Featuring the implications of an expanded, 24-team field, all kinds of underdogs and fermented, Icelandic shark.
There are few things more enjoyable as a soccer fan than wholly losing oneself in a major international tournament — reworking your schedule to catch as many games as possible, learning the national anthems of countries you didn’t even know existed (looking at you, Albania), throwing your rooting interest behind a country you have absolutely no attachment to (what’s up, Iceland?).
The European Championship has long been renowned as the most competitive such tournament in the world, its 16-team field heavy on powerhouses and low on also-ran qualifiers. And while the expansion to 24 teams for this year’s edition was controversial — and certainly does water down the field — it also means more games, more diversity and traditional minnows getting a turn on the big stage.
Host France and Romania open the event Friday at noon PST on ESPN2, and the tournament runs a full, glorious month before concluding July 10 on the outskirts of Paris.
Group A (France, Switzerland, Romania, Albania)
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Favorite: France. The host nation is stocked with talent and headlined by Juventus midfielder Paul Pogba, tabbed to be the next global superstar at the age of 23. Les Bleus have a tendency toward self-sabotage, but if they don’t beat themselves, they’re the pre-tournament favorite.
Who? Albania is playing in its first-ever major tourney, having finished above Denmark to earn an automatic qualifying berth.
Random fun fact: Albanian midfielder Taulant Xhaka and Switzerland’s Grenit will be come the first siblings to play each other in a Euro match when they meet in their group-stage opener on Saturday. The brothers were born to Albanian parents but grew up in Switzerland, hence the divergent paths. Also random: Taulant’s Wikipedia picture isn’t a picture but a portrait drawn by an Albania fan.
Game to watch: France vs. Switzerland, June 19. Group-stage finale between two group favorites.
Group B (England, Russia, Slovakia, Wales)
Favorite: England. Yes, England. And yes, that probably means the Three Lions will flame out early and spectacularly.
Who? Slovakia is sneakily dangerous, ranked 24th in the FIFA rankings and led by Napoli playmaker Marek Hamsik. No, this isn’t the team the U.S. played in the 2010 World Cup — that was Slovenia — but yes, Maurice Edu’s goal still should have counted.
Random fun fact: Wales’ first-ever international soccer match took place on March 26, 1876, against Scotland. The Dragons lost 4-0, and it hasn’t gone much better for them since. This is just the second major tournament Wales has ever qualified for.
Game to watch: England vs. Wales, June 16. Can Gareth Bale’s hero ball carry the Welsh into the knockout round? It will certainly be fun watching him try.
Group C (Germany, Poland, Ukraine, Northern Ireland)
Favorite: Germany. Because of course it is. The reigning World Cup champs are still as loaded as you remember, even if results have been less consistent recently.
Who? Northern Ireland would also be regarded as more of a sleeper if not for a brutal group-stage draw. It topped its qualification group and, while short on household names, boasts a hard-working squad that battles for one another.
Random fun fact: Ukraine has had 17 coaches — including caretakers — since being accepted into FIFA as an independent nation and full member in 1992. Though more than half of the Soviet Union’s 1988 Euro runners-up were Ukrainian, after the breakup of the USSR they were transferred to the Russian national team. Ukraine also lost four previous winner-gets-in Euro and World Cup playoff series before edging Slovenia last November. So yeah, if you’re looking for a rooting interest that could use a good bounce or two …
Game to watch: Germany vs. Poland, June 16. If you ever want to disavow the notion of sports karma, look up Poland’s competitive record against Germany since World War II.
Group D (Spain, Croatia, Turkey, Czech Republic)
Favorite: Spain. Its rep was slightly tarnished by an early exit at the 2014 World Cup, but this is still the two-time defending champ (2008 and 2012) that managed a World Cup title in between. A new generation is being edged into the fold, and La Furia Roja can still ball.
Who? Croatia might be the most entertaining team in the entire field, spry creative midfielders like Luka Modric merrily shimmying between bulkier opponents. That there’s no legitimate outsider among the quartet underlines just how loaded Group D is, the toughest in the entire field.
Random fun fact: The “Panenka” penalty shot dates back to the 1976 Euro final, when Czechoslovakia’s Antonin Panenka flummoxed West Germany with the delicate chip that has been emulated countless times since.
Game to watch: Turkey vs. Croatia, June 12. The biggest downside of the 24-team field, for me, is that four of the six third-place finishers also advance. That devalues the group stage to a certain extent, especially matchups like this that would otherwise be a desperate fight for positioning.
Group E (Belgium, Italy, Sweden, Ireland)
Favorite: Belgium. The Red Devils are currently ranked second in the world but battling the perception that all upstarts without a storied history face. Throw Germany jerseys on this roster, and it would be the clear frontrunner. As things stand, there’s a sense of a collective wait-and-see.
Who? Ireland’s roster is packed with names that vaguely register in your mind but force you to pull up Wikipedia to look up where that association comes from. Aiden McGeady, Shay Given, James McClean — it’s like a who’s who of players once tabbed for relative stardom but never quite made it into the top tier.
Random fun fact: Just type “Zlatan Ibrahimovic fun facts” into Google and go wild. My personal favorite is the “20 most ridiculous things he’s ever said” list compiled by the Telegraph. For example: “An injured Zlatan is a pretty serious thing for any team.”
Game to watch: Italy vs. Sweden, June 17. This is as unremarkable an Italy team as I can remember, at least on paper. Which means that it’ll probably grind into the semifinals leaving a trail of scoreless draws and broken-hearted underdogs in its wake.
Group F (Portugal, Austria, Iceland, Hungary)
Favorite: Austria, believe it or not. This is the best Austrian team in generations, led by Bayern Munich standout David Alaba — their “god,” per no less than authority than former coach Pep Guardiola — and Leicester City’s Christian Fuchs. The draw was also kind, gifting them perhaps the easiest group of them all.
Who? Iceland has no soccer history to speak of but the talent to make a run, having qualified at the expense of the Netherlands, of all teams. Hungary once boasted the top team in the world, the famed Magical Magyars of the 1950s, but little chance of even surviving this group.
Random fun fact: There is a webpage titled “The world’s most disgusting Icelandic food” on a site promoting the Icelandic tourism industry. Take it away, Guide to Iceland: “You’ll probably hear that the traditional way of fermenting the shark is to bury it in the ground and then urinate on it before letting it rot for some months. This is not true! Well, the urinating bit is true, but the shark doesn’t rot, it ferments. And urine is no longer used in this process, but it was used back in the days.” So no worries, then, friends!
Game to watch: Portugal vs. Iceland, June 14. A meeting of polar opposites, the Fightin’ Cristiano Ronaldos versus an Iceland team whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts.