When France v Romania gets underway at 8pm tonight, Euro 2016 will have begun. The tournament, held in France, promises to be enthralling and exciting with many intriguing individual story lines, some of which I will highlight here.
Traditionally, or at least since 1996, 16 teams contested the Euros, with the top two from the four groups qualifying for the quarter finals. This has now been increased to 24, with 12 sides definitely in the second round. The other four will be made up of 4 of the 6 sides who finish third.
The benefits of this? A longer tournament, more interest in the final group matches and more opportunities for sides that don’t start well. Who do I guess this will benefit? Sweden and Republic of Ireland are in a group with Belgium and Italy. Both of them will feel they can beat the other and, have a chance of progressing. How about all of Germany, Poland and Ukraine in the second round? Or two of Iceland, Hungary and Austria? There are serious opportunities available for lesser sides in the coming week.
The downside? Qualification is, currently, an absolute mess that makes little sense. Not the easiest at the best of times, but Wikipedia’s table sheds little light on the situation.
And for the record, here is the knockout tree:
While most of the sides competing are familiar – 13 of the 16 from Euro 2012 are here – there are five sides making their European Championship debuts, including Northern Ireland and Wales.
Albania have never qualified for an international tournament. They haven’t even come close to, usually finishing bottom or second bottom of their qualifying group. However, this time they beat the likes of Denmark and Serbia to earn their place in France. They are in the hosts’ group, and will most likely be competing with Romania for third place.
Slovakia qualified for the 2010 World Cup, but hadn’t before and haven’t since. Their side is based around Martin Skrtel and Marik Hamsik, with former Everton goalkeeper (legend) Jan Mucha in net, although they find themselves in a tough group – England, Wales and Russia. Progression is unlikely, but they could ruffle feathers.
Of all the debutants, Iceland probably have the best chance. The smallest nation ever to qualify for a major tournament, they have no professional sides, but over 600 coaches. It’s a story of resilience and togetherness, and with a favourable group – there is every chance they can progress in France.
On top of this, Austria and Ukraine have qualified for their first tournaments, having only been at previous editions they hosted. With so many new names, some powerhouses are missing, including former champions Netherlands, Denmark and Greece.
The Home Nations:
Of the British nations, only Scotland are missing. England qualified with a 100% record, and should do well in their group – a realistic target will be the quarter finals, and from there it only takes a couple of good performances to be in the final.
The knockout stages, see above, will pit us against third place in A (Albania/Romania), C (Poland/Ukraine/Northern Ireland) or D (Czech Republic/Turkey/Croatia) or the runner up of F (Iceland/Austria/Hungary), assuming we finish first or second. All of these are winnable matches; the quarters are well within reach.
Wales are in England’s group and, with Bale, Ramsey etc, should be able to make it past Russia and Slovakia. Once again, the quarters are a realistic aim for the Welsh. Personally, I think the small nation that neighbours England will have a good tournament, and have a great chance of beating their old enemies.
Northern Ireland aren’t in France to make up the numbers, however have very little chance of progressing. They face Germany, Poland and Ukraine – and will be aiming to pick up at least a point.
The hosts are amongst the favourites, and probably with good reason. They have a strong side, passionate support and a favourable path to the latter stages. It’s tough to see anyone except Germany stopping them, which will happen in the semis if they both win their groups.
But, as the BBC points out in this fantastic article, this is more than just a month of football for the French. As the world threatens to descend into chaos, it’s a real opportunity to show how football can be the greatest of healers.
France is a country characterised by romance, a victory on the 10th July may be one of the most romantic stories of all.
I’ve predicted the tournament, using this website, and you can share your predictions in the comments.