The expanded European Championship for 2016 has provided outsiders with hope each step of the way. First there was the fact that 24 teams, almost half of UEFA’s membership, would qualify for a competition that had previously been a slim-line 16-team event. Once arriving at Euro 2016, there was the incentive that four of the six third-place teams in the group stage would advance to the knockout phase. And now that the last-16 phase has been reached, the draw has thrown up a lopsided bracket that offers a real chance for a team short on pedigree but long on momentum to go all the way to the final.
One side of the draw contains nine of the 14 previous winners of the European Championship. The other, meanwhile, features no previous winner and only two countries that have ever made it to the final.
Indeed, one of Europe’s big hitters will definitely be exiting before the quarterfinals, with two-time defending champion Spain taking on traditional power Italy. There's no letup for the winner of that clash, either. In the quarterfinals, world champion and three-time European Championship winner Germany is expected to be waiting. Beyond that, France, the host nation and the tournament favorite, will, as well as England, expect to be vying for a spot in the semifinals.
In contrast, opportunity knocks on the other side of the draw. One of Switzerland, Poland, Croatia, Portugal, Wales, Northern Ireland, Hungary and Belgium will be playing in the final at the Stade de France on July 10.
It presents the chance for Belgium to finally deliver on its golden generation of talent and lofty FIFA ranking. Similarly, the two most-fancied dark horses ahead of the tournament, Croatia and Poland, have now be presented with a very realistic path to the final. That fact has been reflected in the betting odds for the tournament, which saw Croatia’s odds to win the competition halved after it beat Spain 2-1 to move into the more favorable side of the draw.
“We are now one of the big favorites of this tournament,” Croatia striker Nikola Kalinic said after a win that secured to spot in Group D.
Perhaps not thinking that far ahead, either Wales or Northern Ireland, which had gone 58 and 34 years, respectively, without even making it to a major championship, will be playing in a quarterfinal.
The story of what has already proved an unpredictable Euro 2016 will continue on Saturday when the knockout phase gets underway.
Here's a downloadable bracket to follow the tournament as it progresses.
Betting Odds (via Oddschecker)
Republic of Ireland: 100/1
Northern Ireland: 200/1