BY JOE CARROLL
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Thereâ€™s uncertainty in Europe.Â Britain will go to the polls at the end of June to vote in an in-out referendum, the outcome of which is currently impossible to predict.
MeanwhileÂ the winners of the forthcoming European Championships are just as difficult to identify, with few nations so farÂ able to make a convincing case for themselves.
In many ways the tournament -due in part to its relatively condensedÂ format- is all-too predictable. Three time winners Germany have made six of the 14Â finals in the championshipâ€™s history, making two other semi-final appearances. And we know that home advantage counts,Â with the host nations failing to make the semi-finalsÂ on just two occasions (incidentally, this was at the last two championships in Poland & Ukraine and Austria & Switzerland).
The team that scores the most goals in the tournament is more often than not the team lifting the Henri Delaunay trophy (9/14) while the recipient of the Golden Boot has found himself with a winners medal in nine championships.
But while there are certainly front runnersÂ forÂ the top scorer award and teams weâ€™re confident will find themselves in the latter stages of the competition (either through sheer will or the utter hopelessness of ourÂ home nations), there would be few teams or players youâ€™d wager your mortgage on to clean up.
Rather thanÂ paint a rather dour image of a tournament thatÂ should act as a celebration of Europeâ€™s finest footballers, we should look ahead to France 2016Â with relish, even more so considering theÂ expansion from 16 teams to 24 and the resultingÂ extra knock-out round which will make things even harder to predict.
As pattern seeking creatures, we only need to look into our past to seeÂ that an odds-defying underdog success story may just be worth a few quid. Letâ€™s go back to where it all started, which is incidentally where it will all end this summer: France. In 1960 the USSR repelledÂ a free-scoring Yugoslavia (much fancied to lift the inaugural trophy afterÂ a thrilling 5-4 win over the hosts) with legendary keeper Lev Yashin denying the Yugoslavs again and again. Not quite a Roy of the Rovers story, but unexpected all the same.
The proceeding two championships introducedÂ the theme of host nations making full use of their home advantage, as Spain and Italy brought it home in 64â€² and 68â€².
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While Belgium claimed a respectable third place on home soil in 72â€² West Germany decided it was time to restore some pride on the continent, starting a run of three consecutive appearances in European Championship finals, winning twice in 72â€² and 80â€².
Considering theirÂ fine reputation for tournament football, the amazing thing about the 88â€²Â competition was the Germansâ€™ absence from the final. Itâ€™s bad enough that they didnâ€™t win it, but not even to make it to the final! And on home soil too!Â Just two years before the demolition of the Berlin wall changed the face of European politics, so too did Germanyâ€™s absence from their own MunichÂ finalÂ seemÂ to disturbÂ the once certain future of the Euros and its tendency to yield host-winners. Or at least, German winners.
The reunified Germans suffered the greatest shock in European Championship history (to date) four years later, whenÂ they were beaten 2-0 in the final by a team that couldnâ€™t even qualify. Denmark were simply expected to make up the numbers when they were drafted in with two weeksâ€™ preparation, in place of a Yugoslavia embroiled in Balkan conflict. The tournament, and the final in particular, made household names of John Jensen,Â Kim Vilfort and -perhaps youâ€™ve heard of him- Peter Schmeichel. A feat surely, never to be beatenâ€¦
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1988-2000 continued the trendÂ in which theÂ host nations progressed to at least the semi-final stage.Â Germany surprised no one with their 96â€² Wembley triumph whileÂ one of the best ever FrenchÂ sides -hot off the heels of their first World Cup triompheÂ in 98â€²- clinchedÂ Euro glory in 2000. David Trezequet won it with theÂ second trophy-winning golden goal in as many finals;Â Oliver Bierhoff taking advantage of the brief but exciting new rule against the Czechs two years earlier.
But while no one batted an eyelid at those outcomes, the following tournament brought us one of the greatest European Championship upsets in its history. Greeceâ€™s extraordinary triumph over host nation Portugal in 2004 was on par with Denmarkâ€™s success 12 years earlier. The stage was set for the golden boy and Eusebio-reincarnate,Â Christiano Ronaldo to lead his nation to its first everÂ Henri Delaunay, on home turf. But the Greekâ€™s pragmatism, stern rearguard and the head ofÂ Angelos Charisteas were all too much for Portugalâ€™sÂ flair.
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So what are the chances of history repeating? Spain continue to reign on the club front in Europe. Real Madrid beatÂ city rivals Athletico in the Champions League final, whileÂ Seville made the impossible a reality, clinching their third Europa League title in as many years. Could the nation follow suit?
With the likes of Germany, France and Italy allÂ busy re-building ageing squads come 2008, Spain took their opportunity to impose their own brand of possession based football, mixed with youth, skill and frightening pace. Despite the nations ofÂ EuropeÂ expecting the same trick in 2012, the Spaniards (led by Xavi, Iniesta, Puyol, Casillas, et al, and fresh off the back of a World Cup win in 2010) made history, becoming the first nation to winÂ successiveÂ tournaments. And they did it in some style too; a 4-0 thrashing of Italy in Kiev.
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Despite the obvious talents of players such as Morata, Silva, Fabregas and Busquets, there is an acknowledgement following their embarrassment in Brazil two years ago that this Spain side is a far cry from the age of tiki-taka; a 32-year old Iniesta a beautiful yet crumbling relic of that golden era.
Which gives this summerâ€™s championships in France an air of unpredictability. 24 teams. 4 home nations. The last time a single nation will host the tournament, before 2020â€™s pan-European experiment. WhetherÂ England, Wales, Northern Ireland (and maybe Scotland) will be there to join them as members of the EU is as uncertain now as the nation whoâ€™ll be celebrating in Paris on 10th July.