A Brand History of the European Championship

Mountains. Flowers. Hearts. Stars. No, these are not elements of a new children’s breakfast cereal – they are visual signifiers of the world’s second–most prominent international football tournament.

They also indicate the extent to which UEFA – and their local organizing committees – have commissioned ever–more elaborate and expensive brand identities to define the European Football Championship since 1996.

Graphic design has an captivating relationship to the game of football, particularly with regard to professional club identities developed or redefined in the modern era. The United States, in particular, had a great many adventurous insignias created in the late sixties and seventies for its brand–new soccer teams; unshackled from the burden of history, tradition, and ethnic association. Teams such as the San Francisco Gales, New York Cosmos, or Atlanta Apollos adopted minimal identities clearly inspired by the style of modernist graphic artist Paul Rand – largely regarded as the father of modern corporate design. The adoption of this aesthetic showed an ambitious vision to lay lasting and professional foundations in North America. A patently patriotic and singular visual manifesto, here the ideals of American corporate mobility were cunningly applied to sport.

Of course, these homegrown design methods were actually German, Swiss, and Dutch in origin; and Paul Rand was actually Peretz Rosenbaum, son of immigrant Jews in Brooklyn.

Yet, such is design; so often maintaining an oxymoronic nature. Paradoxically, the most meticulous work is usually the simplest, and a successful solution can have most any ideology grafted onto it after the fact.

The 1960 logo (and 64, 68, 72, 76, 80, 84, 88, and 92)

The 1960 logo (and 64, 68, 72, 76, 80, 84, 88, and 92)

From the same classic modernist era as Rand, the European Nations’ Cup was born in 1960. True to the time, a simple icon was created for the competition held in France, holding to the very definition of cool graphic minimalism. A rising wave of five lines in the national colors (two red, one white, two blue) over the confederation initials (a conjoined E/F following the same waveform) creates a fluttering flag symbolizing the international competition.

And symbolize it, it did. This exact same icon was used for every tournament through 1992 in Sweden – with only the colors modified to reflect the changing host country, with two digits added to indicate the competition year.

Euro 1980 Alternate Logo

Not Mario Brothers, but still Italian

An intriguing exception was the 1980 European Championship in Italy, the second to be held in that country. While the officially recorded emblem was that same UEFA flag icon, the tournament organizers had developed a second: a flower with the familiar 32–panel “classic” football as its bloom, over the simple text EUROPA 80. While possibly looking like it belonged to a contemporary Atari video game,it did presage developments 12 years hence toward unique logos for each staging of the competition. At this point, the tournament did not yet enjoy the high profile it now possesses, and fan interest/financial support only hinted at the
marketing behemoth the Euros have now become.

Strangely, very little concrete information is actually available (publicly or otherwise) on the origins of European Championship identity prior to the 2004 tournament. Consultation with reference material, design historians, and UEFA Media Services all led nowhere – in fact, correspondence with UEFA acknowledged their media archives do not even attempt to record and save such data.

What follows, then, is an assessment of the tournament’s recent brand development, with the benefit of the limited source materials available.

Euro96 England

There's lots of rural charm in the country

This was the tournament where I first became aware of the European Championships, thanks to coverage on ESPN and family interest in the exploits of the Spanish national team. The tournament was entertaining, Spain’s shirts were “all-time” gorgeous, and inscribed on it all was the now famous Euro 96 logo.

Looking back, it was certainly an appropriate icon for the times, being an image that as easily could have served as cover art for a Blur single. Yet I recall having little idea what it was supposed to depict. It was clearly an abstract soccer ball, yes, but why was it drawn so strangely?

It was only well after the tournament that its representation became clear: an abstract football player, dribbling against a blue sky, under a yellow sun. Even now, it does seem a curious image given the extended period England went without hosting a major event, and all the possibilities for imagery therein.

Now, the typography beneath is far more successful, partly for existing before UEFA dropped its half–moon corporate wordmark into everything with which it was associated. The lettering is tight, smart, and simple while maintaining a playfulness through a mixed but harmonious selection of typefaces.

All the necessary information is there in just 18 characters: who, what, where, and when. Notably, this was the first tournament officially referred to with the “Euro” abbreviation. Different naming directions might have been explored – but what prevailed, thankfully, showed a predilection to the succinct.

A bit of cheese, not all that gouda

Euro2000 Belgium/Netherlands

Where Euro96 was available on ESPN, I remember watching Euro2000 via pirated signals at restaurants. Characteristically, it featured prolonged Spanish disappointment, but also the best match I’d witnessed to that point in my life: Spain 4–3 Yugoslavia. I thought Gaizka Mendieta was beyond incredible, and Fernando Morientes claimed my most-favored-player status from Raul (for a time).

The logo barely registered. Maybe I didn’t see it enough, or perhaps this just wasn’t an inclination I’d yet developed. Upon reflection, it is a very unsatisfactory emblem, doubly so as a representation for two paragons of creative design in Belgium and The Netherlands. The merging of the two countries’ flags is a solid enough conceptual foundation from which to draw, but the execution lacks anything truly aesthetically unique to the region, one rich with inspirational creativity – ranging widely from Victor Horta’s natural ornamentation to Theo van Doesburg’s stark essentialism.

The typography used is even worse. The half–moon UEFA mark appropriately reflects the sphere above, but a bland serif titling adds nothing to the mark. The use of the same character for 0 and O further makes the lettering heavy to the right side.

The presence of those four 0s normally might spark some creative handling of their juxtaposition, but in this instance it was a path un-pursued. All in all, a disappointing and ultimately forgettable image.

Brought to you by the letter F for "filters"

Euro2004 Portugal

The competition was wonderful, the stadiums spectacular, the atmosphere magnificent, the logo atrocious. Lord knows how many tones, gradients, filters, and blurs were employed to execute the “official” version of the mark. It’s interesting that now, most records have chosen to archive the “simplified” version produced for merchandise and printing purposes instead of the Photoshop bonanza.

Reference materials from the logo unveiling claim “passion” as the unifying design principle (thus justifying the heart shape), as if passion was an export unique to Portugal. The base concept of a heart drawn around a ball is weak alone; but unneeded additions, complications and blends further obscures whatever rationale that wasn’t actually there in the first place.

On the other hand, the typography is somewhat successful, and productively keeps with the theme such as it is. The “PORTUGAL” tag does appear an afterthought, once they realized nothing about the image indicated where the tournament was actually taking place. There are certainly problems with character kerning and the fluidity between glyphs in the title (rendered as if it were a handwritten script) but these concerns largely pale against the atrocity residing above it.

The hills were alive with the sound of Spaniards

Euro2008 Austria/Switzerland

A tournament, once more, that was widely televised in the United States. My brief residency in Italy the year prior had permitted travel around the continent, and for the first time I’d actually been to nearly every city and stadium in the competition. I particularly recall poking my head between the gates at Basel’s St Jakob-Park, or sneaking into the unguarded upper tier of Ernst-Happel-Stadion during an Austria Wien training session. Now, here they were hosting many of the biggest names in sport.

Of course, Spain’s triumph will be my primary remembrance through future years, but the logo is much more along the lines of what one might expect visually from the two countries.A single line curving around a ball, rendered in red (their common national color) and green, with the line beveled and spiked to represent the primary topographical feature for which the nations are known – the Alps. While the use of shine and gradient is often overdone, it’s subtle enough here to be effectual. The light reflection on the lower swoop even gives the feeling of a Alpine skier or bobsledder racing to the finish.

The style and implementation of type below is exactly what you’d envision representing the Swiss. Simple, unadorned, sans–serif. A change in line weight to set off segments of information, compact leading, and precise attention to detail are its hallmarks. Even the location identifier is subtly aligned to the inner edges of the second–outermost characters. Overall, though it possesses a bit more shine and polish than necessary, it’s still a winning result.

Seriously, they grow it there

Euro2012 Poland/Ukraine

This brings us to the recently revealed Euro2012 logo, the first such competition to be held in Eastern Europe. Co–hosted by Poland and the Ukraine (two countries one might not otherwise think of together) it’s sure to be the most publicized yet in the United States; while it’s more likely than not I’ll be watching from elsewhere, if not in person.

The European Championship is a genuine brand now, a mark of excellence and quality known around the world. The logo is more important than ever, but only as part of an overall brand identity carrying through every aspect of the tournament’s presentation. Colors, graphics, and typeface – the Euro brand is now a complete experience. Everything from the press packets, to the façade of the Olimpiysky’s VIP box (where the champion will receive the Delaunay Trophy) will have been designed along set identity guidelines.

Still, the logo is the most visible manifestation of the brand, and this one succeeds. Faced with the challenging task of creating an image common to countries not normally associated, wildlife and the decorative arts served as fertile inspiration. While still possessing a “made–for–television” appearance via the use of delicate color blends not reproducible in other applications, it remains more restrained than most. Simplified versions exist for other applications, of course. Blooms in the nations’ respective colors stem from a white and gold ball–plant, not wholly unlike the aforementioned unofficial Europa 80 mark. Figures illustrating celebrating players or cheering fans subtly jump from the petals of each.

The typography below might be its major triumph. The UEFA mark is set against the curve of the lower Ukrainian stem, and directly above the Euro “O”. The lettering is built around this central axis, fluidly joining the R to the O, and using a lighter weight face for the year matching the curves around the UEFA mark. Much like the previous tournament, the location identifier is tight and balanced in the same style as the rest, feeling considered and part of the overall scheme.

For all its obtuse bureaucracy, UEFA has still shown attentiveness to branding and design appropriate to its European focus – a virtue that FIFA, on the other hand, has clearly been unable to adopt. Though often too complex, the newer Champions’ League branding alongside an annually renewed finals’ identity are additional indicators of UEFA’s keen visual awareness.

Unfortunately, recent World Cups, with the possible exception of the 2002 tournament in Korea/Japan, have had grossly deficient identities wholly unsuited to the most prominent sporting event on the planet. The South Africa 2010 logo is just the most recent atrocity. While on one hand FIFA have shown a >predilection to contemporary arts, with initiatives to bring aboard global creatives for tournament poster designs,, hperhaps one day soon FIFA will give its crown jewel its deserved aesthetic attention.

(Thanks to UEFA, the SFV, and Clyde Araujo at Under Consideration for their assistance)

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