Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Euro 2016 -- WALES!

In 1996, England lost to Germany (of course) in the semi-finals of the European Championships.  Since then, here are the teams that have reached the semi-finals of the European Championships and the World Cup (winners in bold, runners-up in italics):

1998 World Cup:  France, Brazil, Croatia, Netherlands
2000 Euros:  France, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal
2002 World Cup:  Brazil, Germany, Turkey, South Korea
2004 Euros:  Greece, Portugal, Czech Rep., Netherlands
2006 World Cup:  Italy, France, Germany, Portugal
2008 Euros:  Spain, Germany, Russia, Turkey
2010 World Cup:  Spain, Netherlands, Germany, Uruguay
2012 Euros:  Spain, Italy, Germany, Portugal
2014 World Cup:  Germany, Argentina, Netherlands, Brazil

Do notice anything interesting -- other than a mysterious victory for Greece and a whole lot of close-but-no-cigars for the Netherlands?  That's right:  no English-speaking country has reached the semi-finals of either tournament in the last 20 years.

Until now.

On July 1, in the Stade Pierre-Mauroy (near Lille, France), Wales faced Belgium in the quarter-finals of the European Championships.  Almost no one had expected Wales to get so far, and they were heavy underdogs against Belgium, which was ranked as the second-best national team in the world.  Sure enough, Belgium jumped out to a 1-0 lead after only 13 minutes.  But never underestimate the Welsh spirit!  Wales came roaring back with a glorious display of soccer, crushing Belgium 3-1 in one of the most stunning upsets in the history of the sport.

Much of the credit here must go to Gareth Bale, one of the world's best strikers.  Bale normally plies his trade for Real Madrid, which is only the best club on earth.  He has been magnificent throughout this tournament, and he is undoubtedly the main reason for Wales's success.  One of England's biggest problems in international soccer has been the lack of a truly great striker -- Bale is showing what a difference that type of player can make.

But Bale didn't score any of the goals against Belgium -- although he was critical in making everything run.  The Welsh team is seizing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, much like Indiana State did while Larry Bird was there.  If nothing else, they have shown that English-speaking teams can win at this level.  It will be interesting to see if England heeds their example.

Here is a complete list of the quarter-finals (you will notice that unlike England, France had little trouble with Iceland):

Poland 1 - 1 Portugal (Portugal wins 5-3 on penalties)
Wales 3 - 1 Belgium
Germany 1 - 1 Italy (Germany wins 6-5 on penalties)
France 5 - 2 Iceland

That sets up the following semi-finals:

07/06/2016 (in Lyon):  Portugal v. Wales

The other striker for Real Madrid, Cristiano Ronaldo, plays for Portugal.  So yeah, that's a pretty good squad.

07/07/2016 (in Marseille):  Germany v. France

Germany handled France without too much difficulty at the last World Cup, but I think the French will be difficult to beat at home.  And Germany had all kinds of trouble with Italy -- the Germans only survived because Italy missed too many penalty kicks.

Here are the latest odds to win the tournament:

Germany:  9 to 5
France:  15 to 8
Portugal:  7 to 2
Wales:  15 to 2