Euro 2016: Euros can restore some joie de vivre in France

A Euro 2016 flag flies in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower ahead of tonights opening encounter between the hosts France and Romania in the French capital (Picture: Mike Egerton/PA).
A Euro 2016 flag flies in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower ahead of tonights opening encounter between the hosts France and Romania in the French capital (Picture: Mike Egerton/PA).
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THIRTY-ONE days, 51 games, nine cities and 24 teams. Euro 2016 is almost upon us and a feast of football is anticipated.

Will Spain reign once again? Do France have a chance? And will the Three Lions roar across the English Channel?

All these questions and more will be answered over the course of the next month as France plays host to a tournament that is only second to the World Cup in terms of attracting a global audience.

Just what those tens of millions watching on television will be treated to remains to be seen, but the hope has to be that football can, once again, prove to be a force for good.

France has not had an easy time of late. The Paris terrorist attacks of last November, coming on the back of the Charlie Hebdo atrocities earlier in the year, rocked a proud nation to its core.

More recently, industrial action has brought fuel shortages and widespread disruption across the country. Then came the flooding that hit Paris just last week, as the River Seine rose to its highest level in 34 years.

In that respect, the arrival of a major football tournament could perhaps have been better timed. The flipside, though, is that France needs a lift and, as we have seen countless times in the past, football has an unerring ability to unite a country.

Back in 1998, a multi-cultural French team – dubbed “les black, blanc, beur” by the country’s media, meaning black, white and Arab – conquering world football was a potent symbol of what can be achieved by all races pulling together.

Holland’s triumph in the 1988 Euros also strayed beyond football, thanks to a semi-final victory over West Germany that, to many, was payback for what had happened during the Second World War with Ronald Koeman’s celebrations after that 2-1 win – the defender pretended to wipe his backside on Olaf Thon’s shirt – neatly summing up the mood of the time.

A rather more positive indication of the healing process that football can bring occurred 10 years ago. I spent a month in Germany covering the 2006 World Cup for this newspaper and the process of a country falling in love with itself after difficult times was a joy to behold.

Talking to locals in the bars of Berlin, Munich, Hanover, Nuremberg, Gelsenkirchen and so many places in between, there was a tangible sea change in attitude the longer the tournament went on as Germany shook off the shadows of the past and reclaimed a national flag that had been a symbol of guilt for so long.

The hope has to be that France can end Euro 2016 feeling similarly happy with itself. As with 1998, how the host team performs could be a big factor and this could well be Paul Pogba’s tournament. The Juventus midfielder is coveted by most of Europe’s elite club sides with the Serie A club understood to have put a £110m price tag on the 23-year-old.

If he can justify that over the next five weeks then France, even without Karim Benzema, could take some stopping on home soil.

Holders Spain, of course, will have something to say about that. As will Germany, who, despite looking vulnerable defensively in qualifying, invariably manage to peak at the right time.

Belgium are another strong contender thanks to an extraordinary array of attacking options that includes Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Christian Benteke and Romelu Lukaku, while Austria and Croatia are possible dark horses capable of emulating the likes of Denmark in 1992 and Greece a dozen years later by going all the way.

Regardless of who does prevail in the Stade de France come July 10, what seems certain is that Euro 2016 is likely to be more of a slow-burner than its predecessors.

UEFA’s decision to increase the number of competing teams by eight to 24 means a bloated format that will make it almost as difficult for a half-decent side to get knocked out in the group stage than progress.

It also means plenty of less than attractive fixtures, starting with tomorrow’s Albania-Switzerland encounter – a game so lacking in appeal that The Yorkshire Post’s sports desk annual ‘Ale Trail’ day out will most definitely not involve hunting for a pub telly near either Greenfield or Marsden train station come kick-off at 2pm.

Another consequence of UEFA opening the doors wider to qualification is that Euro 2016 will see four teams from the British Isles taking part in the same tournament for the first time in 58 years.

Northern Ireland, making their debut, have the toughest draw along with the Republic and both could fall at the first hurdle.

At least one of Wales and England will go through but with just one Euros victory in the knockout stage between them – and even that came on penalties – the chances of these shores providing a potential winner appear slim.

That aside, though, there is plenty to savour ahead of the tournament getting under way tonight in the Stade de France.

Let us hope it is a good one and that, above all, football can put a smile back on the face of a continent.