Pundits in general and Alan Shearer in particular couldn’t stop telling us that Spain would be/are the first country to win three major tournaments in a row, before during and after their success at Euro 2012. This isn’t quite true, but it does depend a bit on your definition of ‘major trophy’. I certainly wouldn’t include anything not open to every country on a continent (or the world for two trophies), so no Confederations Cup, for example. That would be like calling the Charity Shield a major trophy, which no one does. Well, no one except Liverpool. You could argue that the Olympics counted as a major trophy for a while, and Uruguay managed two South American Championships and one Olympics in an uninterrupted sequence in the 1920s (when they were the only trophies available!). More impressively, Italy managed two World Cups and one Olympics in the 1930s – also the only ones available to them at the time. There was no Olympic football competition in 1932 in LA, as it was left out in favour of American Football – then a fledgling sport that the Americans wanted to popularise!
If you don’t count the Olympics at all, there is still Argentina and their sequence of three successive South American Championships (before it became known as the Copa America) in the 1940s. While the South American continental championship has to be considered major, it does have a bit of a chequered history. The 1946 championship, the second of Argentina’s trio, was considered unofficial at the time and only recognised later by CONMEBOL, the governing body. No trophy was awarded in 1946.
The South Americans had a free run at trophies in that period, as there was no World Cup between 1938 and 1950, and no Olympics between 1936 and 1948. So Spain’s achievement is the greatest, but perhaps not quite as unique as Mr Shearer would have you think. In fact if you’re still counting the Olympics as major in the 21st century, then Spain haven’t done three in a row, because the 2008 Olympics were after the 2008 Euros. But that would be a little harsh, given the under-23 restriction now in the Olympics. It’s also true that the first half of the 20th century, when all the other hat-tricks were completed, saw far fewer entrants in the tournaments than there are now, so Spain’s achievement stands out because it’s clearer that they really have been and are the best in the world.
Here are all the winners and runners-up of the Olympics, World Cup and continental championships collected in one handy table, with treble winners marked in blue. No Asian or African team has ever won the World Cup, and African teams have only recently seen success in the Olympics, so no Spain-like achievements for them, but I’ve included their championships for completeness. Honourable mentions to Egypt and Iran for hat-tricks of their own continent’s titles, which no one in Europe has done and only Argentina have matched in South America. (Click to enlarge table.)