If you go to the European Championships as a player surely you want to test yourself against the best.
That’s the logic I came up with when Ireland were drawn against Spain, Italy and Croatia in 2012. That was a different time. A time when the turgid soccer played by Giovanni Trapattoni instilled neither emotion in me nor fear in any opponent.
My country left the tournament with zero points and a million condescending comments that told us: “Your fans are amazing.”
Here we sit four years later, embraced by the cruel mistress of hope. Ireland defeated Germany in October and comfortably dispatched Bosnia & Herzegovina in the playoffs. The quality of our squad has not improved but the tactics and systems in place now have us playing to our strengths. We go to Euro 2016 in France in high spirits despite the drawing which sees us face, in order, Sweden, Belgium and Italy.
A Swedish team that is worse than ours – except for you know who, and he will be nearly 35 by the time they play Ireland – is our first opponent in the Stade de France. Kim Kallstrom still plays for them, so I hold no fear.Then we’ll move to Bordeaux to play Belgium, a team who last played in the Euros in 2000 when they were hosts. Experience counts in tournaments and Belgium didn’t have a great time at the World Cup in Brazil. Not to mention the disappearance of Eden Hazard in recent months; although if Romelu Lukaku’s form continues, I will have some sleepless nights. Still, I hold no fear.
Then there’s our old friend, Italy. The Azzurri knocked us out in 1990, we beat them in 1994, and we should have beaten them in qualifying for 2010. They beat us in 2012. Italy’s defense is strong (obviously). A solid Juventus spine will be tough, especially as the Old Lady continues her renaissance in Serie A. However, there’s a serious lack of an offensive threat in that team. I hold no fear.
Whatever happens, it’s a wonderful feeling to be going to a tournament with a shred of optimism.
Roll on France, roll on excitement.
Follow Paul @PaulFarrell1895
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