The UEFA European Championship started as a four team’s tournament in 1960 but the evolution of the game has seen its format expanded roughly every two decades. Thus, 1980 was the first edition with eight teams, 1996 saw sixteen countries fight for glory in England and, next year, France will welcome 24 of the 54 nations that comprise the governing association of European football.
Naturally, this enlargement figured to decrease the competitive strength of the final tournament, which over the last decades has been considered even harder to win than the World Cup, but also drown out the interest over the 14 month-long qualifying campaign.
Yet, if the first proposition will have to wait until next summer to be evaluated, the second may have already been refuted due to a simple tweak instituted by UEFA. The new scheduling, which essentially enabled games continuously from Thursday to Tuesday, managed to establish a stretch where international football is, rightfully, at the forefront, enhanced the exposure on smaller nations and amplified the interest over the battles for qualifying spots, contributing to the most followed and stirring race in a long time.
Even with an easier path to book a place, some of Europe’s finest had to exert more to get in than they expected, including Russia, Belgium or World Champions Germany, and France’s tournament won’t be more than a mirage for two of the top seeds entering the group phase, Greece and the Netherlands. However, this article isn’t about the struggles of the heavyweights but about the exploits of the underdogs, those nations that hoped to rewrite their history and ended up thrilling their people.
I’ll tackle three countries that had been away from the spotlight for decades and that promise to colour next year’s tournament with the passion of their supporters, the strength of their play, and the shine of talented footballers that deserved the chance to set foot on a big international stage wearing their nation’s colours. They probably won’t lift the Henry Delaunay Cup after the 10th of July final on the Stade de France at Saint-Denis, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t get to know them better.
Less than two years after missing the chance to become the smallest country to qualify for a World Cup, falling short on the playoffs against Croatia, the nation with the Northernmost capital in Europe reached the finals of a major tournament for the first time.
Iceland could hardly have been more brilliant on their march to France, taking the victory from six of the first seven matches on qualification, including two famed triumphs over World Cup semi-finalists Netherlands, which capped an amazing improvement for a national team that was placed outside the top 100 on the FIFA rankings just five years ago. Since then, they appointed former Sweden’s coach Lars Lagerbäck, who is poised to retire in style next year and cede the position to current joint-manager Heimir Hallgrímsson, and became a tough side to overcome, incisive and daring on Reykjavík’s Laugardalsvöllur, solid and surgical away from home.
Although Iceland’s rise was helped by the presence of the first foreign national team manager in two decades, it is mainly about the important investments on infrastructures and training made on the country since the turn of the century. On an island faced with severe winter-related constraints, the escalation in full-sized halls and weather-resistant outdoor pitches has been remarkable, with newer artificial and natural grass fields allowing players and youngsters to train and improve their skills year-round, instead of toiling on gravel and indoor wooden floors. Similarly, the Icelandic Football Association (KSÍ) overhauled the entire coaching system, revolutionizing the education of the men responsible for teaching the new generations, with the number of UEFA Pro Licences increasing to levels that make their Scandinavian neighbours blush.
The outcome is a small country that is starting to export coaches, which follows the path set by much of the players that currently constitute the backbone of the national team, born between 1988 and 1992 and, thus, the first beneficiaries of the improvements on Iceland’s football structure. They comprise a true golden generation that first made waves by conquering a spot on the 2011 U-21 European Championship, with the likes of Gylfi Sigurdsson, Aron Gunnarsson and Kolbeinn Sigthórsson shining in Denmark.
Those names are now plying their trade on Europe’s best Leagues as they reach their peak years, and the senior squad benefits from their maturity and the experience of some older players, a mix that flourished to make proud their 300,000 compatriots.
The Icelandic squad that surprised during this qualifying campaign is essentially an efficient side assembled on a straightforward formation, a 4-4-2 that Lagerbäck and Hallgrímsson rarely change and that has produced well on both areas. Until they secured the qualification, only the Czech Republic could break Iceland’s stout defence, for three times during the pair’s encounters, and the Czech were also the only team in the group that topped Iceland’s 17 goals scored.
An impressive 3-0 win against Turkey at Reikjavik started Iceland’s journey to France but it wasn’t until the historic home triumph over the Netherlands, afforded by a Gylfi Sigurdsson’s brace, that the Nordic islanders showed the strength to severely importune the favourites for the qualifying spots.
To a loss in Plzen against the Czech, Iceland responded with three consecutive wins, including an encore on Dutch soil, to stand on the edge of advancing. A rainy, nervy 0-0 tie with last place Kazakhstan did the job and Iceland could finally relax, finishing the campaign by conceding a home draw with Latvia and a last-minute defeat, at Konya, with Turkey, the best third place team of all groups.
Formation and squad
Iceland’s stingy defensive performance begins on goalkeeper Hannes Þór Halldórsson (NEC Nijmegen, 31 years old), who arrived this season to the Dutch League after three years in Norway. Actually, it was only in 2011, shortly after assuming the reigns of Iceland’s goal, that Halldórsson became a professional footballer, leaving behind several years representing Icelandic clubs and working as a film director. Ögmundur Kristinsson (Hammarby IF, 26) replaced Halldórsson for the last qualifying match.
The team’s two centre-backs, not surprisingly, are both tall and vigorous, with former defensive midfielder Kári Árnason’s (Malmö FF, 32) career including stops in Sweden, Denmark, Scotland and England, before debuting on the Champions League this season for the title holders of his birth country. His partner Rágnar Sigurdsson (Krasnodar, 29) conquered titles in Sweden (IFK Göteborg) and Denmark (FC Copenhagen) until a move to Russia in 2014.
Right-back Birkir Sævarsson (Hammarby IF, 30) spent six years on Norwegian club Brann before joining the Stockholm-based squad and is a versatile defender that can player anywhere on the back due to his height (1.87m). He usually covers for the offensive raids of left-back Ari Skúlason (Odense BK, 28), a former midfielder that retreated on the field due to Lagerbäck’s efforts, and today adds a new dimension to Iceland’s game by providing pinpoint crosses and long balls.
Patrolling the centre of the midfield is captain Aron Gunnarson (Cardiff City, 26), who plays in England since 2008, first for Coventry City and later for a Welsh side that spent 2013-14 in the Premier League. The holding midfielder generally has the company of Gylfi Sigurdsson (Swansea City, 26), the team’s finest player, who can be moved to support a single striker when the game calls for more defensive consistency. The former Tottenham player defines most of his team’s plays, controls the pace of the game, and takes care of every free kick and penalty, having scored six goals during the Euro 2016 campaign, including three crucial strikes against the Netherlands.
If Sigurdsson has to move forward, Johann Gudmundsson (Charlton Athletic, 24) steps in, with the talented winger having returned to England after spending part of his formative years there before signing for AZ Alkmaar in 2009.
Appropriately nicknamed “Thor” in his homeland, Birkir Bjarnason (FC Basel, 27) is usually deployed on the right side of the midfield for the national team despite having played on the centre for his different clubs, a list that includes Viking FK, Standard Liège, Pescara and Sampdoria before joining the Swiss Champions this season. If Bjarnason tends to drift to the middle in order to help close down on defence, left winger Emil Hallfredsson (Hellas Verona, 31) provides width and a wealth of experience from six seasons performing in Italy. Defensive midfielder Ólafur Skúlason (Gençlerbirliği S.K., 32) is the man in hand should a suspension stop any of the regular midfielders from competing.
Up front, Iceland’s coaches like to pair two mobile forwards, with Jón Dadi Bödvarsson (Viking FK, 23) being the youngest player on the starting eleven and a versatile element that can also play as a winger. Kolbeinn Sigthórsson (FC Nantes, 25) is the biggest threat for opposing defences, having produced 18 goals in 30 games for the national team and 46 during his 5-year stay in the Netherlands, representing AZ Alkmaar and Ajax.
With only thirteen players collecting minutes in more than 5 games during the qualification campaign, it’s clear that the pool of talent available to the managing duo is limited but, nonetheless, the attack is the position with more alternatives.
Rúrik Gíslason (FC Nurnberg, 27) is usually the first man off the bench to change things offensively, but the return of veteran Eidur Gudjohnsen (Shijiazhuang Ever Bright FC, 37), last March against Kazakhstan, broadened the options. Iceland’s greatest player ever could be a key influence on the team in France, even if the former Barcelona and Chelsea man best times’ have been gone for a while.
Alfred Finnbogason (Olympiacos FC, 26) is another piece of the puzzle even though the complete affirmation of the Eredivisie’s best goal scorer in 2013-14 (SC Heerenveen, 29 goals) has taken more than expected. Finally, Vidar Orn Kjartarsson (Jiangsu Guoxin-Sainty, 25) was the runaway top goal scorer on the Norwegian league in 2014, and may soon join the battle for a starting position.
The 1958 World Cup marks the first and only time Wales had qualified for a major tournament, and if next year’s campaign delivers the same result, a quarter-final exit, the rugby-mad country will be pleased. After narrowly missing the presence at the 1994 World Cup and the 2004 European Championship, the current generation of Welsh players has already achieved almost unparalleled heights, with the national team ranked, as of the 1st of October, as the number eight team in the world. Four years ago, Wales was 117th, behind Haiti.
Iconic legends in Great Britain’s football history like Ian Rush, Mark Hughes and Ryan Giggs never had the chance to experience a big international showcase for their nation, but fortunately the same won’t (*knocks on wood*) happen to Gareth Bale, the latest world-class player born on the western part of the biggest British Island.
The Real Madrid star is absolutely essential, and the only player on the squad to tally more than ten goals on his career for the national team (his 19 goals in 54 games at age 26 are just nine off Ian Rush’s record), but there’s more talent leading the surge to prominence, including a core group between the ages of 25 and 28 that has grown together for a few years.
The entire roster is based in England (and Scotland) outside of his main star, and the coach, Chris Coleman, also made a career as a defender for several English outfits, earning 32 caps for his country. He debuted behind the bench for Fulham in 2003, one year after ending his career on the London side, and left after four seasons to assume Real Sociedad, where he stayed for just five months. He returned to guide Coventry City during a couple of years and had a short stint in Greece, for Larissa, before being appointed as Wales’s national coach in January 2012, after the death of Gary Speed, a friend and former teammate.
Coleman’s squad scored a paltry eleven goals in ten matches during the campaign, with seven of those coming off the head and feet of Bale, but that was enough to collect six victories because their generous defensive unit only allowed a single goal at home, and four in total. Two clean sheets against a Belgium team laden with offensive stars – one which scored 24 times on the other 8 games – is the definitive proof of Wales’ stoic resistance and team spirit.
The Welsh approach most games with a mixed 5-3-2/ 3-4-1-2 formation, based on a strong and populated central area, which frees the outside backs and leaves Aaron Ramsey with the responsibility to link play and support a front duo where Bale has “carte blanche” to roam and explore spaces behind the defence. When the team needs to score, Coleman shifts to a 4-3-3 or 4-4-2, with Bale on the left or behind a striker.
Someone who looked at Wales’ half-time scoreline (1-1) during their first qualifying encounter, at Andorra, would be hardly pressed to believe on a successful enterprise. And although Gareth Bale completed his brace on the remaining 45 minutes to give the visitors three points, his team would still take some time to get on track.
Nonetheless, a 0-0 against Bosnia at Cardiff, and a hard-fought victory over Cyprus, after playing almost all of the last 45 minutes with a man down, placed Wales on top.
The following three-game stretch turned the Welsh dream into a distinct possibility, with the team securing a scoreless draw in Brussels before the irrepressible Bale took over, finding the net twice and assisting on the other tally during a signature 3-0 triumph in Haifa, Israel. The winger then bagged the lone strike to defeat the Belgians in Cardiff, and secured a dramatic late win in Cyprus with a bullet header.
Wales couldn’t clinch the spot in France at home, against Israel, after being held to a frustrating 0-0 draw, but the wait of more than 50 years was finally over on the next fixture. Despite a loss at Bosnia, Cyprus handed Wales the much awaited qualification by surprising Israel.
Formation and squad
Goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey (Crystal Palace, 28) is the undisputable starter for Wales since his 53 caps are exactly 53 more than the total of his two backups. The former Wolverhampton Wanderers goalie also played a lot at the club level from 2007 to 2014 but, since his move to the Premier League side, he has warmed the bench more times than not.
Wales defence is marshalled, be it on a configuration of four or five men, by captain Ashley Williams (Swansea City, 31), who also wears the armband for the Swans, the side he represents since 2008. Born in England but of Welsh ascendency, James Chester (West Bromwich Albion, 26) has secured a place alongside Williams since his debut last year, when he was yet a member of Hull City, the club he joined from Manchester United in 2011.
Rounding out the back three, when needed, is veteran James Collins (West Ham United, 31) or one of the team’s natural left backs, either Neil Taylor (Swansea City, 26) or Ben Davies (Tottenham Hotspur, 22). The pair competed for a spot on Swansea’s defence before the latter moved to London in 2014, but don’t have the same problem on the national team, since Coleman can move either to the centre or up to the midfield. Chris Gunter (Reading FC, 26) is a right back with Premier League experience and already more than 60 caps amassed, while Ashley Williams (Fulham FC, 24) backs him up and can also play as a left back or on the midfield.
The trio at the heart of the field has Joe Ledley (Crystal Palace, 28), a player with Premier League and Champions League experience for Celtic under his belt, as the most physical weapon and defensive anchor, while Joe Allen (Liverpool, 25) is a more refined midfielder that has struggled to live up to the £15 million paid to Swansea in 2012. Aaron Ramsey (Arsenal, 24) is a box-to-box threat that pushes the ball forward, and surprises opponents with his timely appearances to set up his teammates or pounce on goal.
When one of these three players is absent, Andy King (Leicester City, 26) is the next in line and Coleman can thrust an element with a knack for goal, having scored 57 times over nine years for Leicester, a record for a “Foxes” midfielder. David Edwards (Wolverhampton Wanderers, 30) and David Vaughan (Nottingham Forest, 32) are long-time members of the squad that provide depth to the sector, while youngsters Jonathan Williams (Crystal Palace, 22) and Emyr Huws (Huddersfield Town, 22) are slowly finding their space on the main team.
On the attack, the attention is all on the mesmerizing runs, shots, tricks and turns of Gareth Bale (Real Madrid, 26), but the Cardiff native can also be extremely dangerous from thunderous free-kicks or even bullying opponents on the air. Besides Bale, Hal Robson-Kanu (Reading, 26) is another arrow pointed towards the opponent’s net, as the former Arsenal schoolboy usually plays as a winger at the club-level.
Simon Church (Milton Keynes Dons, 26) and Sam Vokes (Burnley, 25) are pure strikers, but their underwhelming career goal-scoring record turns them into regular bench fixtures for the national team, since Coleman prefers the services of winger David Cotterill (Birmingham City, 26) whenever he switches to a three-man unit up front centered by Robson-Kanu. The talented George Williams (Fulham, 20) has already collected some minutes, and he figures to see his profile raised over the next few years.
It won’t be a debut, like for Iceland, and the country did not have to wait almost 60 years to taste a major international tournament, like Wales, but this doesn’t mean that Austria’s qualification for the Euro 2016 isn’t a great achievement. After all, the country had never qualified for the European Championship – played part as a co-host in 2008 – and the last time they could pop the bottles to celebrate reaching a tournament was in 1998, on France’s World Cup.
For a nation that finished fourth at the 1934 World Cup, and third in the 1954 edition, this is a long time, and the first goal in France will be securing a competition triumph that escapes since 1990. Indeed, the last time they went past the first round is an even more remote memory, dating back to the 1982 World Cup.
Some of the biggest names in Austria’s footballing history were strikers, including Toni Polster, the all-time best goal scorer for the national team with 44 goals, and former Barcelona man Hans Krankl, but the current roster is much more about a group of players that thrived on the youth Austrian rosters, and achieved recognition with the fourth place at the 2007 U-20 World Cup. Those players are now fully developed as key members of the senior squad and the national team is reaping the benefits, even though their transcendental talent is 23-year-old David Alaba, who became the youngest player ever to debut for Austria back in 2009, at the age of 17.
Alaba joined Bayern Munich as a teenager, and this is a path that many Austrians follow early on, with almost the entire roster having played in Germany at some point in their careers, but the national team has also profited from the experience on the Premier League of names like Marko Arnautovic and Christian Fuchs. Thus, most of the side can relate and implement the technical and tactical concepts that dominate contemporary football, including a suffocating pressing that made several victims during the campaign.
Looking from the baseline is Coach Marcel Koller, who orchestrated an attractive style of play based on movement and pace, which extracts the best from his creative offensive midfielders. The 54-year-old Swiss represented his national team as a midfielder in 56 occasions and became a manager in 1997, leading the fortunes of Grasshoppers, Cologne and Bochum, among others, before being appointed as Austrian coach in 2011. Koller’s work wasn’t enough to earn a spot on the 2014 World Cup, trailing Germany and Sweden on the qualifying group, but the Austrian’s showed the promised that materialized in a wonderful campaign towards booking the trip to France.
Twenty-two goals scored and only five conceded, nine wins in ten matches, and a couple of signature triumphs on the grounds of their two strongest rivals, tell the tale of 13 months to remember for a country that rediscovered the love for the game following the adventures of a revived squad.
The Austrians are a team structured on a balanced 4-2-3-1, which thrives on the unpredictability and positional swaps between their three attacking midfielders along with the relentless work of Alaba, used on the national team as a box-to-box midfielder. On the other hand, Austria’s Achilles heel is a defence that lacks speed, even if their opponents couldn’t take advantage, since the first goal suffered on open play came only on injury time eight games into the campaign.
Austria only dropped two points on the road to the Euro 2016, and those were courtesy of Sweden on the inaugural match, a 1-1 draw in Vienna. The team followed that up with three consecutive one goal victories, the most important coming at home against Russia, when a late strike by Rubin Okotie acted as the decider on a game that Alaba missed with an injury. The Bayern Munich man would also fail the trip to Moscow, and his teammates managed to pull through once again, this time due to a Marc Janko’s tally.
Another narrow win, this time over Moldova in Vienna, set up a crucial encounter at Solna, Sweden, and the Austrians didn’t squander the chance to punch the ticket at the first opportunity, embarrassing their opponents with a categorical 4-1 score line after a sensational performance. To end the campaign, an injury-time winner in Montenegro gave Austria its eight consecutive triumph, a number that would rise to nine after beating Liechtenstein on the last fixture.
Formation and squad
Austria’s Number One is Robert Almer (Austria Wien, 31), an experienced shot stopper that spent the last four seasons in Germany playing for Fortuna Düsseldorf, Energie Cottbus and Hannover 96, even if he never turned into an unquestionable starter for any of the sides.
The defence mixes youth and experience. The full backs are Florian Klein (VFB Stuttgart, 28), who moved from Red Bull Salzburg to become the first-team right back for the German outfit, and captain Christian Fuchs (Leicester City, 29), whose move this season to the Premier League came after seven years on the Bundesliga, the last four for Schalke 04, where he created danger by flinging long free-throws. Meanwhile, on the centre, the talented Aleksandar Dragović (Dynamo Kiev, 24) is the leader of the sector, having flourished for Basel before joining the Ukrainian powerhouse, where his play is attracting several English top clubs.
To play besides Dragović, Marcel Koller alternated between the lanky (1.94m) Sebastian Prödl (Watford, 28), a recent signee of the Premier League side after seven season on Werder Bremen, and the youngster Martin Hinteregger (Red Bull Salzburg, 23), a regular fixture on the perennial Austrian Champions. Kevin Wimmer (Tottenham Hotspur, 22), who joined the London outfit from Cologne this summer, is waiting on the wings, while right back György Garics (SV Darmstadt 98, 31) and left back Markus Suttner (FC Ingolstadt 04, 28) provide cover for Klein and Fuchs, respectively.
David Alaba (Bayern Munich, 23) has executed plenty of roles since Pep Guardiola took over the Bavarian Giants, and his versatility translates to the Austrian side, where he’s not viewed as a left-back, the position he prospered in. His energetic style, awareness and sublime skill bless Austria’s central midfield, and he’s the dynamo behind the team’s success after contributing with four goals in eight matches during the campaign. Alaba’s partner on the middle of the park is Julian Baumgartlinger (FSV Mainz 05, 27), a strong tackler who left home at age 13 to join TSV 1860 Munich’s youth academy.
Alternatives to the midfield duo include the physical Stefan Ilsanker (RB Leipzig, 26), the prototypical defensive midfielder, and Christoph Leitgeb (Red Bull Salzburg, 30), a product of Sturm Graz’s academy. Veli Kavlak (Beşiktaş J.K., 26), who moved to his parents’ country of origin in 2011, is also frequently called.
The chemistry between the trio that collaborates behind the lone forward is palpable, and thus coach Koller rarely dismisses the services of a group that combined to hit the net eight times during the journey to France. Martin Harnik (VFB Stuttgart, 28) brings it from the right and the Hamburg-born winger confirms for the national team the credentials of a career solidly built on the Bundesliga, which includes four dozens of goals collected for the southwest German club.
On the other flank evolves the mercurial Marko Arnautović (Stoke City, 26), the bad boy of Austria’s football, a winger as talented as inconsistent during stints for Twente, Inter Milan and Werder Bremen. Zlatko Junuzović (Werder Bremen, 28) plays as a right-winger for his club but, on the national team, is a classic Number 10 with a penchant for free-kick taking.
Marcel Sabitzer (RB Leipzig, 21) is the first man called upon when something needs to be changed on the attacking midfield, while Valentino Lazaro (Red Bull Salzburg, 19), of Angolan and Greek roots, has been viewed as the next big thing in Austrian football since debuting on the domestic league at the age of 16 years and 224 days, earlier than anyone else. Jakob Jantscher (FC Luzern, 26) fights for minutes and opportunities with the two young prospects. Andreas Weimann (Derby County, 24) signed for Aston Villa at age 16, and became one of Austria’s prominent footballers acquiring more than 100 Premier League appearances, but he’s currently removed from Koller’s regular selections.
On the attack, the starter is still the veteran Marc Janko (FC Basel, 32), whose seven goals in the qualification paced the team. A former record-breaking goal machine for Red Bull Salzburg that also played in the Netherlands, Portugal and Turkey, Janko seems revitalized after a stint in Australia, and is now an important member of the Swiss Champions. Rubin Okotie (TSV 1860 Munich, 28), born in Karachi, Pakistan, has been less prolific throughout his career, but his two goals on the campaign directly offered four points.
Lukas Hinterseer (FC ingolstadt 04, 22) is currently the third man on the pecking order, and his morphologic conditions (1.92m) anticipate that he can become Janko’s successor, while Marco Djuricin (Red Bull Salzburg, 22), currently on loan at Brentford searching for competitive minutes, is another piece of Austria’s future up front.
(Albania and Northern Ireland are also newcomers but didn’t make the cut this time. They’ll be featured later. Eventually.)