Thursday, 9 June 2016

2016: The Year of the Underdog?

It's April 2015, Nigel Pearson - Leicester City manager has just called a journalist an ostrich and has stormed out of a press conference. The club is on the verge of relegation, and no-one all season has given them any hope of survival. However, with 25 points from the last 10 games Leicester City, against all of the odds remained in the Premier League, the turnaround had begun. 12 months later, that turnaround became quite possibly the biggest fairy tale in footballing history, with 5000-1 shot Leicester City unbelievably becoming Premier League champions through adversity, the team showed fierce unity, experience and solidarity, along with shrewd scouting and masterful managing, becoming only the sixth side in history to manage this feat.

Leicester City lift the Premier League. The greatest Underdog Story in footballing history?

Many believe the events that occurred in the Premier League this season will never be repeated, and quite honestly, I'd probably agree that I'll never see anything like this again in my lifetime. On a domestic level anyway. However, with the European Championships just one day away, I'd like to reflect on Euro 1992 and Euro 2004, where two other Underdog stories were told, possibly trumping that of Leicester City's extraordinary league victory.
Although I was yet to grace the Earth in 1992, it is evident that the 1992 edition of the European Championships in Sweden was a very interesting affair. Unlike today in which 24 nations have the ability to qualify, back in 1992, only eight nations took part in the tournament. Following the completion of qualifying Denmark found themselves finishing in second place, behind Yugoslavia in their group, therefore failing to make it to the edition of the tournament just a stones throw away in Sweden. Danish coach Richard Moler Nielson was on the brink of the sack following the qualification failure, and the squad was in need of transition. However, the outbreak of civil war in Yugoslavia, UEFA made the decision to omit Yugoslavia from the tournament, instead of playing with only three teams in the group, with merely a weeks notice, Denmark were reinstated, and were to participate in the tournament and players were recalled from their holidaying.
Kim Vilfort, a midfielder in the squad at the time, stated that the squad, although ready to pounce on the second bite of the cherry, couldn't fail as there was absolutely no pressure on them. Drawn in a group alongside France and England, as well as Sweden - with home advantage, with very little preparation, the squad were given very little chance of progressing. This prediction was seemingly correct following defeat to Sweden, and a stalemate with lacklustre England. However, due to other results a mediocre and relatively unconvincing Denmark still had the opportunity to progress with a victory against a strong French squad which featured the likes of Cantona and Deschamps. Surprisingly, the resilient Danes upset the odds, defeating France 2-1, setting up a surprise match-up with the Netherlands - defending champions - vastly talented with a formidable strike force. Much like Leicester City, Denmark's chances of victory were seemingly nil. However, again, Denmark rallied, finding themselves 2-1 up against the European heavyweights. The Netherlands did however show their class to equalise, and penalties loomed following a goal-less extra time. It was all down to the throw of a dice, who could keep their nerve? In the Danes case, there were no nerves. Goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel saved Dutch star man van Basten's penalty, and astonishingly, Denmark had won this thriller on penalties. 

Peter Schmeichel makes the only save of the Semi-Final shootout on Denmark's way to European glory
The Germans expecting to face the Netherlands, were greeted by Denmark in the final, and didn't really know how to approach the game, this became evident. With determination and momentum on their side, Denmark had obviously taken inspiration from Hans Christian Andersen, and written their own fairy tale - conquering the Germans 2-0. From not even expecting to participate to outclassing the best in the world, although they didn't have the best players, they had the best team, and quite deservedly lifted the title. A definite shock. However, Greece in 2004 may well top it...

12 years on, I vaguely remember watching Euro 2004, hosted by Portugal, the Greeks were seen as rank outsiders, previously only making one European Finals appearance, winning zero games. Although group winners in qualification, they were unconvincing, scoring only eight goals in eight games, and were a shewing for a swift departure, with hosts Portugal alongside Spain favourites to progress. Although Greece were in transition, rebuilding a new squad from one that was in crisis just years prior, they were classed as no-hopers. They shocked many by passing the group stages, with a victory against Portugal and a draw versus Spain, however, they were scrutinised by many pundits over their unimaginative, ultra-defensive and negative style of play, surely to be undone by an extremely favoured France in the Quarter Finals. France, the defending champions, were comprised of an array of talent - Henry, Zidane, Barthez, the list goes on, far superior to that of Greece, no real household names in that squad I can assure you. To everyone's amazement, Greece dug deep and ground out a 1-0 victory. History repeated itself in the Semi-Final against Czech Republic. Another 1-0 victory. The Greeks had engineered a plan that worked. Quashing attacking pressure with organised defence, before offering knock out blows in the shape of precision set pieces and counter attacks. Portugal awaited them in the final.
Portugal on home soil and a with strong team were heavily fancied, the new kid on the block - one Cristiano Ronaldo (I wonder where he is now?), was expected to deliver, and although Greece had already defeated Portugal in the groups, the mix of youth and experience was trusted to shine through. However, Greece effectively defended with eight players guarding the box, infuriating Portugal. When the opportunity arose in the 57th minute, Greece countered, and with Greece's only shot on target, Angelos Charisteas (oh yes, him) converted. Against all odds, Greece lifted the 2004 edition of the Euros. Playing to their strengths and eliminating any threats opposition posed, they quite possibly pulled off the greatest footballing, or even sporting shock of all time.

Fazed by no-one. Greece celebrate.
Now, the 12 year cycle has come around again. Leicester City have already won the Premier League this year. Will the history book be torn apart again? Can another underdog upset the odds and lift the Euros? Northern Ireland? Albania? Unlikely, but who knows, from what's gone before in history no-one at all can be discounted. Who knows, we could even see Wayne Rooney himself lift European football's most prestigious cup. But then again, maybe not.
One thing is for sure though, expect the unexpected.

Euro 2016 begins with hosts France taking on Romania, 10th June, 8pm.

Follow me on Twitter: @DLster


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