England and Southgate will blush at the five toughest ever routes to a European Championship final

Matt Stead
Italy striker Mario Balotelli with England goalkeeper Joe Hart
Joe Hart was never really the same again after Euro 2012

England have a kinder theoretical path to the Euro 2024 final but on the other side of that draw France might be about to embark on one of the toughest.

Four of the five pre-tournament favourites for Euro 2024 have landed in the same knockouts bracket, with England the exception as France, Germany, Portugal and Spain try to plot their routes out.

England could hypothetically reach the final facing teams with an average FIFA ranking of 31.5 (Serbia 32, Denmark 21, Slovenia 57, Slovakia 45, Switzerland 19 and Romania 47), representing one of the kindest paths in international tournament history.

But France, for example, could have to come up against opponents with an average FIFA ranking of 12.5 (Austria 25, Netherlands 7, Poland 26, Belgium 3, Portugal 6 and Spain 8), which would place them squarely on this list

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5) Greece, Euro 2004

FIFA ranking at start of tournament: 35

FIFA ranking at end of tournament: 14

Opponents: Portugal (22), Spain (3), Russia (31), France (2), Czech Republic (11)

Average FIFA ranking: 13.8

It would have been a remarkable achievement regardless but Greece truly did have to work for their European crown in 2004. Every team they faced had a better ranking, including a Portugal side that slipped to within a couple of places of Saudi Arabia as their hosting duties limited the potential to pick up more points – although failure at the 2002 World Cup suggests they might have struggled anyway.

Greece actually lost their easiest game when a quite ordinary Russia secured a group-stage victory which did not truly alter the final placings: one more goal and Spain would have qualified at the eventual champions’ expense as runners-up on goals scored.

Otto Rehhagel focused his troops to beat reigning champions France in the quarter-finals before toppling Czech Republic in the last four and Portugal once again in the final.

Greece had never won an international tournament knockout game before Euro 2004, nor have they since. That is a very funny bit and fair play to them.

 

4) Spain, Euro 2012

FIFA ranking at start of tournament: 1

FIFA ranking at end of tournament: 1

Opponents: Italy (12), Croatia (8), Ireland (18), France (14), Portugal (10)

Average FIFA ranking: 12.4

When Euro 2012 began, Spain were laughably clear as the best team in the world and even more comfortably recognised as the leading nation of Europe. Uruguay were ranked second with Germany in third and Netherlands in fourth. Vicente del Bosque managed to avoid both continental rivals to complete a hat-trick of successive major tournament wins.

Spain only faced one real gimme en route to the final, beating Ireland by the same scoreline as they crushed group-stage opponents Italy to lift the trophy once more. Neither France nor Portugal were at their best when they provided obstacles in the quarter and semi-finals, but both managed to at least make Spain earn the inevitable victory.

 

3) France, Euro 2000

FIFA ranking at start of tournament: 2

FIFA ranking at end of tournament: 2

Opponents: Netherlands (21), Czech Republic (3), Denmark (13), Spain (4), Portugal (15)

Average FIFA ranking: 11.2

That path absolutely reeks of European Championship. France rarely looked particularly convincing in Belgium and Netherlands, losing to the latter in the group stages to finish second. The Dutch had slipped to 21st in the FIFA rankings by winning just four of their 17 games between coming fourth at the 1998 World Cup and hosting Euro 2000, but Frank Rijkaard had some sensational talent at his disposal.

While France thrashed Denmark they only edged past Czech Republic, Spain and Portugal, winning 2-1 each time and repeating that trick in the final against Italy with a Golden Goal.

 

2) Italy, Euro 2012

FIFA ranking at start of tournament: 12

FIFA ranking at end of tournament: 6

Opponents: Spain (1), Croatia (8), Ireland (18), England (6), Germany (3)

Average FIFA ranking: 7.2

A rather generous official assessment of perennial qualifying bullies England gave Italy’s run to the Euro 2012 final a particular sheen. They also put Ireland out of their misery in a group Croatia were unfortunate not to advance from.

After breaking Joe Hart in the quarter-finals, that composed and Mario Balotelli-inspired victory over Germany really was quite something as they earned the right to get battered by Spain.

 

1) Czech Republic, Euro 1996

FIFA ranking at start of tournament: 10

FIFA ranking at end of tournament: 4

Opponents: Germany (2), Italy (7), Russia (3), Portugal (18), France (5)

Average FIFA ranking: 7

In their first tournament as a separate nation, Czech Republic had to fight their way past four of Europe’s six best teams according to FIFA. The only countries missing from the set were Spain, dumped out in the other half of the draw by England on penalties, and a Sweden side which made an almighty hash of qualifying.

A treacherous group involved World Cup runners-up Italy, a Russia team that stormed through qualifying unbeaten and Germany, the favourites and finalists at Euro 1992.

A win, a draw and a defeat sent them through to face Portugal, once again underrated despite boasting Fernando Couto, Rui Costa, Luis Figo and the first seeds of their golden generation. Karel Poborsky lobbed them through and into a semi-final penalty shoot-out win against France. Then Oliver Bierhoff happened.

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