It took a while longer than normal to get here but it’s that time again, the UEFA European Championship is upon us once again and there are a few storylines to consider going into this year’s competition.
The 2021 (officially 2020) edition of the Euros is the 60th anniversary of the competition that began with just four teams in France back in 1960. Expanded from 16 teams to 24 in 2016, this year’s tournament will have the distinction of having more hosts than ever for a single tournament. Eleven countries, represented by individual cities, will have the honour of being a venue at the Euros. Of the 11 selected cities and countries, seven cities and six countries have never hosted a European Championship match before.
There is some good news for the locals. While country-specific restrictions would see a variation in numbers, there will be fans in the stands come June 11. In real numbers, we are expecting an average of just under 20,000 people in the grounds – with the exception of Budapest, Romania, which expects the full complement of its 67,000+ spectators. Whether 20k or 60k, we can be sure the players’ presence will be felt as the few will be celebrating for the many who can’t be in attendance.
The last edition of the Euros saw a first appearance for five teams: Northern Ireland, Slovakia, Wales, Iceland and Albania – with the latter two having never played in a World Cup either, it was their first ever major tournament. Meanwhile, Austria and Ukraine weren’t debutants but their only previous appearance came as hosts in 2008 and 2012 respectively.
This year, Finland and North Macedonia take their first bow in the Euros with this being the latter’s first major tournament. There are 19 teams back from the 2016 edition with Denmark’s last appearance coming in 2012. With the exception of Greece all former champions are back in as well.
Group A: Italy Switzerland Turkey Wales
Italy comes into the tournament with a 100% record in qualifying meaning they should be feeling good about themselves on that basis alone, and they would feel emboldened with their Group A selection. As genuine dark horses they should be topping this group comfortably and go on to make a decent run. Who finishes second in the group is more of a toss up as Switzerland, Turkey and Wales don’t have too much to separate them. The Swiss have more experience in major tournaments than either of the other two and topped their qualifying group. Despite Wales only appearing in their second Euros, they did very well in their first back in 2016. It’s anyone’s guess how this group will end up.
Group B: Belgium Denmark Finland Russia
The Belgians are firm favourites in Group B. Denmark will want to lay their claim to being the second best, holding off a Russian team that covered themselves in some amount of glory at the 2018 World Cup. Finland on the other hand are making their first appearance at the tournament and are just looking to secure pride while holding out for a few scalps if one of the other 3 slip up. Belgium should top the group with Denmark and Russia duking it out for second place.
Group C: Austria Netherlands North Macedonia Ukraine
The Netherlands make their return to major tournaments after back to back World Cup semifinals in 2010 and 2014. Despite managing to reach the Nations League final, which they lost, the Dutch have had up and down form and could be picked off by Ukraine or Austria if the Dutch are not on their A-game.
Ukraine went undefeated in qualifying and even topped European champions Portugal in their group, meanwhile Austria had similar results as the other two although they suffered more losses – due to the unique way UEFA structures qualifiers some groups had 6 teams and some had 5. That being said, a Netherlands side sans Virgil van Dijk should still get over the line and qualify into the next round. North Macedonia may actually hold the key, as the debutants applied themselves admirably in qualifying and in the Nations League.
Group D: Croatia Czech Republic England Scotland
This group should be an interesting one for more than just football reasons. The closeness between the teams culturally and politically would make half the group games feel like derbies – particularly England vs Scotland to be played at Wembley Stadium. The UK neighbours hold contrasting expectations however, and the English would be disappointed if they fail to top the group, while Scotland will hope to survive in the tournament past the group stages. In addition to that rivalry, England replay their 2018 World Cup semifinal rivals, Croatia.
Meanwhile, Croatia vs. and Czech Republic is another feature of this group. Both were states within the former Soviet Union and gained their independence around the same time following the end of the Cold War in the early 1990’s. All this makes for potentially interesting and entertaining games, at the end of which, England and Croatia will likely finish on top.
Group E: Poland Slovakia Spain Sweden
Three-time champions Spain don’t look quite as imperious as the Spain squads coached by Vincente Del Bosque circa 2008-2012.They would still expect to go further in this competition than they did at the 2018 World Cup, this Spain squad will have to work hard to fail to get out of this group. Poland and Sweden have enough individual stars to cause headaches for Spain but would be likely competing against each other instead of troubling top spot. That said, both would need to be wary of Slovakia who can upset them. It will all likely come down to the results against a rather uncertain Spanish team that decides who will advance.
Group F: France Germany Hungary Portugal
Easily the group of death; among them are 6 World Cup titles – including the last two, 6 European Championships, including the reigning champions of both competitions, the two finalists of the last edition (France and Portugal), the current UEFA Nations League title holder (Portugal), and the team with the joint most titles and the most finals appearances (Germany). Then there’s Hungary.
It’s hard to identify who stands out as outright favourites out of Germany, France and Portugal, they can all beat or be beaten by anyone on their day. France is looking in better form as a unit as well as individually. Individual players in Portugal’s squad have enjoyed much success this season but can look a little suspect at times.
Germany’s disappointing 2018 World Cup has not been forgotten and as a unit they are easily the most dysfunctional of the lot. The good news for these teams is, one of the 4 best third placed teams is likely to come from this group.
It only takes one goal and that can come from anywhere to decide the tournament, just ask Portugal’s Eder after he rifled home a winner from 30 yards out at Euro 2016. Predictions and pre-tournament analysis may then turn out to be useless. In any case, whoever wins, the unexpected 2021 edition of the European Championships will be a part of this unprecedented summer of football, and as a marker for celebrating the Euros 60th anniversary; here’s hoping this tournament will be the gift that keeps on giving.