The last time France hosted a major men’s soccer tournament, a million fans stormed the Champs Elysees to celebrate Les Bleus’ World Cup title in the Summer of 1998. The eyes of the world are back on France for the 2016 European championships, which begin Friday and run through July 11.
This year, the quadrennial tournament expanded from 16 to 24 teams, which some say will weaken the field by diluting it. But it could also lead to some exciting upsets.
The French team opens Friday against Romania (3 p.m., ESPN2). Les Bleus are in fine form, and one of the favorites with a loaded roster that includes Dimitri Payet (West Ham), Hugo Lloris (Tottenham), Laurent Koscielny (Arsenal), Blaise Matuidi (PSG), Olivier Giroud (Arsenal), Anthony Martial (Manchester United), Kingsley Coman (Bayern Munich).
Among the other contenders are World Cup champion Germany, England, Spain, Belgium and Italy.
England went breezed through qualifying and even beat Germany on the road. The English attack includes Harry Kane of Tottenham and Jamie Vardy of Leicester City, the surprise Premier League champion. Oh, yes, and then there’s Wayne Rooney. The defense isn’t as strong, but strong enough to make a deep run.
Germany is Germany. No, the team isn’t invincible. The Germans lost to Poland and Ireland in qualification, and to England in March. Yes, they miss retired Philipp Lahm and Miroslav Klose. But they still have Bastian Schwiensteiger, Manuel Neuer, and an all-star collection of players that make them one of the heavy favorites.
Of course, Spain is in the mix. But is their Golden Era over? They didn’t win the World Cup title in 2014, and they have looked vulnerable. Iker Casillas, David Silva and Cesc Fabregas are still there, and they have Koke, Thiago Alcantara and Alvaro Morata. Can they pull it together to reign again?
There are plenty of teams that could give the Big Four trouble.
Austria, led by Bayern Munich’s David Alaba and Leicester City’s Christian Fuchs, hasn’t been this good since the 1930s. Belgium has had the talent for quite some time, and is looking to shed the underachiever label. Italy, a 2012 finalist, is expected to have a stingy defense, as always.
Don’t forget about Poland. Any team with Robert Lewandowski up top has to be considered dangerous. The Bayern Munich forward was the top scorer in qualification with 13 goals.
Keep an eye on Croatia, and Sweden (Zlatan Ibrahimovic).
Wales has Real Madrid star Gareth Bale, and is playing in its first major competition since 1958. Iceland, a country of 333,000 people, is a fun underdog to root for.
And then there’s Portugal. Cristiano Ronaldo scored 51 goals for Real Madrid this season, and when he’s on the field, there’s the promise of magic.
Chances are one of the heavyweights will lift the trophy on July 10. But, remember, Denmark won in 1992 and Greece was a surprise winner in 2004. And with 24 teams in the hunt, anything is possible.
What: European soccer championship
Where: France, various venues
When: June 10-July 10
T.V.: ESPN, ESPN2
Where to watch in South Florida: Fritz and Franz Bierhaus (Coral Gables), Fado Irish Pub (Brickell), Wynwood Watch the Cup parties (2250 NW 2 Ave), George’s (South Miami), Sports Grill (various locations), Duffy’s (various locations), Fox & Hounds (Fort Lauderdale), Waxy O’Conners (Fort Lauderdale), Stout Bar and Grill (Oakland Park), McSorleys Beach Pub (Fort Lauderdale), Tilted Kilt (Fort Lauderdale), Mickey Byrne’s Irish Pub (Hollywood), Lion & Eagle (Boca Raton).
A: Albania, France, Romania, Switzerland
B: England, Russia, Slovakia, Wales
C: Germany, Northern Ireland, Poland, Ukraine
D: Croatia, Czech Republic, Spain, Turkey
E: Belgium, Italy, Ireland, Sweden
F: Austria, Hungary, Iceland, Portugal