With 24 teams, Euro 2016 will be the biggest European Championship yet. And it may also be one of the most open. A number of teams have ample reason to be considered top contenders. There are the hosts France, the world champions Germany, two-time defending European champions Spain, Europe’s top-ranked side Belgium and an England team buoyed by an exciting generation of talent. Yet all of those teams also have significant concerns going into the tournament. Predicting which country will come out on top in the final on July 10 is an unenviable task. Here’s the story behind each of the leading contenders.
France’s track record when hosting major tournaments makes it hard to discount their chances. Both in the 1984 Euros and 1998 World Cup, France utilized the home support to take the trophy. Didier Deschamps was the captain in 1998 and is now the coach of a squad that certainly has the talent to repeat that triumph. All-round midfielder sensation Paul Pogba looks ready to stamp his mark on a major tournament, while, in the likes of Antoine Griezmann, Kingsley Coman and Anthony Martial, there is frightening pace and quality going forward.
But there are problems, too. The squad has taken a heavy blow defensively, with Raphael Varane, Mamadou Sakho and Kurt Zouma all ruled out. Up front, Karim Benzema’s absence for the tournament, after facing allegations of blackmailing one-time teammate Mathieu Valbuena, has not only derived France of their best center forward but led to allegations of racism. And it should not be forgotten that France’s recent recent record in major tournaments does not make for pretty reading. There were major disciplinary problems at the 2010 World Cup and 2012 Euros, while they exited with a whimper in Brazil 2014.
When Germany lifted the World Cup in Brazil, it was easy to view it as not just a culmination of the rebirth of the country’s soccer but of the start of a period of dominance. With world-class players like Thomas Müller, Manuel Neuer, Toni Kroos, Mesut Özil and Mario Götze in their prime or yet to reach it, the future certainly looked bright. And the infrastructure put in place at the turn of the millennium continues to yield huge talents, such as Borussia Dortmund’s Julian Weigl and Schalke’s Leroy Sané, who have both been included in Joachim Löw ’s squad for France.
But Germany’s qualification campaign for Euro 2016 was far from dominant. Defeats to Poland and the Republic of Ireland exposed the fact that, for all the talent produced, Germany are desperately lacking in strikers and full-backs. The retirement of experienced figures like Philipp Lahm and Miroslav Klose has left a void that has yet to be filled. Meanwhile, the squad has been more recently depleted by the loss of İlkay Gündoğan and Marco Reus to injury.
It is worth remembering that Spain have won the last two European Championships and done so in sparkling style. The disastrous and shocking manner of their exit from the 2014 World Cup has been a huge knock to the reputation of the side, yet they still have oodles of talent. While greats like Xavi and Xabi Alonso have now moved on, a younger generation comprising Koke, Thiago and others are now making their mark. And multiple tournament winners Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos remain playing at a high level. Spain will not give up the title of European champions without a fight.
Still, the team rarely convinced in qualifying. As well as a defeat to Slovakia, there were stuttering 1-0 wins in Macedonia and Belarus. While the team famously won Euro 2012 without a recognized striker, a more dynamic, direct midfield means there is a desire to have a focal point up front. However, they still lack a convincing candidate to fill the role. Diego Costa didn’t make the squad and the two strikers who did, Alvaro Morata and Aritz Aduriz have a grand total of four international goals between them. There is certainly the possibility that Spain are being greatly underestimated, but the side needs to click in a way that it hasn’t for some time.
For a team that was dumped out of the last World Cup at the group stage, leaving the atmosphere surrounding the side at rock bottom, England enter Euro 2016 with remarkable positivity. The only perfect record in qualifying certainly helped, but much of the optimism has arrived in recent months thanks to the emergence of a number of young players. That group is led by Tottenham trio Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Eric Dier, who have come on massively under the tutelage of club manager Mauricio Pochettino. Add into that mix striker Jamie Vardy, fresh from his most unlikely rise to fire Leicester City to the Premier League title and what not too long ago appeared one of England’s least inspiring playing pools in recent memory now has plenty going for it.
With the youngest squad at the tournament, there is a real opportunity for England to put behind it the disappointments of the past and play in a high-tempo, captivating style. Yet one of the old guard threatens to undermine that potential. As the country’s record goalscorer, Wayne Rooney has undeniably been a great and can still have an influence in the squad as a senior member. However, coach Roy Hodgson appears set to shoehorn his captain into the team, something which looked every bit an awkward compromise in the team’s warm-up matches. Add to that a less than convincing defense and England could again come painfully unstuck.
This could, perhaps should, be the time for Belgium’s long-talked about generation of remarkably talented players to make their mark on a big stage and perhaps even deliver the country’s first ever major international title. Players like Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld, Radja Nainggolan and Mousa Dembele are now in their prime, while others such as Kevin de Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard have made a huge impression in the Premier League. In terms of ability, Belgium are hard to match.
The full potential of that talent has rarely been seen, though. Under the charge of coach Marc Wilmots, especially at the last World Cup, Belgium often appeared to be playing with the handbrake on, lacking true cohesion going forward. And Wilmots also continues to be undecided about which of his strikers to start with, as well as how to solve the problem of a perennial lack of full-backs while replacing injured captain Vincent Kompany in the center of the defense.