You probably haven’t even had your 2015 holiday yet – but at the risk of causing marital disharmony (Qui, moi?), and in line with my duty as a football correspondent, I need to give advance warning to any fellow football fans for an early ‘heads up’. There’s a big event happening NEXT year not far away in 2016. So, holiday-wise you could, erm, try France next year? Not far to go, eh?
OK lads (and lasses), let’s fast forward almost exactly 12 months, from 10th June until 10th July 2016, and nip next door to La Belle France. There it’s the 2016 UEFA European Championship, commonly referred to as Euro 2016. Yes, it’s Europe’s smaller version of the World Cup, but this time it’s a little different to previous tournaments – why’s that then?
Well, unlike before, there will be 24 teams, not 16. That provides six groups of four teams with the top two from each group going through to the knockout stages: that’s 12 so far. In the new format however, the four best third-ranked sides would also progress, leaving 16 teams going into the new round of a knockout stage. That’s ahead of the usual quarter-finals with eight teams, the semi-finals with four into the final pairing. Actually only eight teams will go out at the first group stages.]
This new football feast format will provide an exciting 51 games over 31 days, compared with 31 games for the previous 16-team tournament. Actually though, It’s not ideal because with third-ranked teams in the group stages advancing, it could provide situations where teams might know in advance what results they need to progress out of the group, lending to a lack of suspense for fans, or even the prospect of mutually beneficial collusion between teams: hmm…
As hosts, France have automatically qualified for the finals, while the other 53 national teams are currently competing in a qualifying competition, running from September 2014 to November 2015, to secure the remaining 23 places. Among these teams are back-to-back defending champions Spain, and for the first time their immediate neighbours Gibraltar.
In the bidding process France beat Italy and Turkey for the right to host the 2016 finals. The matches will be played in ten stadia in ten cities: Paris,Bordeaux, Lens, Lille, Lyon, Marseille, Nice, Saint-Denis, St-Etienne, and Toulouse. It will be the third time that France has hosted the tournament, after the inaugural tournament in 1960 and the 1984 finals. The French team have won the European Championship twice: in 1984 and 2000.
Last weekend, England and Wales moved closer to Euro 2016 qualification. Northern Ireland and Scotland earned valuable points, but the Republic of Ireland’s hopes were hampered by a draw.
Three nations from the British Isles have not competed in the same tournament since England, Scotland and the Republic of Ireland reached the 1990 World Cup finals. But after the latest round of qualifiers, there is a strong possibility that could happen in France next summer.
While England are snugly safe, Wales, for once are cock-a-hoop after a hard 1 – 0 victory over World Cup quarter-finalists Belgium in Cardiff on Friday night. Gareth Bale was the Welsh hero scoring the winner, but it was heart-stirring ‘Welcome in the valleys’ stuff, Wales now leading their Group B by three points from star-studded Belgium.
In contrast Scotland’s display in Group D on Saturday in the 1-1 draw against the Republic of Ireland was the Scots’ poorest for a while. Poland head the group ahead of Germany with Gordon Strachan’s team third two points ahead of Republic of Ireland. The increase to 24 teams was seen as a positive development for Martin O’Neill’s men, but it looks like they might not be involved next year. Having taken just one point from their two games against qualification rivals Scotland, their hopes of even third place look slim.
However there is huge optimism in Group F where second-placed Northern Ireland can reach their first major finals since the 1986 World Cup. Michael O’Neill’s men won their first three matches, and now must finish the job following Saturday’s 0-0 draw against Romania.
There’s some other interesting countries currently battling it out to reach France next year. Surprisingly in Group A, the country with the smallest population, Iceland lead the huge Czech Republic and mighty Holland by two points and five respectively. In Group C, Slovakia are two ahead of former holders Spain, with Ukraine not out of it either. Austria strongly head group G leading Sweden by four points – and struggling Russia by eight – are Fabio Capello’s days numbered for the 2018 World Cup hosts? In Group H, Croatia lead Italy by two and Norway by four, and a Cristiano Ronaldo (one man band?) inspired Portugal lead group I by two from Denmark.
The eventual winners will earn the right to participate in the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup hosted by Russia. If Germany or Russia win, however, the runner-up will qualify as Germany have already qualified due to winning the 2014 FIFA World Cup, and Russia have qualified as hosts. If both Germany and Russia reach the final, the qualifier will be drawn from the losing semi-finalists.
In summary, both in time and geography, the French 2016 Euro finals are not far away from us – all. So if you’re currently football-stricken and have national pride at stake – get planning now. Psst…if you can’t wait until then, the new Premier League season kicks off August 8/9th!