They can’t thank Michel Platini enough in Holland. The President of the European Football Association (UEFA) had decisively pressed ahead with the increase of the European Championship finals to 24 teams despite many queries about the sense of the qualifying stage. Now, after just three rounds, the cumbersome obligatory task has become a sporting struggle for survival for many favourites. There have never before been so many upsets in the first few matches. Not only are World Cup champions Germany suffering from World Cup jet lag with only four points from three matches, in the Netherlands the clock shows “2 before 12” as Arjen Robben alarmingly stated.
After a 2-0 defeat in Iceland the Dutch papers described a “catastrophe” and “postman football”. The World Cup bronze medallists are already trailing six points behind Iceland and the Czech Republic in Group A. Consequently the new “Bondscoach” Guus Hiddink, who had led the “Elftal” into the 1998 World Cup semi-finals, has been heavily criticised at the start of his second term, with three defeats from four matches. It’s fortunate that the third-placed teams now retain a chance to qualify for France with the change of system.
The Dutch are in good company, however. Reigning European champions Spain suffered an embarrassing 2-1 defeat in Slovakia in Group C, costing former “Goalkeeper of the World” Iker Casillas his regular place. The Spanish fans were hardly reconciled with the follow-up 4-0 win in Luxembourg. With six points the Iberians are placed second behind the Slovaks.
The Swiss also failed to convince with two defeats in Group E, before San Marino became the right opponents to build up confidence producing a 4-0 victory. Switzerland’s new coach Vladimir Petkovic, the successor to Ottmar Hitzfeld, is already under pressure. Slovenia and Lithuania are Switzerland’s rivals for the European Championship ticket, for group leaders England are already too far ahead with nine points, even though their 1-0 over Estonia, with Wayne Rooney scoring the winner, was anything but brilliant.
Dull but successful, the Italians are managing their obligatory programme. After a 2-1 win over Azerbaijan, coached by former German national coach Berti Vogts, and a 1-0 in Malta, the “Squadra Azzurra” are on track for the European Championship finals with nine points in Group H, as are Croatia. Norway are also contenders with six points. Fifteen-year-old Martin Oedegaard made his debut during the 2-1 win over Bulgaria thus becoming the youngest player ever in a European Championship qualification.
Portugal changed their coach after a 1-0 loss to Albania. They achieved the turn-around under the new man, Fernando Santos, with a 1-0 in Denmark – thanks to World Footballer of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo (90th+5). But the cancellation of the match between Serbia and Albania produced the largest headlines in Group I. When a drone carrying a pan-Albanian flag flew over the stadium in Belgrade violence erupted.
The European Championship qualification is also proving bumpy for World Cup participants Greece and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Both are still without a win after three matches in Group F and B. Germany are not alone with their troubles.