We are a matter of weeks away from this summer’s festival of football in France. Squads are being finalised, sweepstakes are being organised at work, and wallcharts are being downloaded to be blue-tacked to walls and displayed on tablets.
As well as your own team’s chances of progressing, it is also a good time to look out for other teams who may do well and surprise a few people in June – and even in July. Everyone remembers what Greece did back in 2004, so are there any candidates in this year’s tournament who could repeat that feat?
They may not be an obvious choice, but Romania certainly seem to tick most of the boxes. If you are looking for an outside bet or just an underdog to watch and root for, they could do a lot worse than backing Anghel Iord?nescu’s team to “do a Greece”, while the odds online are still looking attractive. And here’s why.
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When Greece won the tournament, it wasn’t done by playing sensational, expansive football. It was achieved by being incredibly hard to break down, very well drilled and by taking their chances when they came. What is sometimes forgotten about the 2004 Euro win is that, though they may not have done it in style, Greece certainly didn’t have an easy route. They beat holders France, an in-form Czech Republic and a Portugal side containing Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo – twice.
In qualifying for this year’s tournament, the Romanian squad conceded a miserly 2 goals – less than any other team. On the flip side, they did only score 11 times – but if you are keeping clean sheets, you don’t need a hat full of goals at the other end to get all 3 points. Having one of the best defences in international football meant that, along with England, Italy and Austria, Romania were 1 of only 4 teams not to lose in qualification. In a group which ironically included Greece (but 12 years later), they finished comfortably in second place behind another surprise package, Northern Ireland.
It is easy to dismiss the quality – or lack of, in their group – but to roll out a football cliche, “you can only beat whoever is on the pitch.” Also, since qualification they have continued their impressive form against decidedly better opposition, at least in two out of three of their games. A 2-2 draw away in Italy was followed up by a 1-0 win against Lithuania and a scoreless draw against Spain this spring.
What are their realistic chances?
A look at the groups for the tournament shows that the balls didn’t fall particularly kindly for Romania. The new format – 24 teams up from 16 – means that it is easier than in previous tournaments to at least get out of the group stages. The top 2 progress from each of the 6 groups, with the best 4 third placed teams also going to the last 16. This development has caused both excitement and concern, with some columnists such as The Sun’s Alan Shearer expressing dismay.
Romania have to face hosts France, fancied Switzerland and outsiders Albania, so on paper it looks like a fight for second place between the Romanians and Swiss. That, of course, is assuming that the France that turns up is more like that of 1998 and 2000 as opposed to the one that bowed limply out of the tournaments in 2002, 2008 and 2010.
IMAGE SOURCE: UEFA EURO 2016
Switzerland, though many people’s dark horses, have in many respects failed to live up to their potential. They were decent enough in qualifying but lost convincingly to England twice as well as to Slovenia, and have hardly been pulling up trees since qualification with defeats away in Dublin and at home to Bosnia and Herzegovina. According to the FIFA Coca-Cola world rankings, Switzerland are ranked 14th to Romania’s 19th, but in tournament football where defeats are to be avoided at all costs, Romania would look to be the slightly better bet to progress. After that, it looks rosier still. Even if things don’t play out as expected in the other groups, they should avoid the big guns certainly in the next round, and by then, with momentum and belief behind them, anything could happen. Just ask Greece.
Romanian national football – a brief history
“Solid if unspectacular” probably sums up Romania’s history to date. Along with France, Belgium and Yugoslavia, they were one of only four European teams to take part in the inaugural world cup in 1930. However, they have only qualified 6 times since then, the last time being in France in 1998. Romania’s best performances on the world stage came in France and the previous tournament in the US. Both times, inspired by one of the best players of the last generation anywhere in the world – Gheorghe Hagi – they reached the quarter finals. Both times they went out on penalties, to the Republic of Ireland in France and to Sweden in the US, after having beaten Argentina in the previous round.
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It has been a similar story in the Euros. Romania has only qualified 4 times, and of those have failed to get out of the group stages all but once. That was in 2000 in what would be Hagi’s final tournament, when Romania were beaten 2-0 in the quarters by eventual runners-up Italy.
Their current squad is not filled with stars or players who jump off the page as game changers. The vast majority ply their trade within the Romanian Liga 1, the most notable exception being captain Vlad Chiriche?, who plays for Napoli. Though they lack someone even approaching Hagi’s ability to create something from nothing, they do have something similar to what saw Greece over the line – an incredible work ethic combined with the ability to grind out results when it matters. Their biggest goal threat is Claudiu Keseru, so if Romania can get the best from him while maintaining their solidity at the back, they could have their best tournament to date.
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The Euros – Rich Pickings for the Minnows?
Does a quick look back at the history of the tournament shed any more light on Romania’s chances? The Euro was always considered to be a harder tournament to win than the World Cup mainly because there are no easy games. Any mistake usually proved fatal. This was due to the fact that there were a lot fewer teams actually in the tournament. That number (only 4 for the first 5 tournaments) has risen gradually and this year sees the number increasing to 24 for the first time. Despite that, the Euro has thrown up a surprising number of unfancied teams who have done well. As well as Greece, Denmark won the tournament in 1992 after only qualifying when war torn Yugoslavia were forced to pull out. Four years later, the Czech Republic were unlucky to lose out to Germany in the final via the golden goal.
It is sometimes hard to look past the likes of Spain, France, Germany and even England when it comes to picking a winner for this year’s tournament. History shows though that the unexpected does happen, and like always in football, if a bit of luck goes their way, 2016 could well be the year that Romania “do a Greece”.