Can an outsider win Euro 2016?
The Euros have always had a couple of advantages over the more grandiose spectacle of the World Cup. First, genuine outsiders do sometimes win the whole thing. It’s happened twice in the last six tournaments. In 1992 the Danish team, who hadn’t qualified for the finals, were summoned off the beach after Yugoslavia had to pull out (shortly before ceasing to exist); they ended up beating the Germans in the final. In 2004 Greece came from more or less nowhere to lift the trophy, defeating home favourites Portugal in both the first match of the tournament and the last. No outsider has ever won a World Cup, unless you count West Germany in 1954 (the so-called ‘Miracle of Bern’). Almost by definition, any sporting contest that has to look to German success to provide evidence of its unpredictability is a fairly closed shop.
Denmark in ’92 and Greece in ’04 weren’t shocks on the Leicester City scale, but then nothing ever has been. Denmark’s victory is a bit like if Tottenham had won the Premier League last season (something that nearly happened and would have been a very big surprise, had a much bigger surprise not got in the way). Greece is more like if Everton had come out on top. Those would count as fairly extraordinary turns of events, startling even, but not miraculous. The Euros are good for bending the laws of probability, not for snapping them in half.
Their other plus point is that the event is traditionally shorter and less bloated than the World Cup. This fact is related to the first. One reason outsiders have been able to go the whole way is that the whole way has never been that far. Denmark’s record in 1992 was P5 W2 D2 L1. There were only eight teams in the tournament, so qualification from the group stages (where the Danes won one, drew one, lost one) took them straight into the semi-finals. There they drew 2-2 with Holland before winning on penalties. Then, still flush with a sense of adventure, Denmark beat Germany 2-0 in the final, the match everyone remembers. When Greece won in 2004 there were 16 teams present, so an extra knock-out round was required. The Greeks too qualified from their group with a record of W1 D1 L1, after which they won their next three matches 1-0. To lift the World Cup over the same period it’s been necessary to get through four knock-out rounds. That greatly reduces the chances of a final upset. The difference between a streak that lasts for three matches and a streak that lasts for four can be all the difference in the world.
The Euros are still smaller than the World Cup, but it’s relative. The World Cup has moved to having 32 teams and now for the first time the Euros have 24, which means there is going to be an extra knock-out round. The previous tournament in 2012 lasted just over three weeks. This one will take closer to five. Having more teams means there are many more whose victory would be a huge shock. Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Wales, Iceland, Slovakia, Albania, Hungary, Romania: if any of these sides end up lifting the trophy it will be an upset at least on the scale of Greece’s triumph. But having more outsiders present doesn’t increase the chance of an outsider winning. It reduces it, because there is more time for the fairytale to come undone. I am sure one or two of the minnows will have an unexpectedly good tournament. But I would be amazed if one of them wins it.
Would an England win count as an upset? Next time.