Austria

Women’s Euro 2017: Best player, Best Eleven and All-Star Team

After taking a look at the main incidences and trends from the three weeks of action, it’s time to call to the stage the women that made the spectacle possible. Or the best among them, the players that better eschewed the fatigue of a long season and performed at the highest level to help their teams succeed.

As the traditional heavyweights of the women’s game fell short of expectations, so did many of the world’s elite footballers, therefore our 23-women All-star roster features many players that greatly benefit from the exposure obtained in the tournament to enhance their career prospects.

As usual in these occasions, representatives from the last four teams dominate the squad, a reality amplified by the fact that stars from pre-tournament favourites really need to stand out to make the cut when eliminated precociously, and revelations from teams that are bounced out in the group stage rarely compile the body of work to outshine those in more successful outfits. Hence, prepare for a lot of Dutch, English, Austrian and Danish players, who paid their dues to deserve the spotlight.

Furthermore, after presenting the names that made the All-star roster, I nominated what I deem to be the ideal line-up of the competition and elected the best player in the tournament. You can check UEFA’s choices for these categories here and compare, if you so desire.  And off we go.

All-Star Team

Goalkeepers (2)

Manuela Zinsberger (Austria)

Fast and decisive getting out of the posts and composed under pressure, Austria’s goalkeeper wasn’t shy about taking command of the penalty area and rallying the troops, displaying signs of maturity well beyond her 21 years of age.

Austrian goalkeeper Manuela Zinsberger holds the ball and looks on.

Four clean sheets in five games firmly validate the work she and her teammates put on, and a perfect record of 24 saves in 24 shots on goal was an intercepted corner away. Mostly a backup for Bayern Munich over the last three seasons, this was the type of performance that propels a career to another level.

Almuth Schult (Germany)

The last woman to shoulder responsibilities for the defending Champions’ downfall, Almuth Schult grabbed headlines for a couple of superb saves and regularly exhibited her impeccable positioning, outstanding reflexes and solid technical base, giving the team total ease to move up the pitch with numbers.

Comfortable with the ball at her feet, the 26-year-old was also an active member of Germany’s ball circulation, and can be excused for all three goals allowed during a tournament where she reaffirmed her status as one of the continents’ finest stoppers.

Defensemen (7)

Lucy Bronze (England)

A superb athlete that could gallop down the flank for days, Bronze is England’s flamboyant right back and most unique player. Capable of dismantling defensive organizations with her speed in transition, superb offensive instincts and smart movement off the ball, she somehow manages to rarely get caught out of position in defence, where her aggressiveness, elite anticipation and ball-winning skills set up more bold runs forward.

England’s right back Lucie Bronze prepares to deliver a throw-in

That much was evident on England’s match-winner in the quarter-finals, a game that further confirmed what any women’s football fan already knows: the 25-year-old is the world’s best full back by a wide margin.

Theresa Nielsen (Denmark)

On the field for each one of Denmark’s 570 minutes, Nielsen revealed incredible stamina along the right lane, efficiently completing the Danish back four and recurrently rushing forward to support the attack with purpose. That would be enough to merit a spot, but it only helped her case that, in one of those offensive incursions, the 31-year-old notched the tournament’s most iconic goal, the header that ended Germany’s 22-year reign.

Simone Boye Sørensen (Denmark)

Dependable, assured in possession and technically competent, Simone Boye Sørensen was the leader Denmark’s defence needed as injuries knocked down fellow center backs Janni Arnth Jensen and Mie Jans. Always expertly positioned, the 25-year-old proved insuperable in the air and solid at field level, shepherding the adapted Stine Larsen through the ups and down of a journey that would only end with a finalists medal hanging around her neck.

Denmark’s Simone Boye Sørensen heads the ball away from Belgium forward Tessa Wullaert

Anouk Dekker (Netherlands)

A defensive midfielder by trade, Anouk Dekker was deployed by the hosts as a central defender to exploit her imposing physical presence, and she responded by marshalling the Netherlands’ backline on a Championship campaign. Affected by physical ailments, Stefanie van der Gragt and captain Mandy van der Berg rotated by her side, but Dekker always stood firm, concealing her lack of speed and agility with positioning, and thriving in aerial battles.

Carina Wenninger (Austria)

Tapping on a decade worth of experience playing in Germany’s Frauen-Bundesliga, Wenninger assumed a leading role guiding Austria’s stout defensive unit in the regular absence of captain (and club teammate) Viktoria Schnaderbeck. Patrolling the centre lanes and directing traffic, she inspired her less seasoned teammates by intercepting uncountable crosses and rebuffing many attempts at penetrating the Austrian wall.

Millie Bright (England)

The least experienced player in England’s preferred line-up rewarded Mark Sampson’s faith with a string of impressive showings where her strength and vigour proved a perfect complement to captain Steph Houghton. Used to play a few meters up the pitch for her club, the powerful Bright never looked out of place and quickly became England’s preferred target in lateral free kicks and corners, with the ball directed towards the far post to capitalize on her uncommon aerial prowess.

England’s Millie Bright wards off Portugal’s Carolina Mendes in a group stage match

Demi Stokes (England)

In a tournament where few left backs caught the eye, Stokes’ reliability was a welcomed sight, as the 25-year-old did an admirable job shutting down opposing wingers, helping inside and providing width and depth when England had the ball. Not as skilled or dynamic as her opposite full back, Stokes was a guarantee of balance every time Lucy Bronze rampaged forward.

Midfielders (8)

Sarah Puntigam (Austria)

Puntigam is another player with ample experience in the German League that flourished under brighter lights at the Euro 2017. Starting from a deep-lying midfield position, she displayed her tactical nous in numerous occasions, covering for her teammates, tackling resolutely, impelling the team forward with incisive passes off his left foot and swinging set pieces into the box.

Austria’s Sarah Puntigam watches as her penalty shot sails into the Spanish net

The 24-year-old tallied the decisive penalty against Spain, but then went from hero to villain after missing from the spot against Denmark, an opportunity that could have changed the complexity of the semi-final. An unfortunate circumstance that fails to overshadow her excellent tournament.

Amandine Henry (France)

Amid a French team that once again underperformed, Henry stood out for the unwillingness to bend until the last whistle, the determination to fight back against mounting challenges apparent on every tv plan of her face.

The 27-year-old drew a late penalty against Iceland, scored to snatch a point from Austria, ran more than anyone else, initiated plays and carried the ball forward time and time again, pressed high, shot from distance and attacked the box. At times, Henry got caught wanting to do too much, so much that her decision making suffered as a consequence. It was still inspiring to watch, even if her level of play was a few notches below previous competitions.

Jackie Groenen (Netherlands)

Jackie Groenen, the beating heart of the Champions. A steadfast, unrelenting working bee that never stopped connecting the dots for the Netherlands, the ambidextrous 22-year-old was subtly brilliant in everything she did: tackles and interceptions, box to box transitions by breaking lines in possession or through direct, swift passes, invade open spaces, exchange positions with teammates to confound opposing defences, spring the wingers on the run and set up Vivianne Miedema on a tee in several occasions. Groenen crafted more scoring chances from open play that any other player in the tournament, collected two assists and left her fingerprints on a few others.

Jackie Groenen maneuvers against Denmark in the group stage

A monstrous performance for the Euro 2017’s best central midfielder, who probably wouldn’t even be a starter were it not for Tessel Middag’s injury weeks before the event.

Jordan Nobbs (England)

At age 24, Jordan Nobbs was finally thrusted into a leading role for England and her influence extended well beyond the right flank, where she forged a tremendous partnership with Lucy Bronze.

Poised and smart, masterminding her team’s best plays with penetrating passes and imaginative combinations, Nobbs scored on a wonderful volley against Scotland and also excelled defensively, unafraid to join the fray in the middle of the park. Her long-range passing and propensity for shooting from deep position were in sight when she was able to drift inside, consequently we’re not afraid to say England’s demise began when Mark Sampson declined to move Nobbs into the role of the suspended Jill Scott in their semi-final affair.

Laura Feiersinger (Austria)

The Austrian right winger may have failed to collect any goals or assists in the tournament, however she came second to none in work rate and importance, playing each second of her team’s 510 competitive minutes.

Austria’s Laura Feiersinger controls the ball against Iceland

A combative midfielder whose engine never stops, Feiersinger’s ability to lug the ball up the field, shield it with the body and draw contact granted her defence some much needed breathing room, allowed Austria a chance to ping the ball into the opposing penalty area, and opened space for others to operate. No surprise at all that coach Dominik Thalhammer was so reluctant to substitute her.

Shanice van de Sanden (Netherlands)

Van de Sanden’s tournament began on a high note when she scored the decisive goal in the opener contested in her hometown of Utrecht, and the 24-year-old never looked back, sprinting down the right flank at blistering speeds over the next five matches to provide two assists, generate many more scoring chances and haunt the dreams of left back after left back.

Tremendously explosive, van den Sanden’s handicap – execution and erratic decision-making – surfaced enough to knock her down a few pegs in the race for Best Player of the tournament.

Shanice van de Sanden ponders her options after leaving behind the Norwegian defenders

Lieke Martens (Netherlands)

A penchant for cutting inside and fire on goal with her strongest foot reminiscent of Arjen Robben, the vision of Wesley Sneijder on those swinging, cross field passes to change the point of attack, even the insolence to emulate the “Cruyff turn” on a couple of occasions.

Ok, we may be overstating things here, but the electric Martens was definitely another disarming offensive talent lighting up a major footballing stage with the orange jersey, seducing with exquisite technique, pace, creativity and an eye for staring in the big moments: the fluctuating cross that dip right into Van de Sanden’s head in the tournament opener; the free kick lashed into the bottom corner to break the deadlock in the quarter-finals; the long-range rocket with her weak foot in the Final. Highlights to inspire a new generation of girls aspiring to be li(e)ke Martens.

Katrine Veje (Denmark)

Fast, clear on her intents and superb shifting gears to leave the opponent trailing behind, Katrine Veje fits the description of the wingers of old. Left footed, the slippery 26-year-old is always eager to charge up the flank, yet she also relishes the defensive work, retreating quickly to help the full back.

Denmark’s Katrine Veje in action against Norway

Characteristics that were in full display during Denmark’s runner up campaign, but are regularly coupled with inconsistencies in front of the goal. After tallying the lone marker versus Norway, Veje missed some glorious chances against Germany, and she can thank her teammates that didn’t turn out to be more than a mere footnote.

Forwards (6)

Pernille Harder (Denmark)

If doubts remained, the Dutch tournament put them to bed: the Danish skipper is one of the best and most complete players in women’s football.

Pernille Harder’s performance in the Netherlands was simply mesmerizing. Supremely gifted with the ball at her feet, the 24-year-old exuded class in every touch, in every turn, in every sprint, skipping past defenders, eyes surveying her options and mind set on the best path towards the goal. Quick and agile, she audaciously took into fully organized opposing backlines, but always opted for the best course of action, no matter how much she yearned to take full responsibility.

With the goals eluding her and two assists picked up along the way, Harder was finally rewarded in the Final when her thumping individual effort found the back of the net. Had Denmark lifted the trophy, an additional piece of silverware would have flown back home with her.

Ramona Bachmann (Switzerland)

The only player from a team eliminated in the group stage to break into this all-star roster and for good reason.

Similarly to Lieke Martens, the stocky Swiss forward was named player of the match in two occasions, her disconcerting dribbles and passion rallying the team after the setback in the opener, and her performance against Iceland standing out as one of the greatest in the tournament. In that game, Bachmann devised the play that landed the tying goal, nodded home the game winner and authored a fantastic slalom that was finished with a cracker right off the cross bar. Pity she had to leave so early.

Swiss forward Ramona Bachmann evades two French defenders

Jodie Taylor (England)

The tournament’s best goal scorer kicked off the competition in style by notching the first European Championship finals hat trick in 20 years, and then went on to bag a couple more beauties against Spain and France, powering the Lionesses’ dreams with her finishing acumen and abrasive style, which tired defences and cleared space for others to explore.

In the semi-finals, Taylor created, and then squandered a golden chance to cut the Dutch lead and set up a different outcome, yet this was still an inspired tournament for the 31-year-old striker.

England’s Jodie Taylor celebrates her marker against Spain

Nina Burger (Austria)

Burger’s game winner against Switzerland was the foundation upon which Austria’s historical campaign was built, and the talismanic striker did her best to repeat throughout the tournament despite further opportunities proving tough to come.

Working hard to hold the ball up the field, press the opponent’s build up and encourage her teammates, she always lurked behind the defence looking for ways to satisfy her predatory instinct.

Nadia Nadim (Denmark)

The Afghan-born forward looked off in the group stage, lavishly missing the mark and amassing offside calls, yet as soon as the knockout rounds rolled on, she was back to her bruising best, proving a tremendous nuisance for defenders with her blend of strength, mobility, ability to explode off the dribble and proficiency in the air. Nadim’s powerful header started Denmark’s rally against Germany, and she also tallied confidently from the penalty spot to give Denmark an early lead in the Final.

Denmark’s Nadia Nadim reacts after scoring in the Final

Vivianne Miedema (Netherlands)

An exasperating round robin for the usually mild-mannered Miedema, followed by a blazingly hot elimination round punctuated by four goals in three games to threaten Jodie Taylor’s Golden boot. It all started with a tap-in against Sweden, and through graceful off-the-ball runs, deft receptions, mellifluous feints, myriad tunnels under opponent’s leg and decisive finishes, culminated with a liberating blast to seal the Netherlands’ European title.

Players by Nation: Netherlands (5), Denmark (5), England (5), Austria (5), Germany (1), France (1), Switzerland (1)

Missed the cut: Sari van Veenendaal (Netherlands), Verena Aschauer (Austria), Sherida Spitse and Daniëlle van de Donk (Netherlands), Caroline Weir (Scotland), Dzsenifer Marozsán (Germany), Amanda Sampedro (Spain), Sanne Troelsgaard (Denmark), Barbara Bonansea (Italy), Fanndís Friðriksdóttir (Iceland), Lotta Schelin (Sweden)

Best Eleven of the tournament (4x2x3x1)

M. Zinsberger (AUT);

L. Bronze (ENG) – S. Boye Sørensen (DEN) – M. Bright (ENG) – D. Stokes (ENG)

S. Puntigam (AUT) – J. Groenen (NED)

S. van de Sanden (NED) – P. Harder (DEN) – L. Martens (NED)

J. Taylor (ENG) 

I confess to have wrestled way more with the all-star roster than with this starting eleven. The front four and Jackie Groenen were pretty automatic choices, and both Lucy Bronze and Manuela Zinsberger emerged as locks early on.

Denmark’s Pernille Harder, here seen battling past two Austrian players, is part of the best lineup of the Euro 2017. But is she the best player of the tournament?

In my opinion, Simone Boye Sørensen and Millie Bright edged Anouk Dekker for the center back roles, while Demi Stokes was my default option at the left back position since none of her counterparts impressed me enough to even make the roster. As the midfield anchor, I pondered Amandine Henry’s name, but ultimately couldn’t stomach rewarding a French player for another failed campaign, whereas selecting the versatile Jordan Nobbs feels like a little swindle. Sarah Puntigam was a lynchpin for Austria, and the debutants deserve more credit than a lone nomination in goal.

In comparison with UEFA’s selection, and based on what I expressed before, I can see where they’re coming from with Verena Aschauer and Sherida Spitse, but definitely can’t grasp how Steph Houghton is favoured over Millie Bright, or Sari van Veenendaal is tipped as the competition’s best goalkeeper. Defining Theresa Nielsen as a right midfielder isn’t absurd for her key role on Denmark’s mutating formation, however believing she deserves the spot over Shanice van de Sanden is bonkers.

Best Player of the tournament

Winner: Lieke Martens (Netherlands)

The Best Player of the Euro 2017? Lieke Martens, Netherlands slick No. 11

2nd place: Jackie Groenen (Netherlands)

3rd place: Pernille Harder (Denmark)

These three women elevated themselves head and shoulders above anyone else, but sorting out the order is a more complicated endeavour since I could offer strong arguments supporting each candidate. For instance, no player was more valuable to her own team than Pernille Harder, but this isn’t an MVP contest, it’s a “Best player of the tournament” election, and by failing to pick up the title she was at a disadvantage. Moreover, I would have liked to see more from a finishing standpoint (I know, she saved it for the end) to go along with her superb playmaking performance.

Regarding the two Dutch ladies, my heart clamoured for the ubiquitous Jackie Groenen since she was the player I most enjoyed watching, but reason prevailed. Lieke Martens’ gaudy offensive totals (3 goals + 2 assists + 2 “hockey” assists), dazzling skill and timely contributions, including the stunning goal in the Final, ultimately push her just a smidge higher.

Unpacking the Women’s Euro 2017 (I)

Twenty-two days and thirty-one games later, Women’s football continental festivities came to its rousing end with hosts Netherlands lifting the trophy in front of 28,000 exultant fans in Enschede.

Few expected the 12th and 15th ranked teams in the World to square off in the decisive encounter, but that was only the final chapter of a tournament where not a lot went according to plan or historical trends. Truly great news for the future of the women’s game and its quest to attract even more eyeballs amongst football fans after a competition that established new records in attendance, television spectators, media interest and social media engagement.

As the cloth descended on a thrilling sporting event, it’s time to recap the action that took place in the Netherlands and we’ll do this in two instalments: an initial post focused on tournament storylines, teams, tactics and memorable moments, and a second part entirely dedicated to the individuals that shined on the pitch, as we’ll name the best player in the competition, present the tournament’s All-star roster and chose the ideal lineup.

Top three storylines:

A levelled competitive field

With five nations making their first appearance in a competition extended to accommodate 16 teams, natural concerns existed regarding the balance of forces. The fears proved disproportionate, as outside of England’s six-goal thrashing of neighbours Scotland, one-sided games were few and far between and, more impressively, we saw the traditional powerhouses struggle to get any kind of momentum and, in some cases, bow out rather meekly.

Belgium’s astonishing win over Norway is a great example of the parity between the sides at the Euro 2017

The main example is, obviously, Norway’s catastrophic showing, as the former European, World and Olympic Champions took the plane back home without a goal to show for the trip, yet their traditional rivals wouldn’t perform considerably better. Sweden, for instance, stumbled to get out of the group phase before kneeling to the hosts in the quarter-finals, while France had to cling to a life buoy incidentally thrown their way by Switzerland’s goaltender just to qualify out of what many considered the easiest grouping. Moreover, six-time defending Champions Germany failed to impress in their first three games before falling flat in the last eight.

Conversely, all debutants had the opportunity to celebrate historic victories and went on to entertain thoughts of progressing until the dying minutes of the group stage. Only Austria advanced, but Belgium, Switzerland, Portugal and Scotland left behind indelible evidence of their quality and the growth observed around the continent.

Misfiring star strikers

For all the competitive parity and intensity, the tournament held in Dutch soil wasn’t exactly fertile ground for barn burners, delivering the lowest amount of goals per game (2.19) since 1993, and no players felt it the most than the individuals tasked with swaying the nets.

Many of Europe’s renowned goal scorers were kept in check throughout the event and their teams naturally suffered the consequences. Norway’s Ada Hegerberg, the reigning European player of the year, unintentionally became the poster girl for this dry spell, but others also stood out for their absence from the scoresheet. Spain’s Jennifer Hermoso, fresh off a 35-goal League campaign with FC Barcelona, was unable to assist her country out of a startling 350-minutes scoring drought, while Germany’s usually prolific duo of Anja Mittag and Mandy Islacker wasted several chances to tally in each of their four appearances.

Germany’s striker Anja Mittag lies down dejected after her team crashed out of the Euro 2017

France’s Eugénie Le Sommer and Marie-Laure Delie, who have combined for 125 (!) international goals, couldn’t muster more than the former’s converted penalty shot versus Iceland, while Netherlands’ superstar Vivianne Miedema only got off the schneid in the quarter-finals after growing visibly frustrated by her misses.

Notably able to escape this misery were just two sides: England, whose great start helped bring to life all their forwards’ dreams during the group stage, with Jodie Taylor leading the way, and Italy, which headed home earlier than anyone else but not without distributing five goals for their three strikers (Cristiana Girelli (1), Ilaria Mauro and Daniela Sabatini (both 2)).

The bizarre sum of goalkeeping blunders

In a tournament that hit high notes for the level of play, there was one aspect that drew unnecessary attention to prod the grumbles of the detractors: many of the goaltenders present in the competition failed to uphold the levels of technical expertise displayed by their teammates and egregious mishaps abounded, an indictment that the standards of training and mental preparation for this specific position still sit a notch below other parameters of the women’s game.

More than a handful of goals, scoring chances and, even, eliminations can be chalked up to appalling errors by goalies, be it failed zone clears, botched interceptions, fumbled catches or erroneous stops, and while no good comes from nominating them, it’s still telling that they touched the entire spectrum in hand.

Italy’s Laura Giuliani reacts after letting the ball slip through her fingers against Germany

From 19-year-old Tatyana Shcherbak (Russia) to 35-year-old Gemma Fay (Scotland), and catching up to the rookies getting their feet wet at the highest level of competition, such as Portugal’s Patrícia Morais and Italy’s Laura Giuliani, or veterans with significant experience in international competitions, as are the cases of Stine Lykke Petersen (Denmark), Guðbjörg Gunnarsdóttir (Iceland), Gaëlle Thalmann (Switzerland) and Sari van Veenendaal (Netherlands). A disparate group that suggests this issue should be a priority for all stakeholders of the women’s game over the next few years.

 

Best Game: Germany 1-2 Denmark

Postponed to a Sunday morning due to the tremendous downpour that stroke Rotterdam, this historic quarter-final matchup will go down as a paradigm shifting moment, since Germany’s sovereignty over the European game ended after 8162 days (!).

A takedown that came unannounced, especially since disaster struck Denmark just three minutes in when goalie Stine Lykke Petersen, perhaps still numb from the early kickoff, failed to stop a trivial Isabel Kerschowski’s shot and the ball trudged into the net to give Germany a premature lead. The defending Champions’ tricky passing game and fluid positional exchanges then came to the fore as they threatened but rarely overwhelmed throughout the first half and, bit by bit, Denmark started to encounter the pockets of space the Germans had been guilty of exposing all tournament.

The Danish players celebrate the second goal of their stunning triumph over Germany

Nadia Nadim’s powerful equalizer in the early moments of the second half was born out of a mistake by two German players, who foolishly paused looking for a whistle, and it catapulted the Danes to a 15-min stretch where they blew several glorious chances. It appeared Denmark would rue their luck when Germany finally settled down to get back into attacking mode, but the underdogs were still looking very much alive.

Until the moment, with seven minutes to go, when time seemed to freeze as the ball crossed by substitute Frederikke Thøgersen met an unmarked Theresa Nielsen rambling through the heart of Germany’s defence. The Danish right back nodded it past goalkeeper Almuth Schult and the biggest upset in the tournament’s history was complete.

Honourable Mention: Netherlands 4 – 2 Denmark (Final)

 

Worst Game: Austria 0 -0 Spain (5-3 on penalties)

A great sample to appease the “tiki taka is boring” crowd looming out there. Spain had already passed the ball to exhaustion without much to show for it against England, and they allowed the proceedings to slow down to a halt in this encounter with Austria, a feisty, well-organized team that was more than happy to sit back, milk the clock and take their chances on set pieces.

Spanish coach Jorge Vilda would introduce all the offensive weapons at his disposal, move pieces around and tweak the approach, but his side wouldn’t break down the wall or generate enough to justify victory following a tedious 120 minutes. The decision came to a penalty shootout where Silvia Meseguer’s shot was the only one stopped by the goaltenders. Therefore, it sent Spain packing and Austria’s fairy-tale journey into the next stop.

 

Best goal: Daniela Sabatino (Italy – Sweden)

Italy and Sweden were levelled at one when full-back Linda Tucceri Cimini’s dipping delivery met the onrushing Daniela Sabatino inside the box. The veteran forward twisted her body to one-time the ball with her right foot, and the gorgeous chip sailed over goaltender Hedvig Lindahl to find the top corner on the opposite side. Lovely finish.

Honourable Mentions: Jordan Nobbs (England – Scotland), Pernille Harder (Denmark – Netherlands, Part II)

 

Best save: Almuth Schult (Germany – Italy)

An outrageous, right hand stop by the outstretched German goaltender to deflect Barbara Bonansea’s scorching free kick in a fantastic showcase of Schult’s athleticism.

Honourable Mentions: Manuela Zinsberger (Austria – France), Stine Lykke Petersen (Denmark – Netherlands, Part II)

 

Best fans: Iceland

The Icelanders have learned how much fun attending these tournaments can be, and now they make the trip south in droves whenever possible to provide a special atmosphere to their matches. The blue legion congregated in the stadiums of the Netherlands proved as lively as in France last year, and there were copious amounts of their “thunderclap” to boot. Before, during and after the games even if their women’s team seldom afforded opportunities to cheer.

Honourable Mention: Belgium

Clad in Red, the Belgium fans trekked north by the thousands to fill the goal-line stands in each of their three matches, and it was pretty obvious how their girls feed on their energy and steered forward with renewed enthusiasm every time they stepped up the vocal support. It was almost enough to pry away a point from Denmark, and vital to secure a brilliant 2-0 triumph over Norway.

 

Best coach: Dominik Thalhammer (Austria)

With major props dispensed to Sarina Wiegman (Netherlands), who oversaw the most exciting team in the tournament, and Nils Nielsen, manager of a runner up that thrived, in spite of several injuries, due to their tactical malleability, the leader of the competition’s surprise package gets the award.

Short in talent, flash and experience compared with most opponents, the Austrian’s relied on versatile tactical principles, impressive physical condition and guile to masquerade their limitations in a way that made their campaign less surprising by each game. Seamlessly able to switch systems during the match, shifting between a defensive unit of three, four or five, a central midfield structured in 2+1 or 1+2, and an attack that could easily tolerate Nicole Billa alongside charismatic striker Nina Burger, Thalhammer expertly balanced defensive compactness, when necessary ordering two banks of players stationed in front of goal, and offensive depth, advancing the block in hopes of forcing dangerous turnovers (see their game-winning-goal versus Switzerland) before retreating to their shell as soon as the front line was surpassed.

Austria reached the semi-finals on the strength of their coach’s tactical sagacity.

Austria’s strong core of Bundesliga-based players possessed the tactical maturity to implement its coach’s vision, and the results were remarkable, with teams such as Spain, France and Denmark left without answers to forcefully pin them back, penetrate their block and coerce the novices out of their comfort zone.

Worst Coach: Olivier Echouafni (France)

We’ll absolve Martin Sjögren for now, as Norway’s problems run much deeper than management, and focus on yet another frustrating tournament for France.

Olivier Echouafni’s job was not an easy one, as he had to deal with the legacy of an international heavyweight that ultimately falters in key moments, but that can’t excuse a series of puzzling personal and tactical decisions which concurred to end their campaign at the hands of England.

For instance, debuting against an Icelandic team that would populate their own half and try to retain the 0-0, did he really need to introduce a third central midfielder (Élise Bussaglia) into the lineup and break in a late call-up (Clarisse Le Bihan, who substituted injured Amel Majri in the final roster)? The French struggled to establish possession in dangerous areas, and the duo was unsurprisingly replaced as France furiously chased a winning goal, which would fall from the sky by way of an unnecessary penalty.

Eugénie Le Sommer’s late penalty saved France against Iceland but Olivier Echouafni’s options would still get in the way of a successful campaign

They weren’t as fortunate against Austria four days later, when Echouafni took 70 minutes to correct his hand after once again getting creative with his starting eleven. He sat playmaker Camille Ability for youngster Onema Geyoro, and fielded an head-scratching front three with Le Sommer on the left (ok), Gaëtane Thiney as a center forward (meh) and towering striker Marie-Laure Delie deployed along the right side (what?).

The 44-year-old manager seemed to finally crack the code against Switzerland, with the irreverent Claire Lavogez and Kadidiatou Diani flanking Le Sommer, but Eve Perisset’s red card and ensuing Swiss tally meant they would have to fight back, undermanned, for 75 minutes. With the clock running out, Abily’s free kick miraculously slipped past the Swiss goalie to send them through undeservedly, but any hopes of avoiding a precocious clash with England went up in smoke, and they fell despite playing their best game of the tournament.

Now, imagine if they hadn’t skidded early due to their manager’s strange options, avoided England and reached the knockout rounds buoyed by the confidence of three good showings. Just another “if” to add to France’s growing collection of disappointing exits.

Underachieving team(s): France and Spain

We’ve covered France extensively in the previous section, so let’s jump right into Spain, a team that crashed headfirst into their (high) expectations and understated concerns.

After waltzing past Portugal in a first match where their sweet looking, possession-based game seemed to be on point, the Spaniards’ problems started when England, up 1-0 from the get-go, deliberately conceded control the ball and watched as the Iberians struggled to disentangle a team that wouldn’t run around and chase, but rather keep the positions and pack the centre lanes. Missing an element that could break lines in possession, combine in the half spaces and still attack the box (have you seen Vero?), Spain’s game was quickly exposed for his lack of incisiveness and reduced to an unending succession of crisp, lateral passes that could be harnessed by any structured defensive unit.

Vicky Losada’s Spain was dumped out of the Euro 2017 by Austria

Picking up on England’s example, Scotland similarly found a way to neutralize Spain and take full advantage of a defensive error to secure a 1-0 victory, and therefore the ambitious title challengers only avoided a precocious elimination because the tiebreaker favoured them over two debutants.

A third newcomer stood on their way at the quarter-finals, and simply based on tactical fit, Austria was far from an ideal pairing for the bewildered Spaniards. Another frustrating 120 minutes without finding the back of the net – to stretch their streak of futility to more than 5.5 hours – were followed by a shootout loss, and they were issued a ticket home with a   recommendation to get back into the drawing board.

Overachieving Team: Austria

A pretty straightforward pick when a debutant reaches the last four, heads home undefeated (3 wins, 2 draws) and boasts the stingiest record in the competition, having allowed just one goal (from a corner kick) in five matches.

We warned in our preview that Austria would have a word to say in the outcome of Group C, and they made us look smart by outmanoeuvring their talented neighbours in the opener, courageously challenging France’s superiority before receding to secure the point, and thoroughly dominating (16-0 in shots on target) Iceland to finish top of the table.

Austrian players celebrate the second goal of their 3-0 victory over Iceland

Way more industrious and pragmatic than brilliant in the knockout rounds, they still engendered their own opportunities to avoid penalties against Spain and Denmark. Perfect (5 of 5) on their first attempt and abysmal (0 of 3) later, they left the Netherlands after an historic campaign that improved the stock of many of their players.

Worst Team: Norway

Three defeats in three games, 0 goals for, 4 goals against, 0 points and a record unworthy of one of the most decorated nations in women’s football. How to make sense of such paltry performance from a team that can field the likes of Ada Hegerberg and Caroline Graham Hansen?

With a clear understanding that football is a team game where the best can only play…at their best when put in positions to succeed and surrounded by teammates that can help them flourish. That means a dazzling offensive dynamo like Hansen has to receive the ball as soon as possible when it gets to the final third, looking to accelerate and spread the panic, but without a host of opponents harassing her and several banks of defenders to beat. That also means Ada Hegerberg, who is not a striker capable of creating her own chances, needs to be served with deadly through balls or swinging crosses she can reach without having to muscle out the three defenders strapped to her back.

Norway’s Caroline Graham Hanse evades three Danish players on the last matchday of Group A

Norway failed spectacularly and systematically at these missions, and while much of it rests on coach Martin Sjögren – on paper, freeing the stars of defensive responsibilities in a  4x2x3x1/4x4x2 made sense, but the dynamics didn’t match – , there’s a lot to be said about the lack of creativity, technical quality, poise in possession and passing acumen of the full backs and roulette of midfielders and forwards tasked with supplementing the difference-makers.

Lastly, it was telling that in Norway’s final match, with the captain Maren Mjelde helping the build up a few meters ahead, and the talented, 23-year-old offensive midfielder Guro Reiten hovering close to Hegerberg and Hansen, their football’s fluidity and offensive punch shot up enough to substantiate multiple tallies (Hansen missed a penalty and they hit three posts against Denmark). Too late to salvage face, but a glimpse of what they need to do to stem the decay of a women’s football powerhouse.

Best Team: Netherlands

In the end, for the first time in 22 years, the Germans didn’t win but the best team clearly /did. Something these short summer tournaments don’t spit out as regularly as you’re led to believe.

Under the pulsating sea of orange shirts, the Netherlands women’s national team might not have been the embodiment of “Totaalvoetbal” or mechanical, clockwork efficiency, yet few didn’t relish their exquisite, effervescent expression of modern football: fluid and imaginative with the ball, responsible in transition and aggressive looking to regain possession.

A submission levitated by two flying Dutchwomen of contrasting attributes, the powerful, dizzyingly fast Shanice Van de Sanden and the silky electric Lieke Martens, that nonetheless couldn’t have gone into overdrive without its elegant spear (Vivianne Miedema), or reach the plenitude if two tireless, understated artists (Daniëlle Van de Donk and Jackie Groenen) had ever stopped loading the front lines.

Netherlands’ Daniëlle van de Donk is tracked down by her teammates after scoring against England in the semi-finals

Built on this splendid quintet of individuals whose complementary skills fit to perfection, and a defensive unit that responded affirmatively under the spotlight, the Netherlands surfed a mounting wave of confidence to the final triumph, dispatching two former winners (Norway and Sweden), belying a regional rival (Belgium), routing the mighty English in the semi-finals and twice overcoming a Danish squad that more than any other seemed to trouble them. In the group stage, when the Dutch were fortunate to secure the 1-0 win, and in the Grand finale, as the hosts chased the score for the first time and rose admirably to the challenge.

A necessary final ordeal to attest this young, highly-talented Dutch squad had been elected to succeed those all-conquering German teams, and was destined to double the number of countries that have won the men’s and women’s UEFA European Championship.

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.

Euro 2016 Surprises: Meet the newcomers

The UEFA European Championship started as a four team’s tournament in 1960 but the evolution of the game has seen its format expanded roughly every two decades. Thus, 1980 was the first edition with eight teams, 1996 saw sixteen countries fight for glory in England and, next year, France will welcome 24 of the 54 nations that comprise the governing association of European football.

Naturally, this enlargement figured to decrease the competitive strength of the final tournament, which over the last decades has been considered even harder to win than the World Cup, but also drown out the interest over the 14 month-long qualifying campaign.
Yet, if the first proposition will have to wait until next summer to be evaluated, the second may have already been refuted due to a simple tweak instituted by UEFA. The new scheduling, which essentially enabled games continuously from Thursday to Tuesday, managed to establish a stretch where international football is, rightfully, at the forefront, enhanced the exposure on smaller nations and amplified the interest over the battles for qualifying spots, contributing to the most followed and stirring race in a long time.

Even with an easier path to book a place, some of Europe’s finest had to exert more to get in than they expected, including Russia, Belgium or World Champions Germany, and France’s tournament won’t be more than a mirage for two of the top seeds entering the group phase, Greece and the Netherlands. However, this article isn’t about the struggles of the heavyweights but about the exploits of the underdogs, those nations that hoped to rewrite their history and ended up thrilling their people.

I’ll tackle three countries that had been away from the spotlight for decades and that promise to colour next year’s tournament with the passion of their supporters, the strength of their play, and the shine of talented footballers that deserved the chance to set foot on a big international stage wearing their nation’s colours. They probably won’t lift the Henry Delaunay Cup after the 10th of July final on the Stade de France at Saint-Denis, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t get to know them better.

Iceland

Less than two years after missing the chance to become the smallest country to qualify for a World Cup, falling short on the playoffs against Croatia, the nation with the Northernmost capital in Europe reached the finals of a major tournament for the first time.

10% of Iceland’s population, or 30 000 fans, may travel to France to support their team

Iceland could hardly have been more brilliant on their march to France, taking the victory from six of the first seven matches on qualification, including two famed triumphs over World Cup semi-finalists Netherlands, which capped an amazing improvement for a national team that was placed outside the top 100 on the FIFA rankings just five years ago. Since then, they appointed former Sweden’s coach Lars Lagerbäck, who is poised to retire in style next year and cede the position to current joint-manager Heimir Hallgrímsson, and became a tough side to overcome, incisive and daring on Reykjavík’s Laugardalsvöllur, solid and surgical away from home.

Although Iceland’s rise was helped by the presence of the first foreign national team manager in two decades, it is mainly about the important investments on infrastructures and training made on the country since the turn of the century. On an island faced with severe winter-related constraints, the escalation in full-sized halls and weather-resistant outdoor pitches has been remarkable, with newer artificial and natural grass fields allowing players and youngsters to train and improve their skills year-round, instead of toiling on gravel and indoor wooden floors. Similarly, the Icelandic Football Association (KSÍ) overhauled the entire coaching system, revolutionizing the education of the men responsible for teaching the new generations, with the number of UEFA Pro Licences increasing to levels that make their Scandinavian neighbours blush.

Lars Lagerbäck, alongside Heimir Hallgrímsson, led Iceland to the first international tournament

The outcome is a small country that is starting to export coaches, which follows the path set by much of the players that currently constitute the backbone of the national team, born between 1988 and 1992 and, thus, the first beneficiaries of the improvements on Iceland’s football structure. They comprise a true golden generation that first made waves by conquering a spot on the 2011 U-21 European Championship, with the likes of Gylfi Sigurdsson, Aron Gunnarsson and Kolbeinn Sigthórsson shining in Denmark.

Those names are now plying their trade on Europe’s best Leagues as they reach their peak years, and the senior squad benefits from their maturity and the experience of some older players, a mix that flourished to make proud their 300,000 compatriots.
The Icelandic squad that surprised during this qualifying campaign is essentially an efficient side assembled on a straightforward formation, a 4-4-2 that Lagerbäck and Hallgrímsson rarely change and that has produced well on both areas. Until they secured the qualification, only the Czech Republic could break Iceland’s stout defence, for three times during the pair’s encounters, and the Czech were also the only team in the group that topped Iceland’s 17 goals scored.

Qualifying Campaign:

An impressive 3-0 win against Turkey at Reikjavik started Iceland’s journey to France but it wasn’t until the historic home triumph over the Netherlands, afforded by a Gylfi Sigurdsson’s brace, that the Nordic islanders showed the strength to severely importune the favourites for the qualifying spots.

To a loss in Plzen against the Czech, Iceland responded with three consecutive wins, including an encore on Dutch soil, to stand on the edge of advancing. A rainy, nervy 0-0 tie with last place Kazakhstan did the job and Iceland could finally relax, finishing the campaign by conceding a home draw with Latvia and a last-minute defeat, at Konya, with Turkey, the best third place team of all groups.

Formation and squad

See Iceland’s formation here

Iceland’s stingy defensive performance begins on goalkeeper Hannes Þór Halldórsson (NEC Nijmegen, 31 years old), who arrived this season to the Dutch League after three years in Norway. Actually, it was only in 2011, shortly after assuming the reigns of Iceland’s goal, that Halldórsson became a professional footballer, leaving behind several years representing Icelandic clubs and working as a film director. Ögmundur Kristinsson (Hammarby IF, 26) replaced Halldórsson for the last qualifying match.

The team’s two centre-backs, not surprisingly, are both tall and vigorous, with former defensive midfielder Kári Árnason’s (Malmö FF, 32) career including stops in Sweden, Denmark, Scotland and England, before debuting on the Champions League this season for the title holders of his birth country. His partner Rágnar Sigurdsson (Krasnodar, 29) conquered titles in Sweden (IFK Göteborg) and Denmark (FC Copenhagen) until a move to Russia in 2014.

Right-back Birkir Sævarsson (Hammarby IF, 30) spent six years on Norwegian club Brann before joining the Stockholm-based squad and is a versatile defender that can player anywhere on the back due to his height (1.87m). He usually covers for the offensive raids of left-back Ari Skúlason (Odense BK, 28), a former midfielder that retreated on the field due to Lagerbäck’s efforts, and today adds a new dimension to Iceland’s game by providing pinpoint crosses and long balls.

Gylfi Sigurdsson (10) and Aron Gunnarson (17) are Iceland’s central midfield duo

Patrolling the centre of the midfield is captain Aron Gunnarson (Cardiff City, 26), who plays in England since 2008, first for Coventry City and later for a Welsh side that spent 2013-14 in the Premier League. The holding midfielder generally has the company of Gylfi Sigurdsson (Swansea City, 26), the team’s finest player, who can be moved to support a single striker when the game calls for more defensive consistency. The former Tottenham player defines most of his team’s plays, controls the pace of the game, and takes care of every free kick and penalty, having scored six goals during the Euro 2016 campaign, including three crucial strikes against the Netherlands.

If Sigurdsson has to move forward, Johann Gudmundsson (Charlton Athletic, 24) steps in, with the talented winger having returned to England after spending part of his formative years there before signing for AZ Alkmaar in 2009.

Appropriately nicknamed “Thor” in his homeland, Birkir Bjarnason (FC Basel, 27) is usually deployed on the right side of the midfield for the national team despite having played on the centre for his different clubs, a list that includes Viking FK, Standard Liège, Pescara and Sampdoria before joining the Swiss Champions this season. If Bjarnason tends to drift to the middle in order to help close down on defence, left winger Emil Hallfredsson (Hellas Verona, 31) provides width and a wealth of experience from six seasons performing in Italy. Defensive midfielder Ólafur Skúlason (Gençlerbirliği S.K., 32) is the man in hand should a suspension stop any of the regular midfielders from competing.

Up front, Iceland’s coaches like to pair two mobile forwards, with Jón Dadi Bödvarsson (Viking FK, 23) being the youngest player on the starting eleven and a versatile element that can also play as a winger. Kolbeinn Sigthórsson (FC Nantes, 25) is the biggest threat for opposing defences, having produced 18 goals in 30 games for the national team and 46 during his 5-year stay in the Netherlands, representing AZ Alkmaar and Ajax.

Kolbeinn Sigthórsson celebrates his strike against Turkey

With only thirteen players collecting minutes in more than 5 games during the qualification campaign, it’s clear that the pool of talent available to the managing duo is limited but, nonetheless, the attack is the position with more alternatives.
Rúrik Gíslason (FC Nurnberg, 27) is usually the first man off the bench to change things offensively, but the return of veteran Eidur Gudjohnsen (Shijiazhuang Ever Bright FC, 37), last March against Kazakhstan, broadened the options. Iceland’s greatest player ever could be a key influence on the team in France, even if the former Barcelona and Chelsea man best times’ have been gone for a while.

Alfred Finnbogason (Olympiacos FC, 26) is another piece of the puzzle even though the complete affirmation of the Eredivisie’s best goal scorer in 2013-14 (SC Heerenveen, 29 goals) has taken more than expected. Finally, Vidar Orn Kjartarsson (Jiangsu Guoxin-Sainty, 25) was the runaway top goal scorer on the Norwegian league in 2014, and may soon join the battle for a starting position.

Wales

The 1958 World Cup marks the first and only time Wales had qualified for a major tournament, and if next year’s campaign delivers the same result, a quarter-final exit, the rugby-mad country will be pleased. After narrowly missing the presence at the 1994 World Cup and the 2004 European Championship, the current generation of Welsh players has already achieved almost unparalleled heights, with the national team ranked, as of the 1st of October, as the number eight team in the world. Four years ago, Wales was 117th, behind Haiti.

Iconic legends in Great Britain’s football history like Ian Rush, Mark Hughes and Ryan Giggs never had the chance to experience a big international showcase for their nation, but fortunately the same won’t (*knocks on wood*) happen to Gareth Bale, the latest world-class player born on the western part of the biggest British Island.
The Real Madrid star is absolutely essential, and the only player on the squad to tally more than ten goals on his career for the national team (his 19 goals in 54 games at age 26 are just nine off Ian Rush’s record), but there’s more talent leading the surge to prominence, including a core group between the ages of 25 and 28 that has grown together for a few years.

Wales team spirit was on display throughout the ten-game campaign

The entire roster is based in England (and Scotland) outside of his main star, and the coach, Chris Coleman, also made a career as a defender for several English outfits, earning 32 caps for his country. He debuted behind the bench for Fulham in 2003, one year after ending his career on the London side, and left after four seasons to assume Real Sociedad, where he stayed for just five months. He returned to guide Coventry City during a couple of years and had a short stint in Greece, for Larissa, before being appointed as Wales’s national coach in January 2012, after the death of Gary Speed, a friend and former teammate.

Coleman’s squad scored a paltry eleven goals in ten matches during the campaign, with seven of those coming off the head and feet of Bale, but that was enough to collect six victories because their generous defensive unit only allowed a single goal at home, and four in total. Two clean sheets against a Belgium team laden with offensive stars – one which scored 24 times on the other 8 games – is the definitive proof of Wales’ stoic resistance and team spirit.

The Welsh approach most games with a mixed 5-3-2/ 3-4-1-2 formation, based on a strong and populated central area, which frees the outside backs and leaves Aaron Ramsey with the responsibility to link play and support a front duo where Bale has “carte blanche” to roam and explore spaces behind the defence. When the team needs to score, Coleman shifts to a 4-3-3 or 4-4-2, with Bale on the left or behind a striker.

Qualifying Campaign:

Someone who looked at Wales’ half-time scoreline (1-1) during their first qualifying encounter, at Andorra, would be hardly pressed to believe on a successful enterprise. And although Gareth Bale completed his brace on the remaining 45 minutes to give the visitors three points, his team would still take some time to get on track.

Gareth Bale’s tally sunk Belgium in Cardiff

Nonetheless, a 0-0 against Bosnia at Cardiff, and a hard-fought victory over Cyprus, after playing almost all of the last 45 minutes with a man down, placed Wales on top.
The following three-game stretch turned the Welsh dream into a distinct possibility, with the team securing a scoreless draw in Brussels before the irrepressible Bale took over, finding the net twice and assisting on the other tally during a signature 3-0 triumph in Haifa, Israel. The winger then bagged the lone strike to defeat the Belgians in Cardiff, and secured a dramatic late win in Cyprus with a bullet header.

Wales couldn’t clinch the spot in France at home, against Israel, after being held to a frustrating 0-0 draw, but the wait of more than 50 years was finally over on the next fixture. Despite a loss at Bosnia, Cyprus handed Wales the much awaited qualification by surprising Israel.

Formation and squad

See Wales’ formation here

Goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey (Crystal Palace, 28) is the undisputable starter for Wales since his 53 caps are exactly 53 more than the total of his two backups. The former Wolverhampton Wanderers goalie also played a lot at the club level from 2007 to 2014 but, since his move to the Premier League side, he has warmed the bench more times than not.

Wales’ skipper Ashley Williams was selected by UEFA for the Euro 2016 qualifiers best 11.

Wales defence is marshalled, be it on a configuration of four or five men, by captain Ashley Williams (Swansea City, 31), who also wears the armband for the Swans, the side he represents since 2008. Born in England but of Welsh ascendency, James Chester (West Bromwich Albion, 26) has secured a place alongside Williams since his debut last year, when he was yet a member of Hull City, the club he joined from Manchester United in 2011.

Rounding out the back three, when needed, is veteran James Collins (West Ham United, 31) or one of the team’s natural left backs, either Neil Taylor (Swansea City, 26) or Ben Davies (Tottenham Hotspur, 22). The pair competed for a spot on Swansea’s defence before the latter moved to London in 2014, but don’t have the same problem on the national team, since Coleman can move either to the centre or up to the midfield. Chris Gunter (Reading FC, 26) is a right back with Premier League experience and already more than 60 caps amassed, while Ashley Williams (Fulham FC, 24) backs him up and can also play as a left back or on the midfield.

The trio at the heart of the field has Joe Ledley (Crystal Palace, 28), a player with Premier League and Champions League experience for Celtic under his belt, as the most physical weapon and defensive anchor, while Joe Allen (Liverpool, 25) is a more refined midfielder that has struggled to live up to the £15 million paid to Swansea in 2012. Aaron Ramsey (Arsenal, 24) is a box-to-box threat that pushes the ball forward, and surprises opponents with his timely appearances to set up his teammates or pounce on goal.

Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey is Wales’ key midfielder

When one of these three players is absent, Andy King (Leicester City, 26) is the next in line and Coleman can thrust an element with a knack for goal, having scored 57 times over nine years for Leicester, a record for a “Foxes” midfielder. David Edwards (Wolverhampton Wanderers, 30) and David Vaughan (Nottingham Forest, 32) are long-time members of the squad that provide depth to the sector, while youngsters Jonathan Williams (Crystal Palace, 22) and Emyr Huws (Huddersfield Town, 22) are slowly finding their space on the main team.

On the attack, the attention is all on the mesmerizing runs, shots, tricks and turns of Gareth Bale (Real Madrid, 26), but the Cardiff native can also be extremely dangerous from thunderous free-kicks or even bullying opponents on the air. Besides Bale, Hal Robson-Kanu (Reading, 26) is another arrow pointed towards the opponent’s net, as the former Arsenal schoolboy usually plays as a winger at the club-level.

Simon Church (Milton Keynes Dons, 26) and Sam Vokes (Burnley, 25) are pure strikers, but their underwhelming career goal-scoring record turns them into regular bench fixtures for the national team, since Coleman prefers the services of winger David Cotterill (Birmingham City, 26) whenever he switches to a three-man unit up front centered by Robson-Kanu. The talented George Williams (Fulham, 20) has already collected some minutes, and he figures to see his profile raised over the next few years.

Austria

It won’t be a debut, like for Iceland, and the country did not have to wait almost 60 years to taste a major international tournament, like Wales, but this doesn’t mean that Austria’s qualification for the Euro 2016 isn’t a great achievement. After all, the country had never qualified for the European Championship – played part as a co-host in 2008 – and the last time they could pop the bottles to celebrate reaching a tournament was in 1998, on France’s World Cup.

For a nation that finished fourth at the 1934 World Cup, and third in the 1954 edition, this is a long time, and the first goal in France will be securing a competition triumph that escapes since 1990. Indeed, the last time they went past the first round is an even more remote memory, dating back to the 1982 World Cup.

The Austrians and their fans will be back to a major international tournament

Some of the biggest names in Austria’s footballing history were strikers, including Toni Polster, the all-time best goal scorer for the national team with 44 goals, and former Barcelona man Hans Krankl, but the current roster is much more about a group of players that thrived on the youth Austrian rosters, and achieved recognition with the fourth place at the 2007 U-20 World Cup. Those players are now fully developed as key members of the senior squad and the national team is reaping the benefits, even though their transcendental talent is 23-year-old David Alaba, who became the youngest player ever to debut for Austria back in 2009, at the age of 17.

Alaba joined Bayern Munich as a teenager, and this is a path that many Austrians follow early on, with almost the entire roster having played in Germany at some point in their careers, but the national team has also profited from the experience on the Premier League of names like Marko Arnautovic and Christian Fuchs. Thus, most of the side can relate and implement the technical and tactical concepts that dominate contemporary football, including a suffocating pressing that made several victims during the campaign.

Looking from the baseline is Coach Marcel Koller, who orchestrated an attractive style of play based on movement and pace, which extracts the best from his creative offensive midfielders. The 54-year-old Swiss represented his national team as a midfielder in 56 occasions and became a manager in 1997, leading the fortunes of Grasshoppers, Cologne and Bochum, among others, before being appointed as Austrian coach in 2011. Koller’s work wasn’t enough to earn a spot on the 2014 World Cup, trailing Germany and Sweden on the qualifying group, but the Austrian’s showed the promised that materialized in a wonderful campaign towards booking the trip to France.

Sweden was the only team that managed to stop Austria during the qualifiers

Twenty-two goals scored and only five conceded, nine wins in ten matches, and a couple of signature triumphs on the grounds of their two strongest rivals, tell the tale of 13 months to remember for a country that rediscovered the love for the game following the adventures of a revived squad.

The Austrians are a team structured on a balanced 4-2-3-1, which thrives on the unpredictability and positional swaps between their three attacking midfielders along with the relentless work of Alaba, used on the national team as a box-to-box midfielder. On the other hand, Austria’s Achilles heel is a defence that lacks speed, even if their opponents couldn’t take advantage, since the first goal suffered on open play came only on injury time eight games into the campaign.

Qualifying Campaign:

Austria only dropped two points on the road to the Euro 2016, and those were courtesy of Sweden on the inaugural match, a 1-1 draw in Vienna. The team followed that up with three consecutive one goal victories, the most important coming at home against Russia, when a late strike by Rubin Okotie acted as the decider on a game that Alaba missed with an injury. The Bayern Munich man would also fail the trip to Moscow, and his teammates managed to pull through once again, this time due to a Marc Janko’s tally.

Another narrow win, this time over Moldova in Vienna, set up a crucial encounter at Solna, Sweden, and the Austrians didn’t squander the chance to punch the ticket at the first opportunity, embarrassing their opponents with a categorical 4-1 score line after a sensational performance. To end the campaign, an injury-time winner in Montenegro gave Austria its eight consecutive triumph, a number that would rise to nine after beating Liechtenstein on the last fixture.

Formation and squad

See Austria’s formation here

Austria’s Number One is Robert Almer (Austria Wien, 31), an experienced shot stopper that spent the last four seasons in Germany playing for Fortuna Düsseldorf, Energie Cottbus and Hannover 96, even if he never turned into an unquestionable starter for any of the sides.

The defence mixes youth and experience. The full backs are Florian Klein (VFB Stuttgart, 28), who moved from Red Bull Salzburg to become the first-team right back for the German outfit, and captain Christian Fuchs (Leicester City, 29), whose move this season to the Premier League came after seven years on the Bundesliga, the last four for Schalke 04, where he created danger by flinging long free-throws. Meanwhile, on the centre, the talented Aleksandar Dragović (Dynamo Kiev, 24) is the leader of the sector, having flourished for Basel before joining the Ukrainian powerhouse, where his play is attracting several English top clubs.

Aleksandar Dragović is Austria’s better rounded defender

To play besides Dragović, Marcel Koller alternated between the lanky (1.94m) Sebastian Prödl (Watford, 28), a recent signee of the Premier League side after seven season on Werder Bremen, and the youngster Martin Hinteregger (Red Bull Salzburg, 23), a regular fixture on the perennial Austrian Champions. Kevin Wimmer (Tottenham Hotspur, 22), who joined the London outfit from Cologne this summer, is waiting on the wings, while right back György Garics (SV Darmstadt 98, 31) and left back Markus Suttner (FC Ingolstadt 04, 28) provide cover for Klein and Fuchs, respectively.

David Alaba (Bayern Munich, 23) has executed plenty of roles since Pep Guardiola took over the Bavarian Giants, and his versatility translates to the Austrian side, where he’s not viewed as a left-back, the position he prospered in. His energetic style, awareness and sublime skill bless Austria’s central midfield, and he’s the dynamo behind the team’s success after contributing with four goals in eight matches during the campaign. Alaba’s partner on the middle of the park is Julian Baumgartlinger (FSV Mainz 05, 27), a strong tackler who left home at age 13 to join TSV 1860 Munich’s youth academy.

Alternatives to the midfield duo include the physical Stefan Ilsanker (RB Leipzig, 26), the prototypical defensive midfielder, and Christoph Leitgeb (Red Bull Salzburg, 30), a product of Sturm Graz’s academy. Veli Kavlak (Beşiktaş J.K., 26), who moved to his parents’ country of origin in 2011, is also frequently called.

The chemistry between the trio that collaborates behind the lone forward is palpable, and thus coach Koller rarely dismisses the services of a group that combined to hit the net eight times during the journey to France. Martin Harnik (VFB Stuttgart, 28) brings it from the right and the Hamburg-born winger confirms for the national team the credentials of a career solidly built on the Bundesliga, which includes four dozens of goals collected for the southwest German club.

On the other flank evolves the mercurial Marko Arnautović (Stoke City, 26), the bad boy of Austria’s football, a winger as talented as inconsistent during stints for Twente, Inter Milan and Werder Bremen. Zlatko Junuzović (Werder Bremen, 28) plays as a right-winger for his club but, on the national team, is a classic Number 10 with a penchant for free-kick taking.

Marcel Sabitzer (RB Leipzig, 21) is the first man called upon when something needs to be changed on the attacking midfield, while Valentino Lazaro (Red Bull Salzburg, 19), of Angolan and Greek roots, has been viewed as the next big thing in Austrian football since debuting on the domestic league at the age of 16 years and 224 days, earlier than anyone else. Jakob Jantscher (FC Luzern, 26) fights for minutes and opportunities with the two young prospects. Andreas Weimann (Derby County, 24) signed for Aston Villa at age 16, and became one of Austria’s prominent footballers acquiring more than 100 Premier League appearances, but he’s currently removed from Koller’s regular selections.

David Alaba (R), Martin Harnik (C) and Marc Janko (L) after a goal on Austria’s smashing triumph in Sweden

On the attack, the starter is still the veteran Marc Janko (FC Basel, 32), whose seven goals in the qualification paced the team. A former record-breaking goal machine for Red Bull Salzburg that also played in the Netherlands, Portugal and Turkey, Janko seems revitalized after a stint in Australia, and is now an important member of the Swiss Champions. Rubin Okotie (TSV 1860 Munich, 28), born in Karachi, Pakistan, has been less prolific throughout his career, but his two goals on the campaign directly offered four points.

Lukas Hinterseer (FC ingolstadt 04, 22) is currently the third man on the pecking order, and his morphologic conditions (1.92m) anticipate that he can become Janko’s successor, while Marco Djuricin (Red Bull Salzburg, 22), currently on loan at Brentford searching for competitive minutes, is another piece of Austria’s future up front.

(Albania and Northern Ireland are also newcomers but didn’t make the cut this time. They’ll be featured later. Eventually.)

Alpine skiing World Cup 2015 season review (II): All Hail Hirscher (x4)

(Women’s review here)

Men’s World Cup Review

Marcel Hirscher’s path towards becoming the first men to win four consecutive overall World Cup titles got significantly easier after the injury to long-time rival Aksel Lund Svindal just a few days before the beginning of the season, but it ended not being the piece of cake many thought it would be. Svindal, the vice champion in 2013 and 2014, was shelved through the whole season, only making a short appearance to race at the World Championships, but he kept in touch with his Norwegian colleagues and his advice was certainly valuable to Kjetil Jansrud, who at the age of 29 had, by far, the best season of his career.

Even if Hirscher and Jansrud fought head-to-head during the season only on limited occasions, since the Austrian mainly races the technical events and the Norwegian has turned into a speed specialist, both men maintained a close look at the other’s achievements through the season and the duel intensified as it came to a close.

Kjetil Jansrud flies for his third consecutive WC victory in Beaver Creek

On the season start, at Solden, Hirscher kicked off in style by winning for the first time at the inaugural event, and he was already well positioned after only two races with the 2nd place obtained at the Levi slalom. However, when Kjetil Jansrud got his first action on the new season at Lake Louise, he started a run of three consecutive WC wins and on the blink of an eye took the overall standings lead.

Hirscher then added a podium on the GS of Beaver Creek and two wins at Åre just before the tour moved into Italy. To two great results by Jansrud at Val Gardena, Hirscher answered right back with the triumph in the GS of Alta Badia, capping a terrific start of the season for both men, who combined to take eight of the first eleven WC events.

However, on the last DH of 2014, at Santa Caterina, Jansrud was only 17th and this outcome would kick-start a less impressive run for the Stavanger-native, who would add only one more top-3 finish until February and the start of the World Championships. Meanwhile, Hirscher won the slalom of Zagreb and the GS of Adelboden, was second in the super combined and the slalom of Kitzbuhel, and added another podium to cling back to the top of the standings and build an advantage he wouldn’t relinquish.

Jansrud and Hirscher shared a race podium only once in 2015, at the Super Combined event of the World Championships.

A tense Jansrud arrived in Vail for the World Championships as the main contender for the SG and DH titles, looking for the first medal of his career on this big stage, but his declining form showed up again, with a fourth place in the Super-G being followed by a disappointing 15th position on the DH. However, on the combined, Jansrud put up a brilliant downhill run to get his hopes high, only to be surprised by the furious comeback of Hirscher on the slalom, with the Austrian shaving a disadvantage of more than 3 seconds to claim gold in spectacular manner. Hirscher would then add a silver medal on the GS after failing to beat a Ted Ligety boosted by the home crowd, and seemed to be on his way to retain his slalom title until he failed to make a turn on the second run and was forced to retire.

A speed-heavy scheduled followed the immediate return to the WC but the 29-year old Norwegian would still need to wait to get back to the top of the podium. Matthias Mayer and Hannes Reichelt dominated the DH and SG events of Saalbach and Garmisch-Partenkirchen and almost unconsciously helped their watching countryman, who took advantage of his scarce opportunities to keep piling up the points.

The first weekend of March took the racers to Kvitfjell, Norway, and Jansrud was bound to take close to the maximum number of points available if he still dreamt of clinching the big crystal globe. The 7th place on the DH was short and the victory the next day on the Super-G still kept him more than 50 points out of the overall lead with a par of technical events at Kranjska Gora still to come. Hirscher added a 2nd and a 6th on a conservative effort and knew he only had to manage the gap on the last races of the year.

Kjetil Jansrud lost the overall race but didn’t finish the season empty-handed.

At Méribel, Jansrud looked determined to fight until the end and he did his job both on the downhill, which he won, and the Super-G (2nd), thus clinching the discipline’s globes on the process. Nonetheless, the race for the overall title was nearly over after Hirscher surprised with a fourth position at the Super-G and Jansrud, in a final act of despair, raced on the GS, performing better than expected (11th) but not good enough to keep his dream realistically alive. With the overall and GS titles already on the pocket, a beaming Marcel Hirscher ended the season by putting the cherry on the top after taking victory on the slalom event and collecting another globe, the third consecutive on the slowest alpine discipline.

At the end of the 37 races that comprised the 2014-2015 men’s calendar, 160 points separated the pair, with Hirscher boasting eight victories (fourteen podiums) and Jansrud responding with seven (plus four more top-3 finishes), while both split the other globes available. For the Norwegian, lifting the bright, translucent trophies was a debut, whereas Hirscher now has nine on his personal collection (4 overall, 2 GS, 3 SL).

As much as both men shined over the year, other athletes also had excellent seasons, so now it’s the time to recognize some of them.

Alexis Pinturault took home the Kitzbuhel super combined triumph

Finishing third on the overall classification for the second consecutive year, France’s Alexis Pinturault managed to amass more than 1000 points and triumph twice, at the super combined of Kitzbuhel and the GS of Kranjska Gora. At the age of 23, Pinturault couldn’t beat Hirscher for the GS title, but he will take some solace on finishing the year in front of Ted Ligety, who has conquered the globe five-times since 2008. On the Word Championships, their fortunes reversed with the American winning the title, his third straight, and Pinturault repeating the third place achieved at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Nonetheless, the French is still young enough to evolve on other disciplines, namely the slalom and Super-G, which he finished in 10th, thus improving his chances of winning the overall title, while, at the age of 30, the Salt Lake City-native is running out of time if he still fancies raising the ultimate prize.

Germany’s Felix Neureuther equalled his best overall classification with the fourth place and, for the third year in a row, had to watch Marcel Hirscher came away with the elusive slalom trophy. The German had his best opportunity for glory to this date, leading the table throughout the year, but a mistake on the second run of the final event at Méribel cost him a few positions and he ended up 23 points short of his first crystal globe. In 2015, Neureuther won the races at Madonna di Campiglio and Wengen and added six more podiums, picking up a bronze medal on the World Championships after finishing behind France’s Jean-Baptiste Grange and compatriot Fritz Dopfer.

Dopfer was indeed one of the better surprises of the season, with the 27-year-old born in Austria placing in fifth at the final WC standings and adding a fourth position on the GS classification and a fifth on the slalom. Despite missing on his maiden World Cup win, Dopfer put up a really consistent season (16 top ten finishes in 18 races entered) under the inscription of the number 2, the position he occupied on four WC races and the aforementioned World Championships slalom.

Hannes Reichelt become a World Champion for the first time after winning the Super-G in Vail

From Germany back to their southwest neighbours, 34-year-old Hannes Reichelt was crowned the Super-G World Champion in February, but the campaign throughout the year at the discipline that earned him his only World Cup crystal globe (2008) was less effective, having to settle for fourth after besting his opponents only at Beaver Creek. However, he got to repeat the second position on the DH classification after pushing Kjetil Jansrud with a sequence of two wins and a podium after the World Championships.

Nine years younger, Matthias Mayer followed up a breakthrough 2014 season, when he became the DH Olympic Champion, with a 2015 of ups-and-downs. His best weekend of the year was at Saalbach, with a double success at the speed events, but those were his only wins of the year. Since he added just four more podium finishes, he also couldn’t make better than the lower podium position on the final Super-G classification.

Dominik Paris, from Italy, was one of the main contenders for every speed race during the season and his main accomplishment was the triumph at the Super-G of Kitzbuhel, the first on the discipline at WC events, and a win that validates his 2013 Downhill success on the same mythical slope of the Hahnenkamm Mountain. The 25-year-old ended up on the podium in five more occasions, and barely missed the chance of being a top-3 skier on both speed classifications due to an uninspired second part of the season.

Also delivering good results in 2015 were France’s Guillermo Fayed, who surprisingly clinched the third position on the final DH classification, Canadian Dustin Cook, the Super-G silver medallist at Vail and the first Canadian men to win an WC event on the discipline (Méribel), and Swiss Patrick Kung and Beat Feuz, respectively the gold and bronze medallists at the Downhill event of the World Championships.

Aleksandr Khoroshilov made history for Russia at the Schladming slalom

Concerning the technical races, Norwegian prodigy Henrik Kristoffersen, fulfilling his third WC season, added slalom wins in Levi and Kranjska Gora to his résumé and ended the season on a high note with his first GS triumph attained at Méribel. In comparison with 2014, the 20-year-old dropped one position both on the overall and slalom classifications, but the confirmation of his spectacular talent opens prospects of putting up a fight for the slalom crystal globe in 2016.

Taking Kristoffersen’s spot on the slalom classification was one of the surprises of the season, Russian specialist Aleksandr Khoroshilov, who at the age of 31 got his maiden WC triumph at Schladming, and become the first male Russian skier to win a WC race since 1981. Just a few days later, at the World Championships, Khoroshilov was in great position to challenge for the title after a brilliant first run, but the pressure seemed to weight on him and he had to settle for eight. Nonetheless, the Russian was certainly happy at the end of the season with a performance that included top ten finishes on every race he participated in and two additional podiums at Åre and Méribel.

Other names, like France’s Thomas Fanara, similarly deserve some appreciation, but this article is already too heavy, so I’ll stop here and hope they forgive me.

The overall Champions show off the trophies collected in 2015

The 2016 Alpine Ski World Cup starts on the end of October. As usual, Solden (Austria) will welcome the skiers back from a long summer of training on the mountain ranges of the Southern Hemisphere. See you then!

(Read the Women’s review here)

Alpine skiing World Cup 2015 season review (I): The Austro-Slovenian Empire

1989 was undoubtedly a great year. The World Wide Web was invented, the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War would be finished as the calendar was about to turn. However, for Austria, the last year of the 80´s may be also remembered one day as the birth year of two of the biggest sporting idols in the history of the country.
Marcel Hirscher and Anna Fenninger were already the current gold standards of the country’s beloved skiing obsession and now share the glorious distinction as multiple World Cup overall Champions. Their 2015 titles were sealed on the last weekend at the French resort of Méribel, but until then both had to fight hard to see off the challenges provided by Norwegian speedster Kjetil Jansrud and Slovenian superstar Tina Maze.
This article will depict a five-month marathon to earn those shinning big crystal globes and pay respect to all those that dazzled on the snow to make up another unforgettable Alpine skiing season. As prerequisite, I’ll start with the ladies.
Women’s World Cup Review
Anna Fenninger had conquered the first World Cup (WC) title of his career at the end of 2014, but her worthiness was still at stake after a late season crash by Maria Hoefl-Riesch helped push her over the edge. Thus, with the German retired, Lindsay Vonn still nursing from two years marred by injuries, and Tina Maze coming off a lost season for his high standards, the Austrian had every reason to start the season on a roll and the inaugural sights did not disappoint. At the maiden race of the season, Fenninger shared with Mikaela Shiffrin the top place on the Giant Slalom (GS) podium at Solden and stamped a pole position for the long run. What nobody expected was the Salzburg-native inability to win again until the second month of 2015, and the rejuvenated Maze took the first slalom of the year, at Levi, a few weeks later to snag a lead she would hold through the months ahead.

Anna Fenninger and Mikaela Shiffrin shared the triumph at Solden

Only two stops in, the circus moved to the usual North American tour, and the racing days in Aspen (USA) and Lake Louise (CAN) would bring a familiar face back to the fold. Vonn, the four-time overall Champion, was back and all the rust she may have felt was gone on a pinch as she triumphed on the second Downhill (DH) event held on the Canadian resort, only a day after Maze beat Fenninger on the discipline’s first race of the year.
The third speed competition of the weekend, a Super G (SG), was snatched by Switzerland’s Lara Gut with Vonn and Maze coming right after, and the result prompted several observers to believe the American could challenge for the big globe. However, Vonn soon realized her form (and knee) wouldn’t hold an all-out challenge across multiple fronts and she smartly kept her focus on the speed races, a decision that would be proven absolutely right by the season’s end.
Back to Europe, Sweden’s Åre took over the technical festivities the lack of snow inhibited in Courchevel and, with 180 points (1st on the GS, 2nd on the Slalom (SL)) more on the pocket, Maze built an advantage of more than 250 points over the Austrian rival by mid-December, with Fenninger unable to get outside of the low-side of the top-ten classifications. Just before Christmas, although, the reigning Champion finished as the runner-up on the SG at Val D’Isére, and started a series of several 2nd places until the end of January that would bring her closer to the lead. Meanwhile, Maze was picking up precious points on slalom events during a part of the season dominated by the brilliance of Mikaela Shiffrin on the short skies, and the class of Vonn on the speed events, including her 63rd World Cup win at the SG of Cortina D’Ampezzo, beating the record of 62 WC wins set by Annemarie Moser-Proll.
The Americans seemed to be gaining steam ahead of the 2015 Vail/Beaver Creek World Championships, but the stars of the event on the women’s side were yet again the pair at the helm of the World Cup rankings.
Fenninger edged Maze for 0.03 seconds at the SG, the first event of the Championships, and this win would broke whatever was holding the Austrian back, even though two days later it was time for the 31-year-old to smile, defeating the rival for a mere 0.02 seconds on the DH. Maze would also take gold on the super combined, an event Fenninger finished in fourth, but the table was turned yet again on the GS, with a spectacular performance delivering the first World Championship title for the discipline’s World Cup title-holder.

The Austro-Slovenian domination extended to the World Championships in Vail

Shiffrin would save an otherwise pale American performance on the women’s side – Vonn only left with a bronze medal on the Super-G – by renewing the slalom title, but the three medals amassed by each side of the Fenninger-Maze rivalry would leave no doubts about the brightest smiles at the return of the Wold Cup.
With Fenninger 284 points out of the top spot, the season resumed in Maze’s background, at Maribor, and it was precisely where no one expected it that the tide changed dramatically. The home heroin crashed on the GS’ first run, straddling the gates for Fenninger’s win, and the next day Maze failed to finish the slalom also, leaving the weekend full of doubts while his rival got a serious moral boost that grew even more with wins at the GS and combined event of Bansko.
Maze would reduce the losses in the Bulgarian resort with two second place finishes, and managed to keep the distance on the following stop, Germany’s Garmish-Partenkirchen, but the return to Åre brought another success to Fenninger on the GS and a change in the leader of the pack after Maze ended back in 20th.

Lindsey Vonn clinched both speed titles at Méribel

Heading into the season finale at Méribel, Fenninger was still fighting for the discipline’s globes in the Downhill and Super-G, trailing Lindsay Vonn in both, but the American made everything to avoid influence on the overall dispute after claiming victory in both events and, by virtue, both classifications. Fenninger was second on the SG and only eight on the DH, while Maze managed a third and a fifth, setting the stage to reclaim the lead by 18 points after the slalom, which she ended up in fourth.
The title was going to be decided on the last race of the season, with the Austrian trying to add the GS globe also, and the pressure was immense on both women. Leading after the first run, Fenninger was on the starting line when his rival failed to beat fellow Austrian Eva-Maria Brem on the second run and fought the nerves to secure his advantage and celebrate after crossing the finish line.At the end, just 22 points separated Maze from Fenninger’s 1553, with the 25-year-old conquering the big crystal globe for the second time on one of the tightest battles on World Cup history.
Breaking down the season of both women, a closer look at the numbers reveals that the Austrian had more podiums (15 to 13) and wins (6 to Maze’s 3), an essential factor in the contest since Fenninger is essentially a three disciplines skier (DH, SG, GS) while the Slovenian also races de slalom. The Overall Champion defeated the rival on the classification of all the three shared disciplines, ending behind Vonn on the downhill and Super-G, with Maze coming up third on both, and claiming the GS title with 542 points, more than doubling the 266 collected by Maze on his historically most successful event. The cushion added on the head-to-head competitions allowed Fenninger to rush to victory despite the third place (439 points) on the slalom classification achieved by Maze.

After a gruelling duel, Fenninger toppled Maze

Finishing on the final podium position, with 1087 points, Lindsey Vonn not only surpassed the record for most World Cup wins, set now at 67, but also added two more small globes to his impressive collection, raising the total to 19 (4 OV, 7 DH, 5 SG, 3 C), a female record. Furthermore, she equalled Annemarie Moser-Proll with the most DH titles of all-time (7) and German Katja Seizing in total Super-G titles (5), while her 113 podiums are tied with Moser-Proll for most of all-time on the women’s side. The 30-year-old American raced mostly on the speed events in 2015, winning a season-best 8 races, but has already promised to participate on the GS next season and challenge for her fifth overall title.
Meanwhile, her compatriot Mikaela Shiffrin ended the season in fourth on the overall classification after threatening to step in the middle of the fray during the first half of the season. The 20-year-old Vail-native added his third consecutive slalom crystal globe and renewed her World Championship title, but didn’t stop there, continuing to make strides towards the goal of becoming a real contender for the overall title by improving her performance on the GS. In fact, Shiffrin was third on the Kuhtai GS to supplement her maiden win in the discipline at Solden, and those results allowed her to step in the final podium position at Méribel on the season’s end. Her goal in 2016 is to experience the first Super-G events.

Mikaela Shiffrin won the third consecutive slalom WC title

After the two Americans, who collected over 1000 points, the difference for the rest of the pack was clear, as Nicole Hosp, the 2007 World Cup overall winner, closed the top 5 with 684 points. The 31-year-old Austrian celebrated a World Cup triumph for the first time since 2008, on the slalom event of Aspen, and her best memory from the year was also attained on American soil, with Hosp taking silver at the super combined race of the World Championships.
Two other Austrian veterans, 28-year-old technical specialist Kathrin Zettel and speedster Elizabeth Goergl came in 7th and 8th, respectively, on the overall classification, while Sweden’s Frida Hansdotter was 6th after challenging Mikaela Shiffrin’s slalom reign until the last race. The 29-year-old skier collected five WC podium finishes on the year, including the top position at Flachau plus the silver medal in the event at the World Championships, but came out disappointed for failing yet again to breakthrough. With Shiffrin just getting better, her time may never arrive.

Lara Gut didn’t have a lot to celebrate in 2015

Rapping up the top 10 were two skiers who started the year with big expectations but never managed to stay consistent. For Lara Gut, the problem isn’t new and the uber-talented Swiss showed her frustration several times over the year as the bad results kept piling up. After conquering seven races in 2014, the jewel of the Italian-speaking region of Ticino took a step backwards in 2015 by managing just two wins, at Lake Louise (SG) and St. Moritz (DH), and no other podium finishes. Gut dropped six spots from the third place on the overall classification obtained in 2014 and never stood a chance of retaining the Super-G title claimed on the previous season, although the year was brightened a little bit by the bronze medal picked up at the World Championships’ DH race.
On the other hand, Tina Weirather, recovered from the leg injury that cut short a promising 2014 season, battled hard to regain his best form all year and the results took some time to surface. Her first podium finish on the season came in Lake Louise, at the beginning of December, and she added three more during the year, culminating on a well-deserved triumph on the DH of Garmish-Partenkirchen. If she can rack up a good summer of training, the native of the Liechtenstein is poised to turn into a dark-horse on the list of contenders for the overall title in 2016.
If the top 10 in the overall classification had no surprises, the dispute of the disciplines globes’ saw some young guns emerge out of the shadow. Austrian Eva-Maria Brem fought till the very last minute with compatriot Anna Fenninger for the GS crystal globe and at the age of 26 figures to be a contender for the discipline for years to come. The skier born on the Tyrol region won a single event, in Aspen, but added four more podiums and a fourth place to end all seven GS races on the top 10. However, she flopped badly at the World Championships, quickly missing a gate on the first run of the competition.

Sarah Hector (center) beat Fenninger and Shiffrin on the GS of Kuhtai

Two spots behind Brem on the GS classification placed Sarah Hector, a young skier from Sweden who turned some heads after a runner up finish in Åre on December 12th, and later confirmed her qualities with the win at the Kuhtai in Tirol event. The 22-year-old Sandvike native would end the season with a 4th place at the final GS in Méribel, and her improvement will be closely watched in 2015-16 after she outshined more regarded compatriots like Jessica Lindell-Vikarby and Maria Pietilae-Holmner.
Finally, some words for the new Austrian prospect on the speed events, 22-year-old Cornelia Huetter, who almost medalled at the Super-G on the World Championships and picked up seven other top ten finishes over the year, a total that would render a top 5 classification on the final discipline standings.
More ladies deserved the spotlight, but this tale it’s already too long, so let’s move on to the men

(see next post)

Rescaling the NHL outdoor fun in five European destinations

The frenzy of competitive outdoor ice hockey games established since the turn of the century started in 2003, with the first NHL regular season game held outside, at Edmonton, in front of 57,167 spectators, and the idea quickly caught fire through the hockey world, extending to all levels of the sport in North America and most of the professional leagues in Europe.
However, the novelty has passed and today, moving beyond the local fanfare they bring, North-American audiences have become progressively tired of the concept. From the NHL’s point of view, the lack of public interest exhibited for the Stadium Series game played earlier this year at Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara – the first to happen in Northern California- has to be a warning signal that something has to change and it’s time to experiment with new concepts.
While it’s undoubtedly accurate that there are still major markets (St. Louis, Minnesota, Denver, Dallas?) on the waiting line to host a “Winter Classic” type event, the concept can and should be expanded to capture new audiences and further expose the NHL brand. Therefore, isn’t it obvious? Get across the Atlantic and partner a great idea with the fans that haven’t yet been jaded by it.

Despite the big crowds at the stadiums, the outdoor ice hockey game concept has stalled in North America

Hockey’s popularity in some regions of Europe is well documented and the NHL has tried to explore it before, mainly with the NHL Premiere events, which from 2007 to 2011 brought several of the league’s premier franchises and players to dispute regular season matches on the continent at the beginning of the season. But with the next two Winter Olympic Games set to be held in Asia (Pyeongchang, 2018, Beijing/Astana, 2022) and the newly reborn World Cup scheduled for Toronto in 2016, the best players in the world won’t set foot in Europe for a long period of time.
To remedy this less than ideal situation, it’s time for the NHL to reward the dedicated fans that keep sacrificing hours of sleep day after day through 9 months to follow his favourite teams, and the return should be made in style, with a bunch of outdoors games held in the middle of the season, preferably in January or February…of 2018 or 2019.
Why this timing? The 2016-17 season is already going to start later due to World Cup and the NHL is definitely prepared to pull out of the 2018 Olympics, a decision that would certainly incite criticism and disappoint audiences worldwide. Then, is there a better way to apologize to its international fans than provide a taste of authentic, up-and-running NHL hockey (not “we’re still in pre-season hockey”) just weeks before the Olympic tournament, or, in alternative, a year later? If there is, I haven’t grasped it yet.

So, I’ve come up with five European countries to host the games, with the practical aspects sketched along these lines:

– All teams selected should leave North America, at most, mid –week in order to arrive in time to fight off jet-lag and play either Saturday or Sunday.
– The games would not coincide, with three of them scheduled for Saturday, starting at 15:00, 18:00 and 21:00 (GMT), and two more on Sunday (16:00, 19:00), thus managing to begin late enough to viewers back in North America, especially on the East Coast.
– In the case of conference matchups, the “home team” should be the one that hosted less matches between the pair in the previous season, getting the game back on the following year, and in intra-conference matchups the home side would be the Western outfit, with this team receiving both encounters on the following season.

How would the countries, hosting cities and stadiums be selected? Well, outdoor games only make sense, particularly in this scenario, if you significantly improve the number of tickets available in relation to a regular indoor game, thus facilities with a capacity for at least 30.000 were designated. That narrowed the list down in a hurry, since several relevant countries couldn’t comply with this, the most important being the Czech Republic. Also, ideally, you would like to get away from the capital cities, where the entertainment competition is enormous on the weekend, and focus on towns with a strongly built ice hockey interest, places that can properly announce the festivities and gather the local attention necessary to avoid empty seats.
Moreover, to increase the stadium experience and engage the audiences, some native talent or highly popular team/rivalry needs to be involved, with this being a decisive ingredient towards determining the teams clashing in each event. However, cautions need to be taken in order to avoid the appointment of unreasonable matchups, since some games, namely rivalries and traditional battles between division and conference foes, are too important on an economical and competitive level to believe the visited teams would support its relocation.
Preamble closed, let’s speculate.

SEL Outdoor Classic at the Ullevi in 2009

Sweden (Ullevi, Gothenburg)

One of the most important European markets can’t possibly stay out of this hockey smorgasbord. Since the NHL sent the Washington Capitals and the late Minnesota North Stars to participate in the NHL-Sweden tournament of 1980, the country has welcomed NHL teams regularly, at first for friendly matches and tournaments against local teams, and after 2008 to face counterparts in regular season games. All of the latter matches took place at Stockholm’s Globe Arena, and the Swedish capital certainly has a new state-of-the-art facility, the Friends Arena, ready to receive outdoor games. The 50,000 seats would be tough to fill, but this isn’t the reason why I selected another venue for the Swedish classic.
History has shown that if we add another layer of intrigue to these events, mainly an iconic, beloved, antique facility, there’s an extra component added and because of this I would nudge towards the 43,000 Ullevi in Gothenburg, which incidentally will celebrate its 60th anniversary in 2018. In addition, the stadium has already hosted an event of this nature in 2009, when hometown Frölunda beat Färjestad at the inaugural edition of the Swedish Elite League Outdoor Classic, in front of more than 31.000. Need another reason? The proximity to a pair of rapidly improving neighbours, Denmark and Norway.

Teams: The Detroit Red Wings, that have had strong Swedish connections since Nicklas Lidström debuted in the NHL at the 1990´s, and the New York Rangers of Henrik Lundqvist, which started his professional career at Frölunda, are probably the most popular NHL teams on the country, but both franchises would be too reluctant to sacrifice an home date against a fellow “Original 6” opponent to make it work. So, why not go with the Rangers and the home fans against Erik Karlsson and the Ottawa Senators? Both teams have already played ”real games” in Sweden, the Rangers against the Kings and Ducks in 2011, and the Senators in 2009 against the Penguins, but that shouldn’t be a problem for most.
Other options to consider include the Vancouver Canucks, that have always maintained a little Swedish colony since the Sedin twins joined Mats Naslund in the early 2000’s, and the Toronto Maple Leafs, the former stronghold of Mats Sundin and a team which by 2018-19 should already be under the William Nylander mania.

Switzerland (Stade de Suisse, Bern)

The first professional ice hockey game held outside in Europe, on the new century, happened in Switzerland in 2007, the 100th edition of the Bern derby played at the Stade de Suisse in front of 30,000. Since that time, the NLA, the Swiss top tier hockey league, has continued to grow hand in hand with the emergence of the national team, becoming over the last few years the most attended league in Europe. Actually, SC Bern leads all Europe in average attendance, with more than 16,000 fans flocking to the arena per game, and during the last NHL lockout, several stars (John Tavares, Rick Nash, Tyler Seguin, Matt Duchene, Patrice Bergeron…) kept in shape playing in the league, leaving a trail of admirers eager to watch more from them. Despite of this, even if teams like the New York Rangers have visited local clubs for a number of times, the NHL has never hosted a regular-season game in the country, and such mistake should be quickly corrected.

The Tatze-Derby (SCL Tigers-SC Bern) at the Stade de Suisse Wankdorf in 2007

Hence, from the three 30,000-plus stadiums existent in Switzerland, it’s a matter of deciding between Bern and Geneva, two of the three cities with the highest attendance rates. The previous experience with this type of events, the location inside the German part of the country, more hockey-appreciative, and the proven existing fan base lean the decision toward the Swiss capital and the Stade de Suisse.

Teams: The Nashville Predators of Roman Josi, probably the best player ever produced in the nation, are an obvious choice to appear in this event, and that turns into a complete slam-dunk if we add that the defenseman is an SC Bern home-grown- talent and a native of the Swiss capital. Plus, the Predators have already waiting on the wings another promising Swiss prospect, forward Kevin Fiala, the 11th pick of the 2014 NHL draft who might be an explosive scorer for the team by this time. On the other side of the ice, what about the San Jose Sharks, a team which is just starting to explore the defensive acumen of Mirco Mueller, the 18th pick of the 2013 NHL draft, and the franchise that employs Joe Thornton and Logan Couture, both former NLA performers.

Germany (RheinEnergieStadion, Cologne)

It took some time and a lot of testing in preseason games from its constituents, but the NHL finally embraced Germany as a hockey market in 2011, holding the first regular–season game in Berlin to close the last NHL Premiere. Since then, the game has continued to make strides in the most populous nation in Eastern Europe and the Deustche Eishockey Liga is today one of the main receivers of North-American players who decide to emigrate. Moreover, to attest its recent prosperity, the German League has already organized two outdoor games and those were resounding successes.
First, on the 5th of January, 2013, the Frankenstadion in Nuremberg welcomed a crowd of 50,000, a number that would be surpassed two years later, at Düsseldorf, when the North-Rhine-Westphalia derby between Düsseldorfer EG and Kölner Haie was watched by 51,125 enthusiastic fans. In fact, most of League’s 14 squads are located on the south and eastern part of the country, so those are really the regions where an event of this magnitude should take place.
The Bavarian region is represented by four teams but hosting a game at the 75,000-seats Allianz Arena in Munich seems a bit too optimistic, consequently we must change sights for the backup plan, the highly industrialized and densely populated Rhine region, which contributes with 4 DEL teams. The Veltins Arena in Gelsenkirchen would be a place to contemplate, since it held the inaugural match of the 2010 World Championships in front of an European-record 77,803 fans, but we should probably set our hopes on one of the big cities with DEL teams, either Dusseldorf or Cologne. Since the former has had his chance nationally, we’ll settle for the RheinEnergyStadion, located in the fourth largest city in Germany and capable of holding 50,000 since it was renovated for the 2006 FIFA World Cup.

More than 77,000 atended the 2010 IIHF World Championships Opening Game at the Veltins Arena in Gelsenkirchen

Teams: Can Leon Draisaitl, the highest drafted German player of all-time, make a name for himself in the NHL until 2018? The Edmonton Oilers certainly aren’t one of the premier franchises in the NHL and their name won’t wow the German fans poised to attend such event, but if the big, skilled center can be a recognizable figure by then, a possible match on his hometown can be a money-maker. To balance the international-appeal, I would throw in as opponents the Boston Bruins, current team of defenseman Dennis Seidenberg and the franchise where Marco Sturm, the top-German scorer in NHL history, played the longest.

Great Britain (London Olympic Stadium, London)

The first visit by NHL teams to the British Islands dates back to April 1959, as part of a European exhibition tour for the NY Rangers and the Boston Bruins, and since then the League has visited London three more times, the last one in 2007, when the Anaheim Ducks and the LA Kings played the first two NHL regular-season games ever held in Europe. However, the sport’s growth on the United Kingdom has been slow, with the chronic problems experienced by the local league (Elite Ice Hockey League) exemplifying that perfectly (disbandment and rebuilds, failed expansions, franchises folding).
An average attendance of less than 2,000 spectators coupled with the lack of presence on the largest English cities (London, Manchester, Newcastle) has penalized the championship and the sport at the national level, but those kind of problems weren’t impediments for recent successful ventures by the NBA and the NFL on a British sports landscape that is in constant evolution as the population changes.

Ducks and Kings faced off in 2007 at the London O2 Arena

Even if most of the EIHL teams are situated on the centre of England and in Scotland, the attraction of London is too much to consider any other town suitable to host this event. Matching the more than 80,000 fans that every year congregate at Wembley to watch NFL games it’s a lot to ask, but the NHL would certainly be happy if the locals and the several thousand expats living and working on the metropolitan area can fill the 54,000 seats available at the London Olympic Stadium, scheduled to re-open in 2016.

Teams: There are no clear-cut picks here, so the league would probably have to go with star power and/or tradition. If you select the first, wouldn’t this be a great way of introducing Connor McDavid to international stardom? Make it the “McDavid team” versus the Pittsburgh Penguins, a battle of the most recent “Next Great One’s”. If you prefer tradition, may I suggest reuniting a “lost rivalry”? London would certainly appreciate a Chicago Blackhawks-Detroit Red Wings matchup.

Austria (Wörthersee Stadion, Klagenfurt)

With the Helsinki Olympic Stadium set to close for renovations from 2016 to 2019, and few quality options available in more traditional countries like Czech Republic and Slovakia, Austria stumbles on this list as a hub for central Europe capable of attracting fans from various neighbouring countries.

The landscape surrounding the Wörthersee Stadion in Klagenfurt

Even though the sport takes a backseat nationally for other winter activities like skiing, the Austrian ice hockey League has a history that dates back to 1923, and, since 2005, the competition innovated towards providing access to clubs from nearby nations. In fact, teams from Slovenia, Italy, Hungary and the Czech Republic compete today in the Erste Bank Eishockey Liga (EBEL), making it kind of a poor parented KHL. Likewise, during the first few decades, the sport was dominated in Austria by the teams from Vienna and Klagenfurt, but steadily the landscape has changed, emerging new powers from cities like Linz and Salzburg.
However, it is still on the capital of the Carinthia region that the record-holder for most championships is located and the city of Klagenfurt hasn’t left their credits in other hands, taking on the task of organizing the only two outdoor ice hockey games ever held in Austria. The modern Wörthersee Stadion received 30,000 spectators for the 2010 and 2015 Winter Classics, gathering hometown EC KAC and rivals Villacher SC, and its geographical location, right at the border with Italy and Slovenia – and close to Hungary and Slovakia- makes it ideal to host an event of this kind and benefit from the influx of visiting fans. Thus, the town of Klagenfurt trumps the sexier and riskier option, Vienna, which would host the event at the 50,000-seats Ernst-Happel Stadium.

Teams: Well, there’s a superstar center from nearby Slovenia excelling for the twice champions LA Kings, and that would be a good place to start. Moreover, Anze Kopitar deserves the recognition, his compatriots would flock to the city, and an event like these provides an international exposure that would further set his profile has a model of perseverance for aspiring youngsters from no-traditional ice hockey nations. However, for all his qualities, he’s not an Austrian, and the country lacks a true poster-boy now that Thomas Vanek has taken a step back as he enters his 30’s. Yet, not banking upon a new Austrian face emerging, Vanek’s Minnesota Wild wouldn’t be a bad opponent, especially since the lack of an event in Finland would take the team from the State of Hockey out of its favoured destination.

After the first five, could the NHL get even bolder? What about a game at the Rome Coliseum (…)? A battle between the NHL and KHL Champions at Moscow’s Red Square? Shifting gears, can Rio de Janeiro and Copacabana beach be more than a pipe dream? Will the league turn its efforts to Asia first (Japan, South Korea, China)?

An NHL European Division may be a scenario never achievable, but there’s so much to explore and to experiment in order to grow the game at other latitudes that the powerful NHL needs to lead the pack towards innovation.

European Tour of Sports: Austria

The basics

Population: 8.5 M

Area: 83.8 km2

Capital: Vienna

Summer Olympic Medals: 86 (18G-33S-35B)

Winter Olympic Medals: 218 (59G-78S-81B)

Popular sports

There’s no other country in the world that loves alpine skiing as much as Austria and without surprise they’re the most successful ones in the history of the sport. More than half of those 218 medals won at the Winter Olympics were earned by the Austrian alpine skiers, and some of biggest names to ever grace the slopes, like Hermann Maier, Annemarie Moser-Proll and Toni Sailer, were born there. Moreover, in the summer, Austrians dedicate themselves to mountaineering, with the best Austrian mountain climbers being pioneers in conquering most of the world’s biggest peaks. The diverse mountains and slopes are also used for ski jumping, with Austria leading the historical World Cup tables for both individual and team medals.

The most important team sport is football, as the National Team finished in 3rd place at the 1934 World Cup and in 4th place 20 years later, but the Austrians have failed to make a stand in the last few decades, even when the country co-organized (with Switzerland) the 2008 UEFA European Championship. No Austrian club has ever won a European competition, with SK Rapid Vienna being the most supported and successful club in the country and Red Bull Salzburg emerging as the leading power in Austrian football during the last few years. In motor sports, the much expected return of the Formula One to Austria occurred in 2014, a deserved gift for country that has celebrated the titles of two former world champions in the discipline (Niki Lauda and Jochen Rindt). Table tennis, swimming, luge, and tennis have also delivered important successes in the past, while beach volleyball, despite the lack of sea beaches, is quite popular.

Star Athletes

Gregor Schlierenzauer (Ski Jumping)

Gregor Schlierenzauer

Despite being only 24 years old, Schlierenzauer is already one of most decorated ski jumpers of all time. After debuting in the World Cup at the precocious age of 16, “Schlieri” didn’t take a long time to make a splash, finishing 2nd in the prestigious Four Hills Tournament of 2006-2007 and 4th in the overall World Cup classification in the same season. Two years later, the Innsbruck native won his first World Cup title with an impressive total of 11 wins on the season and set a new overall points record, with 2083, repeating the overall World Cup success in 2012-13. His current total of 52 victories in World Cup events is an all-time record and he also owns several medals in World Championships, both in individual and team competitions. Two individual bronze medals from the 2010 Olympic Games, and the gold and silver medals from the team competitions at the Vancouver and Sochi Olympics, respectively, also figure in his extensive list of accomplishments

Anna Fenninger (Alpine Skiing)

This spot probably should have belonged to Marcel Hirscher, the three-time Overall World Cup winner, but since I get to play favourites here, I’ll go with the golden girl from Salzburg. Anna Fenninger participated in her first World Cup events at the age of 17, in 2006, evolving in all five alpine disciplines, but her breakthrough moments came only five years later. A surprising win in the super combined event at the 2011 World Champions held in Garmisch-Partenkirchen preceded her first World Cup win, on the 2011-2012 giant slalom of Linz, and she kept progressing in the next years, finishing third in the overall World Cup classification of the 2012-13 season. Then, during the 2013-2014 season, the 25-year old achieved Olympic success, capturing the gold medal in the super-G and the silver medal in the giant slalom at the Sochi Games, before clinching her first big Crystal Globe as Overall World Cup Champion, a title complemented with the small globe of the giant slalom discipline.

Anna Fenninger and a 2014 to remember

Thomas Vanek (ice hockey)

The best Austrian ice hockey player of all time was born in 1984, inside a family who emigrated from the Czechoslovakia, and moved to the United States as a 14-year-old to pursue his dream of becoming a professional player. Later, after winning the NCAA National championship as a member of the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers, Vanek was the 5th player selected in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, becoming the highest drafted Austrian in NHL history. He joined the Buffalo Sabres in 2005, playing for the team over eight seasons and reaching a conference final in 2006-07, the year where he also posted his best statistical offensive numbers, with 43 goals and 84 points. In 2013-2014, the last year of his contract, the left-wing was traded twice before deciding to sign, last July, with the Minnesota Wild. A productive forward over his career in the NHL, the gifted goal scorer has played multiple times for his national team, winning the World Championships (Group A) in 2008 and captaining his country in the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Others: Thomas Morgenstern (Ski Jumping), Marcel Hirscher (Alpine Skiing), David Alaba (football), Andreas and Wolfgang Linger (Luge)

Venues

Innsbruck, the Austrian capital of winter sports, hosted the Winter Olympic Game in two occasions (1964 and 1976) and is one of the three cities in the world to boast that achievement. Located in the west part of the country, the capital of the state of Tirol is situated on a valley surrounded by a part of the Northern Alps, and offers easy access to several ski resorts, including Igls, home of Olympic Sliding Center, Seefeld and Muttereralm. Bergiselschanze, Innsbruck’s ski jumping hill, receives, in the first week of the New Year, the third competition of the Four Hills Tournament, one of most important moments of the Ski Jumping World Cup season.

About 100km east of Innsbruck, Kitzbuhel is a small medieval town known for its main ski resort, situated in the Hahnenkamm Mountain and the place of one of the toughest events on the Alpine Skiing World Cup calendar.

The Hahnenkamm downhill event, in Kitzbuhel

As the country is mostly renowned for the ski resorts, there are not a lot of stadiums or indoor venues internationally recognizable, with the exception of the 50 000 seat’s Ernst-Happel Stadium in Vienna, the home of the Austrian Football Team and the venue for the 2008 UEFA European Championship Final.

Yearly Events

A number of sporting events can be attended every year in Austria. Here is a list of the most relevant:

Alpine Skiing World Cup Events

Soelden (October), Semmering (December), Bad Kleinkirchheim, Flachau, Kitzbuhel, Schladming (January), Saalbach (February)

The popular Klagenfurt Beach Volleyball Grand Slam

Ski Jumping World Cup Events

Innsbruck, Bischofshofen, Tauplitz/Bad Mitterndorf, Hizenbach (January)

Tennis Tournaments

WTA Bad Gastein, ATP Kitzbuhel (July), WTA Linz, ATP Vienna (October)

Austrian Formula One Grand Prix

At the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg (June)

FIVB Beach Volleyball A1 Grand Slam

Klagenfurt (July)