Fairytales at the Euros

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill celebrates with his team after their Euro 2016 Group F qualifying match against Greece in Belfast.

WE all love fairy tales, don’t we? I have a soft spot for rags-to-riches and comeback from the dead kind of inspirational stories.   

Movies like Slumdog Millionaire, Invictus and Cool Runnings were brilliant! The reason why I have mentioned these movies is because the Euro 2016 is set to see two small countries making the debut in the biggest continental stage. 

I am seriously looking forward to any movies made on these teams it! Hopefully it is not like United Passions, a movie depicting the ‘greatness’ of Sepp Blatter and FIFA. 

Northern Ireland and Iceland have qualified for the Euro 2016 and the people there are still pinching themselves. 

In group A, Iceland and Czech Republic have qualified automatically for the tournament. Iceland was not a favourite as teams like Turkey, Netherlands and the Czechs were expected to fill up the top three spots. 

However, Iceland is currently top in the group while Czech is second. Turkey is in third and a win away from a playoff spot. Netherlands might not qualify for this tournament! 

With players like Wesley Sneijder, Daley Blind, Robin van Persie and Georginio Wijnaldum, it is quite shocking to see Netherlands in fourth. 

Who would have expected players like Glyfi Sigurdsson, Kolbein Sigporsson, Emil Halfredsson and Aron Gunnarsson to impress and help their country qualify for their first ever-big tournament! 

Iceland have won six matches, drawn one and lost one. They lost to the Czech Republic but what astonished me was their double success against the Netherlands. 

They humbled ‘The Oranje’ home and away! Beating them is no easy feat especially against players who are quite established in the European Leagues. 

To be fair, Sigporsson, Sigurdsson and Alfred Finbogasson are regulars with their clubs and can be match winners at times. I will always remember Finbogasson because he scored the winning goal for Olympiakos in their Champions League victory against Arsenal. 

Lars Lagerback, who coached Sweden together with Tommy Soderberg in the 2002 World Cup has done well with the Iceland players and his tactics have been lauded by many tacticians in Europe. He will surely want to prove a point and it will be interesting to see how his charts his game plans against the big guns next year. 

Sigurdsson is their key player with five goals and two assist. The Swansea playmaker is known for his set-pieces and shots and during the qualifiers, he had the most attempts for Iceland. 

He will be they key man but he will also be hoping that the other players would step up during the tournament. 

But the fairy tales did not end there as the luck of the Irish seems to have fallen on Northern Ireland who also confirmed their spot in the Euros after beating 2004 champions Greece in Belfast on Thursday. 

If you ask me to name any Northern Irish names players, I can only think of former goalkeeper Maik Taylor, defender Aaron Hughes, current first choice goalkeeper Roy Carroll, former left-winger Michael Hughes and defender Jonny Evans. 

Before them, George Best, Danny Blanchflower and Keith Gillespie were legendary players in Northern Ireland and world football. 

Now people will be singing the names of Hughes, captain Steven Davis, Kyle Lafferty, Carroll, Gareth McAuley and Chris Brunt. 

Lafferty is their top scorer with seven goals, Davis and Brunt were impeccable in midfield and McAuley and Evans were steady at the back. In a way, the Premier League has certainly benefited the country, as some of their top players are regulars with Premier League clubs. 

Davis, Brunt, McAuley, Evans and Lafferty have been key in Northern Ireland’s progress. For them, this will be their first European tournament and like Iceland, they will want to make an impression too. 

All eyes will also be on Wales as they look to qualify for their first major tournament since 1958. The side led by Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey has to win their match against Bosnia and Herzegovina today to book a spot in the Euros. 

I have a soft spot for smaller teams qualifying for bigger tournaments. However, in most cases, these teams succumb to pressure and do not do well. 

My hope is to see one of these small nations pull of a surprise. Denmark who were a last minute inclusion did it in 1992 and Greece, with their direct football won it in 2004. Can the so-called smaller teams emulate that? I am looking forward to 2016!




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