Zlatan Ibrahimovic is not afraid – at least not when he is on a football pitch. The Swede, who once described himself as God, always sees himself as the favourite – but the superstar from Paris St. Germain is also continually in danger of having to endure bitter disappointment. After missing out on a place at the 2014 World Cup by losing in the play-offs to Portugal, there is a real threat that he will also fail to make it to EURO 2016. After losing out two years ago, he proclaimed: “A World Cup without me is not worth watching.” He will think the same about the European Championships but there is still a chance of him being there.
To do so Sweden has to overcome Denmark, their biggest Scandinavian rivals, in the play-offs (12 - 14 November and 15 - 17 November). At least Ibrahimovic has been spared the prospect of facing Bosnia as his father’s home country has been drawn against Ireland in the battle to secure one of the four remaining EURO 2016 berths. In the other two ties, Slovenia have been pitched against Ukraine and Norway will take on Hungary. The German Bernd Storck, the Hungarian national coach, has bolstered his coaching staff specifically for the play-off duels against Norway by bringing in the former German star Andreas Möller. He will join fellow countryman Holger Gehege. “I have known Bernd since our time together at Borussia Dortmund where we also won the DFB Cup. And I got to know Holger Gehrke when I was at Schalke as he was Huub Stevens’ assistant. We all know each other really well and I’m sure we’ll combine well together. Perhaps we’ll stir the team to greater things,” said Möller who recently turned 48.
More than eighty per cent of the participants are known. Twenty of the 24 nations have clinched their places and can sit back and watch the play-offs. Already in the draw in Paris on 12 December to determine the six groups for the EURO 2016 are hosts France, who as usual were not required to qualify, the Czech Republic, Belgium, Spain, Germany, Poland, England, Switzerland, Romania, Austria, Russia, Italy, Croatia, Portugal, Turkey plus the newcomers to the finals Albania, Island, Wales, Slovakia and Northern Ireland.
The Netherlands, the 1988 champions, spectacularly failed to qualify after only coming fourth in their group. However they are not the only former European champions to fall by the wayside. Though they attracted less attention, even more abject was Greece. The 2004 winners, who participated at the 2014 World Cup, finished last in Group F behind even the Faroe Islands.
In contrast to their neighbours, the qualifying competition has ended on a high note for Belgium. They have overtaken Argentina and Germany to top the world rankings.
The qualifying round also resulted in a big comeback for British football – a 3-0 win in the final match against Lithuania meant that England was the only team to end qualifying with a 100 per cent record. Wales and Northern Ireland have made it to the finals for the very first time. Both teams though have World Cup finals experience – but it is only a distant memory.
The fact that five countries will be making their EURO debuts is something UEFA officials intended from the outset. It fulfils a promise made by the governing body’s president Michel Platini to the smaller national associations when expanding the EURO finals from 16 to 24 teams. Like in the qualifying phase, the increase in numbers will mean a third place in the group will suffice for some participants to advance to the next round at the finals. The best four of the six teams placing third in the groups will progress to the quarterfinals in France. At present Platini, who captained France to the European Championships title on home soil in 1984, has been provisionally banned for his alleged involvement in the FIFA scandal and is going through troubled times ahead of the big football festival in his home country.
It is not the case for Ibrahimovic. The Paris St. Germain star wants to profit from Platini’s promise and the associated increase in numbers and qualify at the last moment for the tournament in his new sporting home. After all the 34-year old is a European Championships record holder – Ibrahimovic was the first footballer to score at least two goals at three different tournaments: 2004, 2008 and 2012.