In order to qualify a team must be winners or runners-up in one of the seven qualifying groups. After this a team proceeds to the finals round in the host country, although hosts qualify for the tournament automatically. The qualifying phase begins in the autumn after the preceding FIFA World Cup, almost two years before the finals
The groups for qualification are drawn by a UEFA committee using seeding, seeded teams include reigning champions, and other teams on the basis of their performance in the preceding FIFA World Cup qualifying, and the last European Football Championship qualifying. To obtain an accurate view of the teams abilities, a ranking is produced, this is calculated by taking the total number of points won by a particular team, and dividing it by the number of games played, i.e., points per game, in the case of a team having hosted one of the two previous competitions, and therefore having qualified automatically, only the results from the single most recent qualifying competition are used. If two teams have equal points per game, the committee then bases their positions in the rankings on;
- Coefficient from the matches played in its most recent qualifying competition.
- Average goal difference.
- Average number of goals scored.
- Average number of away goals scored.
- Drawing of lots
The qualifying phase is played in a group format, the composition of the groups is determined through means of a draw of teams from pre-defined seeded bowls. The draw takes place after the preceding World Cup's qualifying competition. For the 2008 European Football Championship, the group qualifying phase consists of seven groups, one of eight teams, and the remainder of seven teams each.
The qualifying phase is done in groups, each effectively a mini league, where the highest ranked team, after all the teams have played each other home and away, progresses to the finals tournament, as with most leagues, the points are dealt as three for a win, one for a draw, and none for a loss. In the eventuality of one or more teams having equal points after all matches have been played, the following criteria is used to distinguish the sides;
- Higher number of points obtained in the group matches played among the teams in question.
- Superior goal difference from the group matches played among the teams in question.
- Higher number of goals scored in the group matches played among the teams in question.
- Higher number of goals scored away from home in the group matches played among the teams in question.
- Results of all group matches:
- Superior goal difference
- Higher number of goals scored
- Higher number of goals scored away from home
- Fair play conduct
- Drawing of lots
Sixteen teams progress to the final tournament, for the 2008 tournament they will be the winners and runners up of the seven qualifying groups, and joint hosts Austria and Switzerland. These sixteen teams are divided equally into four groups, A, B, C and D, each consisting of four teams. The groups are drawn up by the UEFA administration, again using seeding. The seeded teams being the host nations, the reigning champions, subject to qualification, and those with the best points per game coefficients over the qualifying phase of the tournament and the previous World Cup qualifying. Other finalists will be assigned to by means of a draw, using coefficients as a basis
The four groups are again played in a league format, where a team plays its opponents once each. The same points system is used (three points for a win, one point for a draw, no points for a defeat). A schedule for the group matches will be drawn up, but the last two matches in a group must kick off simultaneously. The winner and runner-up of each group progresses to the quarter-finals, where a knockout system is used (the two teams play each other once, the winner progresses), this is used in all subsequent rounds as well. The winners of the quarter-finals matches progress to the semi-finals, where the winners play in the final. If in any of the knockout rounds after normal playing time, the scores are still equal, extra time and penalties are employed to separate the two teams.