Even the most casual of sports fans have heard of the World Cup, the world’s most prolific sporting event. The casual sports fan may not have heard of the UEFA Euro soccer tournament, a once-every-four-years event that is held on even years in-between World Cups. It’s the best international soccer tournament outside the big one – apologies to Copa America – and it begins Friday. Here’s a list of 10 of the best group stage matches.
Saturday, June 11th – England vs. Russia – 2:00 p.m. CT ESPN
There’s plenty of pressure on this England team to perform well after its disappointing group stage exit in World Cup 2014. Thirty-year-old Wayne Rooney is now the elder statesman on a roster that features several young stars like Harry Kane (22), Dele Alli (20) and Marcus Rashford (18). Russia’s last successful EURO competition came in 2008 when it made the semifinals. The Soviet Union won the first European Championship in 1960.
Sunday, June 12th – Germany vs. Ukraine – 2:00 p.m. CT ESPN
There’s a million reasons to watch three-time European champs, Germany. Among them: Manuel Neuer is the best goalkeeper in the world, they have a wealth of quality midfielders (Kroos, Ozil, Schurrle, Gotze) and talented forward Thomas Muller plus their coach looks like Moe from the Three Stooges. Ukraine doesn’t have the household names like Germany but the team has the potential to be sneaky good.
Monday, June 13th – Belgium vs. Italy – 2:00 p.m. CT ESPN
This pairing features two of the Top 12 in the FIFA World Rankings with Belgium ranked second and Italy 12th. Italy was runner-up in the 2012 Euros but got its only win in 1968. Belgium has tons of big names but little to show for it. Belgium will be among the favorites to win but like the FIFA ranking, it’s probably a little overhyped. These two are grouped with Ireland and Sweden so it will be interesting to see who makes it out of the group stage.
Thursday, June 16th – England vs. Wales – 8:00 a.m. CT ESPN
England is one of the most compelling teams to watch this tournament but this one is all about Welsh superstar Gareth Bale. Euro 2016 is Wales’ debut in the European Championship and finishing first or second in Group B (England, Russia, Wales, Slovakia) is not unthinkable for Bale and co.
Thursday, June 16th – Germany vs. Poland – 2:00 p.m. CT ESPN
Poland features one of the world’s best strikers, Robert Lewandowski, who plays in Germany’s top league for Bayern Munich. He’s very familiar with most of the German national team, as they are with him. Germany is going to advance, so it’s up to Poland, Ukraine and Northern Ireland to decide who else comes out of Group C.
Friday, June 17th – Spain vs. Turkey – 2:00 p.m. CT ESPN
Spain is the two-time defending champs and always a powerhouse, but just lost to 137th-ranked Georgia in a tune up. Turkey is a sleeper who could go far on the shoulders of midfielder Arda Turan. Spain is stacked at every position and has some of soccer’s foremost technicians in the midfield. Turan will face several of his FC Barcelona teammates this match.
Saturday, June 18th – Portugal vs. Austria – 2:00 p.m. CT ESPN
Cristiano Ronaldo is the main reason Portugal is ranked eighth in the world. David Alaba is the main reason Austria is ranked 10th. Ronaldo is a must-watch every time his team plays.
Sunday, June 19th – Switzerland vs. France – 2:00 p.m. CT ESPN
France should have a resurgence as the host nation with a deep, young squad. Tall, athletic Paul Pogba is one to watch in the midfield and forwards Olivier Giroud, Antoine Griezmann and Anthony Martial are all fantastic goal scorers. Switzerland is usually the definition of solid, never great. The Swiss player to watch is another on the All-Name Team, midfielder Granit Xhaka.
Tuesday, June 21st – Croatia vs. Spain – 2:00 p.m. CT ESPN
Croatian midfielders Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, who play for Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively, will be another case of familiar foes for the Spaniards, who feature a number of Barca and Real players on the back line and in the midfield. Someone will have to beat Andres Iniesta, Sergio Ramos and David De Gea to win this thing. Spain won’t go down easily.
Wednesday, June 22nd – Sweden vs. Belgium – 2:00 p.m. CT ESPN2
Belgium should win Group E, but you never know. Kevin De Bruyne has been in top form and Belgium also has a number of other players poised to go off this year. However, Sweden has Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The one-man wrecking ball who talks about himself in third person is a goal-scoring machine and Belgium isn’t known for its defense. This could be a high-scoring affair.