On Friday, hosts France and Romania kick off Euro 2016 at the Stade de France in Paris—a month-long tournament that is set to renew old footballing rivalries, and spark off new ones.
France is hosting the Euros for the third time, after 1960 (the inaugural edition) and 1984. This edition will see an expanded version of the tournament, with 24 teams vying for top European honours come 10 July. Held every four years, the 2016 competition will also feature four new entrants into the fold—Northern Ireland, Albania, Iceland and Wales.
So here are five potentially interesting (some wacky) encounters the group stage worth pencilling into your viewing schedule.
Switzerland vs Albania (11 June, Lens)
This may not sound as exciting as it actually is—for reasons that are slightly beyond football. According to UEFA, several Albanians—including Amir Abrashi, Arlind Ajeti, Migjen Basha, Shkëlzen Gashi and Frédéric Veseli—were born in Switzerland. Other members of the squad—such as Naser Aliji, Lorik Cana, Burim Kukeli and Ermir Lenjani—were said to have “spent significant parts of their childhood in the Alpine nation."
Equally, Switzerland has several players of Kosovar-Albanian and Albanian extraction, notably Granit Xhaka, Admir Mehmedi, Xherdan Shaqiri, Valon Behrami and Blerim Džemaili. The match will also see a tasty personal rivalry—the first of its kind in the tournament’s history—featuring Granit Xhaka of Switzerland and his brother Taulant of Albania.
Tauland opted to play for Albania in international football after having represented Switzerland at the youth level.
Austria vs Hungary (14 June, Bordeaux)
As per records, matches between Austria and Hungary are the second most played fixture in international football after Argentina vs Uruguay. This fixture is potentially interesting because of the history of the countries involved, next-door neighbours. Their first meeting took place over a century ago, in 1902 where Austria thrashed Hungary 5-1. Euro 2016 sees the teams clash for the first time in 10 years. Their last fixture was a friendly, which Hungary won 2-1.
England vs Wales (16 June, Lens)
When England meet Wales, it will be just their fifth match against each other in over three decades. Prior to that, the teams used to meet regularly in the century-old British Home Championship, which also used to feature the two other countries of the United Kingdom (Scotland and Northern Ireland). The record books say that England and Wales have met 103 times before, with England winning 68 of those matches and Wales winning 14. Wales, for the record, won their last competitive fixture against England in 1984, when debutant Mark Hughes scored the winner.
Belgium vs Italy (14 June, Lyon)
This could well be the match of the group stages, given that both teams head into this evenly matched, at least on paper. Belgium have been making waves in international football for the last 3-4 years, with a so-called ‘golden generation’ in their ranks, blessed in attack and midfield. Italy, the finalists of the last Euro have always been there and thereabouts, known for their consistency and tactical prowess. The teams haven’t met too often in international football, with this only their 21st match against each other since 1954.
There’s an interesting play to watch out for. The two coaches—Marc Wilmots (Belgium) and Antonio Conte (Italy)—turned out as players for their respective sides the last time these two sides met in a Euro tournament (2000). Belgium, for the record, haven’t beaten Italy since 1972.
Switzerland vs France (19 June, Lille)
Switzerland, in the last five years, have come through as one of the most improved teams in Europe, and even if their record against France doesn’t inspire much confidence, the hosts can ill afford to take this contest as a walk in the park. The last time the two met, in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, France ran out easy 5-2 winners. The one stat that will no doubt please the hosts is that they’re yet to concede in Lille in over a century of playing football there. The last time the French conceded a goal (indeed all of three) in Lille was in a 4-3 win over Belgium in 1914.
In India, Euro 2016 matches will be aired on Sony Six.