished to make him look ridiculous, though. I am not aware of anyone who want to make fun of someone when the European Championship is at stake.
" I chose the penalty because I realised that it was the easiest way of scoring a goal. It's a simple recipe."
The Panenka penalty has been replayed time and again on television screens ever since. Whenever a player tries to replicate his effort, the commentator will inevitably shout: "He's scored a Panenka".
Czechoslovakia's surprise success, and the unique way in which the title was won, gave the European Championship the shot in the arm it needed. Uefa reformed the competition on the same lines of the World Cup with a host nation hosting an opening round group stage followed by a knockout format. The event gained popularity with each passing tournament which saw it being expanded from eight teams to 16 in 1996 and has had a further eight teams added on for next year's event in France.
As for the man who ignited the spark with his iconic moment of football history:
"For me, it was the easiest and simplest way of scoring because at that time, no one was familiar with this particular style of penalty kick. No-one expected it, which made the success rate very high."