CRAIGE: Underdogs Impress in Group Stages
The Beautiful Game

Now that the first round of games of the European Championship is over and the second one is underway, it is already becoming easier to predict which teams will advance to the Round of 16. In fact, the host France has already become the first team to advance out of the group stages, so hearty congratulations are in order to them. Of course, the usual suspects like Germany and Spain are on track to advance as well—although it is worth noting that Spain took 87 minutes to finally score against Czech Republic.

I thought that it would be more interesting to look at some of the underdogs, especially given the number of surprises that we have seen.

Romania is one of the teams that I think is doing better than most people expected it to. It is a team of relative unknowns; yet, the team is currently in third place in Group A and could very well end up advancing. While the Romanians did lose their opener to France, they were actually beating Switzerland for most of the game until the Swiss tied it up.

I was amazed at how confidently the Romanian side was playing during the game with Switzerland, and I think that it is because the Romanians had nothing to lose. Here is a team that came to the Euro Cup where no one expected them to do well, and yet here they are defying the odds. While the odds of Romania advancing all the way to the final are slim, I do hope that Romania continues to surprise us all.

Poland is a team that should be considered an outside favorite to win it all. The way they played against Northern Ireland was just mesmerizing to watch, when the Poles won their first-ever Euro Cup game. While Poland certainly benefits from the presence of star striker Robert Lewandowski, it is a team that is able to rely on more than just a single player. It is true that Poland has the benefit of a somewhat easier group, in which really only Germany is the big threat, but I am now convinced that Poland will do quite well in this tournament.

It is somewhat surprising to me that many people considered Italy to be an underdog team prior to the game against Belgium. It is true that manager Antonio Conte left several “big” names off the squad, such as Andrea Pirlo and Sebastian Giovinco, but thus far it seems to have not had an impact on Italy at all.

Against Belgium, Italy put on a very good display and pulled off a 2-0 defeat that apparently not many people saw coming. World class goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon — who I am convinced looks younger with every passing year — was hardly tested by a Belgian side that featured world-class forwards Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard. Graziano Pelle pulled off a stunning goal for Italy that sealed the deal in a game where the manager got a nosebleed from celebrating a goal too much. It was easily one of the best games that we have seen so far, and the Azzuri are just getting started.

However, Group F has been by far the most entertaining group of the bunch. On paper, it seems that Portugal should easily dominate in a group that also contains Hungary, Iceland and Austria. Hungary is in its first major tournament in over thirty years, while tiny Iceland is in its first-ever major tournament. But it appears that having Cristiano Ronaldo on your side is not even a guarantee that Portugal will do well. In fact, Hungary is currently the top team in the group and Portugal is sitting in third.

Ronaldo had a terrible game against Iceland, and that is a large reason why Portugal ended up squandering the lead. Portugal does not really have much depth behind Ronaldo, and while players like Nani are able to pick up the slack from time to time, it really makes a huge difference when Ronaldo is not on top of his game.

However, in my mind, that really takes away from what Iceland was able to do. Here was a team that virtually no one knew anything about, and that nobody would have expected at all to hold its own against Portugal and force a draw. Did Iceland play a largely defensive minded game? Yes, but that makes perfect sense, especially considering that it was facing one of the world’s best players. I was buzzing when Iceland managed to tie the game, and it is very unsportsmanlike of Ronaldo to criticize Iceland for excessively celebrating its first point in the Euro Cup. The bottom line is that Iceland deserved to tie the game and Ronaldo needs to accept the fact that he let his team down.

Hungary, quite honestly, managed to surprise me when it beat Austria 2-0, leaving me to feel like I momentarily betrayed my Hungarian heritage. In a game that featured the two sides of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it is honestly shocking that the Hungarians were the team that outperformed. Austria played terribly and did itself no favor when defender Aleksandar Dragovič got himself red-carded.

There is no denying that the goals the Hungarians scored were quite splendid, but the hero of the game — not to mention, probably the tournament— was the sweatpants-wearing, 40-year-old Hungarian goalkeeper Gábor Király. Király, who became the oldest player to ever play in the Euro Cup, pulled off save after save to ensure that the Hungarians would win. Will they keep the upsets up? I certainly hope so.

VanessaCraige-150x150Vanessa Craige is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. The Beautiful Game appears every Tuesday and Friday.

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