- Associated Press - Friday, December 11, 2015

PARIS (AP) - With more countries competing at the 2016 European Championship, the draw for the tournament will have an extra eight teams hoping to avoid Germany.

Next year’s tournament in France, the first to have 24 teams, will feature a new second round that includes the best four third-place finishers. That will give an added bit of optimism to the three teams that get drawn Saturday to face World Cup champion Germany in the group stage.

Besides the Germans, the other top-seeded teams in Pot 1 are Spain, England, Portugal, Belgium and host France.

The new faces include Albania, Iceland, Northern Ireland and Wales in Pot 4 and Slovakia in Pot 3.

The Germans will head into the tournament trying to follow up their fourth World Cup victory with a fourth European title, albeit without retired greats such as striker Miroslav Klose and defender Philipp Lahm.

In qualifying, Germany wasn’t perfect, failing to beat Ireland in two matches - losing away and drawing at home - and losing to Poland for the first time ever.

Spain, the two-time defending champion which won the 2010 World Cup in between European titles, has been rebuilding since being eliminated in the first round at the last World Cup. The Spanish have won nine of their 10 qualifiers.

Sadly, Euro 2016 won’t just be about soccer.

There are ongoing security fears in the wake of last month’s deadly attacks in Paris, and the draw will take place amid the backdrop of the turmoil surrounding UEFA President Michel Platini.

Three suicide bombers blew themselves up outside Stade de France on Nov. 13, while France was playing Germany, raising the question of what the carnage would have been if they had entered the stadium.

Nervous fans have received guarantees of their safety from Euro 2016 organizers.

Saturday’s draw will take place in Paris without Platini, perhaps the country’s greatest player and the current - though suspended - president of UEFA.

Platini lost his appeal Friday at the Court of Arbitration for Sport to lift his 90-day FIFA ban. The case centers on FIFA President Sepp Blatter’s approval of $2 million of FIFA money that Platini got in 2011 as backdated salary.

Another potential issue could arise if Russia and Turkey are drawn into the same group. Turkey shot down a Russian war plane last month, leading to increased tensions between the two countries.

Away from politics, the hosts are also facing the likelihood of playing without one of their best players.

Karim Benzema, a striker who plays for Real Madrid, was suspended indefinitely by the French soccer federation after being charged with conspiracy to blackmail relating to an extortion scam over a sex tape involving teammate Mathieu Valbuena.

With or without Benzema, there will be plenty of star power throughout the expanded 51-match schedule.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic, now 34, may be playing in his last big tournament for Sweden. Gareth Bale will finally get a chance to shine on a big stage for Wales. Robert Lewandowski has been in excellent form and scored 13 goals in qualifying for Poland. And Cristiano Ronaldo, still chasing his first major trophy with Portugal, will be trying to add to his record 26 tournament goals.

“Portugal has never been the favorite. It’s normal, it never won a major title,” Ronaldo said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “I’m hopeful that this time Portugal can come up with a brilliant performance.”

Copyright © 2022 The Washington Times, LLC.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide