It’s official, we know the 24 teams that will be heading to France for Euro 2016, with excitement already building let’s take a look back at some of the main headlines that came from what turned out to be one of the most memorable qualifying campaigns in a long time. This was despite UEFA’s expansion of the tournament from 16 to 24 teams earning it the label ‘the tournament where everyone qualifies,’ just don’t mention that to the Dutch.
Perfection from England
The Euro 2016 final takes place on July 10th which is less than a month before the 50th anniversary of England’s glorious 1966 world cup win, still the sides’ only victory at a major tournament. The perfect way to honour the anniversary would surely be to see Wayne Rooney lifting the trophy come 2016, but how likely is that? Based on qualifying England have a very good chance, this is because England were the only team to finish the campaign on the maximum 30 points. Germany stumbled to defeats against Poland and Republic of Ireland, while Spain and Belgium were overcome by Slovakia and Wales respectively. Many may argue that a group consisting of Switzerland, Slovenia, Lithuania, Estonia and San Marino does not constitute a challenge, but England can only beat what is put in front of them and they were the only ones to do this convincingly. While the usual questions remain regarding selection of young players, surely with the likes of Sterling, Barkley and Oxlade-Chamberlain are better prepared after the experience of a world cup and Wayne Rooney hungry to prove himself at major tournaments England have the best chance they’re had for a long time. When all of this is combined with the confidence bred by a perfect qualifying campaign England have a great platform going into the tournament, but we’ve that before…
Home nation success
For once it wasn’t just England who qualified, with the exception of Scotland all of the home nations will be heading for France next year. The performances of Northern Ireland, Wales and Republic of Ireland made the campaign an unprecedented success for the home nations and the for the first time since the 1958 World Cup, these isles have 4 representatives at a major tournament. Northern Ireland perhaps caused the biggest shock, aided by the wonderful form of Kyle Lafferty, a man who strangely can’t even get a game for his club side right now, they topped group D ahead of Romania despite only being 5th seeds. Wales obviously have the world class talent of Bale and Ramsey who scored 9 of Wales’ 11 goals between them, but marshaled by Ashley Williams their defense stole the show conceding only 4 goals all campaign. The Republic of Ireland had to take the route via the play offs despite taking 4 points from world champions Gemany. In the end it was rather straight forward as a 2-0 win in Dublin inspired by Jonathon Walters secured a 3-1 victory on aggregate and a place in France.
Last minute drama shows up UEFA?
Picture the scene, in the 89th minute of the final qualifier Turkey have just been awarded a free kick 25 yards out, knowing they only need 1 goal to see off Iceland and book their place in France Selcuk Inan stands over the ball. The whistle blows, he strikes the ball beautifully into the top corner bringing the house down and Turkey are off to the Euros as the best third placed team! However while the Turks celebrate i’m sure there were some very unhappy Norwegians and Ukrainians as Inan’s free kick took Turkey to 18 points while Norway and Ukraine finished on 19 points. The reason Turkey qualified is because when calculating the best third place team UEFA disregard results against the lowest rank teams. So in effect Norway and Ukraine were punished for victories over Macedonia and Malta while Turkey were rewarded for only managing two 1-1 draws with Latvia. The controversial policy is in place as numbers dictate that they’re is one group which only has 5 teams and therefore will not have a pot 6 team drawn into it. This case has brought the controversial rule under the spotlight as surely it has allowed an inferior Turkey through automatically and to rub salt into the wounds for Norway they were defeated by Hungary in the play-off.
I have dedicated a section of its own to undoubtedly the biggest shock of the campaign. Despite being managed by the vastly experienced Guus Hiddink and with a squad containing the likes of Robben, Van Persie and Sneijder the campaign was a complete disaster for the Netherlands. They were beaten 5 times in a group containing Czech Republic, Iceland, Turkey, Kazakhstan and Latvia and were eventually eliminated without even making the play-offs thanks to a 3-2 defeat at home to Czech Republic sealed by a comical own goal from Robin van Persie. With the inexperienced Danny Blind now in charge there is a long road of rebuilding ahead before the 2018 World Cup qualifiers kick off in September 2016, two qualifying failures in a row would be unthinkable for such a powerful footballing nation, their failure to qualify when it has seemingly never been easier must rank as one of the darkest days in Dutch football history.
One of the clear advantages of the new 24 team tournament is the extra places it affords to some of Europe’s ‘lesser nations,’ there is no better proof of this than the fact 5 countries will be making their European Championship debuts this summer. They are Iceland,a country with the same population as Coventry, Northern Ireland, Wales, Slovakia and most surprisingly Albania who saw off Denmark and Serbia to book their place. We do not yet know how they will perform but surely their feel good factor from their first qualification will only add to the atmosphere and feeling of the tournament.
Personally, I have thoroughly enjoyed this qualifying campaign more than any I can remember, if the actual tournament can maintain and better these standards we are in for a treat and we can show how football can be a uniting force in the face of horrors, such as the attacks witnessed in Paris this week.