With the World Cup over, the collective attention of the footballing world has turned to the club season. However— most fans will also be looking forward to the next biggest international tournament. The 2016 European Championships. Like the World Cup, the “Euros” are held every four years and feature a slate of qualification games leading up to the tournament.
Compared to past Euros, Euro 2016 will have a very different feel to it, because it will be a crucial tournament for every country involved. Here are some of those countries and why the tournament will be key for them.
La Roja’s era of dominance is over. The cracks started to show, however briefly, at the last Euros. By the time Brazil 2014 came and went, Spain’s reign had unceremoniously ended. With the departures of team pillars Xavi, David Villa and Xabi Alonso, the Spaniards will be handed over to a mix of youngsters and veterans to carry the team. The likes of Cesc Fabregas, Sergio Ramos and David Silva will still feature heavily, but Spain must do a better job of integrating younger talents such as Koke, Isco and Daniel Carvajal if they are to stop the tailspin they are in. Euro 2016 will be crucial for Spain. As it stands, they are on the fence – the fence between the world’s elite (i.e. Germany, Argentina and the Netherlands) and the upper echelon’s middle class (i.e. England, Mexico and Croatia). If Spain can integrate its youth, it stands a chance to stay at the big kid table. If it doesn’t, slipping is a real possibility.
France carries the weight of a nation, or rather the support of one. The French will host in 2016, and after a favorable showing in Brazil, Les Bleus will look to build upon the positivity. The team only lost by one goal to eventual champs Germany, something that can’t be said of Brazil, and seamlessly integrated future stars Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann into the team. For one reason or another, the team that went to Brazil didn’t feature Samir Nasri, Clement Grenier or Gael Clichy. If Didier Deschamps can integrate those players, along with talented youngster such as Florian Thauvin and Alexandre Lacazette in the same fashion he introduced Pogba and Griezmann into the side then France could win the tournament on home soil.
Like various other European powers (see Spain, England, and Portugal) Italy struggled in Brazil. The victim of somewhat unfortunate circumstances, cannibalism included, the Azzurri struggled. With new coach Antonio Conte in charge, the team suddenly has a much brighter future. Conte, the former Juventus manager, relied heavily on a back three in his formational forays at Juve. His goalkeeper and back three at the Old Lady typically had Gianluigi Buffon in goal with the trio of Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli sitting in front. All four will be at his disposal with the national team. Because of the renaissance the back-three has experienced in world football and the Juve players’ familiarity and success with the formation, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Italy achieve success at Euro 2016.
The World Cup winners lost Phillip Lahm, Per Mertesacker and Miroslav Klose to international retirement. However, thanks to their status as World Cup trophy winners, and their tremendous depth, the team should be considered favorites heading into 2016. Germany has an abundance of quality to replace Lahm, Mertesacker and Klose, with the respective likes of Jerome Boateng, Benedikt Howedes and Mario Gomez (among others) waiting to fill in. The 2016 Euros will be especially crucial for the Germans as they look to build a dynasty similar to the one Spain recently had. Only this time, with the tremendous depth and development in the German senior and youth ranks, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Die Mannschaft win more trophies than the Spanish.
England is in transition. With Steven Gerrard retired and Frank Lampard likely to follow the same path before too long, the Three Lions will be without the midfield backbone they’ve had for the past decade. The fate of England lies with its youngsters. If exiting talents like Raheem Sterling, Ross Barkley and Luke Shaw can continue their trajectory towards being elite, world-class players, then the one-time world champs will have a chance in France. If not, it could be a long road back. Wayne Rooney is the only consistent/elite leg the English have to stand on. Despite a roster littered with Premier League veterans, Roy Hodgson’s team looked challenged in Brazil. If the youth comes through, England shouldn’t be discounted. On the other hand, if the youth falters, it will be another international tournament where Wayne Rooney carries more of a burden than is necessary.
Portugal, Sweden and Wales
All three teams are extremely star driven. For Portugal it’s Cristiano Ronaldo, for the Swedes it Zlatan Ibrahimovic and for the Welsh its Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale.
Ronaldo will be 31 in 2016, and it may be the Portuguese’s last chance to win a major piece of silverware with the world’s best player. The situation is similar for Sweden. After failing to make it to Brazil 2014, 2016 could be the last time we see Zlatan on a big international stage. This could be the last time for each to make their mark internationally.
Wales’ duo of Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale won’t be going away any time soon, but this will be a crucial tournament for the Welsh as they look to establish themselves as respectable players in world football. The team isn’t just Ramsey and Bale either, the Welsh also boast quality players like Swansea captain Ashley Williams, recent Spurs signing Ben Davis and Liverpool midfielder Joe Allen. The 2016 European Championships will be Wales’ chance to get their foot in the door of international football.
Cinderella-type runs aren’t as unheard of at the Euros as they are at the World Cup. Greece won it all in 2004 and Italy made a run out of nowhere to finish second in 2012. All three countries (Portugal, Sweden and Wales) certainly have the talent to do it.
The Croatian national team has some truly gifteded players like Mario Mandzukic, Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric just to name a few. However, outside of group stage exits, the country doesn’t have much, to show for since finishing third at the 1998 World Cup. The 2016 Euros and 2018 World Cup are the last chances for a supremely talented generation of Croatians to prove that they can make an impact. If the team can put in a positive, lengthy run at 2016, they can build momentum for a strong finish in 2018. Maybe a return to France (where their 1998 World Cup success occurred) will help Croatia. They certainly have the talent to accomplish bigger things.
Similar to other European nations, this may be the Dutch’s last chance to add to their trophy cabinet while Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Robin van Persie are still playing. The rest of the Dutch team is loaded with youth and potential, but for three of the world’s most feared attacking players their international careers are winding down. After finishing second in South Africa and third in Brazil another piece of silverware certainly isn’t out of the question. If the Dutch can continue to mesh young players with their key veterans, they will not only have a chance to be successful in 2016, but also at the 2018 World Cup and beyond.
The European Championships in 2016 will be crucial for just about every contender in Europe. Some countries will be looking to build for the future while other countries will attempt to eke out one last glorious run from an aging generation. Either way, 2016 will be of the upmost importance.