Euro 2020 countdown starts after mega-group whets appetite
BUCHAREST – "What was the chance of that," or variations of it – in German, French and Portuguese - would have been muttered quietly in Bucharest's Romexpo when the Euro 2020 draw produced one of the most thrilling groups ever seen at a major finals.
Other viewers would have simply been thrilled that the group stage at next year's multi-venue European Championships, often a procession for the strongest nations, would provide instant intrigue, drama and matches of the highest quality.
The chance of Germany, hosting all three of their games in Munich, World Cup winners France and European title holders Portugal meeting was actually as high as one in 20, or 5 per cent.
That is unlikely to be of much interest to coaches Joachim Loew, Didier Deschamps and Fernando Santos but there is no denying the Euros, just six months away, are now coming into sharp focus.
"My anticipation for the tournament has now increased again because Portugal and France are super draws," said Loew. "I'm happy. Our fans can be happy about it."
The final team in the group will come through the play-offs with the toughest potential opponent being Iceland.
Nonetheless, all three of the big guns will expect to progress to the last 16 even if one - like Portugal en route to winning in 2016 – will do so in third place.
Four of the six third-placed sides will progress with those in the other groups awaiting a play-off winner (C: Netherlands, Ukraine, Austria; D: England, Croatia, Czech Republic; E: Spain, Sweden, Poland) unable yet to fully weigh up their chances.
Finland coach Markku Kanerva declared himself "very satisfied" to meet Denmark, Russia and world number one Belgium in Group B for the Nordic nation's debut at a major finals.
"If you think about travelling to Copenhagen or St Petersburg, it's perfect for our fans," he said.
Italy headline Group A and have the honour of opening the competition on June 12 in Rome against Turkey but with Switzerland and Wales, including Gareth Bale and Turin-based Aaron Ramsey to come, were handed the hardest draw outside Germany.
Spain, looking to win a third continental title in four editions, will also give due respect to Poland with Bayern Munich star Robert Lewandowski and Sweden, World Cup quarter-finalists in 2018 despite being in the post-Zlatan Ibrahimovic era.
"You can't say we're favourites – rather, we're in a group of favourites, given what the national team have won despite our most recent tournament performances," said Luis Enrique, who has returned to the Spain bench after resigning in summer to care for his terminally ill daughter.
Three-and-a-half weeks after the Rome opener, attention will turn to London for the semi-finals and final with England looking to end a trophy drought dating from 1966.
After reaching the World Cup last four – where they lost to Croatia as underdogs – Gareth Southgate's side will be expected to go at least one better at home.
"We have to accept that expectations have changed from where we were," the BBC quoted the manager as saying.
"We are very critical of ourselves. We would rather be a team that are fancied than a team with no chance."
Preparations will begin rapidly for events both on and off the pitch at the 12 hosting venues.
European governing body UEFA expressed confidence the tournament would be free of racism despite regular incidents plaguing the Italian Serie A and Sweden's qualifier in Bucharest being stopped due to the racist behaviour of Romanian home fans.
Bulgaria, Hungary and Serbia, potential finalists through the play-offs, have also been sanctioned for racism at internationals this year while a handful of other countries have had clubs punished.
But Giorgio Marchetti, UEFA deputy general secretary, does not fear racism at the tournament as he told a pre-draw briefing: "In our experience, the Euro has always been a very festive event, at least within the stadiums.
"We are confident that this particular atmosphere will take priority over stupid and sometimes criminal things that unfortunately from time to time happen in football."
And the issue of security, highlighted by the terrorist attack which killed two people in London on Friday, remains ever-present.
Euro 2016 in France took place in the presence of heavily armed security forces in light of the 2015 Paris attacks and UEFA events chief Martin Kallen admitted coordination between host countries would be an additional challenge.
However, he maintained: "We are confident that all the authorities that are responsible for it will do their best to guarantee the safety of all the spectators. So from that point, I am not so worried."DPA