The easiest ever routes to a Euros or World Cup final already features one cruise for Southgate and England

Matt Stead
Brazil striker Ronaldo celebrates his goal against Germany in the 2002 World Cup final
The 2002 World Cup was *this* close to being Turkey against South Korea

England have stumbled upon a stupidly advantageous path to the Euro 2024 final, potentially avoiding all the favourites as Gareth Southgate does it again.

That is not to discredit or overlook Slovakia, Romania, Netherlands, Austria, Turkey, Switzerland or Italy, but there is little point pretending one side of the knockouts draw – the one England have avoided – is not ludicrously stacked.

Southgate will hope to emulate these more straightforward paths to a major tournament final – one of which he himself took.


10) France (World Cup 1998)
Group stage
: South Africa (24), Denmark (27), Saudi Arabia (34)

Knockouts: Paraguay (29), Italy (14), Croatia (19)

The iconic hosts already seemed predestined to become world champions for the first time to close out the 20th century but the 1998 draw certainly opened up their path quite nicely.

Saudi Arabia and tournament debutants South Africa were swept aside with seven unanswered goals in the group stage, while a 2-1 victory over Denmark showcased an ability to scrap and suffer. Captain Didier Deschamps played every minute of every other game bar that dead-rubber, which he was allowed to watch and craft an entire coaching career around as an unused substitute.

France were indeed determined to make things hard for themselves. A solid but ordinary Paraguay side fell to Laurent Blanc’s golden goal in the last 16, while penalties were required after a quarter-final draw with Euro ’96 disappointments Italy. Croatia impressed in reaching the same stage of that tournament two years before but France were heavy favourites in a semi-final against the brilliant Davor Suker and friends who, excellent as they were, would fail to even qualify for Euro 2000.

The key was in avoiding No. 1-ranked favourites and defending champions Brazil until the final – a scenario the otherwise squeaky clean Michel Platini admitted to fixing – at which point those mysterious events surrounding the glorious Ronaldo essentially removed one last obstacle for Les Bleus.


9) Brazil (World Cup 2002)
Group stage
: Turkey (22), Costa Rica (29), China (50)

Knockouts: Belgium (23), England (12), Turkey (22)

They hardly needed the help in avenging the heartbreak of four years earlier but Brazil were handed a direct route to redemption when they sought justice in 2002.

It remains one of the strangest World Cups in history: pre-tournament favourites Argentina and France both exited at the group stage, well-fancied Italy departed at the hands of South Korea in completely uncontroversial circumstances, with the co-hosts also handling outside bets Spain in the quarter-final. Senegal, United States and Turkey all made it at least that far as the underdog had its day.

Brazil met one of those sides twice as they beat a spirited Turkey in both the groups and semi-final. Costa Rica and China stood no chance against the Selecao and Belgium soon succumbed to those rolling Rs – Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho – in the knockouts.

England were the best side Luiz Felipe Scolari’s winners faced and Danny Mills and Trevor Sinclair both started a quarter-final that Brazil trailed in terms of men on the field for longer (33 minutes) than they did scoreline (22 minutes) when Ronaldinho was dismissed with the help of Paul Scholes shortly after he made an almighty mess by lobbing Seaman.


8) England (Euro 2020)
Group stage
: Croatia (14), Czech Republic (40), Scotland (44)

Knockouts: Germany (12), Ukraine (24), Denmark (10)

There were more than a few bright minds who floated the idea that England should actively try to finish second in their group at Euro 2020. With Croatia vanquished in their first game before a substandard but ultimately qualification-securing draw – which sounds familiar – with Scotland, the suggestion was that these world-class players should phone it in against Czech Republic.

Gareth Southgate has his critics as a pragmatic and unambitious coach but he never entertained the temptation, placing England firmly on course to face the runner-up of that mad group containing France, Germany, Portugal and Hungary, each of whom were second at some point on that ludicrous final day.

Germany emerged to face the quasi-hosts but this was a troubled team stuck in between generations, eliminated in the group stage of the World Cups either side of their last-16 defeat.

England crushed Ukraine in the quarter-finals – their only game not at Wembley – before sneaking past Denmark in extra-time of the semi-final. And they did it without actively trying to lose, which is good.

👉 England Euro 2024 knockout path: Slovakia not Netherlands await after Georgia stun Portugal
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7) West Germany (World Cup 1974)
First group stage
: East Germany (7), Chile (22), Australia (33)

Second group stage: Poland (5), Sweden (12), Yugoslavia (6)

Rankings are based on World Football Elo Ratings at the start of 1974, as FIFA rankings did not start until 1992.

It feels like a modern and entirely counter-intuitive phenomenon, the desire to try and manipulate a tournament’s natural course by trading in a worse group position for a more ‘favourable’ draw, avoiding the theoretically stronger teams for as long as possible before presumably immediately losing as soon as they inevitably come up.

England took the noble path instead. But there is some historic precedent to suggest it can work.

For want of a better phrase, West Germany surrendered the battle but won the war at the 1974 World Cup. A first group stage pitted them against a stone-cold Chile, tournament virgins Australia and neighbours East Germany. By the time that politically charged match took place the actual jeopardy was almost entirely removed: Chile and Australia played out a goalless draw a few hours earlier and so both East and West Germany knew they were through in the years before final group fixtures kicked off at the same time.

The former secured a famous victory, their reward for which was a doomed place in the second group stage alongside favourites Netherlands, Brazil and Argentina.

West Germany, as punishment for coming second, landed Poland, Sweden and Yugoslavia, advancing to the final at their expense and overcoming the Dutch to lift the trophy.

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6) Italy (World Cup 2006)
Group stage
: Czech Republic (2), United States (5), Ghana (48)

Knockouts: Australia (42), Ukraine (45), Germany (19)

In terms of knockout games alone, France had one of the toughest journeys to a major tournament final at the 2006 World Cup. For the chance to atone for that disaster as defending champions in Japan and South Korea, they had to navigate a way past Spain, Brazil and Portugal in the last 16, quarter-final and semi-final respectively. France displayed immense poise and control to dispatch three nations which had all recorded perfect group stages in line with their reputations.

By contrast, Italy beat Ghana and a Czech Republic side which was highly-ranked but ultimately a shadow of its quite wonderful self, while drawing with USA to book a last-16 date against Australia.

Francesco Totti helped them stumble through that and into a quarter-final trouncing of Ukraine, at which point an exciting but naive Germany were impeccable hosts. Fabio Grosso has still not stopped celebrating, nor should he ever.


5) France (Euro 1984)
Group stage
: Belgium (8), Yugoslavia (12), Denmark (22)

Knockouts: Portugal (18)

Rankings are based on World Football Elo Ratings at the start of 1984, as FIFA rankings did not start until 1992.

Cristiano Ronaldo needed five European Championships to take the all-time tournament top scorer record from Platini, who played in five European Championship matches altogether.

It is technically correct to say the Frenchman simply featured in those games; it is more reflective of the truth to point out that he absolutely dominated them as Les Bleus won their first major honour.

The format perhaps lent itself to such heroics. The opposition certainly did. Denmark were not quite at their absolute mid-1980s and early 1990s peak. Yugoslavia could not get past the group stage of the 1982 World Cup and failed to even qualify for the 1986 edition or Euro 1980. Belgium had yet to truly impress on a global stage.

Platini started slowly with a single goal and then plundered successive hat-tricks before scoring an extra-time semi-final winner against Portugal, themselves talented but making only their second ever appearance at a major tournament.

He would have tormented any team at that point. It was just that he was given a series of opponents who were forced to resort to little more than kicking him and hoping for the best.


4) Croatia (World Cup 2018)
Group stage
: Argentina (5), Iceland (22), Nigeria (47)

Knockouts: Denmark (12), Russia (66), England (13)

France won the 2018 World Cup by running a knockout gauntlet featuring Argentina, Uruguay and Belgium to reach the final. Belgium, the other semi-finalists in that side of the draw, beat Brazil in the quarters to get there.

England finished second in a group containing Tunisia and Panama, before eking past Colombia and Sweden to make the final four. When there, they met and eventually lost to a Croatia side who needed penalties to advance at the expense of a Denmark outfit largely lacking in quality, and a Russian team in curiously brilliant physical condition, who otherwise offered little in terms of technical proficiency.


3) Germany (World Cup 2002)
Group stage
: Republic of Ireland (15), Cameroon (17), Saudi Arabia (34)

Knockouts: Paraguay (18), United States (13), South Korea (40)

Brazil at least excused their easy path with the logic that they would probably have reached the 2002 final regardless. Had it not been for a remarkably generous route then Germany would have no reason to remember the 2002 World Cup so fondly.

That tournament was the exception to a rule of atypical Mannschaft underachievement at the time: losses in the 1994 (Bulgaria) and 1998 (Croatia) World Cup quarter-finals to unfancied opposition, as well as group-stage eliminations at both Euro 2000 and 2004, forced a total overhaul of their development and scouting systems.

While the Extended Talent Promotion Programme was in its infancy, Germany bundled themselves into the 2002 World Cup by virtue of a qualifying play-off win over Ukraine after finishing behind England in their group. Republic of Ireland, Cameroon and Saudi Arabia promised safe passage to the knockouts of the tournament itself, with successive 1-0 victories over Paraguay, USA and South Korea testing a nation’s relationship between success and entertainment. That inner turmoil is said to continue for some countries to this day.


2) Portugal (Euro 2016)
Group stage
: Austria (11), Hungary (18), Iceland (35)

Knockouts: Croatia (23), Poland (27), Wales (24)

It matters not how you win the trophy, just that you do. Portugal set out to stretch that theory to within an inch of its credibility at Euro 2016 by edging France on a photo finish in the final after being given a five-lap head start a month earlier.

The group was poor. Hungary, Iceland and Austria had their individual strengths – England painfully discovered that in one particular instance – but Portugal should have navigated it with ease. They instead drew against each of them and advanced as one of the four best third-placed teams, above Northern Ireland only on goals scored.

From there they beat a decent Croatia after extra-time, sneaked past the resilient Poland on penalties and secured their only victory in 90 minutes of the entire tournament against Wales in the semi-final. It was the equivalent of having a glass door being held open for them, only to smash through the wrong side before being dragged to their feet by an enraged Pepe.


1) Germany (Euro 2008)
Group stage
: Croatia (13), Poland (27), Austria (101)

Knockouts: Portugal (9), Turkey (25)

The FIFA rankings can be an absolute nonsense but by their definition, Germany’s journey to the Euro 2008 final was the easiest in modern major tournament history.

The five teams Die Nationalmannschaft faced in Austria and Switzerland had an average position of 33.2 before the competition started – much higher than the next most favourable run to a major international tournament final (Croatia, 2018 World Cup, 28.1).

Austria certainly helped inflate that as automatically-qualifying hosts whose last major tournament goal was in a World Cup group-stage dead-rubber in 1990s, and who won just one of six build-up games (against Malta).

Germany made hard work of them, Poland and Croatia in some highly-charged matches, even losing to the latter to consign them to a last-16 tie against a Portugal side which had fallen away as contenders in the years since losing to Greece in the 2004 final.

Joachim Low scratched and sniffed his way to a couple of thrilling 3-2 wins to reach the final, first beating the Portuguese and then finally putting down a ludicrously entertaining Turkey side in the semis to book a meeting with and defeat to Spain. It is no real wonder they got that far.

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👉 Euro 2024 Power Rankings: Austria top-ranked side in bottom half of lopsided knockout draw