From the 9th to the 14th of October, Matchday 2 and 3 of the Euro 2016 Qualifiers will take place with 54 teams aiming to clinch one of the 23 available spots in the finals alongside hosts France.
The 2016 European Championships in France represent the best chance for some of the lesser European teams to finally reach a major international tournament finals and the reason for this is the somewhat controversial decision to expand the finals from 16 teams, to 24.
Let’s take a look at the history of this popular, yet at times controversial, international football tournament starting way back with the first ever competition staged back in 1960.
And of course we’ll also have a couple of betting tips to give out as well, which we will get to further ahead. Our top pick for UK sports punters is Bet365, and if you aren’t yet a customer you can get free bets from Bet365 Sports just for creating a new account.
The first European Championships were held in 1960 and only four teams contested the tournament. Indeed, some big European names, England, Italy and West Germany, refused to play in the tournament, while Spain withdrew when they were drawn to play the Soviet Union and refused to travel.
The four team format continued over the first five tournaments, 1960, 1964, 1968, 1972 and 1976 before prior to the 1980 tournament in Italy, UEFA announced that the tournament would expand to eight teams. This was partly due to the increasing strength of European football and the increased popularity of the sport with television audiences.
Eight teams then contested the next four tournaments in 1980, 1984, 1988 and 1992 before again increasing demands from TV (not to mention ever increasing revenue raised from advertising etc) saw the competition expand in Euro 1996 in England to 16 teams.
There were murmurings at this point that this amount of qualifiers rendered qualification for some of European football’s top sides, almost meaningless. Yet that didn’t always prove to be the case. England missed out on Euro 2008, Russia on Euro 2000.
Since the tournament expanded to 16 teams, only Czech Republic, Holland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain have qualified for all five tournaments.
The Euro 2016 qualification system
That changed when prior to the draw for the 2016 European Championship UEFA announced that the competition would be increased from 16 to 24 teams. This meant that there would now be nine groups in qualifying, with the top two, plus the best third placed team from all groups, qualifying for the finals outright. In addition, the remaining eight third placed teams would play off against each other for a place in the finals.
These 23 teams would then join hosts France in the finals of the 2016 tournament. What this change has meant is that it is now extremely unlikely that any of the top European teams will miss out on the finals as they have four chances to earn a place in the finals; win the group, finish second, finish as the best third place team or win through via a play off.
What this means is that for all the seeded teams in each group (Holland, Portugal, Spain, Germany, England, Greece, Russia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Italy) qualification is almost guaranteed as the majority of opposition they will face in the qualifiers are not likely to be strong enough to see them drop enough points to finish outside of the top two or three in their group.
Critics have pointed out that this renders qualification for these teams almost pointless, but what the expansion has done is created a far more competitive qualifying system beneath the tier 1 teams likely to finish top of the group. With automatic spots available for the second place teams and one of the teams finishing third, plus play off places available for the remaining third place teams this now means that a whole cluster of countries now have the chance to earn a place in a major finals for the first time or for the first time in many, many years.
While teams from Pot 6 (the very weak teams, such as Luxembourg, Kazakhstan, Liechtenstein, Malta, Faroe Islands, Andorra, San Marino and Gibraltar) are still highly unlikely to finish anywhere above bottom of the group, the teams from Pot 2 through to Pot 5 will all feel like they could do enough to earn a place in the finals.
That may well be the most exciting aspect of the Euro 2016 qualification process, given that it seems highly likely all the big sides from Pot one, plus a number from Pot two will easily qualify for the finals.
Euro 2016 Qualifying so far
Despite bigger countries seemingly having an easier time to qualify, the first round of qualifying fixtures certainly saw some shock results. In Group A, both the Netherlands and Turkey both lost their opening games, to Czech Republic and Iceland respectively.
In Group B, top seeds Bosnia and Herzegovina lost to Cyprus, Slovakia beat the Ukraine in Group C, Estonia beat Slovenia in Group D, Northern Ireland won away in Hungary in Group E and perhaps most surprisingly of all, Portugal lost at home to Albania 1-0 in Group I.
What this means is that already some groups are taking on an unusual shape and that some of the lesser teams, who usually find themselves out of the reckoning for qualification spots in the group stages, now have a far better chance of winning themselves a place in the finals.
Some top Euro 2016 bets
If you are looking for some top quality Euro 2016 bets over longer term markets then check out SkyBet’s offerings. You can bet on all the group winners for the tournament, as well as backing one of the big nations to win the entire tournament (World Champions Germany are the 3-1 favourites, with hosts France 5/1 also a very tasty bet).
There’s also a really interesting Special available where you can back all 5 Home Nations (England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland) to qualify for the tournament at a whopping 50/1.
I’ve earmarked this bet because only Scotland did not get off to a winning start in their group (and they were playing Germany away). All the other four home nations faced tricky away trips and came away with maximum points, putting themselves into real contention in their groups early on.
The fact that many of the home nations have played one of their tricky away fixtures and taken three vital points is a huge boost to all their hopes of qualifying. With Scotland having by far their toughest fixture out of the way, they will be hoping to put together a run of results to get them back into contention in their group.
A 50/1 shot may not be available for too much longer if the home nations can pick up wins in their next two games, so I would consider backing that bet now to get the best price. If you want to bet on any of the individual home nations, then Bet365 are offering some great prices on some of the home nations to qualify.
You can back Wales at 7/4, Scotland at 2/1 and my pick, Northern Ireland at 4/1 to earn a place at France 2016 and all of these bets look decent value for money, although it is worth remembering that Wales and Scotland are in the same group as each other and alongside Germany (as well as Poland).
Much more will be clear following this two-game round of fixtures in the next International break and after three games, each group will likely have taken on a more identifiable shape. If you are plotting a wager on the next round of Euro 2016 fixtures, we wish you the very best of luck!
Image courtesy of NazionaleCalcio on Flickr