The major international meetings in any sport are always a vibrant festival of colour, national pride and comradery where the interest spreads way beyond the action taking place on the field. Yet, for many fans of the game, whether they’re backing a particular team or not, these tournaments turn out to also stand as an excellent opportunity to expand their football knowledge while they get to watch players, teams and coaches hailing from faraway sides.
In particular, these are perfect occasions for the players to showcase their talent to a broad audience and elevate their profile, eventually leading up to additional ventures on their current employer, a pay raise or a dream transfer for a club with further ambitions.
Therefore, the tales of the breakout players are an indelible legacy of every major competition. From the top of my head, I can point out the German midfield duo of Sami Khedira and Mesut Özil at the 2010 World Cup, which ended up moving to Real Madrid shortly after; Jordi Alba leaving Valencia for Barcelona after dazzling for Spain at the Euro 2012, the same competition that set in motion Mario Mandzukic’s transfer to Bayern Munich; or the fact that the 2014 World Cup contributed immensely to both Daley Blind and Marcos Rojo signing by Manchester United, as well as James Rodriguez’s €80M swap of Monaco for Real Madrid.
Obviously countless other names have benefitted from these events, even if their destinies weren’t as glamorous as full-fledged Champions League contenders (+ Man United), with players moving in droves from peripheral leagues to mid-table sides involved in the Big Five leagues.
Thus, my expectation here is to lift the curtain on the talents that may surprise the vast majority of football fans following the tournament: those that during the season restrict themselves to accompanying their domestic leagues, the odd high-stakes encounter from foreign championships, and a slew of the Continent’s giants in mid-week European matches.
While researching for this post, I promptly understood that the goal of singling out a name for all 24 nations participating in the competition entailed a plethora of challenges on such a heterogenic field, therefore the criteria I intended to respect had to be circumvented from time to time. However, I’ll look to sum up the broad guidelines:
- Naturally, I opted to discard players from Europe’s elite clubs. And I’m not only speaking of the Barcelona’s and Bayern Munich’s, but also squads like Borussia Dortmund and Atlético Madrid, which have recently turned into media darlings because of relevant international campaigns.
- As far as possible, every player is under the age of 25, with notable exceptions when some heavyweights (France, Spain, Germany) are considered due to a lack of options to fulfil other criteria.
- I tried to weight down candidates that already represent Premier League or La Liga sides – the most viewed Leagues in the continent – even if sometimes it is virtually impossible (Greetings to Wales and both Irelands!)
It goes without saying that my own preferences and football “expertise” greatly influenced some of the picks. For instance, a guy like Turkey’s Hakan Çalhanoğlu – or Russia’s Oleg Shatov – has come under my own radar a couple of times, and logically I went on another direction, but you it may see it radically different.
Well, time to put a lid on this introduction. To quell the extension of the assignment, on this post are introduced my selections from Groups A and B, with two more parts to be dispatched over the next few days.
No better way to start than with one of the names that doesn’t fit much of what I was looking for!
France: Dimitri Payet (West Ham United, England)
An outstanding Premier League debut season compelled Didier Deschamps to call up the mercurial winger for his first international tournament – almost six years after his 1st cap for Les Blues -and the 29-year-old’s odds of breaking into the starting eleven are growing by the day. Thus, with the inaugural match of the Euro 2016 rapidly approaching for the hosts, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Payet’s mind has wandered recently to his troubled football beginnings, when the dream of becoming a professional footballer seemed gone at age 16.
Being cut from Le Havre’s youth academy forced a return to his homeland, the Indian Ocean Island of Reunion, but Nantes would give him a second chance and he didn’t look back. Over the next decade, the tricky midfielder asserted himself as one of the most entertaining performers on the French League while representing Saint- Étienne, Lille and finally Olympique Marseille, where his game reached new heights. Under Marcelo Bielsa’s guidance, Payet tortured defences, becoming the league’s premier assist man, and West Ham quickly snapped him up for a fee of €15M that’s already been termed a steal. Drifting across the front line, the Frenchman became the Londoner’s forerunner on an unlikely attempt to catch a Champions League pass, contributing with 9 goals and 12 assists, countless displays of superior ball-playing flair, and remarkable free-kick expertise.
His ability to find pockets of space inside enemy lines coming from the left flank, and from there link up with teammates and forge scoring chances could be the difference for a French team whose 4X3X3 does not include a true playmaker. Going with the direct approach and superior pace of Anthony Martial or Kingsley Coman can be tempting, but they’ll need the support of the outside backs, Sagna and Evra, to make a difference, and both have already lost a step. Alternatively, with Payet (and Antoine Griezmann) overloading the center of the park and complementing the athleticism of Matuidi and Pogba, France figures to be able to manhandle every opponent.
Romania: Nicolae Stanciu (Steaua Bucharest)
Romania scored a miserable total of 11 goals in 10 qualifying matches, which is astonishing to notice before you even realize that a player with 4 goals obtained in 5 international appearances was never selected for the squad.
After debuting with a makeshift national unit in 2013, Stanciu endured a strange exile until being named for last March’s friendly encounters. He responded by pounding a long range shot into the back of Lithuania’s net on a 1-0 victory and, a few days later, earned man of the match honours against Spain… In the blink of an eye, a starting spot as the offensive midfielder on Anghel Iordanescu’s side was virtually guaranteed.
Recruited by Steaua at FC Vaslui in 2013, the 23-year-old quickly became a regular for the Romanian powerhouse, appearing, for example, on all 2014-15 Champions League group stage matches, and the Euro 2016 seems like the ideal plateau to prove that’s he’s ready to move abroad. On a team that boasts several nifty ball handlers, Stanciu’s quick feet, sharp technical skills and willingness to defy defenders off the dribble have produced comparisons with the legendary Gheorghe Hagi, but he’ll certainly be happy to achieve half of his countryman’s success.
Capable of slotting on a playmaking role, free to roam behind the striker, or driving inside from the right wing, Stanciu’s scoring touch was also in display for Steaua this season, amassing 14 goals in 38 matches. The burly midfielder will receive the reigns of Romania’s 4X2X3X1, and they’ll need his talent to prosper against top notch opponents.
Albania: Elseid Hysaj (SSC Napoli, Italy)
Lorik Cana may be Albania’s inspirational leader and the country’s football idol, but Elseid Hysaj may soon usurp many of those accomplishments.
The full back’s career start is another interesting tale that mixes the right amount of fortune and sacrifice. His father, Gëzim, immigrated to Italy in the 90’s to be able to provide for his family, which remained at home, and ended up befriending football agent Marco Piccioli. A few years later, when Elseid reached the age of 14, Piccioli arranged several trials for the youngster and Empoli liked what they saw, inviting Hysaj to leave the city of Shkodër, where he grew up, and join their academy. The Albanian surged through the ranks, debuted in the senior squad in 2012, and was one of the main standouts of the team that avoided relegation in 2014-15.
Mauricio Sarri left Empoli to coach Napoli in that summer and, in exchange of €5M, his right-back followed him. Despite the jump to a Serie A title contender, Hysaj was an indisputable starter all year long, logging over 3600 minutes of action across all competitions. On the way, he impressed the boisterous Napoli tiffosi with his poise in possession, notable stamina to move forward and track back in time, and proficiency in delivering pin-point crosses and long range passes.
Also extremely competent on the left side, the 22-year-old’s familiarity with high-stakes games will be relied upon by an Albanian team that may risk being in awe of this historical occasion. After the tournament, expect Hysaj to turn into one of the most sought-after full backs in the game, with Atlético Madrid and Chelsea reportedly already looking to secure the versatile defender.
Switzerland: Breel Embolo (FC Basel)
After an injury-riddled end of the season, Embolo’s place on Switzerland’s 23-man roster was seriously threatened, but fortunately one of Europe’s most exciting prospects should be able to take the pitches of France.
The Cameroon-born phenomenon debuted for the national team only one month after his 18th birthday and it’s easy to see why. Standing at 1.85m, his blend of strength, power and pace already strikes fear into defenders’ hearts no matter if he plays as a mobile center forward or a winger, and the numbers (31 goals in 90 matches for Basel) prove that we’ve just seen the tip of his potential.
Embolo’s idol is Mario Balotelli and the comparisons, apart from the work ethic perspective, seem in hand, with the 19-year-old showcasing agility and athleticism alongside great composure and ball control. He’s a clever player off the ball, timing his runs to explore spaces behind the defence, but Embolo is also not afraid to beat the opposition drawing on his explosive speed and advanced dribbling ability. All these attributes have naturally attracted a number of high-profile followers, with an offer of €27M from Wolfsburg already rebuffed by Basel.
Due to a lack of match fitness, Embolo should begin the tournament on the bench, but expect him to be the first option when Coach Vladimir Petkovic needs to change things upfront. From Switzerland’s offensive trio only Xherdan Shaquiri is untouchable, with left winger Admir Mehmedi or striker Haris Seferovic in line to give way for the prodigious forward.
England: Dele Alli (Tottenham Hotspurs)
Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham emerged as the most attractive side on the English Premier League in 2015-16, and Roy Hodgson duly took notice, arranging his squad around a backbone transplanted from the North London outfit. As many as five players should feature on the “Three Lions” ideal lineup, and of those none experienced such a fledging rise as Bamidele Jermaine Alli.
The 20-year-old of Nigerian origins has been precocious since debuting for his hometown club, Milton Keynes Dons, at age 16, and he was only 18 when Tottenham secured his services in the middle of a 16-goal season on England’s League One, the third-string of competition. A few months later, as he joined the top-flight squad, only five matches were necessary to carve a position on Pochettino’s midfield duo, and the rest is history. In 33 Premier League appearances, Alli netted 10 goals, provided 9 assists – many as a product of a burgeoning partnership with striker Harry Kane – and arose as the nation’s new “box-to-box” sensation, outscoring the teenage marks of Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Paul Scholes in route to receive the PFA Young Player of the Year Award.
A brave, energetic central midfielder that yearns to tackle, press up the field and move forward to attack the box or slip behind the backline, Alli’s carefree attitude emboldens the youngest roster at the Euro 2016. Whether he’s deeply embedded in the fray to recover the ball, brashly nutmegging adversaries for fun, or manufacturing scoring changes at absurd rates, much of England’s lofty expectations rest on the slender shoulders of its most exciting prospect.
Russia: Aleksandr Golovin (CSKA Moscow)
On a Russian roster that is the second oldest in the competition, only Golovin is yet to commemorate the 25th anniversary. With their World Cup just two years away, that aging core should be a concern, especially on defence because Vasili Berezutski (33-years-old) and Sergey Ignashevich (36) still form the preferred central partnership. Nevertheless, the sun shines brighter on the midfield, where – despite the late withdrawal of Alan Dragoev – Zenit’s Oleg Shatov (25) and FK Krasnodar’s Pavel Mamaev (27) are ready to step into the lineup, previewing the emergence of Aleksandr Golovin.
A former futsal player, the native of the region of Kemerovo chose to join the youth ranks of CSKA in 2012, and one year later was part of Under-17 National team that won the European Championship. His first cameo appearances for the Moscow outfit came in 2014, and since then his playing time has gradually increased, culminating on the senior national team debut in June 2015. The creative midfielder scored against Belarus and nine months later, on his second match, repeated the feat, something never done before by a Russian International.
Leonid Slutsky, who accumulates the role of national manager with that of CSKA’s coach, relied more on Golovin since the calendar turned to 2016, and almost 1000 minutes of action underlined how his vision, ability to read the game and dead ball competence could be of use for Russia. Ideally suited for the role of playmaker, Golovin is also able to manage the game from deeper, where he can explore dangerous through balls and set up teammates. Inexperience is a dagger on his chances of accruing significant minutes but, if Russia struggles, Slutsky knows first-hand what he can bring to the table.
Wales: Jonathan Williams (Crystal Palace, England)
Trying to dig gold on a mine that is pretty much operated by Gareth Bale plus a bunch of working bees is virtually impossible. Wales’ roster is stoked with middle-age players that ply their trade for several English Premier League clubs, and eventually no one else stands out among Craig Coleman’s favourites. Thereby, I had to settle for a former wunderkind who has stagnated and wasn’t exactly a lock to even make the 23-man group.
Jonathan Williams was developed at Crystal Palace’s academy and graduated as a 17-year-old, piling up 16 appearances for the Championship-calibre team on a season truncated by a broken leg. The following campaign, 2012-13, he was an important member of the squad that achieved promotion to the Premier League but then, contrary to the expectations, simply proved insufficient for the increased level of play. He was loaned to Ipswich Town in early 2014, and similar deals were brokered with Nottingham Forest and MK Dons over the last two seasons, yet Williams always failed to convince.
At age 22, in a total of 101 professional games (12 Premier League appearances), the left-footed attacking-minded midfielder collected 2(!) goals and 5 assists, to which can be added 12 caps (no goals) for the national team. In face of Wales’s shallow pool of players, Williams has been summoned by Coleman to provide depth at several midfield positions, and at the Euro 2016 the opportunity may arrive for a player that, at his best, reveals exquisite technical skills and a trickery game. Maybe the thrill of experiencing such a grand stage will unlock his potential.
Slovakia: Ondrej Duda (Legia Warsaw, Poland)
Led by the likes of Martin Skrtel, Juraj Kucka and Marek Hamsik on its his first European Championships as an independent nation, Slovakia’s starting eleven and the rigid 4X2X3X1 employed by coach Jan Kozak are pretty much set in stone by now. That leaves the bold Ondrej Duda as the wildcard to be used later.
The 21-year-old posted an auspicious national team debut in March 2015, scoring the lone goal on a friendly match against rivals Czech Republic, yet he hasn’t been able to break regularly into the lineup (10 caps) and gain the relevance he enjoys at the club level. A product of FC Kosice’s youth set-up, Duda was sold to Legia in 2014 for just €300m and has flourished at the Polish League, honing his skills to a level where his talent calls for bigger things. The pace and virtuosity he exhibits with the ball have earned comparisons with Argentina’s Angel Di Maria, and Duda’s elegant style of play demands freedom to create and break into the opposing defences, even if his finishing ability is a work in progress (only 5 goals in 43 matches in 2015-16). Right-footed and equally able to occupy any position on the offensive sector, he looks destined to emulate the illustrious career of Marek Hamsik, and sooner or later a move to a top league will materialize, with several Premier League clubs closely tracking his development.
The man they call “Dudinho” for his Brazilian-like technique seems set to lead Slovakia in the future, but don’t underestimate what he can bring off the bench at the Euro 2016.