The rather exhaustive qualifying round for the 2016 European Championship football tournament is finally over. In an eclectic mix of former champions, usual suspects and first-timers, nineteen countries have qualified for the finals of the tournament, due to be held next year in France. They will be joined by four more teams, who go through a round of play-offs in November this year.

France, who hosted the inaugural tournament in 1960 and the 1984 edition (which they won), already qualified as hosts.

However, there are some high-profile absentees. The Netherlands, which won the 1988 edition, will not feature at the Euros next year, following a disastrous qualifying campaign, which saw them win only four of their ten matches in the stage. It is for the first time since 2002, when they missed out on the World Cup, that the Dutch have failed to qualify for the finals of a major tournament. Likewise, the 2016 edition will also not feature Greece, winners of the 2004 edition. They finished bottom of their group, with the sole win coming against Hungary in their last qualifying match. Embarrassingly, they lost twice (home and away) to minnows Faroe Islands.

This will also be the first European Championship to feature 24 teams, after a proposal to expand the final stage by the Scottish Football Association and the FA of Ireland was unanimously accepted by UEFA in September 2008. UEFA’s objective to increase the playing field, was essentially to give some of the smaller nations a chance at qualification. The finals of the tournament began in 1960 with only four teams, and subsequently expanded to eight teams in 1980, and later, from the 1996 edition onwards, the tournament has featured 16 teams.

The story of the qualifiers, however, belonged to the five countries who have made it to the Euros for the first time.

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland will make their European Championship debut in France next year, following their 3-1 win over Greece in their penultimate qualifier at Belfast last week. Northern Ireland’s qualifying campaign, which ended on Sunday, saw them drop just the one game to Romania, in November last year. They qualified as Group leaders.

Northern Ireland last featured in a major tournament in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. They also qualified for the 1982 World Cup, where they went past the group stage. It also included a historic win over hosts Spain, thanks to Gerry Armstrong’s goal. However, their best result in an international tournament came in the 1958 World Cup, when the Danny Blanchflower-led side reached the quarter-finals before they were eliminated by France.

Managed by former international Michael O’Neill, Northern Ireland’s near-perfect qualification campaign was led by striker Kyle Lafferty, who scored seven goals.

Iceland

Iceland created history in September this year, by becoming the smallest nation to qualify for the 2016 European Championship, following a goalless draw against Kazakhstan at Reykjavik. It will be their debut in the tournament, coming in their eleventh attempt, since they entered the qualifying rounds in 1976. Iceland’s qualification should not come as a surprise, given their rapid progress in the last few years. The Nordic nation nearly qualified for the 2014 World Cup, before missing out to Croatia in the playoff-round. Coached jointly by Swede Lars Lagerback and Heimir Hallgrímsson, Iceland finished second in Group A, defeating higher-ranked nations like Turkey, Czech Republic and the Netherlands en route to qualification. Their star players include Swansea City midfielder Gylfi Sigurðsson and veteran striker Eiður Guðjohnsen, who represented top European clubs like Chelsea and FC Barcelona, before moving to China. Iceland’s recent successes have been attributed to its grassroots coaching system, introduced in the early 2000s.

Albania

On Sunday, at the Vazgen Sargsyan Republican Stadium in Yerevan, Albania created history by emphatically defeating hosts Armenia 3-0 to confirm their maiden appearance in the European Championship finals. The Albanians began their qualifying campaign in style, defeating Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal 1-0 at Lisbon in September last year. Their next match against Serbia turned out to be decisive as far as the final standings were concerned. At Belgrade, the Serbians and Albanians were locked 1-1, when the match was abandoned in the 42nd minute, thanks to crowd-related issues. Serbian fans invaded the pitch and attacked Albanian players, after a drone with a pro-Albanian flag flew over the stadium. The match was first as a 3-0 awarded to Serbia, with UEFA upholding the decision. Serbia also received a three-point deduction. Both associations took it to the Court of Arbitration of Sport (CAS) where in July, it rejected the appeal by Serbia, thereby upholding Albania’s case. The match was later awarded 3-0 to Albania, with Serbia’s three-point deduction still in place. Post-that decision, Albania drew against Denmark, and despite home defeats to Portugal and Serbia, they made it to the Euros.

Wales

It came through a defeat against Bosnia-Herzegovina at Zenica, but Gareth Bale, or for that matter, Aaron Ramsey wouldn’t be complaining. Wales had, after all, qualified for the European Championship for their first ever time on Sunday. For a nation known to produce a plethora of high-quality footballing talent, the likes of Ryan Giggs, Ian Rush, Mark Hughes and Jimmy Murphy to name a few, Wales never really made it big, missing out on the big stage far too often during their distinguished club careers. However, it was down to Chris Coleman’s men to change course. And they did. Bale starred in Wales’ qualifying campaign, netting seven goals, followed by Arsenal’s Ramsey, who managed two. The Euros would also be their second appearance in a major tournament, after a massive 58-year gap. Wales previously reached the quarter-final of the 1958 World Cup, where they lost 1-0 to Brazil, thanks to a certain 17-year old Pele’s first international goal.

Slovakia

Since their existence as an independent nation (from 1993), Slovakia have made substantial progress as a footballing country. However, their big moment would come in 2010, when they qualified for the World Cup in South Africa. Not just that, they got past the group stage, including a win over then defending champions Italy. However, in the next round, they were defeated by eventual runners-up, the Netherlands. They missed out on the 2014 World Cup. But, on Sunday, they survived a scare against Luxembourg to win 4-2 and seal their first ever appearance in the European Championship. It’s been a rather eventful qualification campaign for the Slovaks. They began with a narrow win over Ukraine before upsetting former champions Spain in Zilina. Further wins over Belarus, Macedonia and Luxembourg would put Slovakia in a prime position to qualify. But setbacks were to follow. First, a defeat to Spain in September this year, followed by a draw against Ukraine. They lost momentum yet again, with a defeat to Belarus last week. They eventually made it as the second-placed team behind Spain with that all-important win over Luxembourg at the Stade Josy Barthel.

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