Euro 2016

Euro 2016: Plenty at stake upon kick-off

The Stade de France in Saint-Denis, north of Paris, will be the venue of tonight's opening match between hosts France and Romania. The curtain-raiser will be the first of 51 matches in 31 days.
The Stade de France in Saint-Denis, north of Paris, will be the venue of tonight's opening match between hosts France and Romania. The curtain-raiser will be the first of 51 matches in 31 days.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Football feast will test national security even as expanded format has potential to excite

PARIS • Bigger than ever, the European Championship kicks off in Paris today with a four-week feast of football that promises to elevate the game above the corruption scandals and security fears that have overshadowed its build-up.

All eyes will be on hosts France when they get the ball rolling against Romania at the Stade de France - 210 days after suicide bombers at the same venue triggered a night of horror across the capital which killed 130 people.

It should have been a proud moment for Michel Platini, the former president of European football's governing body Uefa.

The man who inspired his country's 1984 title on home soil achieved his wish of expanding the tournament to a record 24 nations.

But a four-year ban, handed down after he became engulfed in the Fifa corruption scandal that has rocked the sport, means his presence at the tournament will be in a purely unofficial capacity.

Against such a backdrop it can only be hoped that the tournament, the first since the sleaze surfaced last year and the last with a single host before it goes continent-wide in 2020, can deliver some memorable moments on the pitch.

It certainly has the potential to do so, with 51 matches in 31 days spread across France.

Lowly qualifiers will aim to show they belong and vindicate Platini's brainchild, criticised by some as substituting quality for quantity.

The establishment should prove again, however, that Greece's unlikely triumph in 2004 was an anomaly.

Spain retained the title four years ago and will again be among the favourites, although reigning World Cup champions Germany, 2012 runners-up Italy, France and a resurgent England will all fancy their chances.

"Playing to a decent standard sometimes isn't enough. We've got to be really ruthless at both ends of the pitch," England goalkeeper Joe Hart observed yesterday.

Northern Ireland, Albania, Iceland, Slovakia and Wales are all appearing for the first time in the tournament, which is second only to the World Cup in terms of prestige and not too far behind in quality.

"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, but we also want to give a good account of ourselves."

For Spain's old guard, such as Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos, Euro 2016 could be their last hurrah after the disappointment of the Brazil World Cup two years ago.

And, with old sage Vicente del Bosque at the helm, they will take some stopping.

"We shouldn't set any limits," said del Bosque this week. "We can't say if we get to the semi-finals we will be happy, we need to aspire to win it."

Germany will be targeting a first Euro title in 20 years, while England seek their first international success since the 1966 World Cup.

One consequence of the enlarged format means only eight teams will be eliminated from the six initial groups of four, with even third place likely to seal a last-16 spot.

Spain's group looks the toughest, with the Czech Republic, Turkey and Croatia, while Italy will also have to be on their guard against a dangerous-looking Belgium, Republic of Ireland and Sweden, who in Zlatan Ibrahimovic have one of the tournament's A-listers.

Others vying for the limelight include Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo, who had a disappointing World Cup and is running out of time to claim a first title for his country.

"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," he said.

Debutants Iceland's appearance will add novelty value although, having finished above the Netherlands in qualifying, they will need to be taken seriously by group rivals Portugal, Austria and Hungary.

Wales, too, will not just be making up the numbers if talisman Gareth Bale, who has led them to their first finals since the 1958 World Cup, is fit and firing.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 10, 2016, with the headline 'Plenty at stake upon kick-off'. Print Edition | Subscribe