Euro 2016's expanded format will make for more memorable tournament
PARIS -- It will be a Euro unlike any we've ever seen.
Saturday's draw at Paris' Palais des Congres was held in a militarized and sombre atmosphere. Four weeks and one day earlier, heavily armed terrorists had sown havoc and murder, reminding Parisians of the fragility inherent in the world we inhabit.
There was no symbolic empty seat left in the hall for the most illustrious absentee, UEFA President Michel Platini. He campaigned hard for the competition to be held in France, his home country, 32 years after they last hosted the tournament and he led them to their first ever major championship. Platini is provisionally suspended for some of his financial dealings with FIFA, a ban that has scuppered his run for the FIFA presidency. He's fighting the charges but, at the very least, his absence reminded us of something else: it's hard to operate in the highest echelons of world football without smearing your collar, whether it's self-inflicted or brought on by others.
Never before has a major UEFA tournament been held under such clouds.
Yet at the same time, there is also reason for optimism. Not just the kind that comes with the realization that, post-draw and pre-opener, everybody is level on points, from little Iceland to mighty Germany.
For the first time, the Euro has been expanded from 16 to 24 of UEFA's 54 member nations. While some purists sniff at the dilution of the tournament, anyone who saw the excitement in the eyes of those midsized nations who would otherwise not be here could not be somewhat moved.
Having 24 teams means the Euros will match the World Cup formats we witnessed between 1986 and 1994, with the four best third-place sides advancing alongside the top two in each group. While it's true that a group stage held to winnow the teams from 24 to 16 will feel different, it's equally true that it did not spoil our enjoyment in 1986 or 1990 or 1994 and it likely won't this time either.
If anything, the expanded Euros multiply the storylines. Germany, the defending world champions, will try to match what Spain achieved in 2010, Brazil in 2004, France in 2000 and the Germans themselves in 1972: holding both the world and continental titles at the same time.
The draw hasn't been kind to Germany. They will face a Poland side led by one of the most in-form forwards in the game, Robert Lewandowski; Ukraine, with the twin wing threat of Yevhen Konoplyanka and Andriy Yarmolenko; and Northern Ireland, who may be making their first-ever Euro appearance but nevertheless won their qualifying group.
Spain, the defending champions looking to three-peat, also have a tough road filled with familiar faces: Croatia, led by the Liga-based duo of Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric; Turkey, relying on the unpredictable whims of Barcelona's Arda Turan; and the Czechs, captained by Arsenal keeper Petr Cech.
The hosts, France, may be the next deepest team in terms of talent, with budding stars like Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann, though controversy (witness the Karim Benzema sex-tape blackmail affair) is never far behind. Their ride in Group A seems a little more straightforward, pitting them against Romania, Albania and Switzerland. The clash between Albania and Switzerland, two teams stocked with ethnic Kosovars, will be another reminder of the side effects of politics, war and migration.
Group B, with England chasing their first major trophy in half a century, will also have an air of familiarity thanks to Wales and the biggest superstar born on British soil in decades, Gareth Bale. Slovakia know how to upset the apple cart; ask Italy, whom they eliminated in the 2010 World Cup or, indeed, Spain, whom they beat in qualifying. Then there's Russia, the awakening giant throwing resources at the game with an eye to hosting the 2018 World Cup.
Belgium's Golden Generation were pitted with the second seed most wanted to avoid, Italy. As most of the Diables Rouges/Rode Duivels (everything is strictly bilingual in Belgium) hit the prime of their careers -- guys like Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne, Thibaut Courtois, Romelu Lukaku and Christian Benteke are all 24 years old or younger -- they'll be tested by a rebuilding Azzurri side whom manager Antonio Conte is constructing in his own blue-collar, hard-hat image.
Belgium will also face Sweden and the immense -- in every sense of the word -- Zlatan Ibrahimovic in what is likely to be his international swan song, and Martin O'Neill's Ireland, a side on which the LA Galaxy's Robbie Keane continues to defy Father Time and a team capable of taking four of six points from Germany in qualifying.
In some ways, Group F is the most romantic group. Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo, 12 years after making his tournament debut on home soil and suffering heartbreak in the final, will once again be asked to carry a nation, mindful of the fact that, to some, he is no longer an automatic choice as the "other" world's greatest footballer. Then there are Austria and Hungary, neighbours and fallen giants whose players are daily confronted with the fact that those who came before them -- Hugo Meisl's Wunderteam of the 1930s and the Mighty Magyars of Ferenc Puskas, Sandor Kocsis and Nandor Hidegkuti -- were at one time the greatest in the world. And, finally, Iceland: 329,000 people on a rocky, geyser-filled outpost abutting the Arctic Ocean. They're here, too, and they're here on merit.
Whatever happens, we're going to remember this. And we'll most likely be glad that we opened the door that little bit wider, to let more nations in. Inclusion feels right, particularly at a time like this.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.