UEFA Euro 2016 is set to kick off on Friday when hosts France take on Romania in the opening match of the quadrennial tournament.
Here are 10 things to know about the latest edition of the European Championship:
1. Expanded field
Twenty-four teams will compete in this summer’s tournament, eight more than have ever before participated in the Euros. The tournament actually began with only four participants in the final stage, expanded to eight teams in 1980, then moved to 16 for the 1996 tournament. UEFA voted in 2008 to expand the tournament to 24 teams out of the 54 who were members of UEFA when qualifying began.
The countries were drawn into six groups of four, with the top two teams from each group and the four best third-place teams set to advance to the Round of 16.
2. France the favorites
There’s a reason the hosts are the oddsmakers' favorites to lift the trophy on July 10: They’re that good. Even without Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema, who was not selected for the team due to ongoing legal action stemming from his alleged role in a scandal involving French international Mathieu Valbuena, Les Bleus are still stacked on every line.
Hugo Lloris is more than capable in net, Laurent Koscielny and Adil Rami anchor a tough back line, defensive midfielder N’golo Kante is coming off of a killer season for Leicester City in the English Premier League and Antoine Griezmann, Dimitri Payet, Olivier Giroud and Anthony Martial are all fearsome in front of goal.
Oh, and they have this guy, too …
3. Paul Pogba: Legend?
Only 23 and already one of the best players in the world, the stage is set for Paul Pogba to make the Euros his tournament. He’s won the Serie A title in all four of his seasons with Juventus, led the Italian league in assists this past year and has 28 goals in just 124 appearances with the club.
A regular for France since 2013 and the Best Young Player at the 2014 FIFA World Cup, Pogba says he wants to become a legend this summer. With skills like his, he just might be able to pull it off:
4. MLSer aims for Euro glory
Montreal Impact defender Laurent Ciman (photo below) is in the running to start for Belgium, the No. 2 team in the FIFA rankings and one of the favorites. The 2015 MLS Defender of the Year, Ciman appeared off the bench in both of the country’s pre-tournament tune-up friendlies, scoring a goal in their 3-2 win against Norway on Sunday. We’ll be interested to see if he's called into action when Belgium open Group E play against Italy on June 13.
5. Will Italy's snubs cost them?
Manager Antonio Conte caused a bit of a stir by taking a shot at MLS when explaining his decisions to leave Giovinco, the reigning MLS MVP, and Pirlo, a longtime stalwart for Italy, off his team.
We’ll see who pays the consequences when Italy take on Belgium (with Ciman) and Ireland (with a certain LA Galaxy striker) in the group phase.
6. Keane back for Ireland
LA's Robbie Keane (photo below) will have his shot at Italy and Conte when Ireland meet the Azzuri in the Group E closer on June 22. If he’s healthy, that is.
The Republic of Ireland’s captain and all-time leading scorer, Keane picked up a calf injury early in Ireland’s pre-tournament training camp and missed their friendlies against the Netherlands and Belarus. Manager Martin O’Neill told reporters earlier this week that Keane, who trained fully on Monday, might not be ready in time for Ireland’s opener on June 13 against Sweden, but that “he’s definitely improving.”
Keane wasn’t the only MLS attacker on Ireland’s preliminary squad. Colorado Rapids forward Kevin Doyle made O’Neill’s 30-man roster, but was not named to the final 23.
7. Can Gashi, Albania make a dent?
Doyle didn’t make the cut for Ireland, but his Colorado Rapids teammate Shkelzen Gashi will be in France with first-time Euro participants Albania.
Gashi should be in contention to start for Albania, who were drawn into Group A with France, Romania and Switzerland. They’ll open their tournament on Saturday, June 11 with what should be an emotional encounter against Switzerland, the country of birth for Gashi and several of his Albanian teammates.
8. Nemeth hungry for success
Ciman, Keane and Gashi are the only three active MLS players who will be in France this summer, but another player who tore up the league in 2015 will be representing his country.
Krisztian Nemeth (photo below), who scored 10 goals in the regular season for Sporting Kansas City last year and totaled 16 in all competitions before moving to the Qatari league this winter, is on Hungary’s roster and will likely see some playing time. His first chance to announce himself on the European stage will come next Tuesday, when Hungary open Group F play against Austria. They’ll then take on Iceland on June 18 before wrapping up their group stage on June 22 against Portugal.
9. Spain struggling?
Back-to-back European champions Spain are not exactly heading into the tournament on a high note. La Furia Roja are loaded with talent but lost their final pre-tournament friendly, falling 1-0 to 137th-ranked Georgia.
Prior to that match, Spain had not lost a game since March 2015; they will kick off their Euro 2016 campaign on Sunday, June 12 against the Czech Republic. They’ll take on Turkey and Croatia later on in Group D action.
10. No Netherlands
Spain might be struggling, but at least they’re in the tournament. That’s more than the Netherlands can say, as the 2014 World Cup semifinalists finished fourth in their qualifying group – behind the Czechs, Iceland and Turkey – to miss out on this summer’s festivities.