Euro 2016 football championships: Ten things to watch from the tournament in France

1. Europe’s got talent
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A bumper 24 teams from the continent will be on show in France, meaning an unprecedented level of stars are on show.

Besides Paul Pogba, Andres Iniesta, Giorgio Chiellini and Thomas Muller from the bigger nations, there will be plenty of players worth watching from the smaller nations.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic plays after missing out on the last World Cup with Sweden, as does Arda Turan with Turkey and Robert Lewandowski with Poland.

David Alaba will play in a rare tournament for Austria and Gareth Bale will catch the eye for Wales.

2. Belgium v Italy

It used to be easier to win the World Cup than the European championship, such was the difficulty of the group stage.

Condensed formats meant qualification was a feat in itself while progressing to the knock-out stages was a cause for wild celebration.

In 2008, The Netherlands, Italy, France and Romania were pitted together while one of the greatest Groups of Death occurred in 2000 with England, Germany, Portugal and Romania.

However, as the expansion to 24 teams diluted the product, three teams can now progress from each group, putting an end to the cut-throat survivalism of the tournament.

For this reason, the group E clash between world no.2 Belgium and four-time world champions Italy is the most eagerly anticipated.

Belgium are many people’s pick to win a first title, while Italy are a great bet to reach the final – or go home after the group stage.

It’s a rare clash of the titans for the early stages of the tournament in the new format and one to savour.

3. Iceland

Never before has a nation this small been represented at a tournament so large. The tiny Scandinavian country will be raring to go at the Euros in what many regard as the weakest group – alongside Hungary, Portugal and Austria – presenting a real chance of progression.

If they continue on their incredible run, it may not just be Bjork, geysers, volcanoes and Sigur Ros that people associate with Iceland, but also a heroic football team.

Can Cristiano Ronaldo replicate his club form in France? Photo: Getty Images

4. Cristiano Ronaldo.

He’s won everything at club level, but nothing with his country and now it’s time to deliver for Portugal.

He is undoubtedly one of the greatest, but there is long held criticism that Ronaldo goes missing during crucial international tournaments.

Of his 58 goals for his country, just seven have come in major competitions. A more notable absence though is his tormenting attacking play which features too rarely in the biggest games.

There is a sense of optimism surrounding the Portuguese team and with good reason. A healthy blend of experience, up and comers, exciting players and a soft group makes for realistic hopes of progress, but much of that will depend on their superstar, supermodel striker.

If he fires and finally lights up in the biggest games, then there’s a chance the flattering bronze statue in his native Madeira will be replicated all over Portugal, and perhaps Petersham too.

5. England

Yes, yes, keep the plane’s engines running, the Three Lions won’t be in France for long.

The jokes are great and here’s hoping we can use them once more. But sadly for others, there’s a real chance England might finally break their tournament drought.

They qualified with a perfect record, and are playing attractive football in a team that doesn’t hinge on individuals. If they can resist the urge to stumble in an easy group, there might be something to celebrate for long-suffering fans.

6. Debutants

Alongside Iceland are four newcomers in what makes this one of the most interesting major football tournament in recent years.

Albania, Slovakia, Northern Ireland and Wales make their entrance and with much interest. Not only does it mean we’ll get to see Marek Hamsik and Bale in major tournaments but there’s a strong likelihood at least one of these five nations will progress to the knock-out stages. From there, anything can happen.

One to watch: Switzerland midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri. Photo: Reuters

7. The politics

Forget Eurovision bloc voting, this is where politics become compelling. Little brother goes against big brother when England face Wales, old foes Austria and Hungary go head-to-head, but it’s in group B where things can turn sour, where Germany and Poland square off in a match that will could test the security measures.

The long memories of Croatians and Turks serves as a tense backdrop to their group D match, while France and Romanian relations soured in recent years with the mass deportation of nationals.

The game to watch however, is Switzerland v Albania – a battle of allegiances akin to the Socceroos’ clash with Croatia in 2006.

Among Switzerland’s squad of 23 are six Albanians, many of whom rejected calls to play for their ancestral home.

Among those are Stoke’s Xherdan Shaqiri, former Lazio star Valon Behrami and new Arsenal signing Granit Xhaka. All of this and that’s just the group stage.

8. The players you don’t know now, but will later

Marcus Rashford might be stealing the headlines but there are plenty of other young gems that will be unearthed during this tournament.

There’s France’s Kingsley Coman, “Russia’s Ronaldo” in 19-year-old attacking midfielder Aleksandr Golovin – who’s already scored two goals in his first three internationals – one of Germany’s most exciting prospect in years in winger Leroy Sane and the teenager that has Croatians optimistic about their future, Ante Coric.

Nicolae Stanciu could follow Ghoerghe Hagi and Adrian Mutu as a brilliant Romanian attacking midfielder, while it’s been a long time since Italy developed an exciting winger like Federico Bernadeschi.

The classy 21-year-old Turkish midfielder, Ozan Tufan, has all the traits to become a star and has already amassed more international caps than he has years on this earth.

Baptism of fire: England bolter Marcus Rashford. Photo: Getty Images

9. Get comfortable watching France

Because they’ll likely go a long, long way. They enter with form, quality and they’ve already had their race-row over and done with before the start of a tournament.

The hosts were blessed with an easy draw and path to the semi-finals. If all goes their way, the French will be given a lengthy rest between the group and knock-out stages.

That’s all before a look at history which bodes well for Les Bleus, having won two major tournaments on home soil before.

Familiar face: Marc Janko. Photo: Getty Images

10. There’s an Australian touch

No, not like Eurovision. The A-League will have two representatives in France with Melbourne City’s Aaron Hughes lining up for Northern Ireland and former Sydney FC marquee Marc Janko spearheading Austria’s attack.

There could have been two more had Filip Holosko kept his place for Slovakia and Besart Berisha earned a surprise recall for Albania.

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