The UEFA Euro 2020 was one of the first sporting casualties of the COVID pandemic as it was postponed for a year. As 2020 rolls to an end, we do have our final list of 24 teams that will feature in the competition next year; that is, if it does go ahead after all. Here’s my take on the five biggest surprise teams going into the tournament.
NORTH MACEDONIA – The former Yugoslav republic only became an independent member of FIFA and UEFA in 1994. North Macedonia qualified for Path D of Euro 2020 play-offs by winning their group (Group D4) in the 2018-19 UEFA Nations League D. In the play-offs, they beat Kosovo 2-1 in the semi-finals in Skopje, before beating Georgia in the final at home in Tbilisi courtesy of an early second-half goal from their veteran captain and arguably their most noteworthy player, Goran Pandev. The 37-year-old is eleven years older than the nation he represents.
The Macedonians will only be the second newcomers in next year’s competition, alongside Finland, and feature in Group C alongside the Netherlands, Ukraine, and Austria.
FINLAND – The Finns have suffered quite a few close calls and heartbreaks in their quest for a berth in a major football tournament since the inception of their Football Association in 1907. Next year, after what will be a 114-year wait, they’ll finally see their national team play in one.
Finland confirmed qualification for their first ever Euros after beating Liechtenstein 3-0 at home in Helsinki last November, cementing a second-place finish in their UEFA Euro 2020 Qualifiers group (Group J) behind Italy. They are the last Nordic nation to finally make it to a major tournament.
Finland will feature in Group B at the Euros next year alongside Denmark, Belgium, and Russia.
SCOTLAND – It is quite remarkable for a nation as rich with footballing culture and history as Scotland to go as long without an appearance in a major football tournament as they have. It has almost been a generation since they last featured in one, i.e. the 1998 FIFA World Cup.
The Scots booked a place in Path C of the play-offs for the Euros by winning Group 1 of the 2018-19 UEFA Nations League C. In the play-offs, they beat Israel 5-3 on penalties (after a 0-0 draw) in the semi-finals, before beating Serbia 5-4 on penalties after a scintillating display in a 1-1 draw in Belgrade. Time stood still for Scotland goalkeeper David Marshall, who after saving the decisive penalty from Aleksandar Mitrović, looked to the referee for one last moment (that felt like an eternity, really) to confirm any chance of an encroachment, before letting his emotions take over.
Scotland will feature in Group D at the Euros next year alongside the Czech Republic, Croatia, and ‘rivals’ England.
TURKEY – Şenol Güneş inherited a Turkey team in disarray when he returned as their coach for a second term, a position he previously occupied between 2000 and 2004, when his side notably finished third in both the 2002 FIFA World Cup and the 2003 FIFA Confederations Cup.
Much to everyone’s surprise, Turkey posed as a real indomitable unit during the Euro 2020 Qualifiers as they finished second in Group H behind France, losing once and drawing twice. Their defence, spearheaded by Juventus’ Merih Demiral and Leicester City’s Çağlar Söyüncü (bolstered also by Schalke center back Ozan Kabak and Fortuna Düsseldorf’s Kaan Ayhan) saw just three goals conceded, with Cenk Tosun leading the attack line at the front, supported by the creative might of Hakan Çalhanoğlu (AC Milan) and Cengiz Ünder (then of Roma, currently at Leicester City).
Turkey will feature in Group A at the Euros next year alongside Italy, Wales, and Switzerland.
HUNGARY – A force of yesteryear, Hungary ended a thirty-year wait for a major tournament when they qualified for the 2016 Euros. Hungary qualified for Path A of Euro 2020 play-offs by winning their group (Group C2) in the 2018-19 UEFA Nations League C. Despite beating Bulgaria 3-1 in the semis, the Hungarians looked set to miss out on the Euros during the play-off final. Iceland led Hungary for the better part of 75 minutes after Péter Gulácsi fumbled in Gylfi Sigurdsson’s 11th-minute free kick, but Loic Nego equalised for the Magyars in the 88th minute before youngster Dominik Szoboszlai completed the turnaround in the second minute of injury time, making sure that the Icelandic thunderclap won’t be echoing across the continent next summer.
Hungary will feature in a tricky Group F at the Euros next year alongside World Cup holders France, reigning European and Nations League champions Portugal, and Germany, with two group games at home in Budapest.