Preparations are well under way for this year's UEFA European Championships in France. The twenty-four qualifying teams have been named, the schedule has been published and thousands of fans across Europe are making travel arrangements to see their beloved teams fight it out. While we all look forward to 2016's championships, let's also take a look back at the highlights of 2012's group stages and nail-biting knockout stages.
The group stages
Euro 2012 comprised thirty-one matches played by the sixteen teams across eight stadiums in Poland and Ukraine. The teams were sorted into four groups (A. B, C and D).
In team A, the Czech Republic, Russia, Greece and Poland battled it out. Although Poland's Robert Lewandowski scored a much-admired header against Greece in the opening match of the competition, partner hosts Poland did not progress to the next round. The Czech Republic became the first team to win a Euro group with a negative goal difference, qualifying for the next round with two wins under their belt, while Greece and Russia both ended on four points and two wins. The final decision, therefore, was based upon Greece's superior head to head record.
Germany, Denmark, Portugal and the Netherlands competed to win Group B. Few were surprised that, of the four teams, Germany and Portugal were victorious, with nine and six points respectively. A low point for Dutch supporters was what was deemed a lacklustre performance from the Netherlands players against Portugal, including what many claimed was a lack of passion when taking shots at goal.
The competition hotted up in Group C, with 2008 winners Spain taking on Italy, as well as brave hopefuls Croatia and the Republic of Ireland. The players from the emerald isle put up a courageous fight against Croatia, scoring their only goal of the tournament, but ultimately losing 3 - 1. Their luck did not improve in their later matches, as they lost 2 - 0 to Italy and 4 - 0 to Spain. Croatia fared better, tying 1 - 1 with Italy and losing to Spain with an admirable 1 - 0. All eyes, however, were on Italy and Spain, who proved themselves to be equal opponents with a score of 1 - 1. Spain and Italy moved on to the knockout phase.
England, France, Ukraine and Sweden fought over the two remaining places, with some surprising scores along the way. One especially contentious moment for Croatian fans was an incident in which a goal was deemed saved by the match referee, when, in fact, video evidence suggests that it did cross the line into the goal area before being looped out. UEFA's chief refereeing officer Pierluigi Collina agreed that the goal should have been counted, and expressed regret. Despite the controversy, England moved through the group stage relatively easily with seven points, France had to work a little harder for their place. One particularly surprising match saw France lose 0 - 2 to Sweden, a team not expected to be much of a threat. However, with a decent tie against England, and a solid win against Croatia, France were able to claw back four points - enough to take them through to the next round.
The knockout phase
The group stages were then followed by the quarter finals, the semi-finals and the most-watched match of the tournament, the final.
The quarter finals
Between the 21st of June and the 24th of June, the eight winners of the group stage fought amongst themselves for the four coveted spots on the semi-finals.
First, the Czech Republic and Portugal played at the Warsaw stadium. Supporters of both sides endured a nail-biting 79 minutes of play before the first and only goal was scored. Fan favourite Cristiano Ronaldo secured victory for Portugal with an impressive header the Czech goalkeeper could not block.
The 22nd of June saw the fans of Germany and Greece congregating at Gdansk stadium to witness a goal-heavy match that saw Germany winning 4 - 2 to take a deserved spot in the semi-finals.
Next up were age-old rivals Spain and France. With Spain's catalogue of recent success, their win against France did not come as a surprise. The match happened to be the 100th cap for Spain's Xabi Alonso, who celebrated by scoring both goals during the match: one header in the first half and a late kick in the second half.
The final match of the quarter finals saw England and Italy fighting it out at the Kiev stadium. Fans from both sides spent an agonising ninety minutes watching failed attempt after failed attempt at goal, resulting in a 0 - 0 tie that was forced to go to penalties. Many claimed that Italy's performance was far superior to England's throughout, and this was proven by the results of the penalty shoot-out which saw Italy winning the match 4 - 2. Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney were characteristically successful at penalties, scoring the two goals for England, while Balotelli, Pirlo, Nocerino and Diamanti worked together to put the four final nails into the coffin of England's hopes for Euro 2012.
Euro 2012 saw an abundance of exciting games, and allowed many players that had been looked over in past tournaments to shine. But the fun did not start with the quarter finals. The semi-finals and finals were some of the best yet, with nerve-wracking penalty shootouts and shocking defeats. We can only hope that 2016 brings as much drama.