There is a lot of time to go yet, and no reason to believe that qualifiers will have any more bearing on the quality of Euro 2016 than they have on any other major tournament. Indeed, Michel Platini’s 24-team expansion of the Euro field may yet fulfill all the commentators’ predictions of dulled group play in comparison with the typically riveting 16-team model. Truth be told, I expect it will. But you have to give the devil his due: the opening rounds of Euro qualification have been about as good as early qualification could get.
The reasons aren’t entirely clear. It could just be the luck of the draw and a World Cup hangover for several big sides. It could be that the near certainty of qualification for major sides, now usually with a group of their own to win unmolested by real competition, has led to complacency. More optimistically, it could be that the lack of a 2nd major power in most groups has encouraged second-tier nations–and even some of the larger minnows–to believe they have a real stake in every game. Quite likely, it some combination of all three.
But whatever the reason, it’s hard to argue with the results of the most recent international break. An admittedly injury-racked Germany lost their first-ever match to Poland and gave up a late lead to tie with Northern Ireland. Germany’s loss, their first qualification loss in seven years, was topped by Spain’s first loss in eight years (and 40 games)–to Slovakia (who had warmed up for the game by beating Ukraine). The Netherlands, having already lost their opening game to the Czech Republic, gave up another to a disciplined Iceland side led by the much-more-than-disciplined Gylfi Sigurðsson (this win followed Iceland’s opening result against Turkey). Amidst such stunning results, Bosnia/Herzegovina’s tying Belgium, Portugal’s loss to Albania, and Moldova tying Russia (in Moscow) hardly bear mentioning.
Even the one truly regrettable result of the week was riveting, as the failure of Serbia and Albania to request separation in the group stage and a stadium invasion by a pro-Albanian drone led to a discontinued game.
Much soccer remains to be played, and by the end of qualification this early surge of excitement may be fully extinguished. But I know that I will be looking forward to November’s international break more than just about any in recent memory.
As long as we’re giving the devil (or at least the devil-in-waiting) his due, it’s worth remembering just what a magical player Platini was before he committed himself to ruining football. This video compilation of his every touch in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinal game between France and Brazil is almost enough to make you forgive him Qatar. Almost.
(If you’re feeling particularly nostalgic, you can check out the entire game here.)
And to give a different devil his due, Sid Lowe has produced a very nice piece on Lionel Messi’s ten years at Barcelona for ESPN FC. If you haven’t seen it (click on the picture below for a link), do yourself a favor and check it out.