Being a Northern Ireland fan living in England, one can perhaps imagine how disappointing it is for me to see that most others around me aren’t quite seeing Euro 2016 as a big deal in the same way that I personally do.
England, after all, qualify for most major tournaments, though the last few they have qualified for have either been underwhelming (2006, 2010, 2012) or downright disastrous (2014). Still, the feeling among England fans, even if they don’t openly state it, is that this kind of occasion every two years has become normal; an expected occurrence that fits appropriately alongside their team’s expected collapse under the pressure of media scrutiny.
This isn’t the case for Northern Ireland fans – indeed, it isn’t the case for the fans of most smaller countries that are not accustomed to this kind of opportunity; I imagine fans of Iceland, Albania and of course Wales are feeling a similar sense of anticipation right now. The last time our wee country qualified for anything like this was four years before I was born, in 1986; four years before that we had beaten hosts Spain on route to the World Cup quarter finals. We’re still the smallest nation ever to achieve such a thing – only Trinidad & Tobago were smaller in terms of World Cup participation, though they were unable to win a game or score a goal in 2006.
History, I feel, has been talked about enough. Though it’s something we can look back on with pride, it feels about time that new records were set in stone. And that’s what the next few weeks are all about; putting our generation in the history books as, at the very least, one of twenty-four participants at the 2016 European Championships in France. As for what we can do from here? Who knows… I optimistically think we have a chance of going quite far – but then again I have my fan’s hat on, which automatically disqualifies one from making a completely honest assessment – and at the least, I see us qualifying from our group and making the Last 16 stage. From there, it’s anyone’s game. We certainly fancy the quarter-finals, you can bet on that, and the bigger nations shall know by now that underestimating us will only lead to trouble.
Perhaps that may work against us. We’ll have to show even deeper qualities than what has already been on show during qualification. On that topic, I need to place on record here my frustration with a certain narrative being put out there in mainstream sports media. The narrative is that the expansion of the Euro’s from 16 to 24 teams has allowed teams such as Northern Ireland, Iceland, and Wales to qualify. I’ve been hearing this narrative primarily from BBC sports pundits for a number of months now, but it clearly overlooks the facts.
The fact is, Northern Ireland won their group. Again, they WON THEIR GROUP. Iceland narrowly missed out on top spot in their group, but did beat top seeds the Netherlands home and away in their qualification campaign. Similarly, Wales beat top seeds Belgium and went on a similar run which almost saw them win their group.
My point is simple: even if only 16 teams had qualified for this year’s tournament, Northern Ireland would have been one of them, likely Iceland and Wales too. No, the expanded competition is not to suit the smaller nations like us, as this mainstream narrative would have you believe. It is, in fact, to create a larger safety net for the bigger nations through which to qualify. Ironically, the Netherlands couldn’t take advantage of said expansion; the 2014 World Cup semi-finalists slumped to fourth in their group and couldn’t even manage a consolation play-off spot.
So let’s not kid ourselves that this expansion was to do smaller nations like us a favour; to say it was, is a disservice to a Northern Ireland team that won their group and have been on a 12-match unbeaten run since.
Anyway, this is also to say there’s been a lot written and spoken about Euro 2016 in sports media over the past few months, and I’m sure there will be much more to come. I don’t want to spend any more time making predictions or speculating on what the tournament has in store. Rest assured it’s going to be a BIG occasion for all of us. The time for talking is almost finished. Now I intend to go and enjoy it.
My pick to win Euro 2016: Belgium (narrowly beating Northern Ireland in a hotly contested final… perhaps)