Netherlands among big teams making a mess of Euro 2016 qualification
The last time the European Championships were held in France was 1984, which coincidentally was also the last time the Netherlands failed to qualify. Back then, only eight teams made it through to the finals, and only the winners of each qualification group were deemed good enough, so it was a pretty tough selection process.
On that occasion the Dutch were battling Spain for the only place in their group, and the two sides went into their respective last games, both against Malta, level on points. It was a straight shoot-out to decide the qualification place -- whoever beat Malta by more goals would go through. The Netherlands swept them aside 5-0, giving them an 11-goal advantage on goal difference. Four days later in Seville, Spain, faced the Maltese and by the 24th minute it was 1-1, so the Dutch looked the favourite to qualify. Over the following 76 minutes the Spanish ran in another 11 goals, which meant the two sides finished level on points, level on goal difference, but Spain were two ahead on goals scored, and went through.
All this is to say that the last time the Netherlands failed to qualify for the European Championships, it was in cruel circumstances and by the finest of margins.
Now the qualification process is much easier. Yet as things stand, the Netherlands will fail to qualify for France in a far more embarrassing fashion.
The expansion of the European Championships to 24 teams was greeted with some scepticism because of the fear that it would result in too many thrashings by the big boys during the finals in France. That, of course, relied on the assumption that the big boys would all actually be there, but "led" by the Netherlands, that might not be the case. In a qualification process structured to all but wave through the traditional powers and stalwarts, many are somehow making a mess of things.
After their 3-0 defeat in Turkey on Sunday, which followed the 1-0 reverse at home to Iceland on Thursday, the Netherlands are on the brink. Not only are they out of contention for the top two spots in Group A which automatically qualify for the finals, but their participation in the playoffs in November is now out of their hands, as they're two points behind the Turks with two games to play.
On paper, there might still be a decent chance for the Dutch to finish third, given that they play Kazakhstan (who have only two draw to their name) and the Czech Republic at home, whereas Turkey are away to the Czechs, then face implausible group-leaders Iceland in the final game. Then again, on paper, the Dutch should be better than 3-1-4.
"That goes totally not through my head," said Dutch boss Danny Blind after the Turkey debacle, when asked if he was considering resignation. While the idea of a coach leaving after only two games in charge might seem harsh, Blind was Guus Hiddink's assistant before he stepped down in June, so the former Ajax defender is clearly culpable for the mess in which the Netherlands find themselves.
And a mess it is, particularly when the chief criticism of this qualification process is that it would be too easy for teams to reach the final. There's an upside here: With 24 teams advancing, smaller countries with less international experience would get their chance to reach the big stage and grow football in their country. On the other hand, qualification could be viewed as a process designed to ensure the big teams cruise through. If they couldn't finish in the top two of a six- (or five-) team group, they had the fallback of being the best third-placed side, and after that the consolation prize of the playoffs.
For a team like the Netherlands, it should almost be more difficult to not qualify.
It's not just the Dutch that have been made fools of, either. Serbia, with the likes of Branislav Ivanovic, Adem Ljajic, Dusan Tadic and Nemanja Matic in their ranks, have only one win and a draw in Group I and were out of the running even without their three-point deduction following the trouble in their game against Albania. Losing out to Portugal is not a disgrace, but being 10 points behind Denmark and the Albanians is a little more embarrassing.
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Russia, hampered by the saga over Fabio Capello, his wages and more importantly the fairly suffocating and frankly terrible job he's done with them, could still make it through Group G but are a full eight points behind top-of-the-table Austria. The Russians have missed only one European Championships since the breakup of the Soviet Union, have been at three of the last four major tournaments, and were ranked ninth in the world not too long ago. It's a similar story for Bosnia-Herzegovina, by the FIFA rankings the 20th-best team in Europe, but who need something akin to a miracle to make it through Group B as they trail Wales, Belgium and Israel.
Perhaps the most extreme example is Greece, who might not be the most loved team in the world but who won the trophy 11 years ago and have been at five of the last six international tournaments. This time, they're stone bottom of Group F (0-2-5), sitting below the Faroe Islands to whom they have lost twice. The only other team the Faroes have beaten twice in their 27-year history of competitive internationals is San Marino, but they managed to beat the Greeks twice in eight months.
Suffice to say, Euro 2016 could look quite a bit different than most of us expected. The 'minnows' might be there because of the qualification process, but some established powers might not be in spite of it.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.