Football

Women’s Euro 2017 Preview: Group D

Full of geographic curiosities by congregating the two Iberian countries (Portugal and Spain) and two of the nations that comprise the United Kingdom (England and Scotland), Group D may ultimately fail to deliver much in the way of drama since the strongest sides are expected to bully the two debutants. Consequently, it’s entirely up to Portugal and injury-ravaged Scotland the task of spoiling the pre-written narrative.

England

Despite having previously reached the final at the Euro 2009, England’s campaign at the 2015 World Cup – where they overcome Germany to secure bronze – has been considered the dawn of a new era for the “The Lionesses”.

A period where England is a full-fledged candidate for every title in women’s football on the strength of a fully professional national league (FA WSL) backed by the deep pockets of famous English Premier League outfits. The likes of Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City are heavily represented in the experienced English roster, and with that comes the realisation there’s no reason to acquiesce to anyone but the Queen. The English ladies are going for the European crown, full stop.

Qualification: Group 7 winners (7W, 1D)

Finals Appearances: Eight

Best Performance: Finalist (1984, 2009)

Head Coach: Mark Sampson (WAL)

Star Player: Karen Carney (Chelsea FC)

The Birmingham native is one of the longest serving players in the English roster since she prepares to take the field in a fourth European Championships, and it’s fair to say she never had so many good teammates to cooperate with.

England’s midfielder Karen Carney prepares to launch a long pass across the field

Usually deployed on the left side of the midfield, Carney perfectly personifies the gritty mentality the English love for her zeal looking to recover the ball, yet she also possesses the skill to manufacture offense in waves. Right footed, the Chelsea winger regularly strays from the flank to take her chances inside the opposing block, looking to disentangle defences with her trickery, propensity to play one-twos with the forwards and smart passing.

A bold, energetic style that betrays her old struggles with depression, an illness that almost put an end to her career precociously. England fans are certainly glad that story also took a turn for the best.

Player to watch: Jordan Nobbs (Arsenal FC)

Limited to a single appearance at the 2015 World Cup due to injury, the time has finally come for Jordan Nobbs, a former standout for England’s youth teams who has yet to shine in a major senior international competition.

A lithe midfielder of exquisite technique who loves to shoot from distance and play balls over the top, “Nobber” is utilized as a right midfielder by Mark Sampson so that she can overload central areas and expose her superior playmaking skills, which significantly boost the fluidity of England’s game in the final third.

Capable of lighting up a game with an extraordinary long-range howitzer or a superb assist, it’s time Jordan Nobbs’ name surfaces across the continent when mentioning the best midfielders around.

England’s Jordan Nobbs attempts to keep the ball in play

Probable Lineup (4x4x2): K. Bardsley; L. Bronze – S. Houghton (C) – M. Bright – D. Stokes; J. Nobbs – J. Moore – J. Scott– K. Carney; T. Duggan – E. White

The 4x4x2 is almost as ancestral as the sport in England, and Mark Sampson respectfully hasn’t deviated from it even if there’s a nuance worth mentioning.  Both Nobbs and Carney aren’t the usual line-hugging wingers and love to move inside, therefore the width is mainly provided by the overlapping runs of the full backs, especially the marauding Lucy Bronze.

Regarding the lineup, in comparison with the team that made history in Canada the fresh faces are center back Millie Bright (Chelsea) and midfielder Jade Moore (Reading), who seem to have usurped veterans Laura Bassett and Fara Williams, respectively. In attack, Toni Duggan is close to untouchable, but Ellen White faces a lot of competition from Jodie Taylor, Nikita Parris and diminutive Fran Kirby.

Spain

Verónica Boquete, “la Princesa del deporte rey” has been the flag bearer of Spain’s women’s football for close to a decade.

Verónica Boquete has scored more goals (38) than any other player in Spain’s national team history, including eight at the Euro 2017 qualification phase.

Verónica Boquete, elite level playmaker, played over 30 matches this season for Paris St. German, the UEFA Women’s Champions League Finalists.

Verónica Boquete, 30 years old, is still widely regarded as Spain’s best offensive player.

Verónica Boquete is NOT in Spain’s Euro 2017 roster for “performance”-related reasons, according to Coach Jorge Vilda. Incomprehensible.

Nonetheless, Vero or no Vero, Spain is a deep well of confidence following an imposing qualifying campaign, and there are expectations La Roja is finally ready to enter the conversation concerning Europe’s best teams.

After all, it would simply ride the example established a long time ago by their youth teams, perennial contenders at the U-17 and U-19 level, and more recently by the Spanish clubs, with each passing season gaining traction against their German, French, Swedish and English counterparts.

Qualification: Group 2 winners (8W)

Finals Appearances: Third

Best Performance: Semi-Finals (1997)

Head Coach: Jorge Vilda

Star Player: Verónica Boquete Irene Paredes (Paris St. Germain, FRA)

A mainstay of Spain’s backend for many seasons, Irene Paredes Hernández achieved a new level of recognition over the last two seasons by marshalling Athletic Bilbao to an unlikely Primera Division title in 2015-16, and following it up with a high profile move to Qatari-backed PSG.

Irene Paredes rallies her teammates during a World Cup qualifier in Italy

The 26-year-old went on to quickly pick up the reigns of the French defence, and performed at an admirable level on their campaign to the Champions League Final, displaying all the qualities of modern center backs: speed, agility, aerial prowess, assertiveness under pressure, and poise handling the ball and completing the first pass from the back.

Four years after scoring an own goal in Spain’s quarter-final affair at the Euro 2013, she will be looking for redemption with a national team hoping to build on the triumph at the 2017 Algarve Cup, a competition where Paredes was, not  incidentally, named “Best Player”.

Player to watch: Alexia Putellas (FC Barcelona)

After taking part in consecutive European Championships at the U-17 level, Alexia debuted for the senior team as a 19-year-old and in time to secure a place on the roster that would reach the last eight at the Euro 2013. Four years have passed since then, and her influence on Spain’s and Barcelona’s game still hasn’t stopped growing

A versatile left footer that is comfortable as an interior, winger or supporting forward, Alexia Putellas is one of Vilda’s favourites because she can either act as the main conduit of offense in the center of the park, or provide a dangerous presence out wide, curling balls into the area and attacking the far post. At age 23, and with three Spanish League titles on her résumé, one of the brightest faces of Spain’s ambitious generation is also the key to unlock new heights.

Spain’s midfielder Alexia Putellas (#21, white) has the guile to get out of difficult situations

Probable Lineup (3x5x2): S. Paños; I. Paredes – A. Pereira – M. Léon; M. Torrejón (C) – V. Losada – V. Torrecilla – A. Putellas – L. Ouahabi; J. Hermoso – O. Garcia

Jorge Vilda replaced long-time manager Ignacio Quereda after the fiasco at the 2015 World Cup, and he gradually introduced a backline of three to rip into the tactical DNA of a team that used to run a 4x3x3 or 4x2x3x1.

With more elements operating in central areas, the possession-based style was maintained, but the defensive record improved significantly, as Spain allowed just two goals in qualifying and scored 39. A testament to the progresses experienced by many players, including “carrilleras” Marta Torrejón and Leila Ouahabi, whose offensive propensity really shines in this system.

Without Vero Boquete, new Paris St. Germain recruit Jenifer Hermoso – who tallied 35 goals this season – is the major offensive catalyst, while the greatest dilemma is the identity of the starting goalkeeper. Lola Gallardo’s Atletico Madrid pipped Sandra Paños’ Barcelona for the Spanish title, but it’s the latter that seems to hold the inside lane in this race of 24-year-olds.

Scotland

If a very demanding draw and a quarrel between the players and the Scottish Football Association over compensation wasn’t already enough to cast a large cloud over Scotland’s perspectives at the Euro 2017, the last months of preparation brought an additional element: an injury-barrage that all but ends their chances of upstaging England and Spain for a place in the quarter-finals.

Forward Lizzie Arnott and defensemen Jennifer Beattie and Emma Mitchell, all prospective starters, were ruled out in the weeks leading up to the tournament, but those misfortunes fall short of the monumental problem that is the absence of 2016 BBC Women’s Footballer of the Year and Arsenal FC’s star playmaker Kim Little, who suffered an anterior cruciate knee ligament rupture in club training.

An untimely injury took Scotland’s star Kim Little out of the competition

Qualification: 2nd place in Group 1 (7W, 1D), inferior goal difference in tie with Iceland

Finals Appearances: First

Best Performance: Debutants

Head Coach: Anna Signeul (SWE)

Star Player: Lisa Evans (Bayern Munich, GER)

Without the talent of Kim Little at their disposal, Scotland will have to rely even more on the hardworking, resilient nature of most of their players, and there’s no better example to follow than winger Lisa Evans.

Even though she wasn’t blessed with the speed, creativity or flash of many positional counterparts, the 25-year-old has still been able to attract the interest of clubs such as Turbine Potsdam, Bayern Munich and Arsenal  FC because few can match her tactical awareness and willingness to sacrifice individual accolades for the better of the team. Feisty and diligent tracking down the flank, Evans hugs the line to provide width in attack, but can also dash towards the goal or surprise defenders with diagonal runs.

No doubts remain that Scotland will have to stand firm in the face of adversity and take advantage of every offensive transition. That’s where Evans’ versatility and stamina could prove essential.

Player to watch: Caroline Weir (Liverpool FC, ENG)

Caroline Weir proudly wears the No. 10 shirt for Liverpool FC, and such honour serves to bestow the potential of a player Scotland’s managers believe is able to pick up part of the slack left by Kim Little.

Caroline Weir is one of Scotland’s key midfielders

A gritty midfielder that always plays with her head up, Caroline Weir has the vision to deliver passes from afar to center forward Jane Ross or the wingers cutting inside, yet her true strength lies on the ability to slow the game down, hold the ball and wait for the play to develop in front of her eyes.

A feature that she’ll explore at the European Championships, since the 22-year-old is bound to operate a few meters closer to the goal, looking to support the lone forward and make the best of opportunities to hit from long range with her excellent left foot.

Probable Lineup (4x5x1): G. Fay (C); K. Smith – I. Dieke – V. Barsley – H. Lauder; L. Evans – L. Crichton – R. Corsie – C. Weir – Fi. Brown; J. Ross

Scotland’s usual formation is the 4x2x3x1, but against their rivals in Group D expect a much more compact 4x5x1, with striker Jane Ross left to her own luck and no clearly defined creative fulcrum filling the void of Little. The better they can do is deposit their hopes in Lisa Evans and Caroline Weir, who should have green light to take their chances offensively.

As for the other substitutes called to action, center back Vaila Barsley is the most promising. A recent discovery by Scotland’s staff, she’s been exceptional filling in for Jenn Beatie while club teammate Fiona Brown seems to have locked down the left midfield position on the strength of a series of impressive showings.

Portugal

Fifteen of the top seventeen ranked teams at the time of the qualifying group phase draw ended up securing qualification to the Euro 2017. Care to bet who wasn’t supposed to be here?

The Portuguese women, listed on Pot D (26th) but surprise runners-up in Group 2. They upset the Republic of Ireland and Finland (the only finalist in 2013 to miss out this time) to snatch a playoff spot, and then ousted Romania to reach the Finals.

Portuguese players celebrated an historic qualification to the Euro 2017 after defeating Romania

Home to the reigning men’s European Champions, this is a massive step for a country where women’s football has been nothing more than an afterthought outside of a few days every March, when they host a prestigious international tournament in the region of Algarve.

That being said, what’s a realistic target in Dutch soil? Escape alive against England and Spain, first and foremost, and try to squeeze something out of the match versus Scotland.

Qualification: 2nd place in Group 2 (4W, 1D, 3L), 11 points behind Spain; defeated Romania in the playoff on away goals (1-1)

Finals Appearances: First

Best Performance: Debutants

Head Coach: Francisco Neto

Star Player: Cláudia Neto (Linköpings FC, SWE)

Portugal’s captain is their only World class player and, it turns out, also the inspirational leader. That much was plainly evident in qualification, when Cláudia Neto’s six goals rescued several crucial points to make the dream come true.

Key figure for Linköpings’s Damallsvenskan success last year, 2016 was truly a banner year for the 29-year-old midfielder, who does so much of the heavy lifting for this Portuguese team. Neto is a transitional force, carrying the ball up the field, a playmaker, recognizing passes others can’t, a pace-setter, a chance-creator and, finally, a goal scorer.

Cláudia Neto’s hat trick against Finland reinvigorated Portugal’s qualifying campaign

A facet instigated by Francisco Neto’s curious decision to slot his most important player as close to the other teams’ net as possible, wagering she could bury more opportunities than her colleagues would with the roles reversed. Until now, it has worked so well that Cláudia Neto is regularly nicknamed CN7, a cheeky comparison to a certain superstar footballer who happens to be a compatriot.

Player to watch: Diana Silva (Sporting CP)

The revelation of the Portuguese League in 2016-17 is expected to come off the bench at the tournament since Francisco Neto values experience to a tee, but be on the lookout for her disconcerting presence up front.

While undeniably raw on her movements and technical gestures, there’s an intriguing potential latent on Diana Silva, a striker that impresses for her quickness and mobility across the front end, yet isn’t afraid to work hard to get the ball back or enter in confrontation with the most rugged defensive players. Moreover, in possession, she can prove daunting to handle with time to accelerate, dribbling past the clumsiest opponents to set up her teammates or try to score.

At age 22, Diana Silva can still be considered a diamond in a rough, and an international career may be in the cards if she finds a way to make the most of her time in the Netherlands.

Probable Lineup (4x4x2): Patrícia Morais; Matilde Fidalgo – Sílvia Rebelo – Carole Costa – Ana Borges; Dolores Silva, Vanessa Marques – Suzane Pires, Carolina Mendes; Ana Leite – Cláudia Neto (C);

In the most decisive of moments, the two-legged playoff with Romania, Portugal lined up on a 4x4x2 with a diamond-shaped midfield, and it’s possible things will remain that way for the final tournament in spite of a sharp rise in the quality of the opposition. However, a more rational option would be the return to a stingiest 4x2x3x1, with Cláudia Neto dropping back to partner defensive anchor Dolores Silva or, in alternative, holing up between the lines.

Portugal’s Dolores Silva jumps past the challenge of a Romanian player

Portugal’s main factor of disturbance is Ana Borges, a lightning quick winger adapted to the left back position who loves to charge up the field in possession. Meanwhile, Neto and Dolores Silva are the stalwarts of Portugal’s midfield and Ana Leite a mobile, German-educated forward that is a favourite of the coach.

The rest of the midfield and attack, though, is easily interchangeable, with the likes of Mélissa Antunes, Fátima Pinto, Amanda da Costa, Laura Luís and Diana Silva hunting down an opportunity to start.

Women’s Euro 2017 Preview: Group C

Headlined by one of the main candidates to the title, Group C is the most interesting of the preliminary stage because every team can realistically entertain the idea of advancing.

If everything goes according to plan, France should casually stroll to the next round and leave Switzerland, Iceland and Austria to discuss the other ticket, with the Swiss edging their rivals in individual talent, Iceland counting on being the only side to have participated in the competition previously, and Austria believing their core group of Germany-based players can carry the mail and overachieve.

France

Will Les Bleues finally get over the hump?  On paper, France is blessed with the strongest squad in the competition – next to Germany – but over the last international competitions they’ve repeatedly been stopped in the knockout rounds (QFs at the 2013 Euro, 2015 WC and 2016 Olympics) and underperformed significantly to the dismay of their fans.

Populated by Olympique Lyon and Paris St. Germain players’, the Finalists of this years’ Champions League, it’s more than time the French put it all together and topple Germany and the rest of the field to win a maiden international trophy. If they miss the mark again, tensions will escalate to unbearable highs ahead of the 2019 World Cup, which France will host.

Qualification: Group 3 winners (8W)

Finals Appearances: Sixth

Best Performance: Quarter-Finals (2009, 2013)

Head Coach: Olivier Echouafni

Star Player: Amandine Henry (Portland Thorns, USA)

The 27-year-old Henry is probably the finest defensive midfielder in women’s football these days due to her blend of controlled aggression, vision, passing range and poise in possession.

Amandine Henry, the outstanding “milieu du terrain” for France

Initiating the transition from the space usually destined to the defensive anchor, the French midfielder is able to impact the game in several areas, breaking lines with her elegant strides, picking up both long and short passes, initiating the press high up the pitch or tackling with aplomb. Moreover, her all-around brilliance shines even more when she can seamlessly swap roles with long time midfield partner Camille Abily, with whom she played for 9 seasons at Lyon to incredible success.

Awarded the Silver Ball for the second best player of the 2015 World Cup, Henry embraced a new challenge last year, traveling overseas to represent the NWSL’s Portland Thorns, but she’s still well versed on the style and tendencies of most of her French teammates, who surely breathe better knowing the midfielder is shielding their back.

Player to watch: Sakina Karchaoui (Montpellier HSC)

A surprise late call up for the French team that played at the 2016 Olympic Games, Sakina Karchaoui is rapidly becoming an important member of Les Bleues as a result of a series of solid defensive performances in high-stake matches.

The 21-year-old ascended the youth ranks as an offensive midfielder, but transformed into a left back at the end of her academy days in Montpellier and the decision is paying off big time. Speedy, athletic and aggressive, Karchaoui displays good defensive instincts, but what sets her apart is the effusive disposition and the energetic runs up and down the flank which usually end up with venomous crosses towards the box. Those are qualities that don’t proliferate in women’s football, much less in quality full backs, and therefore the Franco-Moroccan will be one of the hot properties to monitor over the next few seasons.

Twenty-one-year-old Sakina Karchaoui is one of the new faces of Team France

Probable Lineup (4x2x3x1): S. Bouhaddi; J. Houara – G. Mbock Bathy – W. Renard (C) – S. Karchaoui; A. Henry – C. Abily; E. Thomis – G. Thiney – C. Lavogez ; E. Le Sommer

The 4x2x3x1 has been France’s staple for many years and in Dutch soil that’s bound to continue, yet Olivier Echouafni isn’t short in personnel to change the mix if things get stale. Particularly the midfield’s offensive trio, which has been under the spotlight following Louisa Necib’s retirement after Rio and Amel Majri’s ankle injury.

To wit, speedster Elodie Thomis will have to watch her shadow in youngster Kadidiatou Diani, and expected left winger Claire Lavogez is far from untouchable, while Gaëtane Thiney could be squeezed out by the reallocation of forward Eugénie Le Sommer to the creation zone.

Moreover, striker Marie-Laure Delie is also bound to receive an opportunity to get going, with a slight tweak to the system possibly in the cards, leading to the implementation of the 4x3x3 and the introduction of a third central midfielder in veteran Élise Boussaglia or 20-year-old portent Onema Geyoro.

Switzerland

Two years after hurdling past the group stage at the 2015 World Cup, the Swiss make their first appearance at the European Championships to provide a stark contrast with the other debutants, who will be more than satisfied with an honourable exit from the tournament.

A level of ambition justified by a perfect qualifying campaign, where they won all eight matches, and the presence of a handful of world-class performers in their ranks. While far from title contenders, Switzerland has the goods to upset any team in the tournament on a good day, and therefore the quarter-finals are the minimal requirement.

Qualification: Group 6 winners (8W)

Finals Appearances: First

Best Performance: Debutants

Head Coach: Martina Voss-Tecklenburg (GER)

Star Player: Ramona Bachmann (Chelsea FC, ENG)

Standing at a stocky 162cm, Ramona Bachmann doesn’t immediately radiate the aura of terrific football player, but you just need to wait until she gets going to realize the dynamic skill set and ability to pick defences apart. The 26-year-old Swiss zips around the pitch with and without the ball, making good use of her low center of gravity, and backs down defences with her dribbling ability, which opens up terrain in the final third for teammates to operate.

Ramona Bachmann scored an hat-trick against Equador at the 2015 World Cup, and will be looking for more during her Euro debut

With the characteristics of a winger, she’s primarily used as a nomadic forward or a false striker with Switzerland, exploring spaces between defenders with diagonal runs and overloading half spaces, but the 42 goals in 80 international caps certify the ability to finish is also there. After all, there has to be a reason Bachmann turned professional at age 16 and over the last ten years has represented top clubs in four different countries (Sweden, USA, Germany and England).

Player to watch: Lia Wälti (1. FFC Turbine Potsdam, GER)

A diminutive midfielder that coordinates Switzerland’s play at the center of the park, Lia Wälti’s game is one that relies on intelligence and flawless, yet understated, technique.

Acting as the outlet at the start of the Swiss buildup, she distributes the ball with both feet and tremendous poise and accuracy, playing at one or two touches to accelerate but also controlling the pace when necessary. In addition, defensively Wälti is able to overcome the lack of size and strength with non-stop activity and positioning.

You can make a case that the 24-year-old is the silent mechanism that makes Switzerland’s machine run swiftly and on time, and that’s worth appreciating even if all the sparkle is provided by others.

Lia Wälti performs the unsavory tasks necessary to carry Switzerland to new heights

Probable Lineup (4x4x2): G. Thalmann; A. Crnogorčević – C. Abbé (C ) – R. Kiwic – N. Maritz; E. Aigbogun – L. Wälti – M. Moser – L. Dickenmann; F. Humm – R. Bachmann

Martina Voss -Tecklenburg’s team plays a direct, fast and attacking style of play that appeases onlookers but concurrently contributes to some tactical anarchy, with the four attacking players regularly exchanging positions and getting caught in transition. The role of veteran Lara Dickenmann is thus essential, since she’s the one responsible for curbing the offensive impetus and organizing support to the two central midfielders. In alternative, the introduction of Vanessa Bernauer in substitution of Fabienne Humm or Eseosa Aigbogun could similarly help tone down some riskier tendencies.

Conversely, if Switzerland is chasing the score, loosening the grip on Ana-Maria Crnogorčevic is the solution to adopt as she’s clamouring for a more prominent role in offense since being incomprehensively adapted to a full back position, hence quashing an element that scored seven times during the qualifying phase.

Iceland

On their third consecutive appearance at the European Championships, Iceland will try to mirror the result of 2013, when they advanced past the group stage before succumbing to hosts Sweden.

Similarly to the men’s team that captivated the continent last summer, the Icelanders have been growing their profile in the women’s game over the last few seasons, and much is owed to their all-time top scorer, Margrét Lára Vidarsdóttir, who unfortunately won’t play in the competition after rupturing the cruciate ligament on her knee a few weeks ago. A massive blow that can make all the difference between progressing or heading home early.

Qualification: Group 1 winners (7W, 1L)

Finals Appearances: Third

Best Performance: Quarter-Finals (2013)

Head coach: Freyr Alexandersson

Star Player: Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir (VFL Wolfsburg, GER)

Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir is a workhorse in Iceland’s midfield

By assuming the team captaincy in 2014 on the heels of Margrét Lára Vidarsdóttir’s pregnancy, Sara Björk further increased her influence inside an Icelandic group that paces at the rhythm of its midfield heartbeat.

Armband draped on her arm, the 26-year-old does a bit of everything for her national team, directing traffic and her teammates, covering for positional mishaps, claiming the ball from defenders to start the transition and setting the example with her enduring predisposition to run.

Astute decision making, many rungs above her teammates, completes the description and clearly demarks why Gunnarsdóttir is the rare player on the roster to feature regularly for a top-level European club.

In her case, German double winners Wolfsburg, the team she chose to represent in 2016 after five seasons and four national titles amassed with Sweden’s FC Rosengård.

Player to watch: Elín Jensen (Valur)

Elín Metta Jensen can be considered a special case in Iceland’s squad, and not just because her name is much easier to scribble than the vast majority of her teammates’.

For instance, despite her youth, the 22-year-old has already participated in the tournament before, called up in 2013 after notching 18 goals in 18 games to pace the 2012 Icelandic League as a teenager. Moreover, her propensity for taking defenders off the dribble and individualize actions shocks with Iceland’s “Team first” battle cry, and that may be the chief reason behind her struggles to consistently break into the starting lineup over the years.

Maybe it will finally happen in Dutch soil, probably not in a center forward role but on the wing, where Elín Jensen can offer a jolt of offensive talent to turn around matches going the wrong way.

Probable Lineup (3x4x3): G. Gunnarsdóttir; G. Viggósdóttir – S. Atladóttir – A. Kristjánsdóttir; R. Hönnudóttir – D. Brynjarsdóttir – S. Gunnarsdóttir (C) – H. Gísladóttir; F. Friðriksdóttir – K. Ásbjörnsdóttir – H. Magnúsdóttir

After surging through qualifying on a 4x2x3x1 formation that sometimes versed a 4x3x3, the loss of Margrét Lára Vidarsdóttir instigated a drastic change of tactical structure, with Freyr Alexandersson expected to take his chances in matchday one against France with a 3x4x3 that defensively will very much resemble a 5x3x2/5x2x3.

The loss of influentional forward Margrét Lára Vidarsdóttir (#9) changes everything for Iceland

Due to the new-fangled nature of this system, it’s still not clear where everyone will slot, especially up front, but in this projection I elected experience: from Dagný Brynjarsdóttir being hailed as the partner to Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir in the middle, to 32-year-old Hólmfríður Magnúsdóttir as the final piece of the forward trio alongside Fanndís Friðriksdóttir and the mobile Katrín Asbjornsdottir, who is expected to unseat qualifying joint-top scorer Harpa Thorsteinsdóttir.

Meanwhile, on defence, Sif Atladóttir is the main beneficiary of the extra center back position, and as a reward she brings with her a singular weapon Iceland will rely heavily on: the ability to propel the ball into the goal area from free throws, generating cheap opportunities to incite mayhem in front of the net.

Austria

Until a recent 4-2 home triumph over Denmark, It had been more than 3 years since Austria last defeated one of the other 15 participants at the Euro 2017, and that speaks volumes to the task ahead of Dominik Thalhammer’s women in this tournament.

On the contrary, in qualification the Austrians lost narrowly at home to Norway only to snatch a 2-2 tie away, while a look at their roster reveals six players that pontificate in top-four Frauen-Bundesliga outfits. It’s fair to say Switzerland and Iceland should underestimate the Austrians at their own peril.

Austria’s qualification for the Euro 2017 is the first in their women’s football history

Qualification: 2nd place in Group 8 (5W, 2D, 1 L), five points behind Norway

Finals Appearances: First

Best Performance: Debutants

Head Coach: Dominik Thalhammer

Star Player: Nina Burger (SC Sand, GER)

Top scorer of the Austrian League in six consecutive seasons from 2006 to 2012, Nina Burger was forced to take her talents abroad when things got too easy at home. She first landed in the USA before eventually returning to Europe to represent SC Sand, where she tallied 15 goals over two seasons.

That’s an unimpressive total that we can probably chalk up to her unusual style of play. Far from a complete striker, Burger is, instead, more of an old-school poacher, someone that sticks to her high position, lays claim to lose balls in the area and aims for the net at every opportunity.

A limited skill set that is still incredibly valuable for the Austrian national team, since the five goals she notched in qualifying helped secure the ticket to the Netherlands and cemented her status as the country’s top scorer of all-time. Now, time to beef up those numbers at the biggest stage she’s ever been.

Player to watch: Sarah Zadrazil (1. FFC Turbine Potsdam, GER)

Despite wearing the No. 9 shirt for Austria, Sarah Zadrazil is far from a major scoring threat in the pitch. In fact, the 24-year-old would match up far better with the No.8, the numerical digit usually associated with the box-to-box midfielder, the function she carries out to great lengths alongside Freiburg’s Sarah Puntingan.

Austria’s Sarah Zadrazil tries to break an English attack during an international friendly match

Industrious, unrelenting and highly reactive to lose balls, Zadrazil keeps Austria permanently prepared for the defensive transition, and any team could use a responsible player like that, which is why Turbine Potsdam coveted her services after a three-year spell playing college soccer at the United States.

Probable Lineup (4x2x3x1): M. Zinsberger; K. Schiechtl– C. Wenninger –  V. Schnaderbeck (C ) – S. Maierhofer; S. Puntingam – S. Zadrazil; L. Feiersinger – N. Billa – V. Aschauer; N. Burger

The positioning of Nicole Billa is the key element of Austria’s set up, as the Hoffenheim player can drop back to form a trio in midfield with Zadrazil and Puntingan (4x3x3), execute between the lines (the 4x2x3x1), or take a few steps forward to supplement Burger inside the goal area.

Either way, much is asked of wingers Laura Feiersinger and Verena Aschauer (both SC Sand players), who regularly rush up and down the corridor to assist the defence and necessarily tire out by the middle of the second half. The 26-year-old Nadine Prohaska is then called to action to replace one, while the other toughs it out, since depth is an issue for Austria at this level.

Women’s Euro 2017 Preview: Group B

Germany and Sweden are two of just three teams (Norway) to have won the Women’s European Championships and having been drawn into the same group are naturally prohibitive favourites to reach the Quarter-Finals. Conversely, Russia and Italy were once sides to take into account at the continental stage but are currently undergoing transitional periods that should hinder any possible challenge. Pretty straightforward, but there’s a reason they play the games…

Germany

For the past 22 years, the Germans have been the defending European Champions and there’s an excellent chance they’re going to extend their incredible run for a few more seasons despite missing many vital components of their Gold Medal winning team at the 2016 Olympic Games.

In fact, Annike Krahn, Saskia Bartusiak and Melanie Behringer retired from international football, Simone Laudehr and the multifaceted Alexandra Popp didn’t make the trip east due to injury, while head coach Silvia Neid stepped down after Rio, concluding a decorated 11-year stint behind the bench to cede the scene to former defender Steffi Jones. Nonetheless, even with such personnel turnover, Germany is still the odds-on candidate to lift the trophy.

Qualification: Group 5 winners (8W)

Finals Appearances: Tenth

Best Performance: Champions (1989, 1991, 1995, 1997, 2001, 2005, 2009, 2013)

Head Coach: Steffi Jones

Star Player: Dzsenifer Marozsán (Olympique Lyon, FRA)

The captain of Die Nationalelf has gradually established herself as the most impactful offensive midfielder in women’s football and, at age 25, the best is probably still ahead.

Germany’s captain Dzsenifer Marozsán in action during a friendly against Canada

Strongly built, exceptional in possession, masterful at controlling the rhythms of the game and changing the point of attack, the Hungarian roots of Marozsán help explain how she is football elegance personified in the way she drives forward with the ball at her feet, eyes surveying the scene before streamlining any kind of pass or shooting accurately at goal.

Wildly successful at every age category with the German national teams, her move from FFC Frankfurt to Lyon in 2016 has not only delivered the trophies she was missing at the club level, but further enhanced her overall skill set and tactical nous. So much that she’s now asked to play deeper on the field and render tasks that shouldn’t be hers. Germany would do good to not forget Maestro Marozsán is at her best free of defensive shackles, and her talent is ours to indulge on.

Player to watch: Lina Magull (SC Freiburg)

A shrewd two-year loan stint at SC Freiburg did wonders for the development of this right footed winger of immense technical resources and unexpectedly the 22-year-old arrives in the Netherlands as a probable starter for the mighty female Mannschaft.

Coming in at just 165cm tall, Lina Magull utilizes her nifty ball control to drift from the left side and invade central areas, engage defenders or provide weighted through balls that consistently push her team closer to the goal. No surprise then that after carrying modest Freiburg to surprise title contention, the Dortmund-native will return to Wolfsburg in the fall and try to leave her mark in its collection of stars. But before that, she’ll perform in front of the European audience for the first time.

Probable Lineup (4x4x2): A. Schult; A. Blässe – J. Henning – B. Peter – I. Kerschowski; L. Maier – S. Däbritz – D. Marozsán (C) – L. Magull; S. Huth – A. Mittag

Regardless of Steffi Jones’ decision to structure her midfield quartet as a line stretching across the field or a narrow rhomb, Germany’s Achilles heel and major concern is the deep-lying midfield position, especially with Lena Goeßling’s lack of match fitness in 2016-17.

Sara Däbritz (#13), Tabea Kemme (#22) and Dzsenifer Marozsán (left) are in the conversation to take part of Germany’s midfield

In a curious and slightly desperate resolution, forward Alex Popp was tested there in a few preparatory matches due to her innate aggressiveness on the ball, but the Wolfsburg player picked up an injury and Germany will have to keep improvising. In the last friendly before the Euro, 22-year-old Sara Däbritz got the call to partner Marozsán, but don’t be surprised if Goeßling, central defender Kristin Demann or the adaptable Tabea Kemme also get their crack at establishing a presence. One thing is for certain, though: Marozsán, Magull and any player that finds her way into the midfield mix will have to help paper the gaps since the job will necessarily be done by commitment.

Sweden

Beaten by Germany at the 2016 Olympic Final and previously booted out of the 2015 World Cup and their “own” Euro 2013 by the same opponent, Sweden will certainly be eager to exert a bit of revenge when the two heavyweights face off in matchday one, but the Scandinavians shouldn’t lose focus of their main goal.

The Swedes know most central figures of their squad are getting up there in age and charismatic coach Pia Sundhage is about to leave, so this is a crucial and probably final opportunity to pick up a title before they’re forced to reload with younger players.

Qualification: Group 4 winners (7W 1L)

Finals Appearances: Tenth

Best Performance: Champions (1984)

Head Coach: Pia Sundhage

Star Player: Caroline Seger (Olympique Lyon, FRA)

Sweden’s skipper may be slowing down, as her regular presences on the bench of Lyon during the 2016-17 season indicate, but Caroline Seger is still as essential as ever for a national team she represented in over 170 occasions.

Swedish captain Caroline Seger pushes the ball forward during a match against Finland

Renowned for her positioning, stamina and passing range, the 32-year-old has commanded the ball in the Swedish midfield for many years by being frequently involved in the buildup and successively engaged in 50-50 disputes. Moreover, her ball distribution skills eventually lead to perfectly timed runs to the box, where she regularly meets crosses or balls whipped in from set pieces to spread the panic on opposing defences.

As a rare, natural midfield general, Seger will be dearly missed, but maybe this last-ditch effort can land an elusive piece of silverware 12 years in the making.

Player to watch: Fridolina Rolfö (Bayern Munich, GER)

The 23-year-old traded Swedish Champions Linköpings FC for Bayern Munich at the beginning of the year and ended up failing to find the back of the net for the rest of the campaign, however there’s still a lot to like about the young striker and the role she can play for Sweden in the near future.

Tall and elegant in the mould of Norway’s Ada Hegerberg, Rolfö possesses a left foot that thumps the ball and makes an effort to meander outside the box, yet she’s clearly not comfortable getting open to combine with teammates and exploring the space between and behind defenders at this stage of her development.

The rangy forward can’t reproduce Lotta Schelin’s clever movement off the ball nor the brute strength of Stina Blackstenius, and that should cost her a starting spot, but don’t discount the impact Rolfö could have off the bench.

Fridolina Rolfö impressed at the 2016 Olympic tournament and once again will be at the disposal of Sweden’s manager.

Probable Lineup (4x3x3): H. Lindahl; J. Samuelsson – N. Fischer – L. Sembrant – J. Andersson; L. Dahlkvist, C. Seger (C) – E. Rubensson; K. Asllani – S. Blackstenius – L. Schelin

Pia Sundhage has given the 4x4x2 extensive practice, prodding two out-and-out wingers serving a pair of strikers, but at the tournament she should reverse back into the battle-tested 4x3x3, which eases the burden on veteran midfielders Lisa Dahlkvist and Caroline Seger but in opposition pulls Lotta Schelin away from the net and onto the flank.

This is precisely where the injury to Montpellier’s Sofia Jakobsson would hurt were it not for the existence of a wildcard in Olivia Schough, a masterful set piece taker that lends options tactically. The 26-year-old can seize one of the wings, benching Blackstenius (or Schelin) in the process, or roll as a playmaker, potentially shunning Elin Rubensson.

Italy

Despite tying Norway for the record-number of appearances at the European Championships, it’s telling that the two-time Finalists arrive in the Netherlands under a shroud of doubts about their ability to keep alive their 32-year streak of last eight finishes at the event.

Soundly toppled by Switzerland in qualifying, Italy’s hopes were seriously jeopardized when playmaker Alice Parisi broke her leg during a friendly match in England, and therefore few contemplate more than a lone victory over Russia in the opening confront of Group B.

Qualification: 2nd place in Group 6 (6 W, 2L), 6 pts behind Switzerland

Appearances: Eleventh

Best Performance: Finalists (1993, 1997)

Head Coach: Antonio Cabrini

Star Player: Ilaria Mauro (Fiorentina FC)

An imposing striker that seems custom made for Italy’s style of play by being able to hold the ball while their block moves up, turn towards the goal or associate with teammates, Ilaria Mauro will play a central role for her country at the Euro 2017.

Italy’s Ilaria Mauro battles with Sweden’s Nilla Fischer during a group stage match at the Euro 2013. The pair will clash again in matchday 3.

Before returning to the Women’s Serie A, where she tallied 16 times on Fiorentina’s maiden title campaign, Mauro spent three seasons in Germany and she might want to tap on those memories for self-motivation, since the markswoman isn’t bound to enjoy many opportunities to shine in the Netherlands. Still, the 29-year-old forward and partner Cristiana Girelli combined for 11 goals during the qualification round, and hitting a mere fraction of that total could make a big difference at this tournament.

Player to watch: Manuela Giugliano (AGSM Verona)

The 19-year-old Giugliano is the most dynamic young player in Italy and the natural successor to Melania Gabbiadini, the legendary 33-year-old veteran forward that should represent the Azzure for the final time in the Netherlands.

A “trequartista” with pace and boundless skill, Giugliano scored 15 goals and terrorized defenders as a teenager for Verona in 2016-17, yet that shouldn’t be enough to guarantee a position amongst Antonio Cabrini’s first options. Her time to shine will come one day though, and a few glimpses of raw potential may already be discerned if she touches the field at the Euro 2017.

Probable Lineup (4x4x2): L. Giuliani; S. Gama – C. Salvai – E. Linari – E. Bartoli; A. Guagni – D. Stracchi – M. Rosucci – B. Bonansea; C. Girelli – I. Mauro

Significantly less dangerous than their male counterparts but equally disciplined tactically, don’t expect the Azzurre to deviate from their rigid 4x4x2 edifice, with Mauro and Girelli battling up front to forge something out of nothing and two banks of four holding the forth.

Defensive midfielder Daniela Stracchi is an indispensable part of Italy’s lineup

The 25-year-old Martina Rosucci, who recently returned from a long-term injury spell, should slot into the starting eleven to cover for Parisi’s absence, while Melania Gabbiadini and Daniela Sabatini will regularly come off the bench to replace Mauro and Girelli as soon as they give away signs of fatigue.

Russia

Russia hasn’t gone past the group stage on their four appearances at the European Championships, and they face an uphill battle to change course with the quality of competition in Group B. Particularly since Elena Fomina sponsored a dramatic roster shakeup over the last few months, relegating many veterans that have carried the water for years, and tossing youngsters with limited international experience to the wolves.

Members of Russia’s women’s national team will try to avoid the outcome of every previous appearance at the European Championships: an early exit.

Qualification: 2nd place in Group 5 (4 W, 2 D, 2L), 10 points behind Germany

Finals Appearances: Fifth

Best Performance: Quarter-finals (1993, 1995)

Head Coach: Elena Fomina

Star Player: Elena Danilova (FK VDV Ryazan)

Leading figure in the 2005 Under-19 National team that brought Russia its first European title at any level of women’s football, Elena Danilova’s development didn’t unfold as expected with several bouts of injuries and inconsistent performances stalling a career entirely spent in the domestic leagues.

At age 30, the gifted forward gets back into the spotlight as the most talented and unpredictable player in the squad that will attack the Euro 2017, and if she remains engaged and mentally prepared to withstand large periods of time without feeling the ball, Danilova’s flair and proficiency in front of the goal could eventually power Russia past the most positive forecasts.

Player to watch: Margarita Chernomyrdina (FC Chertanovo)

The 21-year-old midfielder promises to assume an important role for Russia as the main link between a packed midfield sector and lone forward Elena Danilova.

Adroit with both feet, Chernomyrdina is capable of carrying the ball up the field and reach the edge of the box in good conditions to threaten the goal, yet she impresses the most for her intensity and predisposition to press opponents. Such urgency sometimes turns into recklessness when she gets too aggressive and concedes free kicks in dangerous positions, nevertheless that’s nothing that can’t get sorted out with time.

Russia’s Margarita Chernomyrdina (#20) fights for possession of the ball during an international friendly match against the USA.

Probable Lineup (4x4x1x1): T. Shcherbak ; T. Sheikina – E. Morozova – A. Kozhnikova – E. Ziyastinova; ; N. Smirnova – D. Makarenko – A. Cholovyaga – E. Sochneva; M. Chernomyrdina; E. Danilova

With so many players dropping out over the last few months, including goaltender Elvira Todua, right back Ekaterina Dmitrenko, center back Ksenia Tsybutovich and former captain Elena Terekhova, predicting the exact Russian lineup is a gamble, yet the overarching tactical approach shouldn’t vary, with nine field players (4+4+1) invested in defensive duties and the lone forward ostracized until the ball is recovered.

The Plan B, to execute in case Russia needs to catch up on the score, is also quite simple: swap one of the midfielders for a second forward (Nadezhda Karpova or Ekaterina Pantyukhina) and lean back to discover whether they can work some magic.

Women’s Euro 2017 Preview: Group A

Far removed from the glitz and exuberant displays of patriotism that envelop the continent every four years for occasion of the men’s European Championship, the UEFA Women’s Euro is, nonetheless, a tournament attaining important recognition in international football’s calendar by taking advantage of the odd offseason missing major men’s events.

In 2017, for the first time, the competition will feature 16 nations – divided in four groups of four -, essentially doubling the total of participants from 12 years ago, and therefore it will function as another crucial barometer on the evolution and competitiveness of the women’s game at the highest ranks. Since almost a third (5) of the field makes its first ever appearance, UEFA hopes to avoid the watered-down version of play we were all offered during the preliminary stage of the 2016 Men’s European Championship, also recently revamped to accommodate more teams, and if someone manages to topple Germany, winners of the last six editions, the better.

However, regardless of a few one-side encounters that are bound to happen, the Netherlands and its seven host cities (Breda, Deventer, Doetinchem, Enschede, Rotterdam, Tilburg and Utrecht) will enjoy the talents of a cohort of superb footballers whose exploits will be broadcasted to football fans everywhere for the next three weeks.

An imperial German side has emerged victorious from every Women’s European Championships since 1995

A group of female athletes and teams you should definitely get to know, and that’s what this series of blog posts is about, as I spent a few dozens of hours researching, canvassing through game reports and watching games to compile this sweeping guide of the competition.

Group by group, I aimed to portrait every national team in the competition, providing some background information and clarity on their pre-tournament objectives, profiling two elements of each squad, their most emblematic performer and a player to watch (you’ll notice I took a broad approach in the definition of this item), and glancing at their tactical set up and plausible formation.

Finally, a quick reference before we make it through the 16 contestants: I won’t pretend to pass by an avid women’s football enthusiast or a profound connoisseur, yet I have followed my fair share of women’s tournaments and deem myself qualified to do this work and hopefully help inform those looking to dive headfirst into the female game and its multiple charms.

Herewith, time to get started. After all, they say you should never leave a lady waiting.

Group A

Encompassing the host nation, a rising influence in the women’s game, and a traditional powerhouse in Norway, Group A boasts clear-cut favourites for the two spots that give access to the quarterfinals, yet don’t sleep on an experienced and well-drilled Danish team, surprise semi-finalists in 2013. Debutants Belgium are outcasts in this skirmish and likely limited to fighting to collect a first point at a major international competition.

Netherlands

Unexpected third-place finishers in their first appearance at a major meeting, the Euro 2009, the female “Oranje” is just now starting to reap the benefits of that landmark achievement. Having advanced past the group phase at the 2015 World Cup, the Netherlands should be considered a sleeper pick for the European crown by virtue of possessing an interesting crop of young, complementary offensive weapons and expectations of flourishing performances backed up by a football-mad nation. The Dutch population has already sold out all of the hosts’ group stage matches, and there’s no better incentive to instigate the ultimate dream.

Qualification: Host Nation

Finals Appearances: Third

Best Performance: Semi-Finals (2009)

Coach: Sarina Wiegman

Star Player: Vivianne Miedema (FC Bayern Munich, GER)

With 41 goals amassed in just 51 senior caps, Miedema is already just 18 shy of Manon Melis’ top-scoring record for the women’s National team and she’s about to turn…21 years old, believe it or not.

Dutch striker Vivianne Miedema gets ready to celebrate after another goal for her country

Always a precocious goal scoring machine, the Hoogeveen-native made her first appearance on the Dutch League at age 15, tallied an astonishing 41 times in 26 games for Heerenveen in 2013/14, and consequently earned a move to German giants Bayern Munich, which proved decisive to add other dimensions to her game.

As she’s far from an imposing presence in the box, the lanky Miedema relies on smarts to find spaces to shoot since it takes her time to accelerate and the first touch is a work in progress. Shortcomings that slowed her prolific rate when she faced stiffer competition at the Frauen Bundesliga over the last three seasons, but ultimately wouldn’t suppress her superior killer instinct (35 goals in 61 league games).

After conquering two German Championships in three seasons, Miedema will join Arsenal FC for 2017-18, but before she lands in London, the hosts will need a full demonstration of her array of talents filling the net in order to summon an historic campaign.

Player to watch: Lieke Martens (FC Rosengård, SWE)

An important component of the Netherlands’ squad since 2011, the 24-year-old Martens can cement her status as a top-notch player with a cracking performance at the Euro 2017 ahead of her impeding move to FC Barcelona.

An exciting offensive midfielder blessed with quick feet and a dazzling ability to change directions and speed, Martens can slice defences with through balls soliciting the wingers or Miedema, and she’s also a headache for any full-back when cradling the ball close to the left sideline, jumping into the one-on-one or invading interior spaces to triangulate and pounce with the right foot. For all of these, I’m certain you won’t miss her as she powers the Netherlands’s offense at home this summer.

Netherlands’ Lieke Martens traverses an English roadblock

Probable Lineup (4x2x3x1): L. Geurts; D. van Lunteren – A. Dekker – M. van den Berg – K. van Es; S. Spitse – J. Groenen; S. van de Sanden – L. Martens – D. van de Donk; V. Miedema (C)

For some time the Netherlands has played in a defined 4x2x3x1 with Martens having license to roam behind Miedema and combine with England-based wingers Shanice van de Sande (Liverpool) and Daniëlle van de Donk (Arsenal), yet the injury to central midfielder Tessel Middag (Manchester City) and the emergence of Jill Roord (who recently agreed to join Bayern Munich) may have altered the plans of Wiegman for the middle of the park.

The Dutch have dabbled with a standard 4x3x3 recently, grouping Groenen, Roord and the cerebral van de Donk to improve ball retention in the midfield while Martens gets pushed to the left flank. An option for more balance that can pay dividends in the latter stages of the tournament.

Norway

Besides Germany, Norway is the only other nation to have won the European Championships, World Cup and Olympic tournament, yet their status as a heavyweight of the women’s game has been slipping for a few years since they’ve failed to reach the last four at the world scale in the last decade.

Still, they’ve consistently delivered at the Euros, reaching two finals and two semifinals since 2001, and the same is expected this year, especially as the spectrum of the 2013 Final – when they had two penalties denied by German goaltender Nadine Angerer – still looms. In the four years since, the Norwegian endured a tough renovation, with long-time stalwarts like Solveig Gulbrandsen, Ingvild Stensland and Trine Rønning hanging their boots, and the pressure is now squarely on the shoulders of two players who were just 18 years old the last time around.

Qualification: Group 8 winners (7W, 1D)

Finals Appearance: Eleventh

Best Performance: Champions (1987, 1993)

Coach: Martin Sjögren (SWE)

Star Player: Ada Hegerberg (Olympique Lyon, FRA)

The reigning UEFA Best Women’s Player in Europe was already a star in the making when she spearheaded Norway’s attack at the 2013 Euro and, in the meantime, she evolved into, arguably, the most feared striker in Europe. Particularly since her 2014 transfer from Turbine Potsdam to Olympique Lyon, with Hegerberg’s goal-scoring exploits (112 goals in just 97 games) being the tip of the French buzzsaw and the main reason her résumé swelled considerably to now include, for example, two Champions League titles (2016 and 2017).

Ada Hegerberg points the direction of sucess to Norway

Powerful and robust, Hegerberg is a smiling assassin in the box with a knack for finding the ball in premium positions, yet she’s been steadily refining her balance, agility and technique to further improve her play outside the area, where she now uses the body to shield opponents off the ball and connect with colleagues.

Those characteristics will be essential for a Norwegian squad that isn’t exactly suited to dominate possession and play with a high line like most favourites, and if Hegerberg can still lead them on a deep run, she immediately jumps to the front of the pack regarding the FIFA Women’s Player of the Year award.

Player to watch: Caroline Graham Hansen (VFL Wolfsburg, GER)

Absolutely ravaged by injuries since her breakout performance as a teenager at the 2013 edition, Caroline Hansen will be trying to make up for lost time as the hand to Ada Hegerberg’s blade in Dutch land.

An electrifying, free-spirited talent that demolishes defenders in direct confrontation, at his best Hansen is virtually unmatched in women’s football for her ability to sprint with the ball down the flank, break lines in possession and craft deadly passes to put teammates in front of the goal.

Norway’s Caroline Graham Hansen leaves an opponent in the dust in this match against Spain

She’ll have carte blanche to wander all over the final third and opponents would be wise to never lose sight of the skinny No.10 with “Graham” plastered on the back of the jersey. As would every spectator, since she’s that good and incredibly fun to watch.

Probable Lineup (4x3x1x2): I. Hjelmseth, I. Wold – M. Mjelde (C) – N. Holstad Berge – E. Thorsnes; I.  Schjelderup – I. Spord –Andr. Hegerberg; C. Hansen; A. Hegerberg – K. Minde

Norway’s nominal set up is the 4x3x1x2, with Hansen free to roam behind two strikers, but without the ball Martin Sjögren demands they shift to a 4x4x2, with Minde (or Emilie Haavi) dropping back to complete the line of four in the midfield and Hansen joining Hegerberg to form a two-person unit pressing the opponents up top.

This option is partially explained by a relative distrust in the elements manning the operations in the halfway line, which lack seasoning at the international level. None of Schjelderup (29 years old), Spord (23), Andrine Hegerberg (Ada’s big sister, 24), Anja Sønstevold (25), Guro Reiten (22) or Frida Maanum (17) has collected more than 25 international caps and therefore, on occasion, Sjögren may advance captain Maren Mjelde and slot Maria Thorisdottir as a center-back.

Denmark

After going all the way to the brink of the final four years ago in spite of failing to record a single triumph in Sweden, Denmark will conceivably need to wring more out of their group to emulate that run in 2017.

The Danes will have their work cut out trying to deceive the Netherlands and/or Norway, but they certainly won’t fizzle due to a shortage of international experience. The Danish roster comprises plenty of returnees that are expected to assume large roles, and no player expected to start in their crucial tournament opener versus Belgium is under 24 years old.

Qualification: 2nd place in Group 4 (6W, 1D, 1L), 2 pts behind Sweden

Finals Appearance: Ninth

Best Performance: Semi-Finals (1984, 2001, 2013)

Coach: Nils Nielsen

Star Player: Pernille Mosegaard-Harder (VFL Wolfsburg, GER)

Denmark’s Pernille Harder makes a run

The Danish captain found another gear in 2015, when 17 goals in 22 games merited the distinction as MVP of the Swedish League, the Damallsvenskan, and she hasn’t looked back since then on her way to become one of the most complete forwards in women’s football and the precious touchstone of Denmark’s national team.

An elusive player that can dodge defenders with deft touches and play in tight spaces, Harder likes to drop back to create and explore the vacant spots between the lines, but she’s also a clinical finisher with a sharp right foot that is a serious threat from set pieces.

After vaulting Linköping to the Swedish title in 2016 on the back of 24 strikes, Harder filled calls from every top club in the World and eventually chose to sign with Wolfsburg in January 2017, providing the final ingredient on their successful attempt to recapture the German Championship. She now has the responsibility of doing similar work for her country.

Player to watch: Nicoline Sørensen (Brøndby IF)

A key performer for Brøndby IF, which recently reclaimed the Danish Elitedivisionen, Nicoline Sørensen is a daring winger/forward on the verge of breaking out for the national team as soon as a position opens up in the forward ranks. At the moment, she’s behind Harder, Nadia Nadim and club teammate Stine Larsen in the pecking order, but the slender 19-year-old will be an important alternative for head coach Nils Nielsen if he finds the need to instil more bravado and speed into his formation during the tournament.

Too talented for the Danish league, Sørensen will return to Sweden after the European Championships, hoping to increment her development at Linköpings FC and amend a fruitless stint as a 17-year-old for rivals FC Rosengård.

Probable Lineup (4x4x2): S. Lykke-Petersen; T. Nielsen – S. Boye Sørensen – J. Arnth Jensen – L. Røddik Hansen; S. Troelsgaard Nielsen – L. Sigvardsen Jensen – N. Christiansen – K. Veje; P. HarderN. Nadim

Denmark’s basic structure is the 4x4x2, but they’re not afraid to mix it up with interesting variants. For instance, against Belgium in the first game, don’t be surprised if they showcase an offensive, diamond-shaped midfield, sacrificing Sigvardsen Jensen to post Nanna Christiansen as the only anchor and turn Pernille Harder into the creative fulcrum behind strikers Nadia Nadim and Stine Larsen.

The intrusive offensive positioning of right back Theresa Nielsen is a factor of turbulence for Denmark’s opposition

Furthermore, Denmark is also inclined to implement a backline of three when building from the back, pushing right back Theresa Nielsen up the corridor to provide width in the same horizontal line of left wingback Katrine Veje, and allowing Troelsgaard Nielsen to overload interior domains and move closer to Harder.

The Danes conceded just one goal in qualifying and scored 22 – the same total as group winners Sweden – and tactical malleability was one of their secrets.

Belgium

After coming close to reach the 2013 European Championships and the 2015 World Cup, Belgium finally booked its place on a major international tournament for the first time, and did it in comfortable fashion, edging third-place Serbia by 7 points. However, things will now get trickier for the “Red Flames”, who got hosed by Spain in a humbling 7-0 rout just weeks prior to the tournament, and can’t be considered more than outsiders in Group A.

Qualification: 2nd place in Group 7 (5W, 2D, 1L), 5 pts behind England

Finals Appearances: First

Best Performance: Debutants

Coach: Ives Serneels

Star Player: Tessa Wullaert (VFL Wolfsburg, GER)

Belgium’s Tessa Wullaert controls the ball under the watchful eye of an English player

While not a prominent feature of Wolfsburg’s attack, Wullaert established herself as a useful piece and a regular solution off the bench for the current German Champions since her move from Standard Liège in 2015. The 24-year-old had outgrown the Belgium League and the national team benefitted from the new impulses and learnings picked up by Wullaert in the Frauen-Bundesliga, where she developed into the hard-working, resourceful forward that led the Euro 2017 qualifying phase with 9 assists to add to four important goals.

With Belgium, Wullaert is usually asked to operate across the attacking zone, whip set pieces and take on defenders, but at this tournament she’ll probable fill an even larger role, working tirelessly without the ball to make ends meet against three superior opponents. It’s not the right stage for her to shine, but it’s what a star player needs to do when his team is significantly outgunned.

Player to watch: Tine de Caigny (RSC Anderlecht)

Due to her height and sprightliness, 20-year-old midfielder Tine de Caigny is a noticeable presence on the Belgium lineup, where she uses her stature to win battles and dominate in the air, not unlike fellow Belgian footballer Marouane Fellaini. However, de Caigny lacks the patented, voluminous mane and doesn’t shake the earth when she walks, with her feet and passing already at a decent level for a young athlete that started out as a defender.

Hereby, take the time to seize her up at the center of the park, or stretching up the field to respond to goal kicks and long balls from the defence, all while hoping her resolute activity can afford a breather to the members of Belgium’s backline.

Tine de Caigny in action against Norway

Probable Lineup (4x4x2): J. Odeurs; M. Coutereels – A. Zeler (C) – H. Jaques – D. Philtjens; J. Biesmans – T. de Caigny – E. van Wynendaele – E. van Gorp ; T. Wullaert – J. Cayman

During qualification, Belgium achieved success riding the dangerous forward combination of Wullaert and Montpellier’s Janice Cayman, but Ives Serneels may well opt for a more cautious approach in the Netherlands, harmonizing a 4x4x1x1 that can unfurl onto a 4x2x3x1 in offense.

In this case, Cayman would be the lone attacker bothering the opposing center backs, with de Caigny offering support and an outlet, while Wullaert would drift wide to cover the right flank and Julie Biesmans would tuck inside to help screen the backline alongside Elien van Wynendaele or the more experienced Lenie Onzia.

Review: German Football Museum

On Wednesday, March 8th, I attended the Borussia Dortmund-SL Benfica Champions League match contested at the Westfallenstadion in Dortmund. You can read about my experience here if you haven’t already. In this follow-up post, I aim to review my visit to the German Football Museum, which occurred in the following morning.

On Thursday, with a few hours to spare, the grey weather persisting and the harbinger of a few showers, I mulled over two options: take the metro to the Westfallenpark, check the scenery and visit the Borusseum, Borussia’s museum, or, in alternative, clamp down in the brand-new building located just a few steps away, which catches the eye as soon as you leave Dortmund’s Hbf. You can guess where this is going.

The facade of the German Football Museum

Since 2015, after beating thirteen other German cities for the honour, Dortmund has the privilege of being the home site of the Deutsches Fußballmuseum (German Football Museum), established by the Deutscher Fußball-Bund (German Football Federation, DFB) with the profits of the 2006 World Cup.

While I hold no close ties or special esteem for any German club or Die Mannschaft, I’m still an irredeemable football nerd, therefore I relished the chance to visit the museum of the world’s largest single-sport federation, comprising more than 25,000 clubs and 6.8 million members. Even so, I certainly flinched at the 17€ entrance toll. The museum had a lot to live up to in order to justify the price of admission, but I definitely didn’t exit dissatisfied some three hours later.

Visitors are welcomed to the venue by a rising illustration along the escalators of German football fans from all creeds and provenances, including an exulting Angela Merkel, and you quickly reach the first floor, entirely dedicated to the national teams and the Federation’s history.

The starting point is a section dedicated to the 1954 World Cup winning team, who authored the “Miracle of Bern” to defeat the mighty Hungarians, but you soon get acquainted with a timeline describing the 117 years of the German Federation.

I was looking forward to see how they would deal with the Nazi years and came pleasantly surprised. No bleach was used and you learn in detail, with documentation and news reports, how the societal and political developments affected the structure of the sport in Germany. You can read not only about the restrictions imposed by the Nazi regime, but also about the persecutions to Jewish players, from which Julius Hirsch, a German international who would perish in Auschwitz, is the banner name.

The Tribute to the “Kaiser”

Moving on, the most memorable moments in Germany’s national team history take center stage. The 1974 World Cup title conquered on home soil against Johan Cruijff’s Netherlands. The clash with Maradona’s Argentina at Italy 90, where Franz Beckenbauer became the first man to win the World Cup both as a player and coach. The “Kaiser” merited his own tribute, shaped in the form of his iconic Number 5, but not only the greatest triumphs are celebrated in this space.

There’s an area dedicated to the “Game of the Century”, the 1970 semi-final clash in Mexico where Italy defeat West Germany by 4-3, and an amusing board remembering the polemic goal by Geoff Hurst which propelled England to victory at the 1966 World Cup Final. A forensic investigation was launched to comprehend whether the ball fell past the goal line or not, and visitors are invited to share their opinion. I voted YES, yet the NO’s advantage isn’t as big as you might think (something like 60 to 40). I suppose Dortmund gets more foreign visitors than I thought…

Investigating Geoff Hurst’s goal at Wembley in 1966

I was happy to notice women’s football gets a fair recognition in the museum, including an exhibit of the trophies won by the National team, some historical jerseys and remarks about the evolution of the female game and the success achieved by German clubs internationally.

The ladies have their due share of the spotlight

The history of East Germany’s football, its clubs and the confronts between the East and West representations, is also part of the museum and, as we move into the XXI century, the tremendous investment made by the DFB on youth academies and talent development in the early 2000’s jumps to the forefront, disembarking on an area dominated by the 2014 World Cup triumph (Remember Paul, the Octopus?).

The monumental 7-1 thumping of Brazil doesn’t get as much buzz as I would like, but I understand they have to prioritize the events on the Final against Argentina. You get a detailed breakdown of the action during the 120 minutes and Mario Götze’s tournament-winning volley, before guests are invited to a 3D video presentation.

Every aspect of the 2014 World Cup Final is dissected to the limit

This is where the heroes of 2014 run the show. The hologram of Bastian Schweinsteiger, draped in the German flag, is the first to appear, and he is soon joined by Captain Philip Lahm to reminisce on the journey in Brazil, from the first days in the seaside training camp resort in Salvador to the final at Maracanã Stadium. Mats Hümmels and Thomas Müller keep the ball rolling, with an exchange probably filmed before they became club buddies, and later Manuel Neuer, recapping his sensational sweeper performance against Algeria, and the inevitable Götze also make glossy cameos.

By this time, the former German World Cup teams have been immortalized, and the movie ends with the band chirping a cheery Christoph Kramer, who you may remember as the guy who lost his memory and had to be subbed out in the Final. I watched the German-speaking version (couldn’t wait for the English subtitles) but was still able to pick up on the banter thrown around, which resonated well with the locals.

The World Cup trophy up close

After the presentation, you’re ushered onto the ground floor to get introduced to the Jules Rimet Trophy and the Henri Delaunay Cup. Or, for the initiated, the World Cup and European Championships trophies won by the men’s national team. From then on, the focus shifts to all other facets of the beautiful game, duly enriched by tons of interactive panels and videos.

You can learn, for example, about the coaches that shaped German football and their tactical advancements, the legendary German broadcasters, the history of club football in the country, from the first competitions to the formation and emancipation of the Bundesliga, the football fans and its myriad traditions and idiosyncrasies, or the evolution of German stadiums. Before leaving, you’re allowed to explore and seat on a replica of the bus used by the reigning World Champions, and exercise on the small multiple purpose arena and adjoined play zone.

Memorabilia abounds at the museum

In short, the German Football museum is a comprehensive football experience that is sure to please travelling enthusiasts with a desire to explore, learn about or study the game. If you meet the requirements, take the plunge and I believe you’ll depart after a few hours well spent.

Field Report: A pilgrimage to Dortmund

The list of mythical football stadiums is a short one: Wembley, La Bombonera, the Santiago Bernabéu, Camp Nou, San Siro, Maracanã, Estadio Azteca, Old Trafford. These are the ones most fans would rattle off from the top of their head and, even if you can make a case for a few more, they all have something in common. The glittering location in some of the World’s biggest metropolis, where millions of visitors can appreciate their grandiosity, indulge in their splendorous history and, eventually, find a way inside to experience a match.

That definitely isn’t the case in Dortmund, a city of 600,000 people placated on the densely populated Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan region, where 11M people live in an area of just over 7000 km2, smaller than Cyprus, the 162th biggest country in the world. For long, this part of Germany has been known for its heavy industry and therefore it’s a far cry from most touristic routes, with Dortmund further outshone by the likes of Düsseldorf, North Rhine-Westphalia’s state capital and a major business and financial centre, and Cologne (Köln), the fourth largest city in Germany and the main cultural hub in the province.

Nevertheless, despite lacking the charm and allure of other destinations, Dortmund is a place wholly familiar for football fans around the globe, and its Westfallenstadion an emblematic location for an outstanding, enduring sporting experience wrapped in black and yellow, the colours of the local deity, German football giants Ballspielverein Borussia 09 e.V. Dortmund or, simply, Borussia Dortmund.

With a sizeable season ticket waiting list and sell-out crowds in every match, securing an ingress by official channels to a Borussia Dortmund match is tremendously difficult for an outsider, so you might as well just pray your favourite team faces them off. As the whims of the 2016-17 Champions League draw pitted Borussia and my beloved SL Benfica in the last 16, I quickly set out to make the best of an exceptional opportunity to scratch an item off my bucket list.

This post relays my experience in the city of Dortmund and the all-around feeling of being inside one of football’s most renowned cathedrals.

Getting to Dortmund

Situated in the middle of Western Europe and not far from Germany’s borders with France, Belgium and the Netherlands, you can say that it’s more difficult to decide how to reach Dortmund than to get there. Departing from my native Lisbon, the closest options included flying directly to Düsseldorf International Airport, some 60km away, or Cologne-Bonn Airport (100km), whereas Dortmund Airport, a minor infrastructure situated 10km east of the city, is connected a few times per week with Porto. However, forecasting muddy prospects of guaranteeing a ticket in timely fashion and backed off by a relative shortage of travel options, I opted to plan for the worst and try a different approach.

Europe’s dense railway network is a major asset for travellers and that means Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam are, daily, just a few hours away from Dortmund without the need for multiple stopovers. As I had some unfinished history in Amsterdam to take care off, the dilemma sorted itself out and on the 6th of March, after two months of anticipation, I finally hopped on a plane towards the Dutch capital. An untimely strike by France’s aerial controllers delayed my departure for a few hours but, taking into account that more than a handful of flights were cancelled in the next 48 hours derailing the plans of many of my fellow Benfiquistas, I can’t really complain. Tuesday, the 7th, was spent threading the streets of Amsterdam, but the big day would soon arrive and I had to decide how to commute to my destination.

Amsterdam is linked to Dortmund by a daily bus connection (taking around 4 hours) operated by German company Flixbus, yet you should book your place in advance, online, for a reasonably price (as low as 15€) or pay significantly more as a walk-in, provided seats are still available. For this exact route, it’s definitely the most cost effective option, but the flexibility and magnetism of train travel swooped in and I foolishly (in purely economic terms) decided to take the ICE (Inter-City Express) train at around 10:30am. The convoy departing from Amsterdam Centraal Station heads to Frankfurt with multiple sojourns before and after the border, and consequently I had to make a rapid switch for another ICE at Duisburg, finally arriving at Dortmund Hauptbahnhof just short of three and a half hours after taking off from North Holland.

Pre-match ambiance and Dortmund City Center

Welcoming me and fellow Benfica fans to Dortmund was a somber day, with light rain dropping almost incessantly for most of the next 24h, the time span of my presence in town. After dropping the baggage at the accommodation, situated just a few hundred meters from the central train station, we headed to the city center via Brückstrasse, a nightlife thoroughfare occupied primarily by fast food restaurants and bars, and soon reached the main cluster of places of interest, if we can call it that.

I don’t want to slam too hard on Dortmund, especially because my stay was short, but it looked entirely insipid and dull. You’ll find the odd, bland-looking church or classical building but downtown is mostly a slab of office buildings, galleries, large banks and shopping malls, with modern, uninspiring constructions taking over premium estate. This can be partially explained by the severe bombings suffered by Dortmund during World War II, specifically in 1945, when, reportedly, 98% of the buildings in the inner city got destroyed.

Dortmund

The Markt, the most lacklustre central plaza I’ve seen, contains an official Borussia Dortmund store to cater to the desires of football fans and is also the essential point around which are located most of the establishments that were invaded by the visiting fans. With beer flowing freely, a lively atmosphere was brimming around here as the afternoon advanced but, as soon as you strolled around, it quickly dissipated into the gloomy spectre that mirrored the weather. Truth be told, we didn’t stagger more than a few avenues in the inner city, and the eighth largest urban center in Germany certainly has much more to see, but, unless you’re looking for a shopping spree or have a lot of time in your hands, the city probably won’t justify the visit. I guess there’s a reason Dortmund is home to such football fandom: there’s not a lot else to focus on.

Anyway, when the cacophony of Portuguese increased as match time drew closer and civilians left their work, Dortmund fans joined in on the fun and I was pleased to notice the friendly coexistence amongst the sides, with no locus of tension as far as I could see. This wasn’t exactly a surprise though, since Dortmund is a town used to greet football fans, happy to showcase tremendous hospitality, and respectful of people keen to celebrate the game and their passion. Hooligans notwithstanding, obviously. It would be great if international football could be always like this.

Benfica and Dortmund fans mingling at the Markt

Taking in the city vibe on Champions League day was something I was looking forward to, but with some 2:30h to go until kick off, it was time to head to the Stadium. A crucial task was awaiting me there, so I took the metro at Stadgarten towards the Westafallenstadion, planted 3.5 km south of downtown Dortmund

On game day, you can ride the subway by free possessing a match ticket and in 10-15 min the U45 line takes you to the “Stadion” station. When that isn’t the case, an adult ticket costs 2.70€ and the closest stop is at the Westfallenpark.

The Westfallenstadion

If there’s something I wish I could change about the trip was the match’s starting time. I would have liked to be able to distinguish the surroundings of the stadium, particularly the neighbouring Westfallenpark, but it was already pitch dark when I arrived. Nevertheless, just as you leave the station, you immediately notice a Biergarten and the locals enjoying their pre-game drink before traversing the short walk to the glitzy venue in sight, where the letters forming “Signal Iduna Park” beam on the night. By the way, I’ll keep ignoring the official designation here, since I don’t get payed to make publicity and grew up with the traditional WestfallenStadion moniker.

The intimidating venue lit up on the night

The yellow is omnipresent on the way to the stadium as the passageways are riffed with stalls serving bratwursts, pretzels and beer or selling merchandising, but my mind was somewhere else by this time. After ditching my backpack in the proper cabin (0.5€), I glimpsed the entrance for visiting fans just in time to see Benfica’s bus arrive to the rousing applause of their mantle of supporters. Once again, without as much as a cringe from the locals.

Less than two hours were left until the opening whistle, so I proceeded to frantically pace up and down the street trying to luck out. A whisper. A fortunate encounter. Some back and forth. I was finally clutching my magical paper.  Time to approach the gates, get patted down, scan the ticket at the turnstiles. Three months of uncertainty ending right there. What a marvellous feeling to hike the stairs of the biggest stadium in Germany and one of the most iconic in World football.

Opened in 1974 right beside Dortmund’s former home, the Stadion Rote Erde (which still stands under the watchful eye of its successor), the Westfallenstadiom is far from worn down, having suffered renovations on multiple occasions over the last 30 years, yet doesn’t possess the same comforts of the stadiums purposely built for the 2006 World Cup. The cement of the stands isn’t disguised, there are no glossy details, the concourses, especially on the second level, are a bit cramped due to the supporting pillars, and the food lanes difficult circulation.

The concourses. Plus a famous Benfica fan on the background.

However, there’s no shortage of toilets or food stalls, with the latter dispatching customers fast because they don’t handle cash. That’s right. You’ll have to approach the ladies carrying a banner to obtain the stadium card, which will be loaded with the amount you want and swiped when you order something. At the end of the game, you can keep it as a souvenir and/or head to the corresponding huts, located outside of the stadium, looking to be reimbursed of the remaining funds. Simple and efficient.

Six euros lighter and carrying a drink and a pretzel (Bretzel in German), I meandered for a bit before searching for my seat in sector 54 of the Osttribüne (East Stand), on the far right, top-level section of one of the central stands. The view from the sector’s entrance looked promising but I still had to hurdle up the stairs… all the way to the last row of the steep stand. From there, the design of the roof obstructs a panorama of the whole stadium, with the top of the farthest stands out of sight, yet I was still delighted. Just a dozen of seats separated my spot from the mesh enclosing more than 3,000 Benfica fans. I couldn’t have wished for better at the day’s beginning.

Benfica warms up

The stadium slowly filled up in the following minutes and the raucous visiting section dominated the noise battle until the eternal “You’ll Never Walk Alone” started blasting from the speakers and the throats of the locals. Scarfs stretched atop, teams on the ground, the spine-tingling Champions League anthem, a splendid tifo elevated from the vaunted  SüdTribüne remembering the outcome of the tie contested 53 years ago, and 65,849 fans – sold out but short of the 81,000 allowed for domestic matches – oozing the fervent enthusiasm before a decisive match in the most beautiful football competition ever. It doesn’t get much better than this.

The 90 minutes and the epic 12 in the middle

Guess I can’t just skip this part, right?

Benfica held a 1-0 advantage heading into the second leg, courtesy of Kostas Mitroglou goal in Lisbon, but the Portuguese Champions were severely outplayed at home and it wasn’t difficult to anticipate Dortmund would put the pedal down at the start to erase the deficit as quickly as possible.

To counter that, Benfica’s coach added muscle to his midfield in André Almeida, hoping that his three-man inverted midfield could close down on Dortmund’s build-up from the back three, while Thomas Tuchel opted for the aggressive 3-4-3 that controlled the proceedings in Portugal, with irreverent youngsters Ousmane Dembélé and Christian Pulišić roaming behind prolific striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

First Half

Surprise, surprise, the hosts came out roaring and it took a whole three minutes to get on the board. After Benfica’s captain, Luisão, panicked on Dortmund’s first approach and conceded a corner kick, Pulišić’s deflection on the first post encountered Aubameyang unmarked on the far side, with the Gabonese nodding the ball past the outstretched Ederson. It was a terrible start yet, as my mind wandered to a similar beginning at the QF of last year’s Champions League against Bayern Munich, Dortmund kept creating havoc in Benfica’s area, threatening a second and galvanizing the home fans.

Fortunately, the visitors didn’t fold and after the 20-minute mark finally settled down, with Nélson Semedo’s bold escapades up the right flank persuading his teammates forward. Benfica’s newfound ability to retain possession calmed down Dortmund’s electric pace and the game gradually fell into a standstill, despite a couple of openings that allowed the Portuguese to target Roman Bürki’s net and the omnipresent danger of Aubameyang and Dembélé’s darting runs on the other half.

The atmosphere and a sensational halftime

During the first 45 min, I kept glancing at the other stands to appreciate the spectacle and there’s no doubt the Yellow Wall at the SüdTribune is a sight to behold, even with the mass of people curtailed by UEFA’s stance against standing-only terraces. They may fall short of the usual 25,000 fanatical voices, but still made a whole lot of noise after ramping up efforts following kick-off. However, for all the vibrancy inside a venue whose architecture enhances sound retention, I couldn’t help to feel a tinge of disappointment regarding the support coming out from the rest of Dortmund’s faithful.

The Yellow Wall

It may not be discernible on television, but the vast majority was simply following the match as most football fans do everywhere: wheezing, gasping, heckling and, eventually, bursting when Dortmund scored. They followed the SüdTribüne’s lead on a couple of “BVB! BVB!” chants, and came to life for a few minutes after the third goal, when the home crowd exhaled, leaped from the seats and jumped in unison, shaking the building’s foundations, but not much more. Nonetheless, if you still believe in amphitheatres where 80,000 raging spectators impel their team forward over 90 minutes in a maniacal frenzy, you’re in for a letdown.

As for Benfica fans, modesty aside, we were more than up for the task, rebounding quickly from the early sucker-punch and the two quick knockout blows that would later follow, and keeping the faith until the very end. In normal circumstances, I would have already been proud of our top-notch performance during the 90 minutes of playing time (except for an unfortunate incident in the second half that was quickly dissipated), yet we far exceeded whatever expectations I could have had while the world of football looked away at the interval.

Words cannot describe what happened in those twelve minutes at halftime, with the players out of sight, television cameras shut down, few journalists on duty and many German fans away from their seats. It wasn’t a simple serenade, it wasn’t exhibitionism, it wasn’t a show of strength directed at the opposing ultras. It will go down as an utterly spontaneous, vocal love letter by 3500 devotees on a cold night in Dortmund.

I’ll forever be grateful for having been at that sacred temple in those minutes, able to assimilate every second of it. Able to experience whatever coursed through my body while I closed my eyes and belted out “Benfica, O Amor da Minha Vida” (Benfica, the love of my life) in loop until my voice started trailing off, undone by raw passion. Those twelve epic, magical minutes will live forever in the hearts of all of us, and, pardon the exaggeration, inhabit that place for a long time, attached to the cement and steel of the Westfallenstadion.

However, that riveting display couldn’t have been possible without the solemn deference by our opponents on the night and its fans. There wasn’t any intention to halt the show in those minutes where we took their house from them. No deafening tune drowning our chants. No booing. No recriminations of any sort. Just a bunch of smiling faces in awe, capturing the moment, admiring a truly special rendition and, finally, applauding the foreigners as their heroes came back into the pitch for the play to resume. Those thousands on the stands certainly headed home with vivid memoirs and increased appreciation for Sport Lisboa e Benfica.

Benfica fans put on a show during 90…105 minutes

Second half and post-match

At the break, the tie was up for grabs and the Portuguese appeared to come back from the room more determined to collect a crucial away goal that would alter the complexion of the matchup. On the 48th minute, a failed clear off a cross awarded Franco Cervi a golden chance to do just that, but his shot couldn’t puncture the yellow wall of Dortmund players that dived in desperation for a goal-saving block. Up in the stands, with a scream still stuck in my larynx, I wondered whether our ticket to the quarter-finals had just flown out of the stadium and, regrettably, time would prove I was right.

A series of corners and free kicks kept the ball around Dortmund’s box for the next five minutes as our confidence was soaring, yet it all vanished in a hurry. The hosts regained composure, encircled Benfica’s area, forged two point-blank chances where Aubameyang (in offside position) was brilliantly rebuffed by Ederson, and then dropped the hammer just before the hour mark. With the defence still reeling from another period of incessant pressure, Łukasz Piszczek solicited Christian Pulišić with a superb through ball that caught centre-back Victor Lindelöf napping, and the American teenager niftily chipped the ball over the onrushing Brazilian goalkeeper.

The visitors now needed to score to keep their hopes alive, yet Dortmund fans were barely back on their seats when the hill got even steeper. A brilliant diagonal ball by Julian Weigl met left back Marcel Schmelzer on the edge of the box, and he drilled it perfectly towards Aubameyang, who only had to tuck the ball in to secure a brace on the night.

Aubameyang was at his best on the night of Dortmund ((Photo by Lars Baron/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Just like that, in a couple of minutes, the sky had come crashing down on us, but 30 minutes were left on the clock and we could only escalate the vocal support to try to inspire an improbable revival. However, Dortmund soon smothered any semblance of response from the visitors, who proved incapable of knifing past the suffocating German pressure and engineer a clear-cut chance for the rest of the match.

When Aubameyang completed his hat trick five minutes from time, after a Benfica turnover in the midfield turned into a textbook counter-attack, the gap in play between the teams over the two games was expressed in the final 4-1 scoreline. The best team over the majority of the 180 minutes was, undoubtedly, Borussia Dortmund and when that happens you accept the outcome, congratulate the other side and pick up the pieces wishing to return stronger the next time around.

In the end, after the German players executed a customary routine of celebration with the Yellow Wall, both sets of fans cheered their own and applauded the performance of their opponents, both on the field and in the stands, with the utmost respect that ruled the encounter extending until the very end.

I delayed my exit from the stadium for a few minutes to avoid the masses, take it all in a bit more, check the highlights of the mindboggling happenings in the Barcelona-PSG match, and wait for the release of the rest of the Benfica faithful. Due to the swift and competent work by the German police, that didn’t take long – contrary to what happens so many times in other countries – and soon the away fans were allowed to leave the premises, free to chase a way to drown their sorrows.

With a heavy heart, I said goodbye to the Westfallenstadion and strutted, alongside my people, in the direction of the metro station and, eventually, the city centre. A change of scenery loomed the following day as my journey continued, but I still wanted to take advantage of the morning in Dortmund, so I bunked up in short order with a bittersweet pot of memories flashing ceaselessly.

This post is already way…way…way too long, but if you wish to read about my whereabouts in Dortmund the following morning, click here.

If not, I can tell you that soon after exiting the museum (spoiler alert!), I left Dortmund towards Cologne, which ended up as an inspired decision, and would later return to Amsterdam – after a 24 hour detour in Utrecht – to fly home. Unfortunately, no further sport adventures were on the cards as scheduling issues derailed my prospects of attending an ice hockey match at Cologne’s Lanxess Arena, and the Amsterdam Arena sold out for Ajax’s weekend appointment.

And that’s it for this field report. Cross your fingers for another one, hopefully sooner rather than later. Thanks for reading and making it this far!

Seven indelible sports moments in 2016

Another year has just ended and, as happened in 2015, I decided to look back on the most memorable sports moments we were able to witness in the last twelve months, an exercise of paramount importance in order to cherish and vindicate the hundreds of hours that were left behind on the road to placate this passion.

As you certainly noticed, 2016 was an Olympic year and the action in Rio de Janeiro was front and centre on the summer news, yet in this article I’ll only reflect on the other memories that stuck out, encompassing monumental upsets and comebacks, titanic clashes, extraordinary team and individual achievements and brilliant performances. Therefore, seven moments were selected and recollected as I tried to provide some background on what was at stake, recap the events as they happened, and point out their importance in the context of the respective sport.

As usual, keep in mind the inherent subjectivity of this list, tremendously affected by my own predilections, knowledge and desire to supplement as much diversity as possible, from the amount of sports referenced to the type of realization celebrated, but without venturing into areas I don’t comprehend (I’m sorry, Chicago Cubs fans).

Before diving in, let me stress out again that no Olympic moment was considered in this article as I’ll reminisce on them and the Rio Games as a whole in a few days. Come back later for that.

Leicester City wins the English Premier League

By now you’ve seen the number: 5000-to-1, the odds assigned by an English bookmaker to a potential Premier League triumph by Leicester City in 2015-16, the quantitative assertion of one of the greatest upsets in sports’ history and a beacon for every team hoping to break the established hierarchies.

Jamie Vardy (#9) and Riyad Mahrez (#26) celebrate another crucial goal for Leicester City's Premier League title campaign.

Jamie Vardy (#9) and Riyad Mahrez (#26) celebrate another crucial goal for Leicester City’s Premier League title campaign.

The Foxes barely staved off relegation in 2014-15 and the appointment of Italian journeyman coach Claudio Ranieri, whose career was stacked with near misses, was far from inspiring, yet a strong start of the season, capped by four consecutive wins from fixtures 10 to 13th, surprisingly propelled Leicester to the top of the League at the end of November.  It was still early and around the corner loomed a demanding segment of the calendar, consequently many expected things to fall into place, however that didn’t happen.

Starting with a home draw against Manchester United in the game that allowed Jamie Vardy to beat the record for scoring in consecutive matches, passing through a crucial 1-0 victory at White Hart Laine over Tottenham, and ending with a superb triumph at Manchester City in early February, Leicester turned from surprise bunch to full-fledged title contender by standing ground against every Premier League heavyweight (except Arsenal), leaving unscathed and, more importantly, in the lead.

Later, when Leicester racked up four straight 1-0 wins in March, it started to sink on everyone that they would really complete the miracle, with the celebrations exploding on May 2nd as pursuers Tottenham Hotspurs blew a two goal-lead at Chelsea in matchday 36.

Dilly Ding, Dilly Dong. Ranieri’s boys and their fairy-tale adventure had just reached its epic conclusion and time had come to revel in their party and laud its main characters. Kasper Schmeichel, the Danish goalie whose saves kept the Foxes together in so many occasions. The Captain Wes Morgan and partner Robert Huth, the unflinching central duo patrolling the defence. Danny Drinkwater and the indefatigable N’Golo Kanté, always pacing the midfield. Riyad Mahrez, the creative fulcrum with a magical left foot. Jamie Vardy, the late-blooming spearhead whose 24 goals validated Leicester’s blistering counter-attacking style. We owe them all a story to remember for years to come.

LeBron James wills the Cleveland Cavaliers into the Promised Land

When LeBron James decided to take his talents to South Beach back in 2010, few would have predicted how his story would unfold to culminate on the night of June 19, 2016. The local prodigy turned hero turned villain turned saviour returned home in 2014 tugging two rings on his fingers and a promise to finally bring a Championship to Northern Ohio, yet you would be hard pressed to find a better script converting a dream into reality.

For the second consecutive year, the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers faced off in the NBA Final and once again the frontrunners were the Californians, coming off an historic 73-win regular season. Steph Curry and his band crafted a 3-1 lead just like had happened in 2015, but the turning point came late in Game 4, when Draymond Green, the Warriors do-it-all centre, punched James in the nuts. The NBA couldn’t turn a blind eye and Green was suspended for game 5, a potential clincher where LeBron and Cavaliers’ point guard Kyrie Irving banked 41 points each to extend the series. Despite the return of Green, the Warriors were flustered in Game 6 back in Cleveland and the stage was set for an epic Game 7 at the Oracle Arena, probably the loudest atmosphere in the League.

Cleveland's Kyrie Irving rises above Steph Curry to hit the go-ahead 3-pointer in Game 7

Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving rises above Steph Curry to hit the go-ahead 3-pointer in Game 7

As lead changes abounded throughout the match, the sides remained tied at 89 in the closing minutes before a series of devastating events unfurled, moments that will be forever etched in Cavaliers’ history as “The block”, “The Shot” and “The Stop”. First, a thunderous chase down block by James on Andre Iguodala avoided a layup that would give a 91-89 advantage to the Warriors. Then, Irving danced in front of Curry before launching an incredible go-ahead three-pointer for the visitors. A few seconds later, the oft-criticized Kevin Love locked down Curry, the unanimous regular season MVP, on the perimeter to preserve the vital lead. A free-throw by James with 10.6 seconds to go would set the final score at 93-89 and complete the first comeback from 3-1 down in the history of the NBA Finals.

Fifty-two years had passed since the last major professional sports title for the city of Cleveland and LeBron James’ emotional words in the end summed up the dramatic feat: “Cleveland, this is for you”.

With that, the prodigal son, the Kid from Akron, was finally a legend to his people and the city that had adopted him was no longer the laughingstock of American sports.

Novak Djokovic finally conquers Roland Garros to complete the Career Grand Slam

On my list of top sports moments of 2015, Novak Djokovic’s performance at Roland Garros made an appearance as the Serbian wasted a golden opportunity to knock off the major missing piece on his résumé and I wondered whether he would have as good a chance again. It turned out the answer was positive, since the 29-year-old redeemed himself in 2016 to become the eight man to complete the career Grand Slam and, in the process, established a milestone for modern tennis.

This year’s edition of the French Major – already missing Roger Federer – lost its all-time winningest player early, since Rafael Nadal withdrew before the third round, and that occurrence flung open the door for Djokovic, who waltzed to a fourth Roland Garros Final appearance by dropping a single set in six matches. Meanwhile, on the other side of the draw, Andy Murray had to overcome two five-setters in the first week before grinding past home-favourite Richard Gasquet (QF) and defending champion Stan Wawrinka (SF), clocking five more hours on court than his rival.

A blissful Novak Djokovic's finally lifts the winners' trophy at Roland Garros

A blissful Novak Djokovic finally lifts the winners’ trophy at Roland Garros

Nonetheless, the dream contest between World No.1 and World No.2 was arranged and it was Murray who came out guns blazing, snatching the first 6-3 due to an imposing serve and consistent strokes off both wings. The Scot had never beaten Djokovic after losing the inaugural set, and he came close to taking a grip on the match in the first game of the second, yet the Serbian held serve and managed to turn the tide by breaking Murray right after, forging a momentum he would not relinquish. With his forehand dominating the rallies and exhibiting an air-tight defence, Djokovic cruised through the second and third sets, winning 6-1, 6-2, and later broke Murray twice in the fourth to close on the trophy.

With the crowd on his side, hoping to glimpse history, and serving at 5-2, the 11-time Grand Slam Champion was engulfed by the nerves, eventually conceding a break, but he managed to pull through the intolerable tension of the moment, clinching the match after Murray plopped a ball to the net on the third Championship point.

Nole had finally secured Roland Garros to complete his Grand Slam set and, more importantly, guarantee a place on a list none of his contemporaries has been able to crack. Already the reigning Champion at Wimbledon (2015), the US Open (2015) and the Australian Open (2016), Djokovic joined Don Budge (1937-38) and Rod Laver (1962/1969) as the only three men to hold the four tennis Grand Slams at the same time, further implanting his name in the history books.

Back in June, Djokovic still dreamed of completing the calendar Grand Slam, but it wasn’t meant to be. Maybe he will find his way back here in 2017 after unlocking yet another of tennis’ ultimate accomplishments.

Kielce snatches Handball’s Champions League title after astonishing comeback

Pitting two sides gunning for a maiden EHF Champions League title, the 2015-16 Final of handball’s premier club competition provided a thrilling, dramatic finish that won’t be forgotten by the 20,000 fans who watched inside Cologne’s LANXESS Arena.

The finalists, Poland’s Vive Tauron Kielce and Hungary’s Veszprém KC, had upset French Champions PSG and three-time Champions League Winners THW Kiel, respectively, in the semi-finals to set up an unanticipated showdown, and both sides made good on the opportunity.

The Magyars began better, jumping quickly to a 3-0 lead which they governed through the first 30 minutes to reach the half in command (17-13). A smothering defence, Aron Palmarsson’s prowess from afar and the vibrant support of their fans then powered Veszprém to a nine-goal advantage (28-19) with just 14 minutes to play, prompting the first winning chants to break as the game seemed decided.

Based on the presence in this list, evidently it was not and what followed was a sensational comeback by the Polish Champions, who were led by goaltender Slawomir Szmal, star right winger Tobias Reichmann and the masterful play of Uroš Zorman. In just 10 minutes, the gap was erased as Vesprém crumbled piece by piece with Kielce’s resurgent, and the bleeding could only be stopped at 28-28, when veteran Momir Ilić netted the 29th goal for the Hungarians before Michał Jurecki desperation shot beat the buzzer to force overtime.

In extra-time, the two opponents traded leads until the roles reversed on the dying seconds, with Vesprém’s Cristian Ugalde tying the game at 35 apiece and setting up the first penalty shootout in an EHF Champions League Final.

Kielce’s Ivan Cupic was the first to miss from the 7m mark, but the Polish goalkeeping duo of Slawomir Szmal and Marin Sego saved one each to allow Julen Aguinagalde a chance to end the stalemate. The Spanish pivot hammered home and the yellow portion of the stands erupted as Kielce became the first Polish side to be crowned European Champions just minutes after appearing on the ropes.

As for Veszprém, also previously defeated on the final in 2002 and 2015, a lesson was learned in the most traumatic way possible. Their pursuit of continental glory will have to continue in spite of this nightmare-inducing collapse.

Vive Tauron Kielce, the 2016 EHF Champions League winners

Mathew Hayman edges past Tom Boonen to wrestle the Paris-Roubaix

The “Hell of the North” and its tough, perilous journey of 250+ kilometres through deteriorated, slippery cobble roads has always been a race prone to surprises due to his unpredictable nature, yet few victories were as unexpected as Mathew Hayman’s.

The 37-year-old had already endured the arduous expedition from start to finish for 14 times on his career, closing on the top-ten in 2010, however his preparation for the 2016 edition was less than ideal. After breaking his left arm at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad six weeks earlier, Hayman was forced to build his form on a stationary bike in his garage, but he eventually felt fine come the day and convinced Orica Bike-Exchange’s management to confirm his name on the final roster.

An exhasperated Tom Boonen looks down as Matt Hayman rises after crossing the finish line

An exhasperated Tom Boonen looks down as Mat Hayman rises after crossing the finish line

Hayman immediately rewarded his director’s fate by jumping into the early breakaway, and the Australian would cling to the front for the rest of the evening while the usual havoc decimated the field of candidates further back, hampering pre-race favourites Peter Sagan and Fabian Cancellara, both caught in the maelstrom of crashes and mechanical problems.

Ultimately, in the end at the Roubaix velodrome, five men were in contention and the odds seemed to be stacked towards Tom Boonen, the four-time Champion and a renowned finisher. However, sensing the opportunity of a lifetime, Hayman bravely surged forward to lead out the sprint with 200m to go and stunningly managed to hold off Boonen, looking in disbelief as he crossed the line to seize the biggest triumph of his career.

The dependable domestique lifted the iconic cobblestone trophy on the podium and on his right side stood, applauding, a legend of Roubaix, the man he had just pipped to deny a record-breaking fifth triumph. It doesn’t get much sweeter than that.

Auston Matthews’rewrites the NHL’s history books on his debut

Unlike every other moment evoked on this list, Auston Matthews’ magical night didn’t come with a trophy, a title or a championship on the line. Nevertheless, it is undoubtedly one of the best debuts in the history of any professional competition and the kind of performance people will talk for years to come, thus it’s not out of place.

After honing his talents in Europe during the 2014-15 season, Auston Matthews was selected last June by the Toronto Maple Leafs with the first pick on the 2016 NHL draft, immediately receiving the brunt of attention at the hockey-mad Canadian city. Toronto’s new season kicked off in Ottawa on October 12th and naturally Matthews was in the lineup, yet not even the most optimistic fan could predict such a remarkable performance.

With eight minutes played in the first period, Matthews took advantage of deficient coverage in front of the net to score his first NHL goal on his first shot, and moments later he turned the ice into his own backdoor pond, eluding five Ottawa Senators – including all-star defenseman Erik Karlsson – in succession before firing the puck short side for a magnificent goal.

Auston Matthews shoves the puck past Craig Anderson for the fourth goal of his incredible NHL debut

Auston Matthews shoves the puck past Craig Anderson for the fourth goal of his incredible NHL debut

Twenty minutes in, it was already a night to remember but the American wunderkind wasn’t yet satisfied, adding a third goal on a quick shot from the slot early on the second period. By this time, his parents were already freaking out in the stands, since the young American was just the fourth rookie to notch a hat-trick on his first NHL game, but the cherry on top was still to be served.

With just a few seconds to go before the final intermission, a 2-on-1 rush for the Leafs developed quickly and culminated on a tap-in for the inevitable Matthews and his fourth tally of the night, something no player in the centenary history of the NHL had ever achieved on his debut. Moreover, to put that in perspective, the third leading goal-scorer in NHL history, Jaromír Jágr, has compiled 756 goals in 1668 games, yet boasts the same number of four-goal outings as Matthews…

Toronto would still lose the game in overtime, however that’s just a footnote on a surreal, extraordinary night that put the entire ice hockey world on notice for a 19-year-old phenomenon improbably raised on the sun-kissed state of Arizona, USA.

Portugal slays the ghosts of the past to win the Euro 2016

Did you really think this one wouldn’t make an appearance? I can’t risk having my lone citizenship removed, so let’s go back to the night of July 10th 2016.

The place is the Stade de France, located in the outskirts of Paris, and duelling for the Henry Delaunay trophy are two countries which have had their fair share of battles in the late stages of international competitions. The Euro 1984, also contested in France. The Euro 2000. The 2006 World Cup. In all those occasions, the French came out on top to advance to the final while the Portuguese were left to lick their wounds despite deserving better luck.

Furthermore, comparing the respective runs until the decisive match, it was fair to assume a similar outcome was in the cards, as the hosts were over the moon after bouncing out reigning World Champions Germany, whereas Portugal counted its blessings for making it this far in spite of an all-around tentative campaign.

However, as they say, anything can happen in a single match and the main trump card – some fella named Cristiano Ronaldo – resided on Portugal’s bundle. Until it didn’t, as the three-time Ballon D’Or winner was knocked out by a Dimitri Payet tackle, and later forced to abandon the field just past the midway mark of the first half.

The ball shot by Éder (center, in red) is already on his way to the back of the net

The ball shot by Éder (center, in red) is already on its way to the back of the net

With their captain out, the Portuguese receded further into their underdog role and the minutes went by according to a relatively simple script: France’s attacks were systematically repelled by Portugal’s staunch defence and in the few instances they managed to break through goalkeeper Rui Patrício dealt with it. Meanwhile, when the pressure subsided, the Portuguese moved the ball around, tried to buy a mistake and hoped for a lucky bounce.

They would get one just before regulation ended when André-Pierre Gignac hit the post from close range, and eventually the visitors decided to open things up in extra-time to take advantage of fatigue and an opponent growing frustrated. Hence, substitute Éder almost scored on a header and left back Raphaël Guerreiro shook the post on a free kick before the deadlock was broken in the 109th minute.

Portugal’s Éder picked up a pass, entered the final third, fended off center back Laurent Koscielny and pounced on the ball like his life depended on it to drill a low shot past the outstretched Hugo Lloris, instantaneously sending an entire nation into raptures and revamping the clumsy striker into a god-like figure.

Fifteen minutes later (or fifteen hours, depending to whom you ask), the final whistle was blown and Portugal were confirmed as the Champions of Europe, securing their first major title twelve years after letting the honour escape, at home, on the Final of the Euro 2004. It was certainly fitting they could atone for it in similar yet reversed circumstances.

What I’m thankful for in 2016

Although I grew up in a country that includes no similar date on the calendar, “Thanksgiving”, an holiday originally “celebrated as a day of giving thanks for the blessing of the harvest and the preceding year” is a tradition that I respect, even if the evolution of modern societies has diluted the meaning of it and its religious and cultural roots are disregarded by most these days.

Therefore, since I hold some appreciation for the values that are (supposed to be) exalted on Thanksgiving,  I decided to take Christmas time, a period based on much of the same ideals, to reflect and be grateful for what the subject of this blog, sports, inspires in me every day.

The result is the following miscellanea of topics, a list that, despite inherently personal, I believe is much less about my own preferences than the experience and pleasure one takes from the deeply misguided love for sports.

A final remark: While necessarily influenced by it, the choices don’t reflect only what happened over the last 12 months.

Jaromír Jágr – Recency bias be damned, it’s an absolute joy to be able to follow the footsteps of one of ice hockey’s greats as he approaches age 45. I may have lost his time for the team I support and definitely haven’t forgot the sting of his decision to spurn a return in favour of signing for the cross-state rivals, yet can’t stop admiring his uplifting love for the game, inexorable work ethic and ability to stay competitive night after night facing guys that weren’t even born when he was an NHL rookie, back in 1990-1991.

Jaromír Jágr's flow in all its glory at age 44

Jaromír Jágr’s flow in all its glory at age 44

Jágr still got that singular propensity to stuck his bottom out and protect the puck like very few can, the fluidity to weave through the neutral zone and gain the line with possession and the vision to offer his teammates easy tap-ins. If he says his legs haven’t slowed down and he can handle the load of an entire season, who are we to disagree? You can make it to 50, Jags!

The wealth of young NHL talent – The best hockey league in the world is, by definition, stacked with elite players at every position, nonetheless the recent influx of newcomers that can take over games right from the get-go has to be described as unusual and extraordinary, and you have to look no further than Team North America’s showings at the World Cup of hockey to illustrate the point.

Connor McDavid, a once-in-a generation prodigy with lightning acceleration and a phenomenal ability to execute in full speed, obviously leads the charge, but he’s not short on dazzling running mates. Jack Eichel, McDavid’s bridesmaid who can hammer one-timers from the right slot on his sleep. Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary’s elusive offensive dynamo. Toronto’s rookie trio of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, who have electrified an entire city. Finland’s Patrik Laine, ripping pucks into the upper-corners from the top of the circles with the same nonchalance employed while dealing with the media. Show-stopping talents like Nathan MacKinnon, Artemi Panarin, Jonathan Drouin, Mike Hoffman, Leon Draisatl or Mark Scheifele.

Patrik Laine's shot has earned rave reviews during his first NHL season

Patrik Laine’s shot has earned rave reviews during his first NHL season

All names that may one day figure in the Hall of Fame, alongside the rest of the League’s stars in their prime, such as Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, Evgeni Malkin and Patrick Kane, and without disregarding the likes of Vladimir Tarasenko, John Tavares, Jamie Benn, Erik Karlsson, Nikita Kucherov or Claude Giroux.

The future is bright for the NHL should they understand how to take advantage of the embarrassment of riches that fell on their lap, which contributed to a move towards a much faster, more entertaining version where skill is more important than ever before.

3-on-3 overtime – One year has passed since its introduction at the NHL level and more top leagues are already following suit hoping to ride the wave of success. While coaches have made strides in bringing structure and trying to reign in their players, there’s only so much they can do to slow down the game with an inordinate amount of ice available. The 3-on-3 overtime is enthralling on its Intensity, pulsating and dramatic on its inherent chaos, a cradle of end-to-end action, odd-man rushes, turnovers, chances, near-misses, startling saves and… goals. Some criticize it for resembling pond hockey..but where’s the harm on that?

Lionel Messi – Like him there has never been and never will be. The ultimate talent powered by (near) flawless decision making, immaculate technical skill and advanced vision and perception of the game. Leo apprehends, selects and executes before the rest and better, and that’s why he’s peerless. The prototype of the human brain solving problems at high speed and driving football’s running and unrelenting evolution towards an era where sheer physical prowess will be essentially irrelevant.

Lionel Messi

Lionel Messi, the best football player ever

Some fifty years from now, when those at the different levels and spheres of influence will be equipped with a superior understanding of the game, the next generations will laugh at “our” decisions to elect others based on the random outcome of a couple of games per year.

Peter Sagan – A unique figure inside cycling’s world, a sport still trying to overcome an uphill battle to restore credibility and regain fans. While the clashes on the mountains, that made so many fell in love with bike racing, can’t escape the veil of suspect, what Peter Sagan does can only be admired, which means you’ll have a hard time finding someone that actively roots against him.

Whether he is squeezing through the middle of the bunch to secure a sprint victory, jumping the gun to escape and arrive by himself, powering up a hill to a finish or collaborating doggedly on a breakaway, Sagan’s versatility is mind-boggling yet only a reflection of his personality. The Slovak is a risk-taker, follows his instincts, never gives up in face of adversity and has a hell of a time riding his bike, enjoying himself and entertaining the fans. In the end, we’re all looking for fun and Peter Sagan delivers that in spades.

The Big Four (Five?) – With Federer and Nadal sidelined for much of the year, the incredible supremacy exerted by tennis’ Big Four wasn’t exactly paraded throughout 2016, yet the season confirmed two other talking points.

First, despite a meagre Grand Slam total (3), Andy Murray’s evolution has led him to a level where’s he’s every bit part of the group. Knocking Djokovic off the perch and securing the No.1 in London with authority were the final formalities for a man that’s no longer the guy the other three secretly hope to face in the semi-finals.

The remaigning doubts about Andy Murray's greatness were erased in 2016

The remaigning doubts about Andy Murray’s greatness were erased in 2016

Meanwhile, Stan Wawrinka’s sensational panache at the Majors guarantees that the competition tightens up, at least, from the last eight onwards. If we ever get Juan Martin Del Potro back to his best (and that’s a big if with those wrists), we can have as much as six clear-cut contenders with Grand Slam triumphs on their résumé and a plethora of dark-horses trying the bridge the gap (looking at you, Raonic and Nishikori). We may be in for a dandy of a season in 2017.

Angelique Kerber – With all due respect for Serena Williams’ application to the title of best female athlete of all-time, her towering presence over the rest of the field in the WTA Tour well into her thirties is (was) boring. For different reasons, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka were never able to consistently challenge her, therefore Angelique Kerber’s rise was a breath of fresh air. Helped by Serena’s minimalist calendar? Definitely. However, raise your hand if you believed any player other than Serena could win two Grand Slams in the same season?

While I’m not convinced the German can clamp down the World No.1 for long, she has already done the most important. She changed the paradigm and kicked off the dog-fight to pronounce a new Queen. Let the Hunger Games begin!

The Olympic legends of our time – In 120 years of modern Olympic action, countless athletes have produced epic sports moments in the biggest stage of them all. However, few were able to elevate their respective sports, the Olympic movement and its motto “Citius, Altius, Fortius” quite like Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps. We should be forever grateful for the chance to witness their incredible exploits in the beginning of the XXI century, achievements that will resonate for generations to come and conveyed to our children and grandchildren.

Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps, arguably the two greatest Olympians of all-time

Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps, arguably the two greatest Olympians of all-time

As their careers end, new heroes will take over and the show will continue, but we shouldn’t take for granted the unique opportunity to appreciate true, unrepeatable greatness. May their spirit inspire the ones to come.

Sports fans – An integral part of all memorable sports achievements and condition sine qua non for spectacles that bring together the world, sports fans can entertain, impress and inspire as much as the ones they support.

From the kind, joyful and passionate Brazilian fans at the Olympics, cherishing the opportunity of a lifetime at every arena even when their athletes didn’t stand a chance or even took part, to the hordes of Iceland, Northern Ireland, Wales and Ireland supporters that provided a singular beauty to the Euro 2016. From the deafening rendition of “You’ll never walk alone” by Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund fans in unison on their Europa League double-header, to the emotional tributes all over the world after Chapecoense’s tragedy, especially the touching reaction from Atletico Nacional (and Colombian) fans. From the masses that crowd the roadsides of Belgium during the spring, the peak of cycling’s classics season, to every fan that hit the road and dispensed hard-earned money and time simply to voice the support for his colours miles away from home.

My teams – For so many wonderful memories, which I will treasure for a long time, and for hitting the jackpot in 2016.

Rio 2016 Olympic Preview (II): Major events to book on your schedule

With 306 medal events on the Rio 2016 Olympic calendar, it´s impossible to follow all the action coming in droves from Brazil over the next fortnight. Daily, there will be multiple alternatives that cater to every profile of sports fan, but a few selected competitions stand above the rest, either from the magnitude of the sides in battle, the significance of the potential victors on the broader heritage left from this specific edition, or the traditional media coverage expected. With these criteria in mind, I tried to mine some of the most relevant events that are on the program, and adjusted to collect Brazil’s best chances of producing riveting displays for the hollering native audiences on site.

I’m obviously spitballing on the athletes or teams that will reach the decisive encounters on these events, and undoubtedly my own predilections guided a few of the choices, but I believe the list below is sensible enough to pass the sniffing test.

Team competitions are in vast majority in this article as they are easier to pinpoint (for example, if you don’t follow fencing on a regular basis, it’s difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff on a program containing dozen of events,) but keep in mind that on the final two parts of this preview I’ll dive into the must-watch events of the Olympics’ two blue-ribbon sports, Swimming and Athletics.

So, in chronological order (all hours in BST, four more than in Rio):

Cycling Men’s road race, 1.30 pm, August 6

The major event of day 1 of the Olympics will see the world’s best road cyclists compete on a 256.4km course that passes through Rio de Janeiro’s landmarks. With two circuits that include cobble sections and a total of 10 climbs, counting a 8.5km ascension that is run three times, there’s an excellent chance the historically chaotic race is decided by a highly selective group of riders equipped to power in the hilly parkour. The 20km flat run-in to the finish may prove too much for Chris Froome, who dreams of becoming the first man to complete a Tour de France-Olympic Gold medal double, but other Grand Tour contenders have a major opportunity, including Spain’s Alejandro Valverde, who always seems to be the bridesmaid when wearing his national colours, or Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali.

Kazakhstan’s Alexander Vinokourov took top honours in London 2012

The reigning World Champion, Slovakia’s Peter Sagan, will be absent to focus on the mountain bike competition, but one-day specialists like Belgium’s Greg Van Avermaet and Phillipe Gilbert or France’s Julian Alaphilippe can pose major threats if they’re not eliminated uphill. With the traditional powerhouses Spain, France, Italy and Belgium (plus Great Britain) possessing a pair of team leaders, the dark horses come from the loaded rosters of Colombia and Netherlands, where every man can legitimately envision succeeding Kazakhstan’s Alexander Vinokourov, the winner in London 2012.

Gymnastics Women’s team final, 8 pm, August 9

In one of the tent-pole events of every Olympics, the USA’s girls want to repeat as Olympic Champions, something they’ve never been able to do. After dominating the team competition in the 2014 and 2015 World Championships, the Americans are the clear frontrunners possessing a unit highlighted by  Simone Biles, the brightest gymnast of the last few seasons, and the returning pair of Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas, two multiple medallists in London.

The USA, which took five of the last seven world titles, edged Russia four years ago and the successors of the Soviet Union, an historic powerhouse, are once again a strong contender, while Romania, bronze medallists in 2012 and podium-bound in every Olympics since 1976, did not qualify this time. A prominent position is thus opened for China and Great Britain, respectively second and third at the 2015 Worlds.

The United States are hoping to rehash this image in Rio de Janeiro

Tennis Men’s Singles Final, 4 pm, August 14

For a competition that prematurely lost half of the top ten players in the ATP rankings largely due to concerns about the Zika virus, a tournament-saving Final pitting Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray would be a welcome sight for tennis officials looking to save face. With Roger Federer out injured, the Serbian’s quest for a career-crowning Olympic gold medal is the storyline the game needs, and nothing looks better than a potential five-set thriller against the defending Champion.

Anything else, except for an unforeseen run by a homeland boy, would put the event squarely on the backburner in the middle of the Olympic festivities, and cast doubt over the sport’s future inclusion in light of the masses of players evidently disregarding the competition.

Beach Volleyball Women’s Final, 4 am, August 17

Brazil’s Larissa Franca came back from retirement to take another shot at Olympic Gold

With the majestic backdrop of Copacabana Beach, this midnight fest may turn into an absolute classic if the Brazilian pair that has dominated international competition makes the final. Larissa Franca, maybe the best beach volleyball player of all-time, has won everything except for the Olympic title, and halted retirement in 2014 to join forces with Talita Antunes in route to Rio. The pair amassed 61-straight victories topping in the 2015 World Tour Finals title, and reaches the Olympics as the prohibitive favourites, determined to give Brazil the first gold medal in this event since 1996.

Larissa was a bronze medallist in London behind two American pairs, with Kerri Walsh Jennings collecting his third consecutive title alongside Misty May-Treanor by defeating April Ross and Jen Kessy. With May-Treanor’s abandon, Jennings partnered with Ross and they appear poised to become the main challengers to Franca and Antunes. The Brazilians hold a 5-1 head-to-head record and will count on the rowdy home crowd, but don’t discount the experience of Jennings, going into her fifth Olympic Games.

Football Women’s Final, 9:30 pm, August 19

In five previous Olympic tournaments, never the reigning World Champions were able to add the Olympic title the following season. The USA will try to do just that and since they’ve won the last three editions and four of five, the odds seem to be in their favour.

With a roster slightly retooled and revitalized from the squad that triumphed in the 2015 World Cup, the Americans’ more dangerous opponents are the hosts, silver medallist in 2008, Germany, the three-time bronze medallists and twice World Champions, and France, an enormously talented ensemble that has mind-bogglingly failed to reach the podium in successive international competitions. Japan, the finalists in 2012, are shockingly absent after being surpassed by Australia and China on Asia’s qualifying tournament.

Carli Lloyd (#10), the 2015 FIFA World Player of the Year, was on target twice at the 2012 Olympic Final

Football Men’s Final, 9:30 pm, August 20

The future of men’s soccer in the Olympics (at least in the current stripped-down configuration) may well depend on a long run from the hosts, with Brazil desperate to complete their mantle adding an elusive gold medal that escaped four years ago at Wembley. With a side once again led by Neymar but significantly less potent than in 2012, the hosts will be on a mission to exorcise the demons of the humiliating 7-1 semi-final defeat on home soil during the 2014 World Cup.

Incidentally, Germany may cross their path in the SF should both teams win their respective groups, and a possible rematch with Mexico or a derby with Argentina might coalesce in the final. Either way, its gold or bust for Brazil and the home boys missing the Final would significantly decrease the relevancy of the match to be contested at the iconic Maracanã Stadium.

Volleyball Men’s Final, 17:15 pm, August 21

One of the hottest tickets in the Olympics is the Volleyball men’s event, where the hosts have a great chance to reclaim the title after the gold medals of 1992 and 2004, and the silver medals of 1984, 2008 and 2012.

The Russian’s soared above Brazil at the 2012 Men’s Volleyball Final

A powerhouse boasting several World Cup, World League and World Championship triumphs since the turn of the century, Brazil will nonetheless face stiff competition from the likes of Russia, the reigning Olympic Champions, the USA, winners in 2008 and the current World Cup Champions, Poland, the World Championship holders, and Italy, bronze medallists in London 2012.

Men’s basketball Final, 19:45 pm, August 21

The last event to complete at the Olympic Games should once again affirm USA’s basketball domination, with the complement of NBA stars massively favourite to collect a sixth title in seven editions since the “Dream Team” shook the 1992 Games held in Barcelona. Despite missing a plethora of the World’s finest players, the Americans – unbeaten internationally since 2006 – should cruise through the competition much like they did in the last two Olympics, where they defeated Spain in the final. With the eternal Paul Gasol still leading the way, the Iberian side may once again reach the decisive game despite some important absences (NBA All-Stars Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka).

Can Spain (or any other team) halt USA’s rise to the top of the men’s basketball podium?

However, other teams are vying to outdo the European Champions, from their continental counterparts France, Serbia, Croatia and Lithuania to South America’s Argentina, Champions in 2004, and Brazil, which obtained their last medal in 1964.

 

Athletes to watchMarquee eventsSwimming GuideAthletics Guide

Rio 2016 Olympic preview (I): A (personal) list of athletes to follow

The world’s quadrennial sports smörgåsbord is about to get underway in Rio de Janeiro – well, technically as I write this, it has already started – as over 10 000 athletes have descended on the first South American host city looking to extol the virtues of four years (or a lifetime) of intense, unappreciated preparation. Seven years after the so-called “Cidade Maravilhosa” was selected to welcome the world’s fittest individuals, the novel tradition of derogatory buzz about the conditions waiting the delegations is already surfacing in every media outlet, yet (hopefully) just a few hours remain for everyone to focus on the spirit of this incomparable event.

The Olympics. A communal celebration of the World we live in, its outstanding diversity and history, but also an expression of global unity as representations from 206 countries /nations converge to compete for eternal glory and national pride through the pursuit of athletic excellence, expressed on one of Humanity’s most powerful drivers, sports. Or simply, borrowing the London 2012 motto: The Olympics. Inspire a Generation (too corny?).

During 19 days of competition, not only 306 new Olympic Champions will be crowned, but countless stories will arise, get shared, debated and imprinted on the collective memory, iconic images and heroes will be shot and etched, humans will sense unbridled joy and despair, succumb to sadness and anger or soar to touch the paradise. The Olympic Games should be about this for a fortnight and not the financial, social and political hardships of the hosts, the environmental missteps, the administrative shortcomings, the health concerns that significantly depleted the field of competitors on disciplines like tennis and golf, Russia’s appalling doping issues or even the undercurrent allegations of corruption and fraud that plague the Olympic movement.

For a few weeks every four years, exceptional individuals get to showcase their abilities in front of a global audience that reaches 3 650 million, and we get a front row seat into their life, to experience their victories and the crushing weight of their failures. Heck, at the opening ceremony, entering the Olympic Stadium shortly after the legendary Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt, will be 10 athletes with refugee status, courageous men and women who will compete in Rio under the Olympic flag, a redeeming story with so much of unique and inspirational and that still shouldn’t have ever come to life.

This time Brazilian athletes will be the last to touch the Olympic Stadium

Anyway, time to drop the babbles of someone way-too-excited and finally getting to the gist of this article, the first part of the Olympic preview, which will focus on the athletes I’ll keep my eye on during the Olympic Games.

With 42 sport disciplines represented in the Games, it goes without saying that it’s impossible to grasp and highlight every notable athlete (well, they are all notable, actually, since they got to this distinctive stage) while getting a clear picture of what they represent to their sport. Yet, tapping into my knowledge and a bit of research, I compiled a list of eight names (or seven plus a team) that I’m keen to see perform at Rio de Janeiro, based on factors like the personal stakes in the game, the relevancy of their performances at the national level, the worldwide visibility of their results, or simply my own preferences, quirks and interests.

In short, if you’re expecting weightlifters, wrestlers, boxers (sensing a theme here?), diving competitors, synchronized swimmers, rhythmic gymnasts or guys that stroll mounted on horses, you’re out of luck.

Some of the names on the list already enjoy worldwide popularity, others may be on their way and in some cases that won’t ever happen, but all of them have the chance to leave Rio with silverware. I found a way to balance the genres and the athletes compete in different sports, but in terms of nationality wasn’t as successful. Meanwhile, keep in mind that in the next posts I’ll have the opportunity to sift through a bunch of other remarkable athletes.

Without further ado, here is my batch of eight.

Kevin Durant (USA, Basketball)

The main figure of the 2016 summer in USA’s sports landscape arrives in Rio with something to prove after leaving his own Ducat in Oklahoma City and taking his talents to the behemoth Golden State Warriors. An Olympic Champion in 2012, when he was still an emerging superstar fresh of an NBA Final appearance, the career of Durant peaked in 2014 with an MVP award before things sizzled due to nagging injuries.

Kevin Durant will have a chip on his shoulder in Rio

From a contender to LeBron James’ crown as the Planet’s premium basketball player, he became a second-row spectator on James’s show and surplus of Steph Curry’s meteoric rise. The decision to join Curry’s band of brothers will always be a paradigm shifting move on his life, but the start of that new chapter will only come after an attention-grabbing tournament where he’s the main lure.

Despite still being the mightiest group, the American roster in Rio will be missing so much primetime talent (LeBron James, Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard, Chris Paul, James Harden, Anthony Davis…) that it can quickly become Durant’s team, for better or worse. He’ll be the fulcrum of the media, the man tasked with the money balls (if they even occur) and his relationship with future teammates Klay Thompson and Draymond Green will be scrutinized before he even enters their own club’s locker room. The 27-year-old better make good use of his closing days as the alfa dog.

Dafne Schippers (Netherlands, Athletics)

For a long time, the sprint events at international competitions have been subjugated by athletes hailing from North and Central America – with Africans sprinkled in – but this blonde phenomenon from the Netherlands has recently pestered their safe heaven.

The 24-year-old Schippers broke into the world stage as a heptathlon competitor, even meriting the third place at the 2013 World Championships, but in 2014 decided to focus on the burgeoning sprinting chops she had been displaying since adolescence. Winning the 100m and 200m in the European Championships was just the first step on a ladder that continued with the furious late charge to take the 200m World title a year later on a national and continental record time of 21.63s, the third best mark of all-time. Additionally, in the 100m, the Utrecht-native was second despite a slow start, and thus jumped to the vanguard of contenders on both races ahead of these Olympics.

It’s entirely possible that a tall, white woman with acne marks dotted on her face will stand on top of the podium in Rio de Janeiro as the Sprint Queen, and that is really cool, no matter the callous, unproven allegations her swift ascension has brought forward.

Neymar (Brazil, football)

A 20-year-old Neymar reacts during the 2012 Olympic Final

Hailed as the poster boy of the Olympics at age 24, the Barcelona superstar is the trump card his country will play to end the chase for a gold medal in the national sport, but it’s about more than that for him. The intrepid winger has personal history to erase, from the loss to Mexico at the 2012 Final to the disappointment of being forced to the sidelines while a catastrophe submerged the “Canarinha” at the 2014 World Cup. Extremely productive for his national team (46 goals in 70 caps), no other football player competing in Rio is even remotely at the same level – the second best in Rio may be South Korea’s overaged forward Heung-min Son and some staunch football fans would be pressed to name his current club – as the third place finisher in last year’s FIFA Ballon d’Or election.

Brazil pretty much punted the 2016 Copa America to get him here and with that comes the burden of carrying the hopes of a nation of 200M, something he’s experienced before. He’ll deliver, mark it in ink (or don’t).

Simone Biles (USA, Gymnastics)

The history of the Olympic Games, whether you particularly enjoy Gymnastics or not, has been written on several occasions by the superb displays of grace, agility and balance paraded by the athletes of this sport. Nadia Comaneci is one of the most recognized Olympians of all-time and every four years female gymnasts carry on with her legacy, delighting worldwide audiences that seldom watch the sport. Some of those gymnasts have turned into fleeting darlings that never again touch the Olympic stage, but it would be a shame if that’s the destiny of Simone Biles.

The 19-year-old Simone Biles is Gymnastics undisputed Queen

The diminutive (145cm high) gymnast will make her Olympic debut after absolutely crushing her competition since 2013. A three-time all-around World Champion, Biles has already collected the most gold medals (10) of any female in World Championships history, adding multiple all-around, team, balance beam and floor triumphs due to her unmatched power and creativity. At age 19, she’s the building block on the USA’s challenge for a second consecutive team triumph, and the Texas-native can leave Rio with up to four gold medals, consolidating her case as one of the best gymnasts of all-time. Look for her face to be plastered on Rio 2016 memorabilia.

Roger Federer / Martina Hingis (Switzerland, Tennis)

Damnit. The charmed reunion of two of the craftiest players to ever grace the tennis courts – who have combined for 39 total Grand Slam wins – is not happening in Rio..or ever, for that matter. Shame. Moving on.

Mark Cavendish (Great Britain, Cycling (track))

Despite growing up as a track racer, the Manx Missile’s illustrious career has been erected on his impressive skills as a pacey finisher on the road, having amassed a plethora of stage wins in all three Grand Tours, a Monument victory in the 2009 Milan-San Remo, and the title of World Champion in 2011. All of this definitely wouldn’t have been possible without putting behind the ambitions indoors, which happened following a disappointing 2008 Olympics, but destiny has given him another opportunity.

Great Britain’s Mark Cavendish will be looking for his maiden Olympic medal

In Beijing, he and partner Bradley Wiggins, the reigning World Champions in Madison, were only ninth despite holding justified medal hopes, and Cav promised to never come back to the track. Then, in 2012, his Olympic dreams were once again ruined as the home boys fought tirelessly on the road to force a sprint finish, but were ultimately unable to control a wild competition. At age 31, the Rio de Janeiro Games presented a last chance, but the design of the course outside proved too tough for Cavendish to handle, facilitating the decision to take his word back. Having returned to the track competitions last year, he was able to narrowly obtain the passport to Rio, where he’ll compete in the omnium and the team pursuit.

If the third time’s the charm and he can add Olympic silverware to a résumé that includes an outstanding total of 30 stage wins at the Tour de France, Cavendish may force the Queen’s hand. He would surely relish the title of “Sir”, joining fellow cyclists and (multiple Olympic medallists) Bradley Wiggins and Chris Hoy.

Katie Ledecky (USA, Swimming)

While watching a 15-year-old Katie Ledecky triumph in the gruelling 800m freestyle race of the London Olympics, one couldn’t help to feel excited for what would be coming ahead. Four years later, the unassuming youngster from Washington-DC is the leading face of her entire sport, the one where a certain Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all-time, is still active.

Katie Ledecky, perhaps the greatest athlete in the World at the moment. Would you believe it?

This would only be possible because Ledecky is a once-in-a-lifetime talent, even if absolutely no one would believe it looking at her physique, distant from the broad torso, long-limbed freaks that ruled the pools before her. She doesn’t need that to demolish world record after world record, to finish race after race with ungodly advantages, to blow away the audience (and her rivals) with efficient strokes, sheer pace and unmatched stamina.

Ledecky will probably sweep the 200m, 400m and 800m freestyle races in Rio de Janeiro, and if the 1500m were part of the women’s calendar, she would win that one too, regardless of the need to get in the water three or four times per day to race heats and finals of individual and relay events. Her unprecedented range at elite level is something to behold, and every sports fan should jump at the chance to watch history. After all, she’s “better at swimming than anyone else is at anything”.

Fiji Rugby Seven’s National Team (Fiji Islands, Rugby)

Since first debuting at the Olympics in 1956, the athletes that have represented Fiji, a Pacific Ocean country of 0.9M citizens, haven’t been able to collect a single medal to warm the heart of the nation. However, at Rio de Janeiro, history can be just around the corner, as the national rugby seven’s team is the favourite to take the inaugural Olympic title.

The rugby seven’s Fiji National Team, a group hoping to reach the Olympic pinnacle and make proud an entire nation once again

On a sport that returns to the Games for the first time since 1924, this time on the quicker, more wide-open version of seven-men aside, Fiji is able to regularly beat the usual heavyweights of the rugby of 15, where they rank 10 in the World. Nations like Australia, New Zealand and South Africa are still forces to be reckoned with, but the last two HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series titles were conquered by the Fijians, who due to their consummate speed, skill and flair thrive on a full-sized field over two short seven-minute halves.

Some of the alluring members of the team already ply their trade abroad for the best European Teams, but nothing compares to the potential happy ending with Fiji standing on their maiden Olympic podium. The pursuit of glory by the Pacific minnows boasts every ingredient to develop into the feel-good story of the Olympic Games.

Majlinda Kelmendi (Kosovo, Judo)

The Olympic Committee of Kosovo was the 205th organization to become a full member of the International Olympic Committee, having joined in December 2014, thus the Rio Olympics symbolize the first opportunity for Kosovar athletes to compete under their nation’s flag. Carrying the banner on the opening ceremony will be Kelmendi, a two-time World Champion in the -52kg category, and the country’s best medal hope amongst an eight-people delegation.

Majlinda Kelmendi will return to the place of her international breakthrough

The 25-year-old Judoka represented Albania in the 2012 Olympic Games, going out in the second round, and since then has transformed into his discipline’s most feared combatant, leading the World rankings over the last while. In 2013, incidentally at Rio de Janeiro, Kelmendi beat the home favourite Erika Miranda to claim her first World title, and she repeated the feat in 2014 at Chelyabinsk, also adding two European Championships in 2014 and 2016. The weight of the expectations of 2M people hardened by the war, and still awaiting full-independence ratification, will stand on Kelmendi’s powerful shoulders, and you only need to check her “game face” to understand she’s more than ready for it.

Her aggressive, ferocious, resolute style on the tatami channels her personality, and nothing less is expected from someone born on a town, Peja, decimated during the Kosovo War in 1999.

 

Athletes to watchMarquee eventsSwimming GuideAthletics Guide