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European Championships: Debutants in the Knockout Stages

With the group stage of Euro 2020 now at a close, it’s finally a little clearer who will play who in the round of 16. It’s been a thrilling tournament so far, and the knockout stages are always where the stakes are raised. With the big boys of Europe looking to cement their chances as the favourite in the Euro 2020 winner odds, there’s always a chance that an underdog could upset the odds. 

This year, neither of the debutants, Finland and North Macedonia, were able to surpass the group stages, although the former did come close by finishing third in Group B – with an inferior goal difference to the other teams on three points, sealing their fate.

History dictates that debutants do fare well – and in the early years of the tournament, the likes of European heavyweights Germany, Italy and Spain all won at their maiden tournament. There are a few tasty ties in this year’s knockout stages – not least two heavyweights in England v Germany betting.

But let’s fast-forward to the last few decades to see which debutants surprised – and reached the knockout stages.

2016: Iceland, Northern Ireland, Slovakia and Wales

At Euro 2016, hosted by France, there were five debutants – and all but Albania made it through the group stages to play knockout football. It was ahead of this edition that four of the best third-placed teams would make it through, and ultimately, added an extra round of fixtures to be played.

Slovakia and Northern Ireland profited from this new rule change, but sadly, neither got beyond the round of 16. Northern Ireland faced fellow debutants Wales in a home nations clash, in Paris. Following a narrow 1-0 victory, Wales famously went on to defeat Belgium in the quarter-finals, before coming unstuck against Portugal, who lifted the trophy in the French capital.

Slovakia were hammered by powerhouse Germany, but had been the best third-placed team in the tournament – progressing from a difficult group which contained Wales, England and Russia.

Iceland provided a huge shock, as they beat England in Nice. The minnows had gone behind to a Wayne Rooney goal, before turning things around in the second half, and were rewarded with a quarter-final date with the hosts – which ended their maiden European Championships, with a 5-2 defeat at the Stade de France.

1996: Croatia

Having previously participated as part of Yugoslavia, Croatia made their debut as an independent nation at Euro 96. Back when there were four groups and only the top two went through to the quarter-finals, Croatia were runners up of Group D to Portugal.

Drawn against Group C winners Germany, Davor Šuker landed his third goal of the tournament, equalising at the start of the second half, but the Germans were tough opponents and immediately hit back, restoring their lead to earn a semi-final place.

Of course, we all know what happened next – with a penalty shootout and the golden goal ruling crowning the Germans European champions.

1992: Sweden

Four years previous, Sweden were the hosts and it was for that reason they had qualified for the Euros for the first time in their history. This was also the year that Scotland made their debut – with the nation faring as well then as they did this year.

This time, there were only eight teams – two groups of four – and the top two in each group advanced to the semi-finals. Having been unbeaten in their group, Sweden were Group 1 winners, and were up against Group 2 runners up Germany.

The Råsunda Stadium in Solna played host to a five-goal thriller, which was decided in 90 minutes, but fell in the favour of Germany. Euro 92 marked Sweden’s best performance to date.