European Championship 2016:
Five wishes for the tournament
There are just 100 days to go before the 2016 European Championship kicks off in France, but here in cold, gray Paris you wouldn't know it.
The French have fallen out of love with their football team, and barely an advertising poster in the metro reminds you of the approaching tournament.
Many French people find it hard right now to think of anything except terrorism. In the absence of any hype, here are five modest hopes for Euro 2016:
1. A Cinderella story
Small teams hardly ever win anything in club soccer anymore. So dominant have the big boys got, that we have been reduced to treating Leicester City -- the 24th-richest soccer club on earth -- as a Cinderella.
The big boys probably will win Euro 2016 too. True, the Euros have produced surprise winners in the past, notably Czechoslovakia in 1976, Denmark in 1992 and Greece in 2004. But now that the field has expanded to 24 teams, the path to victory is longer than ever, and that counts against underdogs.
The good news is that we are going to see an unprecedented gathering of Cinderellas. Iceland (323,000 inhabitants) has become the smallest European country ever to qualify for a big tournament. Albania (2.8 million inhabitants) also makes its debut. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland (1.8 million) plays its first tournament since 1986, and Wales (3 million) its first since 1958.
Between them, this lot should surely manage to kiss a prince or two. Conversely, for the big countries there has never been such potential for embarrassment.
2. Fans get to experience the joys of France
I still have the photo. It's dated July 3, 1998 and it shows four of us journalists (all looking frighteningly young) having lunch in the sunlit flower garden of the Colombe d'Or restaurant in St-Paul-de-Vence, in the south of France. On our table are a basket of local vegetables and a wine bucket.
Inside the restaurant hang paintings by Picasso, Matisse and Chagall, supposedly left behind as payments for lunch. We are living the life that the Germans describe with the phrase, "Living like God in France."
We were in France to cover the World Cup. Each morning I'd get up late after the previous night's game, then have a croissant and a coffee with L'Equipe sports newspaper on a sunny little square in Lyon, or eat bouillabaisse fish soup for lunch beside a swimming pool in Marseille.
These may be cliches, but they were so seductive that when I returned to office life in London after the Zidane final, I couldn't take it anymore. A month after the World Cup I resigned from my job. In 2001, I bought a little flat in Paris. I'm still here. That's where I'm writing this article, and where my children were born and go to school.
Perhaps Euro 2016 will change the life of some young visiting fan. Let's hope the joys of France outweigh the downer of the endless queues for security controls at stadiums.
3. The French embrace their team again
The relationship between French fans and Les Bleus hit an all-time low in the South African resort town of Knysna in June 2010, when the players went on strike mid-World Cup. Striker Nicolas Anelka had been expelled from the team for swearing at coach Raymond Domenech, and the players chose Anelka's side. They sat on their bus refusing to train.
The nation watching on the sofa back home dismissed the players as spoiled, unpatriotic multimillionaires. The phrase "the bus of shame" entered the French language. Most French commentators agree that racism was a factor too: Many of the country's fans did not (and still do not) identify with a mostly non-white national team.
Whatever the reasons, by 2012 only 3 percent of French people thought the national team represented positive values, according to a poll by Sportlab. Even Didier Deschamps, the Bleus' manager, said that this generation of players didn't "know how to distinguish good from evil."
Fans were put off again by last year's sordid affair of "le sextape" in which Karim Benzema was accused of blackmailing his teammate Mathieu Valbuena. Benzema, France's biggest star, will almost certainly not play at the Euro.
The French author Daniel Riolo writes in his Racaille Football Club: "The public feels lost. It loves football, but it doesn't love the people who play it."
It's up to a very decent French team (starring Paul Pogba) to change that perception this summer.
4. England plays some entertaining football
For decades, the English ritual went as follows: 1. Steam into the tournament loudly predicting triumph; 2. Limp back home soon afterwards having bored the pants off everybody.
Other ritual elements included endless unimaginative straight passes forward (English players didn't do diagonals), wilting-in-the-heat, backs-to-the-wall defence in their own penalty area, and afterwards a nationwide hunt for scapegoats (remember David Beckham in '98?).
Since the disastrous World Cup of 2010, expectations have collapsed. Hardly any English fan over the age of 8 is silly enough to expect victory this summer. England's defence and midfield are as flawed as ever.
But what is different this time is the unheard-of prospect that before limping home, the team might actually entertain. The rise of professional academies seems to have helped save creative young players from the traditional physical long-ball game of English kids' soccer.
Harry Kane, Daniel Sturridge, Jamie Vardy, Raheem Sterling, Delle Ali and Wayne Rooney (when all is said and done, the most gifted English player of the past 40 years) are an array of attacking talent the country may never have had before.
Exactly 50 years after the nation's only prize, would an exciting run to the semis be too much to ask? (Answer: Yes, probably.)
5. Belgium wins it
This country of 11 million people is the closest thing to a Cinderella among the serious contenders.
The Red Devils have come far. During their wilderness years from 2002 through 2014, some of their games weren't even televised at home. Defender Jan Vertonghen recalls a match in Finland when Belgium brought zero supporters. In 2013, the Devils ranked 54th in the FIFA rankings.
Since then, they have accomplished the feat that Les Bleus still only dream of: They have won over their nation. Belgium now ranks first in the world. It is playing in its own backyard. If the country ever had a chance, it's now.
And the Red Devils aren't just good: They are good to watch. Coach Marc Wilmots has broken with Belgium's traditional counterattacking style.
He told me in 2014: "I have a different vision: That you have to dare. Not like little Belgians. Dare to take a match in hand."
Normally Belgium, a country divided by language, doesn't do nationalism. But this summer, the black-yellow-red flags will fly not just in Belgium but even here and there in the neighboring Netherlands.
When I grew up in Holland in the 1980s, the Dutch national team often used to miss major tournaments, and we used to support the Devils instead. That tradition will be revived this summer. Over 80,000 Dutch people already have enrolled on Facebook for a "Workshop: Becoming Belgian Fan."
Belgians, please don't let us down.
Simon Kuper is a contributor to ESPN FC and co-author, with Stefan Szymanski, of Soccernomics.