As excitement builds over the summers upcoming 3-games-a-day euro football smorgasbord, the ‘en vogue’ comment seems to be that this will be the last great European Football Championship. According to many of the great and good amongst the football media the expansion from 16 to 24 teams will lead to a host of minnows and one sided matches cluttering up the tournaments early stages. This line of thought in my, and thus by extension Some Goals’ opinion is completely wrong, and here is why.
Interesting and intriguing match-ups taking place three times a day. Summer tournament group stages are one of the highlights of the football-on-TV-year. 24 teams means more games, more stories, and the horror maths of reducing 24 to 16 or 8 will keep the groups alive until the end. That said I doubt anyone is against the idea of a little bit more international football. It is the issue of one sided ties, and minnows making up the numbers that seems to be causing most consternation, early games spent watching one sided thrashings as the Euro Elite take on a team of Montenegrin lumberjacks.
So, as the main proof of why a 24 team European Championship can only be a good thing, it seems appropriate to take a look at the teams that would be ‘making up the numbers’ this summer had Mr Platini got his act together a few years earlier. Turkey, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro and Estonia lost in the playoffs at the end of last year with Turkey being the obvious ‘not minnow’ of the four. It seems this undeniably talented squad have stuck to their recent trend of either not qualifying for, or lighting up international tournaments. Perhaps they don’t quite have the players of 2002 but the current squad has changed little since they made the semi finals of Euro 2008. With the emergence of Hamit Altintop and Nuri Sahin on the world stage since then, this is a team that really should have been busy this June.
I accept at this point that none of the other three playoff losers have never been to a major tournament, however to overlook them for this reason misses the point entirely. How many times have first timers bought a much needed breath of fresh air to the summers antics. I will admit now that I know little of the Estonia squad, other than they came through a tough group ahead of Serbia and Slovenia, who had both come into the qualifiers off the back of respectable world cup performances. Bosnia Herzegovina & Montenegro however, both have young talented squads and footballing populations who are waiting for their chance to try and repeat the Croatian heroics of France 98.
Montenegro were a thorn in England’s side throughout the qualification process, and their tilt at top spot only came unstuck when they came up against a resurgent Wales towards the end of the group stages. Whilst the teams performance was exceptional for a country only 5 years old and with a populace of 700,000, the quality of players at their disposal, Mirko Vucinic heading up a squad containing the emerging talents of Stevan Jovetic (7 goals for Fiorentina) and Man City’s Stefan Savic, suggests they are capable of repeating and probably bettering these feats in years to come. They certainly never looked out of their depth on the hallowed turf of Wembley.
The story is much the Same for Bosnia & Herzegovina, although their squad has been knocking at the door for several years now. Edin Dzeko’s Premiership exploits have made him a household name in England, but he would be backed up by one of Serie A’s brightest young things in Miralem Pjanic and a supporting cast that are thriving at some of Europes bigger clubs. Indeed Bosnia more than held there own in a drawn out battle with the French for automatic qualification, a battle they were seemingly winning as they led France into the last 10 minutes in Paris, until Samir Nasri slotted home a dubiously awarded penalty. They then dragged themselves back into the playoff tie with Portugal despite being down to 10 men, pressing for a third away goal that would have taken them through before complete implosion in the least 10 minutes of a roller coaster game in Lisbon. A game whose 6-2 scoreline completely failed to reflect the 90 minutes of football that had led to it. Clearly then the Bosnians are no pushovers.
In order to complete the list it is a case of pick any four from Belgium, Armenia, Serbia, Romania, Hungary, Israel, Switzerland, Norway and Scotland. Whilst a good argument could be made for most of these sides here at Some Goals we are plumping for Belgium, Armenia, Serbia & Switzerland.
Serbia may have gone out in the group stages of the last world cup but they beat the Germans along the way, a feat few sides have achieved in recent years, They have a core of quality players and whilst they may lack a standout star at the moment, this is a country that is used to seeing its players on the highest stage.
Switzerland have been consistent performers at the last few summer tournaments, with the easily forgotten win over world champions elect Spain in South Africa being the highlight. However since 2010 several outstanding young players have come through of the back of exceptional performances at youth level. Indeed a glance over the current Swiss squad list reveals the presence of Bayer Leverkusen’s bright young thing Erin Derdiyok and current Champions League flavour of the month Xherdan Shaqiri. Indeed this could be one of Europe’s most exciting teams over the next few years with not a single player over 30 currently included.
This talk of bright young things brings us to the Belgians. Some Goals’ esteemed captain believes them to be the most exciting prospect in Europe right now. They have an exceptionally young squad littered with some of the continents best young players. Eden Hazzard has been exceptional for quite some time now, and Axel Witsel and Jan Vertonghen are registering frequent blips on the transfer radars of the continents big boys. If Romelo Lukaku can live up to his promise at Chelsea and begin to gain regular caps alongside Hazzard the Belgians could have one of the most imposing and spectacular strike partnerships in the game.
And so finally that brings us on to Armenia, a great unknown quanitity. Those of us that were paying attention to such things noticed this squad come out of nowhere in the last 18 months. Indeed Armenia’s home form throughout the campaign was exceptional up until the Irish, along with a boatload of pressure rolled in to Yerevan on the final matchday. This is a country that has never even come close to qualifying in the past, yet this campaign a young squad playing mostly in Russia, Ukraine or the Armenian league achieved convincing home and away wins over world-cup-last-sixteeners Slovakia, held Russia (I’m sure that was a huge result in those parts) and only sucumbed to the Irish after some questionable refereeing decisions went against them. This is a squad that has not only being playing good attacking football but would perhaps bring back a little romance to the sport.
So there you have, a convincing case made for all eight. Indeed, every team listed above has secured impressive results against some of Europes established powers over the last few years. There is a lot of good football happening on this continent, we should include it non?