Ronaldo and Co launch Euro 2016 in jittery France
After a gruelling qualifying campaign, Euro 2016 gets underway on Friday with Cristiano Ronaldo and the rest of the continent’s biggest stars descending on France having to fend off minnows aiming to make their presence felt.
This will be the first 24-team European Championship, a month-long marathon a far cry from the eight-nation event when France with Michel Platini were last hosts in 1984.
France launch the tournament with a Group A game against Romania on Friday. Les Bleus remain the last host country to lift the trophy — named after a Frenchman, Henri Delaunay — and also won the World Cup as hosts in 1998, when Didier Deschamps was the captain.
Now he is the coach of a side looking to lift the spirits of a nation beset by social unrest and fears of a repeat of the Paris attacks last November. The tension has made some players nervous however.
“I would like to concentrate fully on football during the Euro, and I would feel much better if my family is not sitting in the stadium,” said Germany’s Jerome Boateng, who has told his wife and children to stay away from the country in case of an attack.
He was in the Germany team that was playing France when suicide bombers blew themselves up outside the Stade de France on the night of the November 13 attacks that killed 130 people around Paris.
France has ramped up the presence of security forces but fans will still come in vast numbers to attend matches from Lens in the north of the country to Nice on the Cote d’Azur and the Stade de France, which will host the final on July 10.
– No limits for Spain –
For a Spain side in transition, the aim is to put their desperate World Cup showing two years ago firmly behind them and win an unprecedented third straight European Championship. They lost their final warmup game against Georgia 1-0 however.
“We shouldn’t set any limits,” their coach Vicente del Bosque told AFP. “We can’t say if we get to the semi-finals we will be happy, we need to aspire to win it.”
For once expectations in England are not sky-high around their team’s chances. Coach Roy Hodgson has an exciting young squad at his disposal and the increased margin for error in the group stage may help his team.
Germany have the youngest squad at the finals but arrive as the world champions and will take some beating, even if many see France as the favourites.
– Ronaldo’s big chance? –
The French have sidelined Karim Benzema over his link to an attempted sextape blackmail. But his Real Madrid team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo will lead the list of stars on the field.
The 31-year-old, fresh from winning the Champions League, will be expected to carry a Portugal side that lost on penalties to Spain in the semi-finals four years ago before limping out of the last World Cup in the group stage.
This could be one of Ronaldo’s last chances to win an international trophy to go with his glittering array of club level medals, his three Ballons d’Or and his newest accolade, that of the highest paid athlete in the world, according to the latest Forbes rich list.
France will also see Zlatan Ibrahimovic grace an international tournament for possibly the last time in the colours of Sweden, while Gareth Bale will hope to have a big impact as Wales return to a major finals for the first time since 1958.
“We’re not going there just to make up the numbers,” Real Madrid forward Bale told a BBC Wales documentary recently.
The expanded finals could also see the younger stars of European football announce themselves on the international stage, from England teenager Marcus Rashford to Bayern Munich’s David Alaba.
Only eight of the 24 teams will be eliminated in the group stage, removing some of the tension, but there will be no shortage of big games, including a meeting of England and Wales and a showdown between Germany and neighbours Poland.
Euro 2016 also sees Northern Ireland and Hungary return to major tournaments after three-decade absences, while it will be the first ever finals for the minnows of Iceland and Albania and Iceland.
“It will be tough, but we’re capable of springing a surprise,” Albania forward Shkelzen Gashi told World Soccer.
“We’re going there to enjoy the occasion, sure, as it’s the first time Albania has ever appeared in a major tournament, but we also want to give a good account of ourselves.”