On the Ball
With Euro 2016 just a day away from gracing a secure, vigilant - yet excited - France, the main contenders, dark horses and rank outsiders on the pitch are assessed
On June 10, the eyes of the sporting world will be fixed firmly on Paris as the UEFA European Championship kicks off and launches a month of high-pressure football comprising some of the most renowned sports personalities the world over.
Attentions on the tournament will intensify even more so than usual this year, however. Not only will Euro 2016 feature more competing nations than ever before - 24 as opposed to the usual 16 - but away from any trivial sporting context, the security and safety behind France holding such an elite and extravagant event has brought about more morbid and unwanted, yet understandable, scrutiny.
With matches spread across 10 cities in one of the world’s most charismatic and enigmatic countries, it may well take a few days for the population, spectators, tourists and indeed TV viewers to settle entirely comfortably. But all can be in agreement that once those fears are allayed, and the football is in full swing, the stage that emerges will be one that promises a feast of drama, excitement, tension, elation and despair almost unparalleled across elite sport.
Notable absentees including Bosnia & Herzegovina, Norway, Scotland, Denmark, and most shockingly, The Netherlands will be looking on enviously during the final month’s build-up, as supporters from the participating 24 nations hang up their wall-charts, plot their teams’ routes to the final and organise their sweepstakes. And while there are inevitable favourites, dark horses and ‘no-hopers’; everyone begins on zero, and hope springs eternal for all those who have made it to the starting line.
The Favourites (current FIFA World Ranking as of 12 May, 2016)
Any host with a football dynasty as extensive as France’s is immediately levered towards the top end of a bookmaker’s spreadsheet, but as Brazil will testify from 2014’s FIFA World Cup, football doesn’t always partake in fairytale endings.
That being said, there would be enough arguments for France to claim the title with or without home advantage. Arguably the toughest midfield in the tournament, and very few weak links on the periphery make the hosts a natural selection for most pundits, and a seemingly manageable Group may help them settle any initial nerves prior to the tougher tasks to come.
Both France and Spain have followed World Cup success with European glory in consecutive tournaments since the turn of the century; showcasing a generational stronghold over football that Germany will be trying to emulate this summer.
Their global success in 2014 confirmed their heritage as Europe’s most dominant force, and it would be difficult to argue against their chances this time around too. Unlike the France of the early 2000s and the Spain of 2008-2012 though, analysts would probably fall short of ‘unbeatable’ when describing this current crop of players, and their qualification campaign pointed towards a fallibility that other contenders will be looking to exploit.
Perhaps a tiring or stumbling giant, as opposed to a fallen one, but Spain is certainly not the formidable beast it was prior to 2014. A group stage exit in Brazil followed by a qualifying campaign which saw them defeated by Slovakia has brought a personification back to proceedings, and as a team in the classical ‘transition’ phase, few would be surprised if this year’s tournament comes a little too soon for another triumph.
Perennial underachievers or wishful thinkers? Whichever category the unpredictable England fall under, the build-up to this summer’s tournament has done nothing to settle aspirations. If anything, a qualifying campaign that saw a 100 percent win-rate - the best of any - compounded by a new crop of exciting players has excelled expectations beyond the more timid demands of 2012 and 2014.
A recent victory away in Germany has made others sit up and take note now too, and while flying under the radar may not be an option anymore, supporters will initially be praying for an improvement on 2014’s group stage disaster before turning the dial to ‘full-hysteria’.
Portugal, otherwise referred to as ‘Cristiano Ronaldo’, won’t be mentioned in the exact same breath as the aforementioned four, but will be blurted out in the next one, purely for that one man’s influence if nothing else.
An uninspiring World Cup was followed up by a comfortable qualifying campaign and with no Lionel Messi around to steal the limelight; ‘CR7’ will thrive in his role as the tournament’s most marketable and fascinating superstar. Whether it will be enough to carry an entire nation to the latter stages of the tournament is up for debate though.
It’s difficult to make a case for Italy this year, but they have won World Cups and European Championships with less credentials in the past. The historically perfect each-way bet just always seems to find a way to the latter stages of major tournaments, and with 2014’s failure veering away from that tradition, they will be eager to appease their passionate fans this summer.
The Chasing Pack
Officially the second best team in the world and the best team in Europe, Belgium will understandably be among the favourites for Euro 2016, but - outside of Belgium - the jury is still very much out as to whether they can capitalise on this golden generation of players.
The on-pitch leader of the pack, Vincent Kompany is unlikely to be fit for the tournament, and their group stage battle with Italy in June may give the best indication yet as to whether they can finally justify their ranking on the main stage.
Finishing second in their qualifying group behind Italy is probably indicative of how Croatia are perceived in the global order of football. An undoubtedly talented, technical side, but it would take a series of upsets to bridge the gap to the very top teams; an effort that could begin against Spain when the tournaments kicks off.
Arguably the surprise package of the qualifying stage, Austria’s record was second only to England’s and a comfortable group alongside Hungary, Iceland and the beatable Portugal could compound their role as dark horse.
If Belgium and Italy’s battle represents the ‘group of death’ then Turkey’s position alongside Spain, Croatia and Czech Republic surely makes that league the group of uncertainty. Spanish supporters would have preferred a much easier start to proceedings, and Turkey have often thrived in their role as feared underdogs in the past.
Most onlookers expect a typically Swiss ambivalence when it comes to their prospects at Euro 2016, and if punters were looking for an outsider to take a chance on, Switzerland is unlikely to be their first destination. Sturdy yet unspectacular, as always.
The aforementioned Swiss will arguably be in direct competition with Romania for second spot behind France in Group A; both proving tough to beat - the Romanians going through the whole of qualification without losing - but not so difficult to defend against. It might be a case of who beats Albania by the most.
When you talk about underdog victories, most people immediately refer to those who could potentially ‘do a Greece’, pointing towards their surprising victory in 2004. Wales are one of five ‘newbies’ hoping to make similar waves in 2016. With the world’s most expensive player, Gareth Bale leading the way, they certainly have the core of a side with the ability to uproot the formbook, and an early fixture with rivals, England will get the juices flowing from the off.
Northern Ireland (26)
Further west to the United Kingdom, and Northern Ireland will also be enjoying their first foray into major European waters following a surprising qualifying group victory. A difficult draw pitching them alongside Germany, Poland and Ukraine have stunted the celebrations slightly since then, but the tournament will certainly be made brighter by their presence there.
On paper, Slovakia sit alongside Northern Ireland as figurative no-hopers. However, that same piece of paper was torn to shreds in a qualifying campaign that saw them defeat Spain and comfortably book their place in France ahead of the more-fancied Ukraine. They have rightful reason to believe they can spoil England, Wales and Russia’s parties also.
Arguably the most exciting and enthralling of entrants, Iceland’s first ever major tournament is the culmination of a recent revolution, having almost qualified for the World Cup two years previously. Billed as the neutrals favourites and people’s champions, a group schedule with Portugal, Austria and Hungary could even leave the door open for an unexpected knockout berth.
Only Northern Ireland appear further down the odds table than Albania, with the latter capitalising on under-par qualification campaigns from Denmark and Serbia to make their first ever major championship. An unlikely ambush of Romania and Switzerland will be the aim, but - much like Northern Ireland - they will no doubt enjoy the experience regardless of results.
The Dark Horses
Alongside Northern Ireland and Albania in the betting is Hungary; a statistic that seems slightly unfair considering their world ranking is more in-line with Italy and Romania than the former two. In reality though, anything other than a group stage exit seems unlikely.
Having shared the responsibility of hosting alongside Poland in 2012, the two will be in direct competition four years on as they presumably battle for second spot behind Germany in Group C. Ukraine’s squad is arguably more balanced, if more devoid of world-class talent than Poland’s but to separate them seems almost impossible.
And in the red corner: Poland; led by world-class striker, and potential differentiator, Robert Lewandowski. Bayern Munich’s ‘number 9’ may well prove to be the difference in their battle with Ukraine while their qualifying campaign has already prepared them for the might of Germany.
With their long-awaited World Cup just two years away, the country had earmarked this tournament as the yardstick to gauge the likelihood of success on home turf in 2018. The conclusion may make for grim reading on recent form however, and a dramatic upturn in form and consistency would be required to make an impact this summer.
Czech Republic (29)
Submerged among the Group D lottery alongside Spain, Turkey and Croatia, Czech Republic were actually the most convincing qualifiers of the four. Having missed the past few major tournaments, their return will be welcomed by supporters who remember successes of the past but a prolonged stay in France would require an even more surprising series of results.
Republic of Ireland (31)
Scraping their way to France, Ireland overcame a seemingly irretrievable qualifying deficit and a playoff double-header with Bosnia & Herzegovina to confirm their summer plans, but were immediately brought back down to earth by being pitched against Italy, Belgium and Sweden in Group E. It takes a lot to dampen Irish spirits, but raising them further would require a huge effort.
Potentially competing with Ireland for a third group stage spot, which may in turn be rewarded with a Second Round venture, the Swedes will no doubt be relying on their talisman, and everyone’s favourite villain, Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
All ego and bravado aside, the PSG striker does turn this squad from a rank outsider into a potential dark horse.