Euro 2016: Primer On World Soccer’s Second Biggest Men’s Tournament

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France vs. Germany

Photo via July 4, 2014; Rio De Janeiro, BRAZIL; France fans pose for a photo before the quarterfinal match against Germany in the 2014 World Cup at Estadio Do Maracana. Mandatory Credit: Tim Groothuis/Witters Sport via USA TODAY Sports

Europe is world soccer’s center of money, power and prestige, and its best national teams descend on France to contest for this year’s biggest prize.

The 2016 UEFA European Championship will begin Friday in France with the hosts taking on Romania. We’ve looked forward to this game since last December when UEFA conducted the group-stage draw. The pageantry and entertainment will kick off with France-Romania, but plenty of joy, and pain, will surely follow. After all, the 15th edition of European soccer’s quadrennial international championship will be bigger, and hopefully better, than the others.

The European Championship returns to France for the first time since 1984, and “Les Blues” look to repeat its triumph of yesteryear. But its potential road to victory will be more strenuous than it was back then. The country still is reeling from the terrorist attacks, which took place in November in Paris. The world hopes the hosts can deliver fun-filled soccer festival amid threats of more violence.

Twenty-four teams will compete at Euro 2016, eight more than the 16 that sought continental glory four years ago. Spain cemented the traditional powers’ grip on the Henri Delaunay Trophy in 2012. The expanded 2016 tournament allows more teams and new faces to participate in what many consider to be the soccer world’s second most important international competition.

Six groups of four teams comprise the Euro 2016 field. Each team will play one game against its three group-stage opponents, earning three points for a win, one point for a draw and zero for a loss. The top two teams on points will advance to the Round of 16, as will the four best third-place finishers.

ESPN will broadcast every game and stream them online. Oddsmakers have picked France and Germany as favorites, and fans are busy filling out their brackets.

Here’s why.

Why is it important?
The soccer world’s biggest clubs are concentrated in Europe, and they naturally produce many of the best players on the planet. Those stars will suit up for their countries in an effort to become legends, and leading coaches will vie for near-immortality. Participants can enhance or ruin their reputations in as few as three games on this global platform. The stakes are that high in Euro 2016, as was the case in the 14 tournaments that preceded it.

Only the FIFA World Cup surpasses the European Championship in terms of stature among international competitions. FIFA’s six regional confederations hold championship tournaments in non-World Cup years, but the Euro dwarfs them all in size, scope and reach.

Euros often set strategic trends, while simultaneously exposing other tactics as outdated. Euro 2016 will expose millions of players and coaches to top-level ideas, which might help them improve. Others, children in particular, will draw inspiration from the tournament and love the sport for the rest of their lives as a result.

Can’t-miss games
Of course, the final, semifinals and quarterfinals fall into this category. Knockout rounds are scheduled to begin on June 24 with the Round of 16.

But the group stage also features some highly anticipated matchups. Leading the way are (all times ET):

Belgium-Italy (June 13, at 3 p.m.): A rising power meets a traditional one in this Group F game. Belgium is a dark-horse candidate to win the title in its first Euro since 2000. Italy reached the Euro 2012 final but has since rebuilt itself as it pursues its first Euro crown since 1968.

England-Wales (June 16, at 3 p.m.): The so-called “Battle of Britain” pits neighbors against each other in Group B. England has the pedigree and accompanying pressure to win its first major tournament since 1966. Wales has Britain’s brightest star in Gareth Bale and a dream of soaring in the country’s first major tournament appearance since 1958.

Switzerland-France (June 19, at 3 p.m.): Some of Europe’s best young players represent these teams, and both sides have high expectations for Euro 2016. The game also is a rematch of a 2014 FIFA World Cup group-stage game, which France won in a 5-2 rout. Will Swiss vengeance spoil France’s big party?

Listen to our Euro 2016 preview podcast >>

Thumbnail photo via Tim Groothuis/Witters Sport/USA TODAY Sports Images

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