A top-seed spot is the boon all pre-tournament protagonists crave; a status designed to provide shelter from fellow fat cats and signpost a smooth path into the latter stages. The European Championship, however, is the one battleground where this preconception is subverted, where pot one prestige rarely results in a competition conquest.
Football parlance dictates that good fortune in the draw shares equal importance with strength of squad when it comes to realising aspirations for success in a tournament or cup competition.
Lady Luck, embodied by the well-manicured hands of bygone soccer superstars rolled out to glamorise such events, wields the power to enhance or crush hopes of would-be silverware winners before a ball has been kicked.
Seeded sides, that is the supposedly superior teams whose past performances vindicate their awarding of elitism, are afforded a degree of protection from the damage she can inflict in the sense that they can only be drawn to play against allegedly weaker outfits.
At the European Championship, however, this notion goes out the window.
The UEFA-organised, multi-nation skirmish for continental supremacy has proved notorious in denying title celebrations to those predicted to prosper following the birth of the seeding system ahead of Euro 1996.
Since the year football came home, before promptly leaving on a plane to Germany, just two teams pulled from pot one have been crowned kings of Europe, while only one – Spain in 2012 – has achieved the accolade this century.
The Spanish are part of the three-team cohort to have mocked suggestions that a lowly seeding is detrimental to prospects of championship victory, parading around the winner’s circle in 2008 after being drawn in pot three, following in the footsteps of France in 2000 and Greece in 2004.
No victor has had it as tough as the Greeks, whose pot four point of origin ahead of the tournament’s edition in Portugal makes them the lowest ranked of all eventual champions.
Otto Rehhagel’s Piratiko may be the poster boys for overachievement at the Euros, but the field is not occupied by them alone.
Pot four has played the cannon to propel six nations beyond the group stage since its introduction in 2000, with Russia and Turkey straying as far as the semi-finals four years after Greece’s trophy-winning exploits.
The 2004 champs haven’t got a ticket for the 2016 edition, but their underdog heroics will provide inspiration for a record number of countries dumped in a recently-renovated fourth pot.
Included amongst the would-be whipping boys are Wales, the Republic of Ireland and their Northern cousins, Iceland, Albania and Turkey.
While there’s plenty of evidence refuting the idea that these lesser-lauded nations are in attendance to act as appetite-whetting hors d’oeuvre for the Minotaurs of international football, another poignant factor promises misery for the bulk.
Not all Davids are created equal and only two of them – Republic of Ireland and Turkey – come equipped with the stones and slings to compete in 2016’s battle royal of Goliaths.
The Euros is unforgiving territory and it treats those treading it for the first time with the harshest of contempt.
Indeed, the combined win count of all nine rookies who made their tournament debut since ’96 stands at a laughably-low four, while eight members of the gaggle of greenhorns have been banished at the group stage. Furthermore, two thirds of these ejected outfits were shown the door having failed to win a solitary match.
Croatia’s jaunt to the Euro 96 quarter finals offers the only anomaly for championship amateurs clearing the first fence, but even they suffered a group-stage pounding en route to doing so, losing 3-0 to Portugal in what was the joint-heaviest margin of defeat across the entire tournament.
Based on this, the qualification mountain-moving from the pot four first timers is destined to yield nought aside from a tearful tournament, but their grim fates will not be shared by all their bottom-seed brethren.
Never once has the entire allocation of pre-draw outsiders been dismissed in the group stage and, of the two who still stand a chance of shining, records say Turkey must be taken seriously.
The structured pot system came into force ahead of the Euro 2000 draw and Fatih Terim’s troops have never been deemed worthy of a rank above the station in which they find themselves 16 years later. This supposed constraint is yet to hinder their ability to overachieve though; the Crescent-Stars have participated in the tournament twice in the 21st century, reaching the knockout stage on both occasions.
The most herculean of their efforts came in the 2008 instalment, when, under the tutelage of Terim, they took Germany to the brink of extra-time in the semi-finals, before an injury-time Philip Lahm strike sealed a 3-2 Mannschaft win.
With just one win on their European Championship record, Eire lack the tournament pedigree Turkey have in abundance, but they’re not the only nation bereft of top-seed prestige whose CV suggests they can go deep this summer.
Pot two-dwellers Italy will be the country every favourite is desperate to avoid.
The Azzurri have been silver medallists in two Euros this century, losing on penalties in the quarter final of 2008 and going out on goal difference in the group stages of 2004.
Meanwhile, the Czech Republic have a record that suggests they’re bigger dark horses than they’re being given credit for.
They were one of 12 unseeded sides at Euro 1996, where they lost the final via Oliver Bierhoff’s Golden Goal for Germany. Their bad fortune doesn’t cease there; in the 2004 edition they were beaten in the last four via another extra-time decider, this time against Greece, whereas 2012 saw them bow out in the quarters to Portugal, who were indebted to Cristiano Ronaldo’s late strike.
These are the outsiders who history says are most likely to outperform expectations, but which of the sides placed on the pot one pedestal do they have in their crosshairs?
As with pot four, the pot one bag will contain more balls than ever before, with hosts France joined by holders Spain, Portugal, Germany and England.
It’s a strong-sounding quintet, but the annals tell us at least one will fall and numerous factors insist this will be either of the latter duo.
Joachim Low’s world champions limped through a relatively straightforward qualification group, losing to Poland and failing to beat the Republic of Ireland home or away. In addition to abject form, they’ve bid the tournament adieu before the knockout stage twice already this century, finishing bottom of their group on both occasions.
England had no such difficulties in qualifying, winning all ten of their games, but they’re infamous for an inability to replicate pre-tournament form when it matters most. Their penalty-shootout kryptonite leaves them more vulnerable than most when they have skipped the group-stage perimeter and have only advanced beyond the last eight once since 1968.
Past Euros have been laden with flopping favourites and flourishing underdogs and it is for this reason that punters shouldn’t take UEFA’s word for it when placing their pre-tournament wagers.
As stated, the seeding phenomenon only began ahead of the ’96 instalment. However, this contained just four top seeds, with the remaining 12 contests tagged with the same ‘unseeded’ status.
It means, in effect, pot one has existed for one more tournament than pots two, three and four.
Yet despite the more prestigious pool’s increased lifespan, the parallels between pots one and four in terms of the stages those pulled from them were eliminated are plentiful.
Just ten of the 16 sides placed in pot four have exited various Euros at the group stage, the point at which nine of those from pot one were dismissed.
One has provided five quarter and three semi-finalists, whereas four has offered up three and two respectively. Greece are the solitary side to reach the showpiece after being handed the worst draw, but there’s only three teams to have been granted top-pot advantage and converted it into a final appearance, two going on to hoist the trophy.
In the melee of a major international tournament, a pot one VIP lounge ticket carries no promise of success, with the resourcefulness and endeavour of those barred from crossing the velvet rope proving every bit as important as a favourable seeding when it comes to prospering at the Euros.
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