On Sunday, within the confines of the Stade de France, one country’s dreams for football immortality will remain steadfast, while another’s will fade absolutely. In this quarterfinal knockout stage of the 2016 UEFA European Championship, either the Icelanders, the undisputed underdogs of the tournament, or the French, the pride of the host nation and one of the favorites, may secure a semifinal berth. While both teams play with unparalleled passion and feature an unrelenting fan base, they could not have arrived at this moment in a different fashion.
Iceland, a country with only approximately 330,000 people, is the smallest country by population in Euro 2016. Yet this tiny island country has managed to not only escape the group stage of the tournament, but to oust perennial powerhouse England, winning 2-1 earlier in the week. All this for a team who had never before scored in a major tournament prior to June 14th.
In contrast, as hosts of Euro 2016, the French national team has been under an intense spotlight since the commencement of the tournament. The highly-talented squad secured wins over Romania and Albania, as well as a draw with Switzerland in the group stage. The pundits, and the whole of France itself, expected Les Bleus to roll over the Republic of Ireland earlier this week, however an early 1-0 deficit, albeit en route to a comeback 2-1 victory, has forced the French to sharpen their play.
In this “David versus Goliath” matchup, the French will look to push the issue on the offensive end, challenging Iceland’s defensive core, led by midfielder Aron Gunnarson and center back Ragnar Sigurdsson. At France’s disposal are star forwards Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud, the former of which had 2 goals in France’s previous game.
While France is certainly favored in this matchup, there are many who believe that Iceland’s fairytale run may continue.
“These smaller sides, Wales included, are shocking everybody. And they’ve certainly got a fighter’s chance…they’ve been excellent against England. If they’ve got the same mentality, the same attitude, that same team bonding, team togetherness, they can cause some problems,” remarked Steve McManaman, former English national team member and commentator on ESPN.
As mentioned by McManaman, Wales, led by superstar Gareth Bale, shocked Belgium on Friday with a 3-1 victory and secured a match against Portugal in the semifinals. Clearly, the smaller countries in this Euro 2016 have displayed the heart and mettle necessary to compete against the favored nations. Will this continue to be the year of the underdog? Or will the dream of a host-nation championship remain intact? As we have seen thus far in this Euro 2016, anything and everything is possible.
Kickoff is scheduled for 3 PM EST in Saint-Denis, France on Sunday with a semifinal berth against Germany at stake.