Commentary

Euro 2016: Bigger field offers hope to smaller countries

Not for the first time, many pundits were wrong about how expansion of the European Championship to 24 teams would affect the tournament.

With more spots up for grabs, upsets and drama spiced the qualifiers and several major nations did not cruise their way into the finals as had been expected. Minnow Iceland advanced at the expense of the Netherlands; it and four other debutants will be closely observed as they strive to make the same impact in the finals as they did during qualifying.

Here’s a look at the newbies and their top players who hope to do more than just make up the numbers:
 
ALBANIA
 
As one of the debutants, Albania somewhat resembles the Greece team that scored a stunning victory in the 2004 competition through a combination of rugged, resilient defense and opportunistic finishing.

Under the tutelage of Italian head coach Gianni de Biasi, Albania -- as Greece had done twice in the 2004 finals -- stunned Portugal, 1-0, in Lisbon. That victory and a 3-0 win awarded after a riot had interrupted a match with Serbia edged Albania into the finals as Group I runner-up, two points in front of Denmark.

Brother will battle brother when Albania kicks off its first Euros campaign Saturday against Switzerland. Taulant Xhaka, 25, brings a sparkle of technical skill to Albania. The former Swiss under-21 international is the older brother of Switzerland international Granit Xhaka and will square off with his brother in Lens.

Their parents moved from Kosovo to Switzerland before the brothers were born. FIFA approved Taulent’s change of allegiance in the summer of 2014. At Basel, he played with Rapids midfielder Shelken Gashi, who scored his first international goal last October in a friendly and has been a major cog in the Rapids’ rise to the top of the MLS Western Conference.

The Albanian attack generated seven goals in seven qualifiers -- not counting the three posted by forfeit -- and group bottom-dweller Armenia conceded five of them. No Albanian player scored more than once.
 
 
ICELAND
 
The smallest nation (population: 330,000) to qualify and in the tournament for the first time, Iceland’s squad abounds with enticing stories.

Veteran Eidur Gudjohnsen, the nation’s all-time leading scorer with 26 goals, adds the Euros to an impressive resume that includes club stints with PSV Eindhoven, Real Madrid, Chelsea, and Monaco. He played for Iceland in its friendly last January against the U.S. and though wasn’t picked for two games in March made the cut at age 37. He is a teammate at Norwegian club Molde with U.S. backup keeper Ethan Horvath.

In the qualifiers, Iceland shocked the Netherlands twice, and also beat fellow qualifiers Czech Republic and Turkey at home. Gylfi Sigurdsson scored all three goals, two from the penalty spot, in those victories against the Dutch and led Iceland in qualifying with six. Striker Kolbeinn Sigthorsson is one of several players who have graduated from the nation’s first U-21 squad to qualify for the Euros at that level in 2011. He scored three qualifying goals and heads into the Euros second only to Gudjohnsen in international goals with 20.

The Euros will be the last international competition for legendary coach Lars Lagerbeck, who helped guide his native Sweden to five consecutive major competitions from 2000 to 2008. Once Iceland’s run in the Euros is done Lagerbeck, 67, will retire and leave his current co-coach, Heimer Hallgrimsson, in charge.
 
 
NORTHERN IRELAND
 
The club status of striker Kyle Lafferty epitomizes what he and his national team have surmounted to reach the Euros.

He doesn’t start regularly for Norwich City --- which finished second-to-last in the Premier League and was relegated last month – but paced Northern Ireland’s run to the top of its qualifying group by scoring seven of its 16 goals. A groin injury forced him to miss a training session a few days before an opening game against Poland on Sunday but he’s declared his readiness to answer the bell.

Qualification for the Euros represents a dramatic shift from what befell the national team when Michael O’Neill took over as head coach in 2011. He recorded just one victory in his first 18 matches but has guided the team steadily to France with a blend of stubborn defense and set-play efficiently. More than one-half of Northern Ireland’s qualifying goals came from set plays: nine, more than any other national team in the competition.

Most of his squad play for English teams yet only a half-dozen or so are employed by Premier League clubs. One of them is captain Steven Davis of Southampton. He scored twice in a 3-1 qualifying victory over Greece that clinched a European Championship slot.

Northern Ireland’s last appearance in a major competition is one of its greatest accomplishments. It stunned host Spain, 1-0, in the 1982 World Cup on its way to topping the group. This time around, it draws the defending World Cup champion.

“I believe we are capable of taking points from Ukraine and Poland before we face Germany," said O'Neill. “Our focus is on being competitive and on finding a way out of the group. We are not going just for the experience.”
 
 
SLOVAKIA
 
Forty years after a squad heavily laden with Slovakians won the European Championship title for Czechoslovakia, the nation that achieved independence in 1993 competes at the Euros for the first time.

Three key members of the team -- Martin Skrtel, Marek Hamsik and Juraj Kucka -- return to a big stage six years after playing in the 2010 World Cup. Captain Hamsik, who also captains Napoli, led Slovakia in qualifying goals with five and is also the current caps leader with 87.

Six straight wins in the qualifiers, including a 2-1 defeat of current European champion Spain, seemed to assure qualification but a rocky run in the next few games – just one point -- necessitated a 4-2 defeat of Luxembourg in the group finale.

Defensive midfielder Kucka (AC Milan) provides the grit and toughness that provides cover for Hamsik’s still, yet Kucka scored one of the goals in the qualifying defeat of Spain. His club coach Sinsia Mihaljovic said in an interview with Sky Sport Italia, “He is like a tank, he’s very hard to challenge and goes into every tackle.”

Coach Jan Kosak does not believe his team, which meets fellow debutant Wales in its group opener Saturday, is overshadowed by group rivals England and Russia. 
“Underdogs? No, I don’t think so,” Kozak said. “Because we will fight. We will be very hard to beat.”
 
 
WALES
 
Under the guidance of former Wales international Chris Coleman, the man who brought Clint Dempsey and other U.S. players to Fulham, Wales is appearing in its first European finals under its current format.

Like neighbors Northern Ireland, Wales has only a World Cup on its resume of major international competitions, though under a different format used at the 1976 Euros it advanced out of group play but failed to reach the ‘finals,’ which consisted of just four teams.

Wales may not appeal to the connoisseurs. In 10 qualifiers it scored just 11 goals -- nine by the combination of Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey -- yet racked up enough points to qualify by conceding just four goals and losing only one match.

Injuries forced Bale to miss most of the team’s pre-Euros friendlies and without him, Wales failed to beat the Netherlands, Northern Ireland and Ukraine. He did come on as a sub in its final tune-up against Sweden but the Welsh fell again, 3-0.

Centerback and captain Ashley Williams -- who also captains Swansea City, where he teams up with Iceland’s Sigurdsson -- leads a squad that includes Premier League colleagues such as Ramsey (Arsenal), Joe Allen (Liverpool), Andy King (Leicester City), and Ben Davies (Tottenham).

Qualifying for the Euros has revived spirits in Wales, where until recently only the promotion of Swansea City to the Premier League drew praise. Coleman took over the team in depressing conditions five years ago, when manager Gary Speed -- who starred as a player for several English teams -- took his own life.

By leading Wales to the Euros Coleman earned a two-year extension to his contract. He chose to play just one friendly – the loss to Sweden -- in the lead-up to the Euros, following the same formula as a year ago when a 1-0 defeat of Belgium sparked a successful run in the qualifiers. If Wales can somehow surprass Russia or England to advance, the Welsh soccer federation might hire him as coach for much longer.
   
1 comment about "Euro 2016: Bigger field offers hope to smaller countries".
  1. David V, June 11, 2016 at 5:02 p.m.

    ENGLAND-West reporters on ESPN are so disappointed about Russia (even Mike Ballack has to curtail his lack of bias for England because he is working for an England-West TV station).

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