12 October ~ An interesting trend has emerged from the first three rounds of European Championship qualifying games. Several countries from eastern Europe, which has struggled in both sporting and economic terms since emerging from Communism over the past two decades, are showing signs of life. And while there's not exactly a replication of the almost all-conquering 1950s Hungarian team, a number of new nations have at least a sniff of making second spot in their groups and going on to qualify for a major tournament for the first time.
Of course this could be a one-off, just as newly promoted teams or assorted outsiders sometimes enjoy a good run at the kick-off to a domestic campaign thanks to starting momentum and a generous schedule, only to fade with the demands of a long season and a squad lacking depth. After all, even Scotland and its revolutionary forward-free formation was top of its group ahead of Spain until last Friday. But a glance at the results so far suggests we may see some welcome new faces at the 2012 tournament.
In a tough but unpredictable Group B, Armenia beat Slovakia 3-1 last Friday to remain in contention. That's Slovakia from the last 16 of the World Cup, victors over Italy, and who have won 1-0 in Russia already. In Group C, Estonia also beat World Cup participants Serbia, 3-1, but in Belgrade. Estonia have been the weakest of the three Baltic nations, while Serbia were tipped by some pundits in early June as an outside shot to become world champions. With Italy hobbling into a group lead but still in an apparent slump, and Slovenia having already lost at home to Northern Ireland, Estonia's home game with the Slovenes today becomes an unlikely opportunity to take a firm grip on second place.
Group D harbours the greatest surprise potential with Belarus having already pulled off the biggest result with a 1-0 win in France. Belarus host Albania today, with both teams unbeaten after three games. Neither side is exactly what you'd call a scoring machine (Belarus have netted just that one time in Paris, Albania three times in total), but both have a step on Bosnia-Herzegovina – who don't play today and have been disappointing since a good World Cup qualifying campaign – and Romania. Meanwhile in Group F, Georgia, a country that has produced some fine individual talents but seldom gelled as a team, are also unbeaten in second place after taking a point in Greece, drawing with Israel and edging out Malta. A trip to Latvia will highlight those results as either a purple patch or a genuine progression.
And finally, Group G boasts an unlikely leader in Montenegro, greatest purveyors of the 1-0 win since that glorious Spanish side that won the World Cup way back in July. Clean-sheet victories for the group's fifth-seeded team over Bulgaria, Wales and Switzerland can hardly be seen as a fluke for the continent's novice, and no doubt even now Fabio Capello is preparing a Ron Greenwood-style dossier of excuses about there being no easy games in Europe any more ("Ask Scotland," he will say).
Opening up the championship to 24 teams in 2016 was, you suspect, voted for by second-tier western European nations nowadays struggling to compete for anything besides, say, the Celtic Cup (note to Welsh, Scottish and Irish FAs – it's still not too late to cancel!). Yet by the time qualifying starts for France 2016 in four years, countries who thought the generous new format would allow them a chance to return to the main stage may find that strengthened, burgeoning countries from the east of the continent have already usurped them. Expanding the finals was needless, but if it's going to happen then at least we can hope the competition may better reflect Europe as a whole, not just its wealthier west. Ian Plenderleith