The knockout stages of the 2016 European Championships begin today following what has been an eventful first round of group stage play. It has been an especially memorable tournament for the countries of Albania, Wales, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Hungary, and Iceland, all of whom who are either competing in the competition for the first time ever in their nation’s history, or are competing for the first time after years of failure to qualify for the tournament.
Despite not qualifying for the second round out of group A, Albania’s exit from Euro 2016 was not met with disappointment, but rather excitement following the country’s first ever-participation at a European Championship. After scoring their first goal in a major tournament which helped them also secure their first ever win in a European championship, the team were greeted as heroes in their return to Albania, being greeted by Prime Minister Edi Rama at Tirana International airport before boarding an open-top bus which took them to a formal red-carpet ceremony in front of thousands of home fans and supporters. There is much optimism over the future of this team, as they will look to retain many of their key players to make a run at competing in the 2020, whose host country has yet to be determined.
Wales, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Hungary, and Iceland have all booked their spots in the knockout rounds of tournament play, following what can only be described as passionate play throughout the group stages, with many of them needing to grind out results on the final day of group play to secure their spot in the second round. Competing in their first ever European championships, Wales managed to qualify first out of Group B, beating out the likes of England, Slovakia, and Russia on the back of inspired play from their captain and leader, Gareth Bale, who is tied atop tournament scoring charts with 3 goals. It really has been a collective group effort for Wales; who have the highest number of goals per game with 2 per match, while also receiving plenty of defensive support through their anchor, Ashley Williams. The midfield has also managed to have great link-up play with their strikers, reflected in through the work of Aaron Ramsey leading the competition in assists.
In Group C, Northern Ireland made it out of the group stages by way of goal difference, which is still quite a feat considering they were grouped with world champions Germany, as well as European Championship veterans Poland. Though they fail to register any players leading in statistical category of the tournament, this is still an inspired team the is led by captain Will Grigg, whom Northern Irish fans claim is always on fire. While this team will look to continue this inspired play into the second round of action, they can look forward to continual support from the Northern Irish faithful, whom have shown some of the most passion throughout the tournament.
Speaking of passionate fans, the Republic of Ireland and Icelandic fans have fully backed their teams competing in their first ever competitions, with the type of enthusiasm and charisma that continue to make tournament headlines. Qualifying out of Group E that contains tournament favorites Italy and Belgium, the Republic of Ireland. However; if Ireland want to continue to make a splash in this tournament, they will have to start seeing more production from their strikers, who not scored a single goal the entire tournament. Iceland, with a population of only 330,000 were considered the minnows of the tournament; however, after an impressive 2-1 win over Austria following a 94th minute match winning goal by substitute Arnor Trastason, Iceland have managed to qualify for their first ever euro knockout stages, much to the delight of their fans and Icelanic commentators alike. The team even managed to finish ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal side, who have been less than inspiring throughout the tournament despite the late stage heroics of the captain himself to help earn his side a second round birth.
Link for Iceland commentary following their 2-1 over Albania: https://youtu.be/HNdXgd4BjXI