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Euro 2016: Four big questions

Euro 2016
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Euro 2016 beckons for Iceland, Wales and several other smaller nations

If you want to raise a warm smile in chilly Iceland, mention the form of their national football team. The country with a population of just 300,000 has never qualified for a major tournament, yet they're much improved and now stand on the brink of history.

When the Swedish coach Lars Lagerback, who led his own country to five successive major tournaments between 2000 and 2008, became Iceland's joint-manager in 2010, they were lower than Liechtenstein in FIFA's rankings.

Just four years later, they were a playoff away from becoming the smallest country to qualify for the World Cup and now, after Friday's 2-1 win at home to the Czech Republic, sit on top of a Euro 2016 qualifying group that also includes Netherlands and Turkey.

Iceland were ranked 38th of UEFA's 53 nations before the qualifiers began but, after five wins from their six games to date, people in the country are already talking about a trip to France next year, where they would be the country with the smallest population. 

"Lars has an aura and his tactics are working with a generation of winners who came through together," said Toddy Orlygsson, who won 41 Iceland caps and now coaches the nation's Under-19s. "If Iceland reach France, I think we'd sell all of our tickets and easily take more than 3,000 fans."

That number equates to one percent of the population, which is equivalent to England taking 500,000 fans to France next June. Even then, there won't be enough tickets to sate demand in Iceland.

Iceland's rise is one of the best stories of Euro 2016 qualifying.

The European Championship format is undergoing a revamp which will broaden interest in the tournament. 24 teams will compete in France, an increase from the 16 that participated from 1996-2012. Before that, only eight teams qualified from 1980-1992, which was double the number that made up the field for the first editions from 1960-76.

Euro 2012 was hosted by Poland and Ukraine and was an overall success, boasting average crowds of 46,471 and a total attendance of more than 1.4 million. Numbers could be even higher in France which, with numerous airports and international rail connections, is easy and cheap to reach for most European football fans. 

England have been the only country from the United Kingdom at recent European Championships but there's a realistic chance that Scotland, who last qualified in 1996, as well as Wales and Northern Ireland, could join them in France. The nation that hosted the 1998 World Cup has the infrastructure to cope with 51 matches in 10 venues that have an average capacity of 50,000.

Stadiums have been rebuilt or developed for the tournament. Lille, Bordeaux, Lyon and Nice boast new venues, while Marseille's iconic Velodrome has been expanded to seat 67,500 and wrapped in a dramatic dipping white roof that makes it one of football's finest arenas. Football cities like Lens and St. Etienne will also stage games.

The spectre of hooliganism has diminished too, though it has not vanished. Violence was rife on the streets of Germany during Euro '88 but the atmosphere there at the 2006 World Cup was more party than problematic. Brazil last year was a further example of a country hosting a tournament that raises national pride and lifts confidence.

Wales haven't qualified for a major tournament since the 1958 World Cup but lead their group after Friday's impressive 1-0 win over a Belgium side ranked second in the world. Two teams qualify automatically and the Welsh are five points clear of third-placed Israel. 

"Top day and night in Cardiff," opined Wales fan Tim Williams, from Bala, a small lakeside town in North Wales. "It was the best atmosphere at a Welsh game and there were fantastic scenes when we scored, even if I did go flying over my seat. It's what watching football is all about; the passion of the fans is now being matched by the team."

Wales' population of three million is used to football heartache -- the national team almost made the 1994 World Cup and Euro 2004 -- but now the people dare to dream. Friday's second half rendition of the national anthem in the sell-out 32,000 capacity Cardiff City stadium was spine-tingling and more usually associated with rugby matches, or "egg" as some football fans call it.

A day later, fans in Belfast also sang loud as they watched Northern Ireland -- population 1.5 million -- edge closer to a first major tournament since the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. In a half-built Windsor Park, the backdrop of which was the setting sun over the Divis mountain in the west of the city, a 0-0 draw vs. Romania kept Northern Ireland in second place.

"This would be a bigger achievement than the boys getting to Mexico in '86 or beating Spain in '82," says Paul McVeigh, who played 20 times for Northern Ireland. "The players who went there were all fantastic players at top clubs: Norman Whiteside, Jimmy Nicholl and Sammy McIlroy at Manchester United, Pat Jennings at Arsenal, Gerry Armstrong at Tottenham.

"They were great established players in the top flight of English football; they should have reached the World Cup. The current team have Conor McLaughlin at Fleetwood, Oliver Norwood at Sheffield Wednesday and Stuart Dallas at Brentford. Michael O'Neill, the manager, has been the difference. He's revolutionised football in Northern Ireland.

"When I played we weren't ultra-professional," continues McVeigh. "They are now. They recently trained at Man City's training ground ahead of a friendly, they stay in the best hotels, they have everything right on preparation and sports science side."

While smaller nations were anticipated to qualify for Euro 2016, they weren't expected to win their groups. Slovakia has a population five million but their national team are top of a group which includes Spain and Ukraine. Along with England, the Slovaks are the only team who've won all six of their qualifiers so far.

Meanwhile Croatia, with a population of 4.2 million, lead a group that also contains Italy. Austria, who last qualified for a tournament in 1998 -- they also co-hosted Euro 2008 -- are well clear of Sweden and Russia.

Euro 2016 will be Europe's most cosmopolitan melting pot yet of talent, though there will be no appearance from smallest country in the qualifying tournament. Debutants Gibraltar, with a population of just 30,001, have lost all six of their games so far, scoring just once while conceding 33.

Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.

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