It’s incredible to think that forty years prior, the European Football Championship finals consisted of just four sides, lasting just four days. Euro 2016 in contrast had expanded to twenty four sides and now lasted a full month. The qualification process however was still as extensive as ever, from two years prior to the Championships consisting of nine groups of six sides. Group winners and runners up qualified for the Championships, as well as third place sides playing off for place in the finals. Fifty three sides competed, meaning that as many as 45% of entrants would ultimately qualify. In light of this, it is unsurprising how so many of the national sides from the British Isles ended up qualifying for the tournament – the highest number since England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all qualified for the 1958 World Cup.
England came into the qualification process in 2014 on the back of their worst performance at a World Cup Finals since the 1958 World Cup. Despite this, their qualification campaign couldn’t have turned out any better with a ‘Perfect ten’ record of ten played and ten won. Their campaign started with a 2-0 away win over Switzerland in Basel in September 2014 with two goals from Danny Welbeck just six days after his transfer from Manchester United to Arsenal.
This was followed up one month later by a 5-0 win over San Marino and a 1-0 win over Estonia a few days later.
In November 2014, England went a goal behind at Wembley with an own goal from Jordan Henderson. However a penalty from Wayne Rooney and two for Danny Welbeck gave England a 3-1 win.
In March 2015, goals for Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck, Reheem Stirling and a debut goal for Tottenham’s Harry Kane meant England bagged all three points in a 4-0 win.
The following June came the return fixture in Ljubljana. England again went a goal behind before two wonder strikes from Jack Wilshere (returning from injury after a season out on the side lines) put England ahead. Slovenia drew level with six minutes to go, however two minutes later Wayne Rooney secured a 3-2 win for England.
In September England managed a 6-0 away win over San Marino, while goals for Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney secured a 2-0 win for England over Switzerland at Wembley.
England’s fixtures concluded the following month, with a 2-0 win over Estonia at Wembley with goals from Theo Walcott and Raheem Stirling, while three days later in Vilnius England bagged three points with a 3-0 win.
Wales’s Euro 2016 campaign in contrast couldn’t started any different from how it concluded. Their opening fixture was an away trip to Andorra in September 2014. After six minutes the Welsh fell a goal behind to the tiny principality in the Pyrenees Mountains. The Welsh however quite literally were ‘Baled’ out, as Real Madrid superstar Gareth bagged two goals, including a superb free kick which led to an ecstatic pitch invasion, as Wales pulled it around for a 2-1 victory. The following month, at Cardiff City Stadium the Welsh played out a goalless draw with Bosnia & Herzegovina, though three days later ran out 2-1 winners over Cyprus at the same stadium.
In November 2014, the Welsh played out another goalless draw with a highly rated Belgium side, while a 3-0 away win over Israel the following March meant that the Welsh could dare to dream of their first finals appearance since 1958 with goals from Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey and two for Gareth Bale
Welsh hopes grew further after another Gareth Bale goal secured a 1-0 win over Belgium in June. The following September saw a 1-0 away win over Cyprus (Bale again on target),
Three days later the Welsh were held to a 0-0 draw with Israel at the Cardiff City Stadium. Wales however hit a snag with a 0-2 away defeat to Bosnia & Herzegovina one month later.
Three days later however, the Welsh secured their passage to France with a 2-0 win over Andorra in Cardiff, meaning that the Welsh bagged automatic qualification as runners up to Belgium.
Joining them in France would be Northern Ireland who secured their place in France after topping Group F.
Their campaign started in September 2014 with a 2-1 away win over Hungary in Budapest. The Ulstermen fell a goal behind with fifteen minutes to go, however goals from Niall McGinn and Kyle Lafferty in the last nine minutes gave Northern Ireland all three points.
One month on saw a 2-0 win over the Faroe Islands at Windsor Park, while three days on managing a 2-0 away win over Greece with goals for Jamie Ward and Kyle Lafferty, however Northern Ireland crashed to a 0-2 loss away at Romania in November 2014.
The following March, two goals from Kyle Lafferty gave Northern Ireland a 2-1 win over Finland at Windsor Park, though were held to a 0-0 draw by Romania at Windsor Park in June. In September, the Ulstermen managed a 3-1 away win over the Faroe Islands, followed three days on by a 1-1 home draw with Hungary.
One month later saw two goals from Southampton’s Steven Davis secure a 3-1 win over Greece at Windsor Park, which effectively secured Northern Ireland’s first qualification since the Mexico ’86 World Cup thirty years earlier. Their final fixture of the qualification process saw a 1-1 draw with Finland in Helsinki which confirmed Northern Ireland as group winners, one point ahead of runners up Romania. Hungary meanwhile secured their place in the play-off position, despite a 3-4 away defeat to Greece, who twelve years after their Euro 2004 victory surprisingly finished the campaign in last place.
The only home nation who failed to qualify for Euro 2016 however would be Scotland, who were drawn in Group D alongside Eire, Germany, Poland, Georgia and for their first qualification campaign since joining UEFA – Gibraltar. The Scots kicked off their campaign with a visit to Dortmund to face reigning World Champions Germany. Two goals for Thomas Muller gave the Germans a 2-1 win, while Gibraltar in their debut fixture suffered a 0-7 home defeat to Poland, with four goals for Robert Lewandowski.
Gibraltar would suffer two seven goal hammerings on the bounce with a 0-7 defeat to Eire at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium and a hat-trick for a thirty four year old Robbie Keane plying his trade at MLS side LA Galaxy. That same evening, World Champions Germany suffered a 0-2 loss to Poland in Warsaw.
The Germans also failed to win at home to Eire, after a John O’Shea goal four minutes into injury time cancelled out a Tony Kroos goal for a 1-1 draw. One month on however, Eire crashed to a 0-1 away defeat to Scotland at Celtic Park.
The following March, a Shane Long goal in injury time gave Eire a 1-1 home draw with the Poles. Three months on, a John O’Shea own goal cancelled out an early goal from Jonathan Walters as Eire drew with Scotland at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium, which ended in a 1-1 draw.
Meanwhile in September, Germany ran out 3-1 winners over Poland. Three days later, Germany left Hampden Park with a 3-2 win over the Scots
One month on in Dublin however, a goal for Shane Long meant that the Germans crashed to a 0-1 defeat. That same day, a goal for Robert Lewandowski four minutes into injury time salvaged a 2-2 draw for the Poles at Hampden Park over Scotland.
In the final round of fixtures, a 2-1 win for Germany over Georgia in Leipzig secured Germany’s passage to France as group winners. Poland secured the runners up spot with a 2-1 win over Eire in Warsaw.
Despite a 6-0 win for Scotland in Gibraltar, it would be Eire who would proceed to the play-off stage for a place in France.
Probably the biggest surprise failure of the Euro 2016 qualification process however would be Holland falling outside both the automatic qualification positions, as well as the play-off positions. Holland suffered a 0-2 away defeat to Iceland in October 2014, with two goals for Gylfi Sigurdsson of Swansea City.
Sigurdsson would also be on target again, this time from the penalty spot in the return fixture eleven months on, as Iceland inflicted a 0-1 defeat on Holland in the Amsterdam Arena. To make matters worse, the Dutch fell to a 0-3 away defeat to Turkey three days later.
Holland humiliation would be complete one month on as Czech Republic went three goals up, with former Arsenal and Man United star Robin Van Persie heading into his own net. Goals from Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Van Persie this time scoring at the right end pulled two back for the Dutch, however Czech Republic ran out 3-2 winners in the Amsterdam Arena. The Czechs finished up as group winners with Iceland as runners up and Turkey also automatically qualifying due to being the highest placed third place side.
Also, after being eliminated from the World Cup in the group phase, Portugal started their qualification campaign for Euro 2016 with a shock 0-1 home defeat to Albania in September 2014, which led to the dismissal of Portuguese Coach Paulo Bento, who was replaced by Fernando Santos.
One month later, Portugal finally got off the mark with a Cristiano Ronaldo goal five minutes into injury time, with a 1-0 win away against Denmark. This started a run of six straight wins for Portugal, which included a Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick in a 3-2 away win over Armenia.
Albania would also qualify for their first ever international tournament, though controversy would follow their away trip to Serbia in October 2014. There had been chants of ‘Kill the Albanians’ from the Serbian fans, as well as objects and flares thrown onto the pitch before a remote control drone airplane carrying a banner bearing an image of ‘Greater Albania’ (which includes territories within the former Yugoslavia, such as Kosovo and Macedonia) flew over the pitch and interrupted play. Serbian Centre Back Stefan Mitrović then proceeded to pull down the banner.
Albania striker Bekim Balaj attempted to seize the banner, which led to Serbian fans invading the pitch and attacking Albanian players (some Albanian players also claimed to have been attacked by Serbian riot police and stewards). As a result, Albania were awarded a 3-0 win by UEFA – a result which effectively ended Serbia’s chances of qualifying for Euro 2016. The play-off position would be taken by Denmark.
Meanwhile, European Champions Spain also qualified again for Euro 2016 finishing top of Group C. Spain started their qualification process with a 5-1 win over Macedonia in September 2014. Also qualifying from Group C would be Slovakia as runners up and Ukraine progressing to the play-off stage.
In Group G Austria proceeded as group winners, along the way defeating Sweden away 4-1 in Stockholm in September 2015. The Swedes finished the group phase third, qualifying for the play-off phase.
Group runners up would be Russia, though were awarded a 3-0 win by UEFA after their away fixture in Montenegro would be abandoned. Just eight seconds into the game, Russian goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev had been hit by a flare thrown from the crowd which caused a thirty three minute delay. In the sixty seventh minute, Russia missed a penalty leading to a scuffle amongst the players which led to the German referee to lead the players off the pitch and the match cancelled. UEFA were also to rule that Montenegro were to play their next two games behind closed doors.
In Group F Italy proceeded as group winners, managing a 3-1 away win over Azerbaijan in October 2015. Croatia finished runners up and along with way clocked up a 5-1 home win over Norway in March 2015.
The Norwegians took the play-off place after beating Croatia 2-0 in the return fixture the following September in Oslo.
Norway would be drawn against Hungary, however would fall to a 3-1 defeat on aggregate, losing 0-1 in Oslo and again 1-2 in Budapest.
Also in the play-offs would be a ‘Scandinavian Derby’ between Sweden and Denmark. Sweden would win the first leg 2-1 in Stockholm, while the return leg in Copenhagen saw a 2-2 draw with two goals from Zlatan Ibrahomovic securing Sweden’s passage to the finals.
Ukraine would book their place in France by beating Solvenia 3-1 on aggregate, with a 2-0 win in Lviv and a 1-1 draw in the away leg.
Eire meanwhile would be the fourth side from the British Isles to secure a place in the finals. After a 1-1 away draw with Bosnia and Herzegovina, two goals from Jonathan Walters gave the Irish a 3-1 win on aggregate.
At the same time as the play-off games were taking place however, disaster struck in Paris as the French were playing out a friendly international fixture with Germany in the Stade De France. In the event the French would win 2-0, however that result would be far from the headlines the following morning, due to a co-ordinated terrorist strike by Islamic fundamentalist group Daesh in several locations across Paris, which resulted in the deaths of 130 people, including two explosions close to the Stade De France of which could be heard during the game. The events of 13th November 2015 immediately cast doubt over the Euro 2016 Championships, to be held in France the following summer.
Four days later however, the French national side would play a friendly against England at Wembley Stadium before which a show of solidarity was expressed between the spectators and players of both sides out of respect for those who lost their lives the previous Friday.
As will be seen tomorrow – though French policing and security would be stretched to the limit - the Championships would go ahead with an increased number of fifty one competitive games to challenge for the 2016 European Football Championships.
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*Published 27th June 2017