Euros 2016 for the Casual Fan

With Copa America already underway, the European Championships are set to kickoff on Friday. The Euros will run along side the Copa America Centenario and will provide fans with the chance to watch soccer every day for the next month. Similar to my earlier piece on the Copa America Centenario, this guide will provide you with the basic information regarding the tournament and will show you what teams and players to watch out for and ideally spark your interest for the tournament.

For starters, what exactly are the European Championships?

It is exactly what it sounds like, it is the championship for the members of the European soccer federation (UEFA). The reason a tournament like this gets so much excitement in America is that it is considered the second best tournament in the world behind only the World Cup. It is so highly regarded because many of the top teams in the world are from Europe. Five of the top ten teams and thirteen of the top twenty teams are from Europe in the current FIFA rankings. Held every four years, in the even year between World Cups, fans are treated to an entire month of top teams and players on the field.

Where are the Euros being held and where can I watch?

France were named hosts for this edition of the tournament, beating out Turkey and Italy for hosting rights. There was fluctuation in how many venues would be used but the number ultimately ended up at ten. The ten French hosting cities are: Paris, Saint-Denis, Marseille, Lyon, Lille, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Lens, Nice, and Saint-Etienne. The final will be held in the national stadium in Saint-Denis, the Stade de France, which seats just over 80,000 people.

For American viewers, ESPN owns the broadcast rights to the championship and all games will be shown on their network. Since the tournament obviously takes place in Europe, the kickoff times are a little earlier in the day (9AM ET or noon) with the Copa America games taking place in the evening. This does provide for the exciting scenarios throughout the next couple weeks in which viewers will be able to watch soccer all day. Looking at the combined schedule for both Copa America and Euros, fans will be able to watch soccer nearly non-stop from 9AM ET to (at least) 10PM on four different days. June 11th, 12th, 13th, and 18th will go all day, while June 14th, 21st, and 22nd will go from noon to 11 PM.

Who is competing in Euro 2016?

For the first time ever, the field for the Euros was expanded from 16 teams to a 24-team field. The 53 countries in UEFA were drawn into groups for qualifying in 2014 where they faced each team in their group twice, home and away. The top two teams in each group and the best third place team qualified directly for the tournament, while the other eight third place teams entered two-legged playoffs against each other for the final four spots. Ultimately, the 24 teams that qualified were: Albania, Austria, Belgium, Croatia, the Czech Republic, England, France, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Northern Ireland, Poland, Portugal, the Republic of Ireland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine and Wales. Five teams (Albania, Iceland, Northern Ireland, Slovakia, and Wales) will be making their debuts in the European Championships.

Wait, you forgot the Netherlands!

Or did I? The Netherlands finished second and third at the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, respectively. However, the Oranje failed to qualify for Euros 2016 after a dismal fourth place finish in their group. The Dutch lost twice to both Iceland and the Czech Republic and once more to Turkey, only managing to win games against the two minnows of the group, Kazakhstan and Latvia. This will be the first major tournament that the Netherlands has missed since the 2002 World Cup. They will have to recover from their miserable performance as qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia begins in just three months when they face Sweden in early September.

What is the format for the tournament?

As with all major tournaments, the teams start off in groups of four (where they all face each other once) and then the top two teams advance to the single-elimination knockout rounds. The Euros are no different, however due to the expanded field two more groups of four were added, bringing the total number of groups to six. In order to have enough teams for the round of 16 the top four third-place teams will advance to the knockouts as well. Teams receive three points for a win, one point for a tie, and no points for a loss. There are numerous tiebreakers outlined in the UEFA European Championship Regulations Guide (Article 18) for teams if they end up level on points to determine which teams advance.

The sixteen teams that advance to the knockout rounds will face off from June 25th to July 7th with the final taking place on July 10th in the aforementioned Stade de France. In the knockouts, if teams are tied at the end of regulation they will play a 30 minute extra time. Whichever team is leading at the end of the extra time will win, if they are still tied the two teams will go to penalty kicks (PKs) to determine the winner. This is important because there is no “golden goal” scenario, the entire 30 minutes are played even if a team scores.

Which teams are the favorites to win?

The hosts France and defending World Cup champions Germany are certainly the two favorites at the moment. Both seem a cut above the teams behind them and both should easily advance out of their groups. Spain has been in excellent form recently, their last loss being in March of last year. Spain only lost one game in qualifying as well and could look to defend their 2012 Euros win. England have one of their strongest crop of attackers in a while and could also make a deep run in this tournament. Similar to Spain, England have been in fine form going 10–0–0 in qualifying and only losing two friendlies in the last year. This England team could be the team that finally delivers a major tournament win for a country hungry for one.

What about some dark horses?

To be completely honest, I am all in with this Iceland team. Do they have a chance at winning Euros 2016? Probably not, but they could be in line to shock some teams and make a decent run. Finishing second in Group A in qualifying and only two points out of first, Iceland have a chance to make waves at this tournament. Their group is relatively light with Austria, Portugal, and Hungary. And if they finish second they will face the second place team from Group B which could be a very winnable match as well. The 34th ranked “Strákarnir Okkar” (or Our Boys) are my favorite underdog heading into Euros.

Another team from Group A to watch is Turkey. They are in a very tough group with Spain, the Czech Republic, and Croatia and a third place finish would likely mean a date with France in the first round of the knockouts. Turkey have been very good since qualifying began, only losing one match between November 2014 and now, and if they can get through their group there potential is boundless.

My last dark horse to make a run is Wales. In their first major tournament since the 1958 World Cup, the Welsh will look to give their fans a taste of something few have experienced. Wales’ star striker, Gareth Bale, is already the 5th all-time leading scorer and he will be relied upon heavily. His performance will likely be the deciding factor in what Wales can accomplish in this tournament. In a group with England, Russia, and Slovakia, Wales should be able to advance out of their group in second where they will face Group F’s runner-up in the round of 16. There they will face likely Austria or Iceland and the winner there will more than likely face the hosts France in the Stade de France. That will be a tough task for anyone and winning that would likely pit them against Germany. Wales may not have a realistic chance to go farther than the quarterfinals, but in their first appearance in a major tournament in 58 years, it could be the momentum they need going into World Cup Qualifying in the fall.

Players to know:

Gianluigi Buffon, Goalkeeper (GK), Italy and Juventus

The greatest goalkeeper of my lifetime, Gigi Buffon, only continues to get better for Juventus and the Italian national team. At 38 years old, Buffon is likely nearing the end of his illustrious career but he still remains one of the top goalkeepers in the world. He helped lead Italy to a 2006 World Cup title (where he earned top goalkeeper) and has been the stonewall to secure five straight Serie A titles for Juventus in Italy. This is one of the weaker Italian squads in recent memory so Buffon may have his work cut out for him. The Azzuri should be able to get out of their group, but to make a deep run like they did in 2012, Buffon must be the impenetrable fortress he so often is.

David Alaba, Left Back (LB), Austria and Bayern Munich

The only major tournament that Austria had qualified for since the 1998 World Cup was the 2008 Euros, in which they were hosts and automatically qualified ultimately failing to get out of their group. This Austria team is much different. Ranked 10th in the world and having gone undefeated in qualifying, Austria is ready to make waves at the Euros. The main reason for this turnaround is star David Alaba who can play pretty much anywhere whether it be at fullback or centerback on the back line or up in the midfield or winger spots trying to score goals. Alaba’s dynamic play could be the difference that could lead Austria out of the group stage of a tournament since reaching the quarterfinals of the 1982 World Cup in Spain.

Paul Pogba, Central Midfielder (CM), France and Juventus (for now)

Named the best young player at the 2014 World Cup, Paul Pogba will look to build on an excellent two years at the club level and deliver for his country and the host nation. The 23-year-old midfielder will be highly sought after this summer by the top clubs in Europe and a strong Euro showing will only strengthen the interest (and price tag). Pogba can attack and defend and hit gorgeous free kicks such as this one. He will anchor the French midfield and should help lead Les Blues on a deep run into the Euros. The Ringer’s Ryan O'Hanlon wrote a great piece highlighting both Pogba and David Alaba here and is well worth a read.

Thomas Müller, Attacking Midfielder (CAM), Germany and Bayern Munich

Despite a recent lull in form for the Germans, they enter Euros 2016 as defending World Cup champions and one of the favorites to win the tournament. One of the reasons why is attacker Thomas Müller. Able to play essentially any attacking position on the field, Müller has established himself as one of the most reliable goal scorers for not only Germany but Bayern Munich as well. Müller is on his way to becoming one of the top scorers on the international stage after scoring the second most goals at the 2014 World Cup (five) and adding nine more in Euros qualification. Also at the 2014 World Cup, Müller finished second in the Golden Ball (essentially World Cup MVP) only to Lionel Messi. In 71 appearances for the German national team, Müller already has 32 goals, and just one more will tie him for tenth all-time on the German scoring list with Fritz Walter.

Cristiano Ronaldo, Forward (F), Portugal and Real Madrid

Fresh off scoring the winning penalty kick in the Champions League Final, Ronaldo will look to bring his goal scoring prowess to the Euros. This season Ronaldo scored 51 goals in all competitions for Real Madrid in just 48 appearances. He also now has 543(!) goals combined in his club and international career. At the club level, Ronaldo has won nearly every team and individual title you can think of but has failed to win a major tournament for Portugal. Despite never winning, Portugal have come very close, advancing from the group stage in every tournament since the 2004 Euros except for the most recent World Cup. As Portugal’s all-time leading scorer, Ronaldo will look to finally get over that hump this summer in France.

Robert Lewandowski, F, Poland and Bayern Munich

Robert Lewandowski has had about as good a year scoring goals as anyone in recent seasons. He set the record for most goals in a Euro qualifying campaign with thirteen, earning him top scorer and best player in the qualifying rounds. At Bayern, he scored 42 goals in 51 total appearances this season. But perhaps his most amazing goal-scoring effort came on September 22nd when Bayern Munich faced Wolfsburg. Down 1–0 at halftime, Lewandowski was brought on at the half and what happened next was history…literally. Not only did he get the equalizer just six minutes after he came on, he scored FOUR more goals in a span of nine minutes. On that day he scored the fastest hat trick in Bundesliga history (four minutes) and the fastest timespan for five goals (nine minutes). If Lewandowski can stay in fine form for Poland, they should be able to get through the group stage for the first time ever at the European Championships.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic, F, Sweden and TBD

Known simply as Zlatan or “Ibra”, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is one of the most entertaining players in the world both on and off the pitch. Often referring to himself in the third person, he is a must-follow on Twitter (@Ibra_Official) and he makes us all want to #DareToZlatan. In what is likely his final big tournament for the national team, he will try to get Sweden out of the group stage of a major tournament for the first time since the 2006 World Cup. Ibrahimovic’s 62 goals for Sweden is the most all-time, which is 13 more than the next closest scorer. Zlatan is expected to make an announcement regarding his club future in the coming days, with a move to Manchester United heavily rumored. Sweden have a long road ahead to get out of their group, with both Italy and Belgium firmly in their path, but with Zlatan anything is possible.

Jamie Vardy, F, England and Leicester City

Typically a 29-year-old forward with only eight appearances for his country is not a player who gets much attention going into a tournament like the Euros. However, Vardy’s ascension to the national team is not your typical story. Going into this past English Premier League season, Leicester City were tabbed at 5,000–1 odds to win the title and seemed bound for relegation to the Championship. However, if you even casually followed European soccer, by now you know Leicester City won the title convincingly and Vardy was a major reason why. His superb counter-attacking ability helped the Foxes secure the title and it eventually led to a call-up to the England national team. In his only eight appearances, Vardy already has three goals. He will look to combine with Tottenham star Harry Kane and legend Wayne Rooney to lead England’s attack at the Euros.

Running from June 10th to July 10th, the Euros are sure to be a highly entertaining month of soccer. Sports are always more fun when you have someone to cheer for and hopefully this guide has sparked your interest in a player or team (there is plenty of room on the Iceland bandwagon). France faces Romania in the Stade de France on Friday at 3:00 on ESPN.

Follow me on Twitter (@Rookie_Rhino) for more soccer insight and other sports as well. Feel free to start a conversation and ask any questions you have below or on Twitter!

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