The field of participants for the 2016 European Championship finals is getting outlined, five of the 24 teams have been determined after the two September match days in the qualification. Besides the automatically qualified hosts, France, England, Iceland, the Czech Republic and Austria have purchased their tickets. After the seventh and eighth rounds the big football nations such as Germany, Spain, Italy and Portugal all are missing just one point in order to ascertain their participation in the finals to be held between June 10 and July 10, 2016. The EURO qualifiers will be concluded with the ninth and tenth rounds in October.
More than 75,000 fans made the pilgrimage to the great EURO party at the revered Wembley Stadium, and celebrated a new goal-scoring record by Wayne Rooney & Co. during the unimportant match against Switzerland (2-0) on Tuesday evening. Euphoria has returned to the home of football, England, as the team of team manager Roy Hodgson had already booked the ticket to the European Championship in France three days earlier when beating San Marino 6-0 and achieving the optimum with seven wins from seven matches.
A year ago such enthusiasm was hardly in the mind. The elimination of the “Three Lions” after the first round at the World Cup in Brazil was accompanied by scoff and mockery in the over critical press, and ticket sales for international matches plummeted. Now comes the reconciliation, with Rooney playing a major part. The star Manchester United striker scored seven goals in the current qualification. His last goal was his 50th in a national shirt, overtaking legend Sir Bobby Charlton as the record goalscorer. And Rooney immediately declared his love for team England: “I will play for England as long as the coach wants me”. In the dressing room he made a short, but very emotional speech. Hodgson gave him a national shirt with the “50” on the back.
The footballers of Iceland have also earned legendary status. They ascertained their place, together with the Czech Republic in Group A, among the 24-team field at the European Championship. A rather unspectacular goalless draw with Kazakhstan was sufficient to qualify the team representing the 330,000 Icelandic people for a major tournament for the first time ever. The head of governmentSigmundur David Gunnlaugsson even considered declaring that red-letter day of September 6 a national holiday. But the 1-0 win over the wobbling World Cup bronze medallists Netherlands was much more remarkable. The hot favourites suffered even worse with a follow-up 3-0 defeat in Turkey, meaning the Oranje can’t even reach a play-off place on their own.
Attention is drawn to the qualification of the so-called small nations. Such as Austria, who in Group G actively qualified for a European Championship for the first time, with an exhilarating 4-1 victory in Sweden. In 2008 the Alpine republic was a co-host so automatically qualified for their first ever European Championship participation.
And further outsiders are knocking on the EURO door – also thanks to the new 24-team format. British nations in particular for, in addition to England, Wales and Northern Ireland may also start planning. The Welsh, centred around 100-million-man Gareth Bale, had to delay their European Championship party after a goalless draw with Israel. But the top team in Group B should gain the needed point at the latest in their concluding home match against Andorra.
The initial position for Northern Ireland in Group F is similar, as they hold a four-point advantage over third-placed Hungary. A late equaliser by Kyle Lafferty to make it 1-1 against the Magyars in added time was very valuable. “Kyle who?”, they will ask at Norwich City. The striker has not yet played a single minute with the Premier League club this season, but he has scored seven goals for Northern Ireland. A fourth team could join the three teams from the British Isles. In Group D, topped by Germany, either Scotland or neighbours Ireland might reach at least a play-off place.
And the big ones? Title holders Spain need no longer worry after a 1-0 win in Macedonia, and the same holds true for European runners-up Italy, even though the “Squadra Azzurra” did not overly impress their own fans with two below par 1-0 wins against Malta and Bulgaria. But as long as 37-year-old veteran goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, who earned his 150th cap, continues to save the day, the minimalist tactics may well work out in the future – perhaps also in France. It’s quite certain that World Footballer Cristiano Ronaldo, and World Cup champions Germany, will also be there. After a 1-0 win in Albania his Portugal need just one more point.