Some soccer fans claim that UEFA’s European Championship, and not the World Cup, is soccer’s most prestigious tournament. While any tournament without the South American powers cannot be elevated to such an exalted status, Saturday’s group stage draw for Euro 2016 shows why the tournament is so highly regarded.
For two nations recently ascended to the upper echelons of the sport, this tournament is an opportunity to show that their recent success is not a fluke, but rather the beginning of placing their name near or alongside Spain, Germany, and Europe’s other continental powers.
Belgium was considered an up-and-coming team in the 2014 World Cup, and they were even some experts’ dark horse pick to win the tournament. While they did not make it quite that far, the Belgians showed promise with their very young talent and currently sit atop the world rankings. With players earning paychecks from top teams in different leagues around Europe, Belgium next to Germany may have the most overall talent of any team in this tournament.
SEE MORE: Breaking down the Euro 2016 draw.
However, the draw did them no favors by placing them in Group E. The name that stands out the most is Italy, who people automatically assume will be the toughest test for Belgium. Italy has tried to rebuild its identity and style in the wake of a disastrous 2014 World Cup performance, and with a number of quality players and veteran talents, Antonio Conte’s will be a dangerous team. Consider four years ago when Italy, in Euro 2012, was also in a state of flux, yet was still able to finish runner-up to Spain.
Also in the group is a Sweden team that lacks overall talent but has Zlatan Ibrahimović, who even at 34 is dominant enough to help propel his team into the knockout rounds. Factor in a good Ireland team, and Belgium will be challenged to finish atop the group.
While they are not favorites to win this tournament, Wales are a team that have climbed the world rankings. Led by the smart tactics of Chris Coleman, a dominate midfield led by Gareth Bale, and a solid defense, Wales have placed as high as 11th in the world. Standing in their way of advancing from Group B, however, is England. While we do not know exactly what kind of England team will show for this tournament, they were unbeaten in qualifying. In addition, the group contains a Slovakia team that has some excellent talent and is good enough to advance from the group. Can Wales, without top notch forwards and with a squad making its first group stage appearance in a major tournament, rely on its strengths to escape Group B?
Both Belgium and Wales have earned the accolades given to them for building excellent national teams; Euro 2016 will show if those accolades were misplaced, or it will be the start of something special.
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