One of the greatest things about the world of soccer is that there is never an offseason. They are currently preparing for the FIFA World Cup in June, with international friendlies that will ultimately shape the squads taken by each country, and yet also looking forward to the next wave of competitions.
UEFA will draw the groups for qualifying for the upcoming 2016 European Championships to be held in France. It will mark the 15th edition of the competition and the third time that it will be hosted by France. This edition sees the tournament expanding to 24 teams participating up from the past editions of 16. We will likely see some new faces when the tournament kicks off in June 2016.
There are a few interesting storylines going into the draw on Sunday, the first of which being the competition debut of Gibraltar. The tiny country was accepted as a full member of UEFA in May 2013, allowing them to be eligible for the European Championships. Gibraltar is not yet a full member of FIFA, meaning that they will not be allowed to compete in the next cycle of World Cup Qualifying unless their status changes between now and the start of European qualification in the Fall of 2016.
Another storyline to follow during the draw will be the inclusion of France into Group I. They will be partnered with the five-team group to allow for ease in scheduling friendlies ahead of the tournament. France will play each nation in Group I twice in a home-and-home fashion, but their results will not count towards the official standings since they do not need to qualify as hosts of the competition. This is probably the best thing that UEFA could have done in this situation, especially now with the 54 member associations being evenly split among the nine qualifying groups.
The final storyline to watch for will be the new faces among Europe’s elite that will have new opportunity to qualify with the expansion to 24 nations in the tournament. The European Championships’ most recent expansion came before the 1996 competition when it expanded from eight to 16 nations. In the five competitions from then until now, 10 nations made their debut in the tournament including Switzerland, Turkey, Croatia, Bulgaria (all in 1996), Norway, Slovenia (2000), Latvia (2004), Austria, Poland (2008) and Ukraine (2012). Now, we could see the likes of Montenegro, Iceland, Slovakia or Israel make their debuts in the upcoming competition.
The draw will be conducted on Sunday morning at 6:00 AM Eastern and can be seen online at ESPN3. Check back in with Rant Sports throughout Sunday for group breakdowns, key matchups and potential underdogs to watch for throughout the qualifying campaign.