Euro Cup Preview

Euro Cup Preview

By Wes Gilbertson

You could consult Ancestry.com.

Just be warned, once you learn of your long-ago link to Who Knows Where, you’ll likely feel obliged to root for that country at Euro 2016.
If you’d prefer a bit more say on the subject, skip the genealogy research (at least for now), consult our handy fan guide and take your pick of the 24 sides that qualified for the summer soccer showdown …

POOL A

ALBANIA
Tournament history: First appearance.
Player to watch: Euro 2016 could be a breakout moment for right-back Elseid Hysaj.
Reason to root for them: If you’re a gambler, this is the ultimate underdog bet. Most oddsmakers have Albania listed as the longest of longshots.

FRANCE
Tournament history: They’ve twice been crowned European champions, in 1984 and 2000.
Player to watch: Paul Pogba is one of the finest midfielders on the planet.
Reason to root for them: To root, root, root for the home team. Les Bleus have a history of success as hosts, winning both Euro 1984 and the 1988 World Cup on their own soil.

ROMANIA
Tournament history: In four previous appearances, they’ve only reached the knockout phase once.
Player to watch: Centre-back Vlad Chiriches is key to Romania’s stingy defence.
Reason to root for them: Romania survived a 428-minute goal-scoring drought during qualifying. So you could likely doze off and not miss any offensive fireworks.

SWITZERLAND
Tournament history: They’re three-for-three … at failing to advance from the group stage.
Player to watch: After a big-money transfer to Arsenal, all eyes will be on midfielder Granit Xhaka.
Reason to root for them: It’s a perfect excuse to wear that Sven Baertschi jersey in your closet without being accused of cheering for the Canucks.

GROUP B

ENGLAND
Tournament history: In eight efforts, their best showings have been semifinal losses in 1968 and 1996.
Player(s) to watch: Harry Kane will likely lead the attack, but Wayne Rooney might have a bit more magic in that boot.
Reason to root for them: It’s been 50 years — 50 years! — since England’s last major tournament triumph, and that seems like enough suffering.

RUSSIA
Tournament history: As the Soviet Union, they won the title in 1964 and settled for second three times.
Player to watch: Midfielder Alan Dzagoev tied for the tournament lead with three goals at Euro 2016.
Reason to root for them: If you kinda enjoy England’s footie frustration, Russia has a chance to extend their funk in Euro Cup openers. England has never won its first match at the tournament.

SLOVAKIA
Tournament history: First appearance since the split of Czechoslovakia.
Player to watch: Mohawked midfielder Marek Hamsik is the star for the Slovaks.
Reason to root for them: Don’t you feel just a bit bad that they were lumped into Team Europe for the World Cup of Hockey? Ouch.

WALES
Tournament history: Their only previous appearance was in 1976.
Player to watch: Billed as the world’s most expensive footballer due to a record-setting transfer to Real Madrid, winger Gareth Bale is the go-to guy.
Reason to root for them: The knock on Wales is this is a one-man show, but wouldn’t it be fun to see how far Bale can take them?

GROUP C

GERMANY
Tournament history: Three-time champions — as West Germany in 1972 and 1980 and just Germany in 1996.
Player to watch: With 10 strikes in two trips to the World Cup, forward Thomas Muller seems to fill the net on the big stage.
Reason to root for them: After finishing on top of the world in 2014 in Brazil, where they embarrassed the hosts in the semis, Germany has an opportunity to double up.

NORTHERN IRELAND
Tournament history: First appearance.
Player to watch: Kyle Lafferty is the main man, but fellow striker Conor Washington was working as a mailman during Euro 2012. How’s that for a feel-good story?
Reason to root for them: Just earning a tournament invite was a huge achievement. It’s all just icing on top now.

POLAND
Tournament history: Two trips, zero victories.
Player to watch: Robert Lewandowski — a star striker for Bayern Munich — tickled twine 13 times during Poland’s qualifying run.
Reason to root for them: Poland boasted the more dangerous attack in qualifiers, with 33 goals. And who doesn’t like to see offence?

UKRAINE
Tournament history: Second appearance, but made an early exit as co-hosts in 2012.
Player to watch: His nickname — The Man With Two Hearts — won’t scare anybody, but winger Andriy Yarmolenko can score.
Reason to root for them: Now we’re curious … Why do they call him The Man With Two Hearts? With enough TV time, maybe we’ll find out.

POOL D

CROATIA
Tournament history: In four tries, they’ve advanced to the quarterfinals twice.
Player(s) to watch: Luka Modric, Ivan Perisic and Ivan Rakitic headline a talented troupe of midfielders.
Reason to root for them: We’re fascinated by teen winger Alen Halilovic, a future star for Barcelona who has occasionally been hyped as the second coming of Lionel Messi.

CZECH REPUBLIC
Tournament history: They were champs in 1976, as Czechoslovakia, and had a close call in 1996, losing in the final to Germany. 
Player to watch: The Czechs had a leaky defence in qualifying, so the pressure is on goalkeeper Petr Cech.
Reason to root for them: Just to see what Jaromir Jagr would post on Twitter. Funny guy.

SPAIN
Tournament history: The Spaniards are coming off back-to-back crowns in 2008 and 2012. Overall, they are three-time champions, a record they share with Germany.
Player to watch: Spain needs striker Alvaro Morata to be a difference-maker.
Reason to root for them: Already the first to celebrate consecutive championships, a three-peat would be truly historic.  

TURKEY
Tournament history: The highlight of three previous appearances was a trip to the semis in 2008.
Player to watch: Free-kick ace Hakan Calhanoglu is a star on the rise.
Reason to root for them: There are a few exciting young pieces. And if you start showing your support now, you can’t be accused of bandwagon-jumping later. 

POOL E

BELGIUM
Tournament history: This marks Belgium’s first Euro Cup appearance since 2000. Their best result , at least to date, is a runner-up finish in 1980. 
Player to watch: Striker Eden Hazard finished his campaign with Chelsea on a hot streak and will look to continue that roll.
Reason to root for them: Belgium is currently second — tops among European outfits — in the FIFA World Rankings, but they’re not getting much love among pre-tournament picks.

ITALY
Tournament history: They won it all in 1968 and have twice been bridesmaids, including a loss to Spain in the final in 2012. 
Player to watch: At 38 and with 157 international caps on his resume, goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon is still going strong.
Reason to root for them: A lot of folks are counting out the Italians. Bad idea? They’ll try to prove that defence does, indeed, win championships.

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND
Tournament history: In two previous appearances, they were done after the group stage. 
Player to watch: Striker Shane Long has been waiting to emerge from Robbie Keane’s shadow.
Reason to root for them: They boast the oldest roster at Euro 2016. If your bones are starting to creak, this is a squad you can rally around.

SWEDEN
Tournament history: The Swedes qualified for the fifth straight instalment. Going back further, they were semifinalists as co-hosts in 1992. 
Player to watch: They’re going as far as striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic can carry them.
Reason to root for them: For entertainment value, you can’t go wrong with more Ibrahimovic.

POOL F

AUSTRIA
Tournament history: Austria played co-host in 2008, their only Euro appearance.
Player to watch: Midfielder David Alaba has outgrown his rising-star label. He’s just a star now.
Reason to root for them: If you want to support a darkhorse that actually has a decent shot, this could be it.

HUNGARY
Tournament history: Hungary finished third at Euro 1964 — only four countries earned an invite back then — but haven’t qualified since 1972.
Player to watch: Goalkeeper Gabor Kiraly has more than 100 international caps on his resume. And he wears track-pants!
Reason to root for them: Way back when, Hungary was a powerhouse on the pitch. They’re finally relevant again.

ICELAND
Tournament history: First appearance.
Player to watch: Midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson provided plenty of offensive punch during Iceland’s qualifying quest.
Reason to root for them: Everybody loves an underdog story, right? With a total population of about 330,000 (Winnipeg has twice that many residents), Iceland is the smallest nation to ever qualify for Euro Cup.

PORTUGAL
Tournament history: Portugal has advanced to the knockout stage in five straight appearances, including a heartbreaking loss to Greece in the final in 2004.
Player to watch: Star forward Cristiano Ronaldo is Portugal’s all-time leading scorer and he’s not done adding to that total.
Reason to root for them: The only thing missing from Ronaldo’s resume is to lead Portugal to an international tournament triumph.