Explore Europe: France 2016 Edition

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I’ll admit it openly, that I was amongst the first to raise sceptical eyebrows when it was announced that Euro 2016 would be opened up to 24 teams for the first time in its history, as opposed to the usual 16. I felt that this would, although benefit fringe teams such as Slovenia and Wales, rather neutralise the challenge of competing to become one of Europe’s elite. It would merely increase the amount of cannon fodder at the grand stage. But I’ve been proved wrong, clearly.

Another reason for my scepticism was because a few strong teams like Holland started off the qualifying campaign slowly, and I felt that they’d barely scrape through despite not deserving to. But again I’ve been proved wrong, clearly.

We’ve currently got 20 teams qualified for the 2016 championships in France, and it couldn’t be more interesting. At least from a British perspective, as we have three teams representing Britain for the first time in a major football tournament since the 1986 World Cup. England, Wales and Northern Ireland all qualified, and the Republic of Ireland could also join them if they were to win their play-off match against Bosnia in November.

So it’s definitely positive from a British view, with many fans particularly relishing a potential clash between the home nations in the group stages. English fans are particularly eying up a possible fixture with Wales, to perhaps put the surprise package of qualifying in their place. But Welsh fans will welcome this, wishing to show up the only team to have escaped qualifying with a 100% winning record.

Unfortunately Scotland were unable to make this a quartet, despite remaining unbeaten against Ireland and Poland. But ultimately, it was marginal losses against Germany and a failure to do the double over minnows Georgia that meant it’s another campaign of disappointment for Gordon Strachan’s men. At least there’s light at the end of this tunnel though, and Scottish fans should be optimistic of their next challenge.

It’s not just Wales and Northern Ireland who have surprised many. Both Iceland and Albania have qualified for their first ever major tournaments. Iceland came second in a tough group including Czech Republic, Turkey and also Holland (who we’ll come back to later); the latter of whom Iceland completed a historic double over. Albania also triumphed against difficult opposition, on the way defeating Portugal and Serbia away from home.

With these new additions to the major European fold, it’s not surprising to hear that some teams struggled a tad. As mentioned, Portugal lost their opener to Albania. Germany started slowly with a defeat to Poland and a draw with Ireland early on. Spain slipped up to Slovakia last October. And Holland suffered early losses against Czech Republic and Iceland. But all of these European titans recovered to qualify comfortably in the end.

That’s a lie by the way. Holland, the former flag-bearers of total football, are now total failures. Despite being filled with talent from the likes of Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder, Memphis Depay and Daley Blind, they have failed to qualify for Euro 2016. This is a similar Holland to the one which finished 3rd in Brazil at the 2014 World Cup. Van Persie’s own goal (which you should really check out, it’s class) hammered the nail in their coffin, as they finished Group A in 4th, having only beat Latvia and Kazakhstan.

But looking forward now to 2016, and the tournament will be held just over the channel in France. This is near-perfect for avid football fans, and I’ll happily say on-record that British fans will be making the short journey in their thousands.

The main question though is who will win? Germany must surely be everyone’s favourites, despite their inconsistent qualifying at times. On home soil, France will be difficult to defeat. Though one only has to look at France’s recent campaigns to know how quickly things can implode in the French camp. This will also be Spain’s first major tournament since their dismal World Cup showing in 2014, so it isn’t questionable in the slightest to expect them to come back fighting.

Wales and Poland are definitely shouts to be the dark horses in France. But it’s also difficult to see them converting their qualifying flair when it matters, if key men Gareth Bale and Robert Lewandowski suffer injuries. After all, Bale scored all but four of Wales’ goals, and Lewandowski was the only man to hit double figures in qualifying.

And yes, England. We can’t not mention England can we? It’s tradition to not expect anything from the English football team in major tournaments, but this pessimism always inadvertently turns itself into quiet optimism over time. After all, England were the only team to reach 30 points in qualifying. But San Marino are hardly the pinnacle of European football are they?

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