There were nine groups. Six of these groups had six teams (one each from pots 1 to 6 below); the remaining three groups consisted of five teams (one each from pots 1 to 5 below). Group competition was a double round robin: each team hosted a game with every other team in its group. The first-place team in each group qualified, along with the second-place team with the most points against teams ranked in the top five in the group. The remaining eight second-place teams were paired for two-game play-offs, with the winner of each total goals tie qualifying for the finals. The two host countries completed the field of sixteen teams.
The pot allocations for the qualifying group stage draw were based on the UEFA national team coefficient rankings as of the end of 2009. The sole exception was the automatic placement of Spain, as reigning European champions, as the top-ranked team (their coefficient ranking would have also placed them in this position anyway). Each nation's coefficient was generated by calculating:
The co-hosts Ukraine and Poland, which qualified automatically, were ranked 19th (28,133) and 23rd (26,620) respectively.
Before the draw UEFA confirmed that, for political reasons, Armenia would not be drawn against Azerbaijan (due to the dispute concerning territory of Nagorno-Karabakh) and Georgia would not be drawn against Russia (due to the dispute regarding the territory of South Ossetia). Armenia and Azerbaijan were drawn together in Group A during the draw ceremony, forcing UEFA to reassign Armenia to Group B, as Azerbaijan had refused to play in Armenia when they had been drawn together during UEFA Euro 2008 qualifying.
If two or more teams are equal on points on completion of the group matches, the following criteria are applied to determine the rankings.
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;
if, after applying criteria 1) to 4) to several teams, two or more teams still have an equal ranking, the criteria 1) to 4) will be reapplied to determine the ranking of these teams. If this procedure does not lead to a decision, criteria 6) to 10) apply;
superior goal difference in all group matches;
higher number of goals scored in all group matches;
higher number of goals scored away from home in all group matches;
The following 18 dates were reserved for group matches in qualifying:
3–4 and 7 September 2010
8–9 and 12 October 2010
25–26 and 29 March 2011
3–4 and 7 June 2011
2–3 and 6 September 2011
7–8 and 11 October 2011
For the first time, Tuesday evenings replaced Wednesday evenings for midweek qualifying fixtures where two matchdays occurred in the same week. This was in order to allow players an extra day to return to their clubs for domestic duty the following week. Consequently, teams were permitted to move the earlier weekend match forward to the Friday evening.
The highest ranked second placed team from the groups qualified automatically for the tournament, while the remainder entered the play-offs. As some groups contain six teams and some five, matches against the sixth-placed team in each group were not included in this ranking. As a result, a total of eight matches played by each team count toward the purpose of the second-placed ranking table.
If two or more runners-up had an equal number of points from their eight matches contributing toward the ranking, then the following criteria were applied:
Superior goal difference from these matches
Higher number of goals scored in these matches
Higher number of away goals scored in these matches
Position in the UEFA national team coefficient ranking system
The play-off ties were played over two legs, with the first legs on 11 November and the second legs on 15 November 2011. The four winners are found according to the standard rules for the knockout phase in European competitions, and the winners qualified for the Euro 2012 tournament.