“Week of Football” is the new format for the qualification process for the 2016 UEFA European Championship. The qualifying matches no longer take place on one day but spread out over a week. The European Football Association (UEFA) believe the new regulation promises better marketing opportunities. Consequently football fans have to get used to Germany, for instance, playing on Sunday, England on Monday and Italy only on Tuesday. It needs to prepare also for an alleged heavyweight such as Portugal suffering a bitter defeat at the hands of Albania.
The Portuguese lost 1-0 to the 70th-ranked team at home in Aveiro, thus undercutting by far even the disappointing elimination in the first round of the World Cup. In Brazil the much chided World Football Player of the Year, Cristiano Ronaldo, was not to blame; this time “CR7” was missing due to a knee-injury, but that’s hardly an explanation for the “biggest disgrace in the national team’s history” (newspaper “A Bola”). The spectators acknowledged the disgrace with loud booing and waved white handkerchiefs. The discussions about coach Paulo Bento started afresh, especially after he had been confirmed by the Portuguese Association as the strong man despite the frustrating World Cup campaign.
Deposed 2010 World Cup champions Spain had also rejected a change of coach after elimination in the first round. Vicente del Bosque, under whose leadership “La Roja” had won the World Cup and European title, remained to initiate a new beginning after stars such as Xavi and Xabi Alonso retired. Contrary to their Portuguese neighbours, the Spaniards superiorly managed their task with 5-1 against Macedonia at the start of Group C. Sergio Ramos, Paco Alcacer, Sergio Busquets, David Silva and Pedro scored the goals. Considering their other opponents, Ukraine, Slovakia, Belarus and Luxembourg, the ticket to the finals in France should be a simple formality.
The new system, with the two best teams in the group qualifying directly for the finals, should also bring relief to England, the motherland of football. Particularly as the “Three Lions” mastered their first competitive task brilliantly, 76 days after elimination in the first round of the World Cup. England won the top match in Group E 2-0 in Switzerland.
“I have never lost my trust in the team. I am impressed by how they played”, said team manager Roy Hodgson after his travel to the past. The now 67-year-old had coached the Swiss from 1992 to 1995, a job now held by Vladimir Petkovic. As the successor to Ottmar Hitzfeld the Bosnian has inherited a tough task, as proven by the opening defeat. Danny Welbeck scored the two goals for the team led by new England captain Wayne Rooney. The youngster had just been rejected by Manchester United’s new coach Louis van Gaal and transferred to Arsenal FC for 20 million Euros.
Van Gaal, who was allowed to buy new players for the United record of 195 million Euros in the summer, led the Netherlands to third place at the World Cup. His successor is Guus Hiddink, who coached Oranje until 1998 and directed them into the World Cup semi-finals. His comeback was unsuccessful, with the Dutch losing 2-0 (2-0) to four-time World Cup champions Italy in a friendly. But the European Championship qualification should hardly be endangered considering their opponents in Group A are Czech Republic, Turkey, Iceland, Latvia and Kazakhstan.
Poland recorded the highest win in the opening round of the European Championship qualification, due mainly to a lack of quality opposition from footballing midget Gibraltar. Bundesliga record scorer Robert Lewandowski contributed four goals to the 7-0 victory. Consequently the 2012 European Championship hosts are top of the table in Group D prior to the encounter with World Cup champions Germany in Warsaw on October 11.
The DFB team and Ireland both ensured three points, both winning 2-1 -- Germany against Scotland and Ireland in Georgia.
In addition to Lewandowski, further Bundesliga professionals impressed in the international matches. Munich’s Pierre-Emile Höjbjerg initiated the change during Denmark’s 2-1 over Armenia in the Portugal Group I. Dortmund’s Henrikh Mkhitarian had scored to notch a lead for the East Europeans. Höjbjerg’s Bayern team-mate David Alaba scored first for Austria in the 1-1 draw with Sweden. The Scandinavians might be the toughest competitors for Austria on the road to the 2016 European Championship in France alongside 2018 World Cup hosts Russia, who simply fulfilled their obligations with a 4-0 win over Liechtenstein.
The counterpart of the European Championship is in South America where the Copa America will take place next year in Chile. Carlos Dunga has a year to free record-winning World Cup champions Brazil from the World Cup trauma of heavy defeats against Germany (1-7) and the Netherlands (0-3). The new beginning was successful with a 1-0 against Colombia in Miami, Florida, also because young star Neymar has returned and immediately scored the winner from a free kick.
Neymar after all. The World Cup dream of the exceptional technician had been shattered during the quarter-final win over Colombia after a crude foul by Camilo Zuniga, causing a broken lumbar vertebrae. The incident was dispelled with a reconciliatory gesture before the kick-off; afterwards Dunga raved over the playing arts of his new captain. “He makes the most difficult things look easy”, said the old and new head coach. Dunga’s first engagement with the Selecao ended with a loss to the Netherlands at the 2010 World Cup. He wants to do better the second time around.