Among the qualifying groups for the 2016 European Championships, set to begin next June in France, Group F was always going to be something of a wildcard. Where other groups featured clear frontrunners like Spain, Germany, Italy, and England, European Championship 2016 qualifying Group F never had a clear dominant frontrunner. The group's pot one draw was Greece, a football team that won the European Championship back in 2004, but that hasn't seen much success since. The pot two draw, meanwhile, was Hungary, a team that we haven't seen in a Euro competition since the 1970s.
Had UEFA's seeding ranks gone according to plan, Greece and Hungary would have gone one-two in Group F. For purposes of organizing the group stage draw, UEFA had ranked Greece at seventh among the tournament's 53 competing teams. Hungary, meanwhile, slotted in at 18th. Romania ended up as the group's pot three draw, with a seeding of 26th place. Finland (32), Northern Ireland (39), and Faroe Islands (50) joined the group from pots four, five, and six, respectively.
Greece Crash and Burn, Hungary Narrowly Miss
Ultimately, though, the actual standings for Group F looked a good deal different than those early seeding numbers would have suggested. Indeed, F is the only group in the qualifiers where both the pot one and pot two teams failed to score direct qualification into Euro 2016.
Greece were arguably the most disappointing football team of the entire tournament. The Greeks topped Portugal to win Euro in 2004 and qualified for the tournament in both 2008 and 2012. They've also had a presence at recent World Cups, reaching the FIFA competition for only the second time ever in 2010, and going all the way to the group stage last year in Brazil. In the qualifiers for Euro 2016, though, Greece crashed and burned. The soccer team only won one of their ten matches and lost six, finishing at the very bottom of the Group F standings.
The group's pot two draw, the Hungarian national football team, did slightly better, but still only finished third. Until the last day of competition, Hungary's record (of four wins, four draws, and two draws) was the best of any third-place team in the qualifiers. If that fact had held true, Hungary would have qualified for Euro 2016 directly. However, Turkey ultimately beat Hungary by one point, thanks to a victory against Iceland on the final day. As a result, the Hungarian national soccer team will have to compete in the playoffs for one last shot at qualifying.
Northern Ireland and Romania Exceed Expectations
The real surprise of Group F, though-other than Greece's full collapse-was the stellar performance of Northern Ireland. Despite being a pot five draw, Northern Ireland topped the group standings with six wins, three draws, one loss, and 21 points. Their sole defeat, in a November 2014 away fixture, came against Romania, who finished second with 20 points. Romania went undefeated in the qualifiers but trailed behind Northern Ireland because they won fewer games.
From very early on, it was clear that just about everyone had underestimated Northern Ireland. In their first match of the qualifiers, a September 2014 away fixture against Hungary, the Irish soccer team scored two goals in the last 10 minutes of play to manage a come-from-behind victory. Just a month later, in an October 11th fixture against the Faroe Islands, Northern Ireland took a decisive 2-0 lead in the first 20 minutes to secure another victory. By the time they'd scored a shutout win against Greece in October, Northern Ireland were the new frontrunners for Group F. Forward Kyle Lafferty was the star of the show, tallying seven goals in 10 fixtures.
Romania, meanwhile, lacked the killer instinct that Northern Ireland's national football team had, but still stuck close in the standings. The Romanian side ultimately settled for five draws-three of them completely scoreless-and tallied five fewer goals (11) than Northern Ireland (16). However, Romania's "goals against" tally was the lowest of any soccer team in the entire qualifying competition. The team only allowed two goals in their ten fixtures, one from Hungary and one from Finland. Even England, who led the qualifiers by winning all 10 of their matches, conceded three goals along the way. Fans in the Romania home shirt 2015 2016 have plenty of reasons to be proud of their team's surprise qualification.
Needless to say, it will be intriguing to see what these underdogs do at next year's Euro 2016 competition. Between Northern Ireland's surprisingly strong offense and Romania's clearly effective defense, we could have a few surprises in store next summer. Follow Soccer Box on social media to keep up to date with international football news leading up to the big UEFA tournament! You can find us at Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram in additional several other popular social networks.