With the NBA and NHL playoffs nearly over, and the next NFL campaign still a mere dot on the horizon, all that’s really left for North American sports fans is early season baseball. Yikes. Fear not, because soccer (sorry, football) is here to save the day.
With the UEFA European Championship set to kick off on Friday in France, we decided to take a closer look at some of the teams and players to watch out for this year.
The bandwagon team it’s totally okay to root for
Let’s be honest. For the past few years, French football has been a toxic sporting biohazard. Less je ne sais quoi, and more burning tire hill. In both the last World Cup and Euros, Les Bleus crashed out in the quarterfinals against Germany and Spain, respectively. They were lucky to have made it that far in the first place. Now, going into this year’s tournament (which they’re hosting) top scorer Karim Benzema has been left out because of allegations that he tried to blackmail a teammate over a sex tape. WTF?
With Benzema gone, goal-scoring duties have been left to the occasionally deadly, always gorgeous Olivier Giroud. With an outrageous midfield that contains Paul Pogba, Dimitri Payet, and pocket dynamo Antoine Griezmann — who scored 23 goals for Atletico Madrid this year — France have the tools to win the whole thing. With the memory of the Paris attacks still looming large, it would be fitting if France won on home soil — just as they did in the 1998 World Cup.
Player to Watch: Paul Pogba is the best box to box midfielder in the world. Just watch him.
For those who love watching sports for the inevitable
If there is one thing that’s guaranteed outside of death and taxes, it’s that Germany always turns up when it counts. Sure, the reigning world champions haven’t had the best year thus far, losing to England (gulp!) in a friendly. But it almost doesn’t matter, because on paper Germany are an embarrassing collection of riches that shine brightest when displayed in an international tournament.
This is a team that boasts Manuel Neuer (best keeper in the galaxy), Mats Hummels (one of the best defenders in Europe) and a midfield that contains Toni Kroos and Mario Gotze. And, of course, there’s Bayern Munich’s Thomas Muller, who in the past decade has become the deadliest goalscorer bar none in tournament play.
Player to Watch: Thomas Muller. Probably the smartest footballer on the planet when it comes to position. Neither a midfielder or striker, Muller is a fluid, mercurial presence who is in the right place at all times, which means he scores a ton of goals. And with assist king Mesut Ozil as the provider, expect fireworks.
For fans partial to a bit of nostalgia
There was a time when Spain — a.k.a. Real-Madrid-and-Barca United — simply could not be beaten. They would pass the ball until their opponent would pass out from nausea, and then they would pounce. But that was back when the likes of Xavi and Andres Iniesta ruled the roost. With Xavi gone, Iniesta approaching his twilight years and no spectacular strike force to speak of, Spain might be missing a piece or two to win this year’s tournament.
Player to Watch: Andres Iniesta might be old, but he’s still the heart of a team that relies on intricate passes to break down the opposition. Without him, Spain are a significantly lesser squad.
Because you feel weird not at least mentioning the Italians
I’ve done my research, and I’m still wondering why Italy are on my list. I guess it’s just weird to not mention the Italians when it comes to tournament time. We love to talk about their defensive toughness, and sure enough, Antonio Conte has the likes of Juventus stalwarts Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli at his disposal. Also, let’s not forget evergreen goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, who at this point is so old I’m shocked he’s not encased in amber.
The Italians have nobody upfront, however, with regular goal-getter Graziano Pelle struggling for game time at Southampton. Italy will accomplish nothing of note, and yet I just have to mention them, because, you know, Italy.
Player to Watch: Gianluigi Buffon, because he reminds of the time I was in middle school over two decades ago. How is he still playing? And still good?!
For the artisanal-loving hipster
In tournaments past, Germany have been the number one choice of smug “in the know” fans on this side of the pond. Now, though, it’s Belgium’s turn. On paper, Belgium have been ranked as the best team in the world for the past year — which, for a nation of 11 million, is frankly outrageous.
This is a team that was, let’s be honest, absolute rubbish for at least two decades. Now, they have a starting lineup that boasts Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard, Toby Alderweireld and Thibaut Courtois. That’s just mad. While the Belgians lack pedigree in winning, sooner or later this talented squad will deliver on their wealth of talent. Perhaps this might be the year.
Player to Watch: Eden Hazard may have had a torrid time with Chelsea this season, but the talent contained in this enigmatic Belgian is simply too great not to shine. We saw glimpses of the Hazard of old towards the end of this season and alongside the likes of ginger whippet De Bruyne, expect pace, finesse and a lot of trickery.
The team all masochists love to love
It’s hard to think of another team in world football whose expectations of winning silverware fall so short of reality with such regularity. The England national side are losers.
We know how the story goes. England enter a tournament thinking THIS MIGHT BE THEIR YEAR, before once again disappointing a nation who loves nothing better than to place the plucky loser on a pedestal. Preferred method? Usually losing on penalties to Germany.
But in years past, England at least had marquee players à la Beckham and Gerrard to justify raising hopes. This year’s outfit contains few such examples. Sure, Wayne Rooney is there, but he’s been a shell of himself for a few years now. A young lineup consisting of rising talents like Harry Kane and Dele Alli might spring a few surprises, and with lesser expectations the Three Lions might actually shine this time.
Player to watch: Harry Kane. The striker had another blistering season for Tottenham Hotspur, proving that last year’s breakout year was no flash in the pan. Look for him to lead the attack and be the main source of goals.