Small teams hit the big time

Soccer, Fans

WEEKEND WARRIORS

Say what you will of UEFA boss Michel Platini – currently suspended for 90 days from all football-related activities, pending investigation into corruption allegations – but the Frenchman’s bold actions have changed the face of football in Europe. One look over this weekend’s results in the European Championship Qualifiers is enough to convince you of the fact. Platini‘s move to extend the number of participants to 24 has opened up the whole continent to the world of football. It’s no longer just the usual suspects that make the cut.

Previously, countries like Wales, Northern Ireland or Austria were just “the best of the rest”. Good teams, just not good enough to make it all the way. Always hopeful before the Qualifiers but always missing out on the actual tournament. Now they, along with nations that didn’t even dare to dream of the Finals (such as Iceland or Albania), have booked their tickets to France 2016. That’s a first for all those mentioned – except Austria, who was co-host in 2008 and thus qualified by default for their only European Championship presence ever. And yet I’m not talking Andorra and Malta here. These are countries with a wonderful football tradition and a host of really good players.

George Best, one of the greatest footballers ever, was – unfortunately for him – Northern Irish. He never got the chance to live the excitement of an international tournament. Neither did Welshman Ian Rush, despite being Liverpool‘s all-time leading goalscorer, with no less than 346 goals. Nor, to mention current players, Gareth Bale, also Welsh. Valued at $90 million and making $24 million per season at Real Madrid, Bale said qualifying for the European Championship with Wales is on par with winning the Champions League with Real.

And what about Albania? They thrashed Armenia 3-0 away on Saturday and are heading for France 2016. Captain Lorik Cana probably thought he’d hang up his boots long before he’d get the chance to play for his country in a major tournament. A cup winner both in Italy, with Lazio, and France, with Paris St. Germain, Cana will now get the chance to lead his fellow Albanians on the field in a European Championship.

History was written this weekend, football fans. And it wouldn’t have been possible without Michel Platini‘s vision of a larger football family. The likes of Iceland and Albania would have never made it to the Finals in the old days. Because they were doomed from the start of the Qualifiers. The truth may hurt, but the truth is these teams weren’t playing for anything other than international match experience. They were there just because they were required to be. Always cannon fodder for European powerhouses such as – let’s say – Netherlands. The Dutch main national team had never lost to Iceland. An amateur Dutch side narrowly lost in 1961 and other than a draw in 1981, Netherlands had won all encounters with the northern country. Well, they’ll certainly remember these qualifiers, as they lost both games against the Icelanders.

There are many factors at play in the sudden success of these “lesser” teams. But I’m certain one of them is motivation. Knowing that there are more places available at the big boys’ table changes things. You’re not playing just for international match experience anymore. Regardless of your name, you now stand a real chance to reach the European Championship. Well, unless you’re Gibraltar. It might take a while for them.

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