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Euro 2016: 6 days to go

Not there just for the ride

Inspired by fairy tales, five Euro debutants will hope to write their own in France. Strong defending will be key to their chances.

PARIS • This is the tournament that spawned unlikely winners like Denmark in 1992 and Greece in 2004.

It is no wonder then that the "minnows" of Euro 2016 - debutants Albania, Iceland, Slovakia, Northern Ireland and Wales - remain optimistic that they can spring surprises and continue their already memorable adventures.

Thanks to the expanded Finals format from 16 teams to 24 teams, more countries were able to make the cut from the qualifying rounds.

Yet, many of these debutant countries would have qualified even if there had been no expansion.

Albania and Iceland, who are also playing in their first major football competition, qualified by being the runners-up in their respective groups. Northern Ireland entered by winning their group against the likes of Romania, Finland and, ironically, Greece.

So, while most of these minnows acknowledge that they face an uphill battle to get out of the group stage, they are eager to make the most of their time on the big stage.


Crests of underdogs (clockwise) Iceland, Wales, Slovakia and Albania. PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Said Albania's Italian coach Gianni de Biasi: "We shall go to France to play football, not as tourists, but we are not making plans. Our group is difficult, but we have proven that we can beat anyone."

For Iceland, the smallest nation to have qualified for a major football tournament with only a 330,000 population base, years of planning and nurturing young players have finally borne fruit.

They changed football from a six-month activity to an all-year sport by investing in artificial pitches and indoor facilities. They set up a coaching system that is the envy of other nations, with 850 Uefa-licensed coaches training youths - the highest number of such coaches per capita in the world.

So while they still insist they are the underdogs, their coach Lars Lagerback said: "We are just a bunch of people who have worked really hard to get into this tournament. We have a very clear idea of how to play our football."

The Greeks' 2004 triumph showed that it is possible to advance deep into the tournament with a sound, well-drilled defence. Not surprisingly, it is a strategy adopted by most of these unheralded teams, as they seek to limit the goals scored by their more illustrious opponents.

Getting goals themselves will prove to be the biggest problem; with the exception of Wales. Their star forward Gareth Bale scored seven goals in qualification. But there are hardly any prolific international goal poachers among these teams.

Not that the coaches mind. They are intent to make their teams hard to break down.

Said Northern Ireland coach Michael O'Neill: "We are going to have to be horrible to play against.

"We are going to be really good without the ball, run further than any other team, drill all the statistics back in their face."

The odds may be stacked against these underdogs, but they need not hark back to Greece's exploits in 2004 to draw inspiration of causing an upset. Leicester City's improbable English Premier League triumph a month ago is ample proof that underdogs can have their day.

Said Wales and Tottenham Hotspur defender Ben Davies: "Leicester proved anything is possible. They came from nowhere and I don't think anyone gave them a chance. It's something we can take inspiration from with Wales.

"We've got to be proud of what we've achieved, but there's no point in going to Euro 2016 and not have a go."

REUTERS, THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 04, 2016, with the headline 'Not there just for the ride'. Print Edition | Subscribe