The Euro is where the outcome usually doesn’t follow the script. Denmark’s triumph under Richard Moller Nielsen in 1992 was so inspiring that it was captured on celluloid, Summer of ‘92, available on Netflix. Denmark didn’t even qualify for the 1992 Euro finals and were a late replacement for Yugoslavia, who weren’t allowed to participate because of civil war. The Danes went on to win the tournament, beating odds-on favourites Germany 2-0 in the final.
In 2004, rank outsiders Greece upset heavy favourites and tournament hosts Portugal, winning the final 1-0. Even in 2016, where France had the best team and home advantage, Portugal trumped them to win the trophy.
This is a tougher tournament than the World Cup. This is ‘heavy metal’ football. From that perspective, it would be unwise to pick favourites for this year’s event that starts on June 12. And yet, it would be nigh-on impossible not to fall for the Les Bleus.
Last Wednesday, France played an international friendly against Wales, a warm-up fixture in the lead-up to the main event. It wasn’t surprising that their starting XI oozed world-class talent, but their reserve bench was equally awe-inspiring. France coach Didier Deschamps preferred to keep the likes of Lucas Digne, Ben Yedder, Kingsley Coman, Jules Kounde and Moussa Sissoko on the bench for that game.
Ousmane Dembele came on as a substitute to score a goal. A team that boasts of the likes of the likes of Raphael Varane, N’Golo Kante, Paul Pogba, Kylian Mbappe, Karim Benzema and Antoine Griezmann has to be better than the rest at least on paper. Deschamps captained France to a World Cup and Euro double. As a coach, he took his team to the World Cup glory in 2018, and France remain the pundits’ favourites to win the Euro this year.
Deschamps, though, is rightly playing down the hype. “Two years at the highest level is a long time, even if it is not a lot in life in general. There are obviously big expectations after the success we have had and that is the aim of this squad, of this generation,” he recently told AFP in Monaco.
England manager Gareth Southgate sprang a surprise by picking four right-backs in the final squad. To be fair to him, however, he has picked the strongest-available side. Some Manchester United fans are still smarting over Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s omission but his fantastic defensive attributes – especially one-on-ones – notwithstanding, Wan-Bissaka is not considered to be adept to play as a wing-back in a 3-5-2 formation, Southgate’s preferred choice. The 23-year-old doesn’t have Kyle Walker’s versatility or Trent Alexander-Arnold’s game-changing qualities in the final third. Alexander-Arnold is now ruled out of the tournament with a thigh injury suffered during a friendly against Austria and it needs to be seen if Wan-Bissaka gets in as a replacement. The latter is an old-school right-back, whose attacking side of the game calls for improvement.
Southgate has a talented squad at his disposal but does this England team have strong characters top-down a la Italia 90, Paul Gascoigne’s World Cup? During a conversation, The Times’ (London) chief football writer Henry Winter observed that modern-day football has fewer strong characters. And from that point of view, England need to have Harry Maguire and Jordan Henderson on the pitch in big matches. Both of them are recovering from injuries and yet, Southgate has picked them, for he knows their importance. Maguire and Henderson are natural leaders and without them England would be bereft of on-pitch leadership.
Watch out for Jude Bellingham. Only 17 years old, but this could be his Euro if Southgate chooses to be bold and throws him in at the deep end. Jack Grealish and Mason Mount are in the form of their young lives, but Marcus Rashford’s loss of form could be a big concern for the Three Lions. England probably don’t have adequate backups for Phil Foden and Jadon Sancho upfront, and without Maguire their central defence might wobble.
Will Harry Kane’s uncertain club future be an impediment? The England captain is heavily linked with a move away from Tottenham Hotspur during close season and there’s a school of thought that it might affect his Euro performance. But Alan Shearer is backing Kane to have a great tournament. “I went into Euro 96 with Blackburn and of course had the tournament and then had a decision to make myself after it. It sounds like he’s made that decision already. I don’t think that will affect him at all, even if it’s not sorted out,” the England and Newcastle United legend told reporters.
Germany are heading towards the end of a cycle and Hansi Flick will replace the team’s long-standing manager Joachim Low at the end of the Euro. After failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup finals, Italy are rebuilding under Roberto Mancini. Spain no longer look world-beaters on paper. Belgium have top-class players aplenty, but do they have big-tournament winning mentality?
France have an embarrassment of riches. England will have the advantage of playing their group league matches on home patch, plus the semifinal and final at Wembley if they get that far. But write off the less fancied teams at your peril. The Euro could be resplendent in its unpredictability.