It’s that time for the second-biggest football tournament on the planet. The UEFA European Championships or EURO. The tournament returns to France, the host country of the very first Euro all the way back in 1960.
The Euro may not be the first continental championships but they are the biggest no doubt about that. The first Euro tournament was only a four-team tournament that consisted of two semifinals, a final and a third-place match. However qualifiers were held in the months leading up to determine the four as well as the host nation as hosting was relegated to one of the four semifinalists at that time. That would continue to be the play of the tournament until Italia 1980 when it was expanded into eight qualifying teams and the host nation decided years in advance. Group play was held for the first time with two groups of four to determine the four semifinalists. The Euro would really take off in 1996 when the number of teams in the tournament was expanded to 16 and have a quarterfinals added to the tournament for the first time.
Here in France, there is another expansion: to 24 teams. This tournament is also the first to feature a Round of 16 and ‘wildcard’ qualifiers as there will be six groups of four. There will be ten stadiums facilitating the matches in nine different cities. There was concern over security in the months leading up as Stade de France was one of the places bombed in the November 13 Paris bombings of ISIS. In fact there are videoclips of the match of France vs. Germany when the bombing took place. No one in the stadium was injured. France has made it clear that security will be a serious issue during the event and will use the maximum measured needed to facilitate.
Throughout the next two weeks, I will be focusing on the teams participating at the 2016 Euro group by group just like I do for most football tournaments. I will analyze each team per group and make my predictions on which two teams will advance as well as a third-place team. I think predicting the four wildcards who will advance will be too tricky. I’ll leave it at that. Also the number in brackets is the team’s FIFA ranking for May 2016. So here goes it for Euro 2016:
France (21): So France is host nation for the third time. Les Bleus even won it as host back in 1984. France has a reputation of going all the way or going nowhere in major tournaments. Very rarely are they an in-between team. At the 2014 World Cup, France made an investment in putting a lot of young talent on their team and it paid off as Paul Pogba won the Best Young Player award and Raphael Varane was third. A lot of France’s young players like Pogba and Antoine Griezmann have come of age since. The current team consists of a good mix of young and old including 35 year-old captain Patrice Evra.
France however has had a lot of inconsistent moments in the months since the World Cup. They’ve had some noticeable losses to Brazil 3-1, Belgium 4-3, England 2-0 and Albania 1-0. They’ve also had some noteworthy wins like the Netherlands 3-2, two wins against Denmark last year and a 2-0 win against Germany which occurred on the day of the Paris attacks. France could just come alive as host nation again.
Romania (19): Romania is a team whose success seems to come in waves. There’s usually a time when the team has what it takes to go far or a time when the team doesn’t have what it takes to even qualify. I still remember the period of time after the Romanian Revolution of 1989 when they had their best World Cup success and even made it past the Group Stage of Euro 2000 for the first time ever. The team is hoping to bring its success back here in France. However it won’t come without challenges. They did succeed in qualifying for Euro 2016 but drew in four of their last five matches. They have been able to bring both Italy and Spain to draws in the last 12 months so they are able to prove themselves to be tough opponents. We’ll see how they turn out here.
Albania (45): This is Albania’s first ever appearance not just at a Euro but at any major tournament. Albania may lack the past successes of the other three teams but they are very capable of pulling surprises. That was especially noteworthy during their first game of Euro 2016 qualifying against Portugal whom they beat 1-0. Portugal’s loss embarrassed the team enough to find a new head coach. They’ve delivered other surprise wins over the past two years like 3-0 to Serbia and 1-0 to France. Albania still has a ways to go to prove themselves further. They’ve lost to Austria and Italy and have drawn against Georgia and Kosovo. However Euro 2016 could prove to be the stage for another upset by the team. They’re in their best form ever so now’s the time.
Switzerland (14): Switzerland is a team that’s also either on or off. They’ve been on at the World Cup when people least expect it but they’ve also been off especially when they play at the Euro. In fact they’ve never made it past the Group Stage in the three previous Euros they’ve played in. The current team doesn’t have that consistent of a record right now. They may have had notable wins against Slovenia and Austria but they’ve also had notable losses against Belgium, England, Slovakia, Ireland and Bosnia-Hercegovina. The latter is a bit disheartening since current head coach Vladimir Petkovic is from Bosnia. However they will have to come alive in France if they want to develop their reputation.
Trivia: Switzerland’s first Euro game against Albania should be noteworthy since six members of Switzerland’s team are ethnic Albanians!
MY PREDICTION: As I said, I only plan on predicting first, second and third. I expect France to come out on top with Switzerland second. I’ll take a chance and say Albania will be third.
And there are my thoughts on the first Euro 2016 group. Five more group reviews to go.
Here are my other group predictions:
On the evening of Friday July 27, 2012, the cauldron of the London Olympics, the Games of the XXX Olympiad, will be lit and over ten thousand athletes from over 200 countries will compete for glory in their respective sport over these seventeen days. London will become the first city ever to host three Olympic Games: the first two being in 1908 and 1948. Here are ten athletes from around the world, two from the host country and two teams of these Games who are worth keeping a close eye on:
-Michael Phelps/USA – Swimming: Talk about a legendary career. Olympic debut in 2000 at the age of 15. Six golds and two bronzes in 2004. A record eight golds in 2008. Now London is the big finale. He’s just three medals away from breaking the record for most total Olympic medals. He also has four chances to become the first male swimmer to threepeat in an individual swimming event. Unstoppable? Maybe not. Teammate Ryan Lochte broke Phelps’ 400 IM record last year and even beat him in that event at Olympic trials. Plus there could be other younger swimmers from around the world chasing him down. It will all be decided in the London Aquatic Centre.
-Usain Bolt/Jamaica – Track and Field: Remember back in Beijing Usain was the sprinting star winning the 100, 200 and anchoring Jamaica’s 4*100 relay? All in world record time? Incredibly Usain has since broke them all. No kidding he’s been the most exciting thing in track and field since Carl Lewis. He could do it again in London. But he faces a formidable challenge from his own younger teammate Yohan Blake who currently has the year’s fastest 100 and 200 times. Plus don’t count Americans Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay out, nor sprinters from Trinidad or St. Kitts.
-Amantle Montsho/Botswana – Track and Field: One of my favorite Olympic moments is when an athlete wins their country’s first ever Olympic medal. There are eighty countries competing in London that have never won an Olympic medal. Botswana is one of them but that could change. This will be Montsho’s third Olympics and she has progressed from the 400m heats in 2004 to 8th in the 400 final in 2008 to being crowned World 400m Champion last year. She still appears strong in the 400 this year as she has run the 400 four times under 50 seconds and even set a personal best a month ago. Winning a medal will not come easy as three other runners–two Russians and American Sanya Richards–have run faster times this year. Nevertheless if she’s all there in London, she could just make Botswanian Olympic history.
-Elena Isinbaeva/Russia: Track And Field: She has established herself as possibly the greatest female pole vaulter ever. She has won two gold medals and has set 30 world records including two at the Olympics. Nevertheless her career since Beijing has had some noticeable chokes: no-heighting at the 2009 world Championships final, fourth at the 2010 World Indoor championships, sixth at last year’s Worlds. 2012 has seen a return to her winning ways as she won the World Indoor Championships in March and even set a new world indoor record of 5.01m. She has only competed in one outdoor competition this year but it was two weeks ago and she won with an impressive 4.75m. It’s clear that in London the only person that can defeat Elena is Elena. It will all be decided in Olympic Stadium whether she threepeats or if she defeats herself.
-Caster Semenya/South Africa – Track and Field: She burst on the scene in 2009 at 18 showing the world her athletic talent in the 800m including a World Championship win. However she received more attention that year over her gender being questioned to the point the IAAF, athletics’ governing body, had to conduct gender tests on her. Caster found them both humiliating and invasive. She was eventually cleared by the IAAF but wasn’t allowed to resume competition until July 2010. The controversy has since died and Caster has continued running and even finished 2nd at last year’s Worlds. Nevertheless her country of South Africa has always stood beside her even during the heaviest of controversy and she has even been designated as South Africa’s flagbearer for the opening ceremonies. Many track experts believe she has what it takes to win but the 800m has a tough field. Could she prevail? Only time will tell.
-Carmelita Jeter/USA – Track and Field: Usually 32 is seen as the age when it’s time for a sprinter to retire. For Carmelita, it’s the age in which her sprinting career is finally taking off and could just reach her peak. Already she qualified for her first ever Olympic team. She has had world-class talent for years even finishing third in the 100m at the 2007 Worlds but she had a disastrous Olympic trials the following year filing to make the team despite being one of the favorites. In the four years since she’s become a faster runner and a better competitor. She would win bronze again at the 2009 Worlds and the 2011 Worlds gave her 100m gold, 200m silver and 4*100 relay gold. This year’s Olympic trials were better as she won the 100 and finished second in the 200. She already has the second-fastest 100m time in the world this year with defending Olympic champion Shelly-Anne Fraser the only other runner with a faster time. Jeter not only faces rivalry from her in both events but Jamaican triple Olympic champion Veronica Campbell-Brown who won the 200m at last year’s Worlds and her teammate Allyson Felix who has won 200m silver in 2004 and 2008. Whatever the situation, London will be now more than ever for her.
-Ashton Eaton/USA – Track and Field: The United States has consistently turned out decathlon champion after decathlon champion at the Olympics: eleven in total. At first it appeared Trey Hardee would become the next American to win Olympic gold in decathlon after winning the 2009 and 2011 world Championships. However teammate Ashton Eaton, who finished second to Hardee at the 2011 Worlds, had a surprise for him at the Olympic Trials. He won the Trials and broke the world record by 13 points. The Eaton/Hardee rivalry should prove to be exciting as two teammates being the two best in the world competing for gold. The winner will be decided two weeks from now.
-Mariel Zagunis/USA – Fencing: When you think of fencing and the USA, you don’t think of any greats, do you? Well Mariel could be just that. She’s already only the second American fencer ever to win Olympic gold and she did it in the saber category twice in 2004 and 2008. Both times she was not the favorite. This time she is the favorite being ranked #1 in the world but she’s not invincible. Since Beijing she has won her first World Championship medals: saber gold in both 2009 and 2010. She however lost her title at the 2011 Worlds to Russian Sofiya Velikaya. She also faces challenges in London from other Russian fencers and Ukrainians like Olha Kharlan. If she does win in London, she will make history by becoming only the second fencer to achieve an Olympic threepeat in an individual event. History in the making? It’s all in Mariel’s hands.
-Marta/Brazil – Soccer: It’s interesting how women’s soccer has been growing only in the last ten years or so. Women didn’t get their own World Cup until 1991. women didn’t compete in the Olympics until 1996. Since then the improvements have been made not just in North America and Europe but South America too. Even Brazil has a star that has been called the ‘female Pele’ and her name is Marta. She showed huge promise in football at a young age but would come of age at 16 in 2002 when she was selected to be on Brazil’s national team. Since then she has received major accolades such as two Olympic silver medals, runner-up at the 2007 World Cup and crowned FIFA World Female Footballer of the year for five years straight. She and the Brazilian team want to win and London but they face stiff challenges from Japan, Sweden and the USA who want to win their third-straight Olympic title. nevertheless they want to improve from their quarterfinal ouster at last year’s World Cup. The game’s the thing in London.
-Daba Keita/Mali – Taekwondo: Another country that has never won an Olympic medal is Mali. Daba Kaita looked like the one to win Mali’s first ever medal after winning the heavyweight title at the 2007 World Championships. However he was eliminated in the quarterfinals in Beijing and the president of Mali went as far as calling it a ‘painful day for Mali.’ Since Beijing the 6’8″ Keita successfully defended his World title in 2009. He was dealing with a knee injury in 2011 and couldn’t compete at the Worlds that year. Nevertheless Keita believes he is ready. He considers himself a smarter fighter than he was at Beijing. He has been coached in the United States since 2006 through an Olympic Solidarity program and he hopes for it to pay off in London. Even though he hasn’t been too active on the taekwondo scene in the past year, Keita could surprise his opponents and make Olympic history for Mali in London.
TWO FOR THE HOST COUNTRY:
-Tom Daley/Great Britain – Diving: For the record Great Britain has never won a diving gold medal at the Olympics. Six medals but never gold. Tom Daley burst on the world scene in 2008 by winning the tower event at the 2008 European Championships just before turning 14. He would be the ‘teddy bear’ of the British team of the Beijing Olympics and would go on to finish 7th in individual tower and 8th in synchro tower. Since then the precocious diving prodigy has had his ups and downs. He had a stellar 2009 that included a World Championship win in tower at the age of 15. An injurious 2010 ended on a good note as he won two golds at the Commonwealth Games. 2011 however was the hardest year. He had to deal with injury, learning new dives and the death of his father. The difficulties he faced showed at the World Championships that year as he lost his World tower title finishing 5th. 2012 has seen a new Tom Daley as he has been performing consistently even winning a World Cup meet and returning as European Champion. All eyes of Britain will be on him as he has beenone of the most iconic advertized images leading up to the London Games. He could lift the hearts of the nation like Cathy Freeman in 2000, Enrico Fabris in 2006 and the Canadian hockey teams of 2010. Or he could break their hearts like Konstandinos Kenteris in 2004 or Liu Xiang in 2008. It’s an awful big gamble for an 18 year-old. Nevertheless it will all be decided August 11th.
-Beth Tweddle/Great Britain – Gymnastics: Diving isn’t the only sport where Britain wants to win its first gold here. Gymnastics is another sport and Britain’s only women’s medal is a team bronze back in 1928 when women’s gymnastics was contested for the first time. Beth Tweddle looks like just the one to change that. She has been winning World Championship medals since 2003 but Olympic glory has always seemed elusive to her. 2004 was a disappointment. 2008 she finished fourth in the uneven bars but the two Chinese gymnasts who finished ahead of her have been under suspicion of being under the age limit and still remains unsolved. Since Beijing she has become a tougher competitor. She won the floor gold at the 2009 Worlds and won uneven bars gold at the 2010 Worlds. The 2011 Worlds were a tough event for her as she fell off the bars in qualifying and went out of bounds during the floor finals. Nevertheless she has proved she is ready for London as she won the uneven bars at a key international gymnastics meet and even increased the difficulty on her dismount with an extra full twist. Will she finally do it in London? It will all be decided in the Millennium Dome.
AND TWO TEAMS TOO:
-Romanian Women’s Gymnastics Team: This could be the triumph of the underdogs. Now I know what you’re thinking: “Underdogs? Romania’s gymnasts?” Yes. The 2011 World Championships were the first since 1974 in which the Romanian women failed to win even a single medal. That’s awfully odd coming from a country that introduced Nadia to the world and has shelled out countless world and Olympic Champions. Since then Romania has worked to get their gymnasts into winning ways. They field a team that includes 2004 three-time Olympic Champion Catalina Ponor coming out of retirement, 2008 Olympic floor champion Sandra Izbasa and 2010 World beam champion Ana Porgras. The plan has worked well as the team won the European Championships over 2011 Worlds silver-medalists Russia by less than a point. They even won three of the four individual event. No doubt they’re doing everything right in their comeback but they still will face challenges from Russia, host country Great Britain with possibly their best team ever, and the 2011 World Champions the United States featuring top competitors like Jordyn Wieber, Ali Reisman and Gabby Douglas. Winning will come with a fight in London.
-Cuban Boxing Team: No kidding Cuba wants to rebound after not winning a single boxing gold in Beijing 2008. Yeah, you’re probably thinking what I thought: “Cuba? No boxing golds? How can that be?” Ever since amateur boxing has gone from three three-minute round to four two-minute rounds, the Europeans have excelled while the American countries have struggled. Since Beijing amateur boxing has made a return to three three-minute rounds and Cuba is on a comeback trail. Boxers Lazaro Alvarez and Julio Cesar la Cruz won at the 2011 World Championships. Cuba’s hoping to return back to their Olympic glory days of the 70’s and 90’s and London could lead them on the right path.
And there you have it. Twelve athletes and two teams to keep a close eye on in London. My list of Canadians to watch will come tomorrow.In the meantime check this out below. This is my one and only souvenir of the London Games. I spent so much on souvenirs of the Vancouver 2010 Games I decided only one of London.
UPDATE: I did ten more to watch.