By: Andy Schooler
We bring you the lowdown on Euro 2016 qualifying, which starts this weekend, and look ahead to the 24-team finals in France.
After a World Cup described by many as the best ever earlier this year, the countdown to the next major international tournament – Euro 2016 – gets under way this weekend.
The finals have been expanded from 16 to 24 teams, while there are also numerous changes to the qualification format.
So, if you have rediscovered your appetite for international football or if you simply want to learn more about the tournament, our Andy Schooler brings you all you need to know ahead of Sunday’s opening qualification matches.
A total of 53 teams will compete in qualifying with 23 places up for grabs in the 2016 finals in France. They include Gibraltar, the newest members of UEFA, who will be playing their first competitive international when they face Poland this weekend.
The hosts qualify automatically for what will be the biggest European Championships in history, UEFA having taken the decision to expand from 16 to 24 teams.
Some, including UEFA president Michel Platini, see it as a positive that some of the smaller nations – Scotland and Wales among them – now have a better chance to take their seat at the top table. Scotland last reached a major tournament in 1998, while Wales have not been at one since 1958.
However, critics say the quality of what has always been a highly-competitive tournament will be diluted as a result.
The changes mean that the top two in each of the nine qualifying groups will automatically reach the finals, plus the team with the best record of those finishing third. The other eight third-placed teams will compete in two-legged play-offs to determine the last four qualifiers.
Another key change is in the scheduling of the matches.
Each ‘round’ of group matches will now be played over three days. In the first round this coming week, that will be Sunday, Monday and Tuesday – three different groups play on each day. Other rounds will be played from Thursday to Saturday and Friday to Sunday.
Finally, in a move mirroring the Europa League, kick-off times are now set by UEFA and won’t be decided by local football associations or broadcasters. Matches will start at either 1700 or 1945 UK time.
The full group draw, made back in February, is as follows:
Group A: Netherlands, Czech Republic Turkey, Latvia, Iceland, Kazakhstan
Group B: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Belgium, Israel, Wales, Cyprus, Andorra
Group C: Spain, Ukraine, Slovakia, Belarus, FYR Macedonia, Luxembourg
Group D: Germany, Republic of Ireland, Poland, Scotland, Georgia, Gibraltar
Group E: England, Switzerland, Slovenia, Estonia, Lithuania, San Marino
Group F: Greece, Hungary, Romania, Finland, Northern Ireland, Faroe Islands
Group G: Russia, Sweden, Austria, Montenegro, Moldova, Liechtenstein
Group H: Italy, Croatia, Norway, Bulgaria, Azerbaijan, Malta
Group I: Portugal, Denmark, Serbia, Armenia, Albania
Twenty-four qualifiers mean the 2016 European Championships in France will be the biggest yet.
The extra teams mean a longer tournament. Whereas previous European Championships have lasted just three weeks, the 2016 version will – like the World Cup – take a month to complete. It will start on June 10 and finish on July 10.
Sep 7 2014 – Qualifying begins
Oct 13 2015 – Final qualifying group matches
Nov 12-17 2015 – Play-offs
Mar 2015 – Ticket sales begin
Dec 12 2015 – Finals draw
Jun 10 2016 – Finals begin
Jul 10 2016 – Euro 2016 final
Only eight of the 24 will be eliminated in the group phase with the top two in each group plus the four best third-placed teams progressing to the last-16 knockout stage – for those old enough to remember, the format is reminiscent of the one used at the Italia 90 World Cup.
Which third-placed team slots in where in the last-16 draw is already set but is subject to a pretty complicated explanation – details can be found in the official tournament regulations.
As was the case for the 1998 World Cup, the final will take place in the Stade de France in Paris, the largest of the 10 venues with a capacity of 80,000.
The semi-finals will take place in Lyon and Marseille which, along with Lille, are the other stadia which hold more than 50,000.
The capital will also stage matches at Paris Saint-Germain’s Parc des Princes ground, while Bordeaux, Lens, Nice, Saint-Etienne and Toulouse are the other cities chosen to host games.
As far as tickets are concerned, corporate hospitality sales are already under way. However, normal tickets will not go on sale until March.
World Cup winners Germany start qualifying as the favourites to win Euro 2016 – Sky Bet have them at 3/1.
Hosts France are 5/1 shots with defending champions Spain next at 11/2.
Then come the Netherlands at 10/1, Belgium at 11/1 and Italy at 12/1.
Despite their miserable World Cup campaign, England are seventh favourites at 14/1 and are also 8/13 to finish atop their qualifying group.
Sky Bet also offer 100/1 that the five ‘home’ nations – England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland – all qualify.
All the firm’s odds on the tournament can be found on the Sky Bet website.