France will play the opener of Euro 2016 at the Stade De France 234 days from now. The host nation’s opponent has yet to be determined, so what better time to tell you exactly how the world’s second most watched soccer tournament will play out?
The final of Euro 2016 will be held exactly 56 years after the Soviet Union beat Yugoslavia in Paris to win the 1960 European title. Of the four participants in the inaugural event, fourth-place France, which lost to Czechoslovakia in the third-place game, is the only country that still exists under the same "nom."
Until 1976, European Championships still included just four finalists playing only four games, combined. Eight finalists participated from 1980 to 1992, while the last five Euros featured 16 countries and 31 matches. France 2016 will see a record 51 games contested by 24 teams, accommodating these changes requires six groups and the first ever round of 16 knockout stage -- but eventually, the continent’s cream should rise to the top.
Here are the 20 countries who have qualified thus far.
Don’t forget your parting gifts. Qualified for the finals, and should be congratulated for doing so: Albania*, Slovakia *, Northern Ireland * and Romania. (*Debut)
Not to be overlooked. They won’t win, but they won’t roll over either: Iceland*, Czech Republic, Russia, Switzerland and Turkey
Capable of a surprise, or two. Includes: Austria*, Wales*, Croatia and Poland. (The best of the eight playoff-participants also belong here).
We’ll now assess our select seven, which all appear to have a better chance of winning Euro 2016 than Bernie Sanders does of being called Mr. President.
The polls suggest otherwise. Stranger things have happened, but our first three candidates will require an unexpected uptick in talent or chemistry in order to sway SA’s voters.
Italy. Why the Azzurri could win: In truth, the best argument may be "because it’s Italy," although similar logic preceded the 2006 World Cup, and Italy’s fourth world title. Antonio Conte left Juventus to coach the national team, but in spite of Andrea Pirlo's about-face regarding international retirement, this former power's cupboard is relatively barren of creativity.
Why they won’t: When your biggest asset may be your coach, your fans should not be expecting their first European crown since 1968.
Portugal. Why the Seleccao could win: Cristiano Ronaldo, a great soccer nation’s best ever could carry them. After spending most of his career playing second fiddle to Lionel Messi, fate will finally reward the unrivaled humility of the eternal silver medalist by allowing him to claim a major international title before his Argentine nemesis.
Why they won’t: You didn’t really believe that, did you? Portugal has arrived at most major tournaments as the "talent rich and chemistry poor" dark horse, before going dark altogether. Sorry Cristiano, guess you’ll just have to settle for a life of fame, fortune, narcissism and supermodels.
England. Why the Three Lions could win: England was the only country with a perfect qualifying record, and its +28 goal differential in 10 games was also best (it came in a weak group, but to be fair, there weren’t any strong ones). Just seeing England above Italy in SA’s power rankings is a minor miracle worthy of London’s tabloids, so the sky’s the limit, maybe.
Why they won’t: Seriously? It’s England, and this is a major title, never the twain shall meet. Bereft of genuine stars, "versatility" is the highest compliment that still applies to Wayne Rooney, while Raheem Sterling (youth), Daniel Sturridge (injuries) and Harry Kane (inconsistency) all have warts. Among current English internationals, only Gary Cahill’s made more than one PFA league Team of the Year during the last five seasons.
Favored in France. Three of the usual suspects are joined by some gifted Devils, assuring these festivities include terrific waffles, beer and chocolate, if nothing else.
Belgium. Why the Red Devils will win: Belgium didn’t rise to FIFA’s top spot by accident. No other European country can claim even one current MVP from Europe’s top four leagues; Belgium boasts two, in Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne, representing as talented a pair of creative forces as any on earth. A tiny country with immense (young) talent, this Euro 1980 runner-up hasn’t won an international title since the 1920 Olympics, yet oozes class front to back, with a celebrated captain, Vincent Kompany, protecting one of the world’s best keepers, Thibaut Courtois.
Why they won’t: Chemistry concerns remain, and while Belgium made the quarterfinals in Brazil, a little more seasoning appears required. Still, none will be eager to cross paths with these Devils in France, and fewer still at Russia 2018.
Spain. Why La Furia Roja will win: Being Europe’s two-time defending champion isn’t a bad place to start, and Spain’s midfield of David Silva, Sergio Busquets, Cesc Fabregas and Juan Mata remains unrivaled, with elder statesman Andres Iniesta carrying the torch passed off by the retirements of Xavi and Xabi Alonso. David De Gea should supplant longtime captain Iker Casillas in goal, upgrading the position.
Why the Red Fury won’t win: Vincent Del Bosque had the Midas touch, before he chased fool’s gold with the ill-suited, and Brazilian-born, Diego Costa, at World Cup 2014, and was smote for his hubris. With talented young options at his disposal (including Alvaro Morata, Paco Alcacer and Nolito), Del Bosque seems determined to justify his error. Costa would be perfect for a defensive-minded team yearning for a combative presence prone to constant outbursts, Greece perhaps, but his inability to adapt within a country that thrives on silky touches and smooth temperaments, should have long since made him persona non grata.
France. Why Les Bleus will win: With chemistry concerns seemingly a thing of the past, France has steadily built momentum since a disappointing Euro 2012 followed its disastrous 2010 World Cup. Though it qualified as host, since losing to Germany, 1-0, in the World Cup quarterfinals, France’s fierce friendlies will probably have provided better preparation than any Euro qualifying (they include Belgium, Brazil, Spain, Germany, England and Portugal, twice). Les Bleus also boast key players with big game experience for huge clubs, with Karim Benzema and Raphael Varane (Real Madrid), Antoine Griezmann (Atletico Madrid), Paul Pogba (Juventus) and Blaise Matuidi (PSG), among them.
Why the Blues won’t win: Pressure to win on home soil, or the experience of Germany and Spain could be cited, but there’s good reason for the quiet confidence enjoyed by Didier Deschamps’ team. Including its coach, who captained France to victories at the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000.
Germany. Why Die Mannschaft will win: Because this is the best national team on the planet, bar none. While Germany’s less than impressive qualifying form may have given its rivals reason to believe France 2016 is up for grabs, make no mistake, at its best, it’s Germany, then everybody else. Expect Joachim Low to create competition while demanding better effort and cohesion during upcoming friendlies with France and England. The retirement of Philipp Lahm can’t be underestimated, but the captain’s armband is safe with Bastian Schweinsteiger, Manuel Neuer is still the world’s best keeper (in spite of a costly blunder against Arsenal), while Thomas Mueller, Mesut Ozil, Ilkay Gundogan, Marco Reus, Mats Hummels and Toni Kroos remain world class
Why the world champs won’t win: Germany, winners of three European crowns, has never followed a World Cup win with a continental title. That, and its recent lack of hunger, are about the only good reasons to think Germany shouldn’t be favored -- though it must be said, Euro 2016 appears far more wide open now than it did in the summer of 2014, when this well-oiled machine earned the undisputed title of world’s best team, and made uttering the scoreline "7-1" an act now punishable by law in Brazil.
On this day one year ago, Germany beat Brazil 7-1 pic.twitter.com/akHowDpNcB— Abo Rony (@raedhassoun) July 8, 2015