Paris (AFP) – Cristiano Ronaldo scored twice for Portugal before becoming the last of the superstars to arrive in France for Friday’s start of the European Championship finals.
With the host nation under a state of emergency over feared terror attacks, strict security has greeted Ronaldo and other headline players as well as the hundreds of thousands of foreign fans gathering for the month-long, 51-match fiesta.
France launch the tournament with a Group A game against Romania on Friday at the Stade de France, which was one of the targets of the November 13 attacks last year.
And Germany defender Jonas Hector, who was playing for the world champions in Paris on the night of the attacks which killed 130 people, admitted security concerns were a distraction.
“It’s at the back of your mind, of course, but primarily it comes down to football and enjoyment of the game,” said Hector.
“It’s up to the individual whether they come to the stadium or not, anyone who does will clearly really want to be there.”
Ronaldo scored twice in a 45-minute appearance for Portugal in their 7-0 win over Estonia on Wednesday night, their final match before their first Group F game next Tuesday against Iceland.
The three-time World Player of the Year, looking to add a first international trophy to his accolades, banished doubts over his fitness with his two-goal display in Lisbon that allowed Portugal to head for France full of confidence. While Portugal are dark horses for this year’s Euros, a resurgence in form of key attacking players marks them as an interesting option for some of the best Euro 2016 free bets available with bookmakers for this tournament.
Ronaldo himself is quietly optimistic for the Euros:
“It has been a long season,” he said.
“I would have liked to have played more tonight, but I need to hold back and give others playing time.
“I feel good. There is still a week to go. What I want is a good start to the Euros and an even better finish. It is a difficult competition to win, you have to go step by step.”
– Rashford’s Euro dream –
There is also much focus on France, looking to add a new triumph on home territory after their triumphs in the 1984 European Championship and 1998 World Cup.
Coach Didier Deschamps, captain of the 1998 side, is charged with lifting the spirits of a nation beset by social unrest and fears of a repeat of the attacks in Paris last November.
France has ramped up security, but two million visitors are expected 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 opening game and July 10 final.
Deschamps’ preparations have been further disrupted by accusations of racism from Real Madrid star Karim Benzema after he was excluded from the squad over an investigation into his role in a sextape blackmail scandal.
The tournament 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.
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, of Austria.
“It doesn’t seem real,” 18-year-old Rashford said of his surprise inclusion just four months after making his Manchester United debut.
“To be here now is just amazing. For it to be in my hands to go out and help the country is an amazing feeling.”
Only eight of the 24 teams will be eliminated in the group stage, giving a host of less-fancied nations a chance to shine on the big stage.
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.
“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.”
– No limits for Spain –
At the other end of the spectrum, Spain are seeking to put a desperate World Cup showing two years ago firmly behind them to win an unprecedented third straight Euros.
However, their preparation was blighted by a 1-0 defeat at home to Georgia, ranked 137 in the world, on Tuesday.
“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.
Three-time world champions Italy also have limited expectations, but that didn’t dissuade a raucous welcome from hundreds of fans upon their arrival in the southern city of Montpellier on Wednesday.
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