With the Euros expanded to 24 for the next tournament in France, this was the cue for many to call out qualifying for the tournament, with some calling it “academic” and “boring”. To the surprise of so many, not only has it not been boring, it’s been intensely captivating. The stories emerging as Europe’s middle class gets its long due chance at making it to a tournament they’d otherwise have little hope of getting too has created some fascinating storylines. On the other side of the coin, some of Europe’s elite have had quite alarming qualifying troubles. Put it all together and you have the most captivating European qualifying tournament ever.
Every time European qualifying for the Euros or World Cup begins, the chorus of moans is resuscitated from its slumber. They’re so vocal not only because it breaks up the momentum of the club season, but because qualifying can often be a chore of watching the England’s of the world put the San Marino’s of the world on blast. Yes, that is boring and academic. And for many of Europe’s footballing powers, qualifying is academic and boring. In a 16-team Euro tournament (the last two had 14 qualify), it’s not often that the drama comes from the powers trying to get in; it comes from the middle of the pack. Those games are more often than not compelling drama, especially in the two-legged ties in November. But the main qualifying tournament this year has been nothing short of astounding, to the chagrin of many and to the benefit of soccer fans.
Now that so many teams long denied a chance at making into the Euros have one again, games that normally would have meant nothing now mean everything. Take Israel against Wales for example. Israel has performed above expectations in qualifying thus far, and Wales came into the match undefeated. Gareth Bale’s brilliance put Wales atop the group ahead of World Cup qualifiers Bosnia and Belgium and gave Welsh fans hope that Bale will not go down the same path as Gary Speed and Ryan Giggs; world-class players that never had a chance to play in a major tournament. Israel’s hopes aren’t dead either, and giving those nations hope is part of the reason why qualifying has been so much more entertaining this cycle compared to others.
The story of Icelandic soccer is one that would be getting more play if they qualified for the World Cup last year, but it will get its due soon enough now that it looks like Iceland will qualify for France 2016 with ease. How about Poland beating Germany for the first time ever as they attempt to qualify for a second straight Euro tournament? And who doesn’t want to see Norway in the tournament for the first time since 2000, just to see if all the hype around Martin Odegaard is real? If the tournament only had 16 teams in it, very few of those storylines would ever make it past pure fantasy and hope.