Mike Gibbons is an aspiring young journalist
from the UK who has followed the World Cup with passion from an early age. He will share his views about the past, present and future of
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After The Lord Mayor's Show
In June and July you may have witnessed your first international football tournament. Like it? Want more?
On August the sixteenth competitive international football gets going again in Europe just five and a half weeks after the finale of the World Cup in Germany, the continent barely having had time to exhale from the efforts of the summer. And check out these rip-roaring fixtures to get your pulse racing – the Faeroe Islands take on Georgia that day, and on the other side of Europe Estonia face FYR Macedonia. No? Erm, how about Belgium versus Kazakhstan then?
The ball has barely bounced on the floor from Fabio Grosso’s winning penalty but Europe will soon be up and running again with the qualifiers for the Euro 2008 tournament in Austria and Switzerland. After the initial fixtures in August the competition gets going in earnest on the third and seventh of September with forty fixtures in total over the two days. Fifty countries will contest the fourteen places available, and for the first time since the qualifiers for the USA 94 World Cup there will be no play-offs at the end of it. Seven groups, top two through in each, nice and simple.
At the moment, with the finals two years away, it looks like the most open tournament for years. As is often the case with the European Championships, the lack of the looming presence of Brazil and Argentina does bring other teams out of their shells. Despite being played only twelve times compared to the World Cups eighteen, Europe’s premier competition has provided nine different winners and thirteen different finalists. In comparison the World Cup has had seven winners and eleven different finalists. You simply don’t get the stories like Denmark in 1992 or Greece in 2004 at the World Cup. No host country has won the tournament since France in 1984, and given the welterweight European status of the co-hosts for 2008 that trend looks likely to continue.
If you want to throw your money into the ether my tip is for Germany to make the short trip over the border and come back with the booty in 2008. As for the rest…
Portugal, Poland, Serbia, Belgium, Finland, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan
This opening group is positively CONMEBOL-esque in size and could have been even bigger had UEFA decided to include Montenegro after their split from Serbia in May. Portugal are the outstanding favourites here and with good reason – semi-finalists at Euro 2000, runners up at Euro 2004 and fourth in Germany, they are closing in on success. Poland and Serbia will be looking to atone for dismal showings at the World Cup and Belgium should be fired up having not qualified at all and watched their first World Cup at home on TV since 1978.
Finland are perennial point-snatchers here and there but the week bottom section of this group will be tantamount to shooting fish in a barrel.
Prediction – Portugal and Belgium to qualify
France, Italy, Ukraine, Scotland, Lithuania, Georgia, Faeroe Islands
Fun and games abound in this group as on the 6th September France will play Italy a mere fifty-nine days after their World Cup final in Berlin. The cast of characters will have been affected by retirements, with France looking to rebuild and Italy still in shock from the match-fixing scandal that has led to the asset-stripping of Juventus. Throw the Ukraine into this heady brew and you already have three of the last eight from the World Cup. Scotland could be rising again slowly after finishing strongly in the World Cup qualifiers, and having reached the under-19 European Championship final appear to have good youngsters on the way through but this should prove at least two tournaments too soon to reap the benefits.
Lithuania, Georgia and the Faeroe Islands make up the rest of the group but will struggle to make an impression against this calibre of opposition.
Prediction – France and Italy to qualify.
Greece, Turkey, Norway, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Hungary, Moldova, Malta
A strange scenario here for Norway, who have on the face of it been invited to a South-East European championships. Defending champions Greece are also in this group, the only one not to have provided a finalist in Germany this summer. Like the Norwegians Turkey self-destructed, literally in their case, in the play-offs and Bosnia-Herzegovina came a cropper against their hated rivals Serbia and Montenegro. Hungary were miles off the pace in their group so this makes Group C the toughest one to call of all of them. Expect this to go right to the wire next November with teams taking points of each other left, right and centre along the way.
Prediction – Turkey and Norway to qualify.
Czech Republic, Germany, Slovakia, Republic of Ireland, Wales, Cyprus, San Marino
They came close, but not close enough. Germany won all our hearts this summer with their commitment to attacking football and I hope their young squad and new coach Joachim Loew retain this philosophy. They have been dealt a tricky group though, who knows what team the Czechs will field after their ageing team deflated so spectacularly after such a good start this summer? The Republic of Ireland and Wales both have good squads and Slovakia made the play-offs for the 2006 World Cup, so this group may not be as defined as it seems. One thing that is certain is that Cyprus and San Marino, who could never have been in the same group ten years ago, will help boost the goal averages of the others.
Prediction – Germany and the Republic of Ireland to qualify.
England, Croatia, Russia, Israel, Estonia, Macedonia FYR, Andorra
England are favourites for this group but must play their opening qualifiers against Andorra and Macedonia without the injured Michael Owen and the suspended Wayne Rooney. New coach Steve McClaren will have his work cut out trying to generate some enthusiasm for a team that were so disappointing this summer. Croatia were unlucky in Germany and Russia, with the umpteen oil-backed millions invested in their club game, will be hoping to translate this into success at international level. The situation in Israel could affect the fixtures in this group, we shall all have to wait and hope that the current madness is resolved quickly.
Throw Estonia, Macedonia and Andorra into the mix and this group looks dreary and tedious indeed. The only interesting question surrounding England at the moment is whether the set-fire-to-money project that is the new Wembley Stadium will be operational before this group ends.
Prediction – England and Russia to qualify.
Sweden, Spain, Denmark, Latvia, Iceland, Northern Ireland, Liechtenstein
In European Championship terms there will be a big casualty in this group. Sweden have been at three of the last four finals, Spain have made seven of the last eight and Denmark have been ever present since 1984. Spain will need to pick themselves up after yet another false dawn at the World Cup but their young side should recover to go on and disappoint us all at Euro 2008. Sweden will be playing in the aftermath of the retirement of Henrik Larsson and are in need of some surgery whereas Denmark will look to recover after their nightmare in qualifying for the last World Cup.
Latvia and Iceland have the potential to take points in this group especially at home and Northern Ireland have often been known to bloody the nose of their supposed betters on occasion, as England will testify. Liechtenstein didn’t finish bottom of their World Cup qualifying group but there is no Luxembourg to act as a buffer this time.
Prediction – Spain and Denmark to qualify.
Netherlands, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Albania, Belarus, Luxembourg
A tough group is in prospect here. Romania were the unluckiest European team in World Cup qualifying after racking up 25 points and not even making the play-offs. Ahead of them were the Netherlands, a big flop at the World Cup, disgracing themselves against Portugal after looking so promising in the qualifiers. Slovenia tailed off spectacularly in their series and Bulgaria never really got going, but do have some promising individuals in Berbatov and Petrov.
At the moment it looks wide open. Even Belarus can spring the odd surprise result and frightened the life out of champions elect Italy in Parma at the beginning of the 2006 qualifiers, going down narrowly 3-4. Albania famously turned over European champions Greece a month earlier but look unlikely to spring any surprises here, ditto with bells on for Luxembourg.
Prediction – Netherlands and Bulgaria to qualify.
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