PARIS — It’s a cliche that every team starts a tournament on zero points, equally distant — but also equally close — to the ultimate goal. That means, of course, that anyone can dare to dream but even more so at the 2016 edition of the European Championships, which is unveiling an expanded field of 24 teams, up from the previous 16.
Ordinarily, you’d tell yourself it’s just a bunch of lies, a ruse to keep the minnows interested and the middle class hopeful. A bit like when we tell kids to chase their dreams, even though we know all too well they probably won’t be prima ballerinas at the Bolshoi or piloting the space shuttle to Mars.
But this time … this time it’s different.
For a start, less than six weeks ago, we saw the unthinkable turned flesh and blood: Wes Morgan of Leicester City lifting the Premier League trophy. Sure, we explain it away through chance, probability, luck, big boys stumbling, Jamie Vardy’s career year and Claudio Ranieri’s karma.
But we know Leicester’s win was like dumping lighter fluid on that tiny flame that burns in the back of our mind, the one that says “What if?”
Rarely has a major tournament rolled around with so few certainties and so many doubts surrounding the favorites. In some ways, it’s the polar opposite to that other UEFA-branded extravaganza, the Champions League, where the quarterfinalists are perennially familiar and the group stages often consist of elites flattening the field.
France are the favorites. They’re playing at home, reached the quarterfinals of the last two tournaments, are deep and gifted in midfield and attack, and have two of the most exciting talents in the world game — Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann — about to hit their prime. Yet that back four (Laurent Koscielny aside) leaves you scratching your chin. And the Olivier Giroud-haters are already sitting there, digits poised over keyboards, ready to spew venom at the first fluffed chance.
The reigning Euro champions Spain? Great pedigree, big names, but maybe the humiliation of Brazil 2014 ought to have been heeded more: it’s tough to maintain the same hunger and focus after winning back-to-back-to-back major tournaments.
What about Germany, the 2014 World Cup winners? Will they be reliable contenders? You’d think so, but then you consider that they lost to Ireland and Poland in qualifying. And that in the last few weeks they lost three starters to injury — Antonio Rudiger, Marco Reus and Ilkay Gundogan — and have a fourth in Mats Hummels, who’ll likely miss the opening two games. Suddenly, the perpetual sure thing doesn’t seem so certain.
Keep going down the food chain and the questions multiply.
Belgium’s Golden Generation was tipped for greatness years ago. But many of their best players are coming off either injuries (Thibaut Courtois, Jan Vertonghen, Kevin De Bruyne) or poor seasons (Eden Hazard). After nearly seven years with the squad as coach or assistant, Marc Wilmots still hasn’t fixed the fullback problem.
England, not for the first time, have talented young attacking players. They also have a creaky defence, a midfield general, Jack Wilshere, who was out for 10 months and hasn’t lasted 90 minutes in nearly a year and a captain, Wayne Rooney, for whom they can’t really find a role.
Italy’s squad was already the least talented Azzurri group since the late 1950s and things only got worse when they lost Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio to injury. Manager Antonio Conte’s chest-beating and tactical nous can only carry them so far.
Portugal have a neat blend of youngsters and veterans and there’s always Cristiano Ronaldo, still looking for his signature moment on the big stage. But we simply don’t know what condition he’ll be in physically. If it’s the Ronaldo who played in the Champions League final in May, don’t expect much other than well-taken penalties and shirtless celebrations. Complicating matters, coach Fernando Santos seems reluctant to put his faith entirely in the kids.
Croatia may arguably have the most gifted midfield in the tournament with Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Marcelo Brozovic, but they were ho-hum in qualifying and recent friendlies (what you learn from choosing to play San Marino ahead of a major tournament is anyone’s guess).
If the above are the elites and near-elites — some perhaps only in name — once you get to Europe’s middle class you find plenty of scope to dream. You have sides with outstanding individuals who, if they get to the knockout stage (and, with this format, many will), can haul their teammates on their backs and carry them. We’re talking about countries like Poland (Robert Lewandowski), Sweden (Zlatan Ibrahimovic) and Wales (Gareth Bale), nations rallying around a once-in-a-lifetime talent who can win you games singlehandedly.
Others find themselves relying on the savvy and charisma of a wily veteran coach who has shown no fear or deference to the supposed blue bloods. Think of Ireland with Martin O’Neill, Russia with Leonid Slutsky and Turkey with Fatih Terim.
Then there are sleeper picks like Austria and Switzerland, neighbors who have reaped the benefits of changing immigration patterns to put together gifted sides with genuine second-generation talent, from David Alaba and Aleksandar Dragovic for the Austrians and Ricardo Rodriguez and Xherdan Shaqiri for the Swiss. If migration was one of the sociopolitical themes changing the face of Europe over the past few decades, the breakup of the Soviet Bloc and the former Yugoslavia is another.
Indeed, when Shaqiri’s Switzerland take on Albania in the group stage, he will stand across from Lorik Cana, the Albanian captain who, like Shaqiri, is an ethnic Kosovar. In a parallel universe, or even if they had been born some 10 years later, they might have been teammates. Instead, many of Kosovar descent turn out for Albania, Switzerland and other nations and, football-wise, they have had a massive impact. This is Albania’s first ever tournament and they showed in qualifying that their mental toughness and tactical sophistication make them a tough out for anyone.
Slovak and Czech players will also recognize that, had they been born earlier, they too would have been teammates: the old Czechoslovakia broke up some 15 years ago and was once a football powerhouse. Individually, they are a few notches down from where they were, but remain cohesive units with ambition and box-office talent, such as Marek Hamsik for the Slovaks and Petr Cech for the Czechs.
Hungary and Romania also bring with them a glorious past and a present that’s very much in flux. Arguably the greatest team in the world in the early 1950s, Hungary return to a major tournament for the first time in 30 years. Romania’s Golden Generation came and went leaving quarterfinal finishes at the 1994 World Cup and Euro 2000 behind, as well as plenty of “might-have-beens”. This group lacks the talent of the past, but they were undefeated in qualifying, conceding just two goals.
And then there are the little guys like Northern Ireland: population 1.8 million, but, football-wise, less than that since they regularly lose gifted players who choose to turn out for the Republic of Ireland instead. And the really little guys, like Iceland: 332,259 souls on a rocky, volcanic outpost in the middle of the north Atlantic.
We haven’t seen Northern Ireland in a major tournament in three decades and their manager, Michael O’Neill, had no big-time coaching pedigree when he took over in 2011. Yet that did not stop them from winning their qualifying group and putting together the ultimate underdog tale.
As for Iceland, it’s even more extreme, in every sense of the word. Tiny as their talent pool may be, this qualification was not a fluke: They finished ahead of the Dutch and the Turks in qualifying and, two years earlier, came within 90 minutes of the World Cup. Rather, it’s a testament to what planning, organization, intelligence and a total lack of fear can do.
The Euros have a history of upsets and unpredictability; think Denmark in 1992 or Greece in 2004. The uncertainty surrounding the favorites and the fact that the “middle class” is tougher and deeper than many give it credit for, may make this the most unpredictable Euros yet.