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Soccer's current crush of games, far exceeding what any functional man or woman can reasonably consume, doesn't preclude the creation of more games, and if left up to dubiously elected presidents of the sport's many competing fiefdoms—as it apparently is—soccer won't stop growing until it consumes every last day on the calendar, insofar as it hasn't already.
Because games are money and money is good.
Thus, for the first time, the Euro will count 24 teams rather than 16. Just as in 1996 it counted 16 rather than eight, and in 1980 it counted eight rather than the original four. After a few regular customers like the Netherlands and Denmark failed to qualify, there was room for a few debutantes at the tournament. This is the upside to dilution.
So, rather than rail on about the relative merits of (over)expansion, let's speed-date the five newcomers.
Hi, my name is... Albania
The Eagles, apparently so nicknamed, were among the founding members of UEFA, yet have won strictly nothing other than tournaments called the Balkan Cup, in 1946, and the Malta Rothmans International Tournament, in 2000. We'd scarcely heard of the former event and had definitely never heard of the latter. Which is to say that the Albanians are minnows in Europe's great big soccer pond.
Under veteran Italian manager Gianni De Biasi, however, they've improved. Until this cycle, the Albanians had a 14-51-20 all-time record in Euro qualifiers. But they managed to beat Portugal away and stay ahead of Denmark and arch-rivals Serbia for second place in Group I.
They won the away game in Serbia – their first head-to-head game there in 47 years – by forfeit. A drone flew an Albanian flag low over the field during the game, which was snatched by a Serbian player, causing a melee. Serbian fans then attacked the Albanian players and the game was suspended. Naturally, the Serbs blamed the whole thing on the Albanian prime minister's brother and arrested him in Belgrade.
Hi, my name is... Iceland
On January 1, a census estimated Iceland's population at 332,529, making it the world's 182nd biggest country. If Iceland were an American city, that would make it the 58th most populous town in the country, between Santa Ana, California, and Corpus Christi, Texas. So yeah, Iceland is small.
Yet the Icees, as they're unfortunately not nicknamed—they just go by plain old Strákarnir Okkar, which Wikipedia says means "Our Boys"—are a rising power of global soccer. It's a rather extraordinary story of a tiny island nation doubling down on quality coaching and artificial fields that allowed players to practice year-round. This initiative, and a financial crisis that gutted the local league of job-stealing foreigners, begat a generation that could compete internationally. Iceland qualified from the toughest group in the preliminaries by a seven-point margin, beating the Netherlands home and away.
Hi, my name is... Northern Ireland
For a while, the Guardian's irreverent online soccer page had a running joke. It would always refer to the Green and White Army as "Northern Ireland Nil," a reference to the likelihood that when scores were read aloud, the team had been shut out yet again. Indeed, in 2003, Northern Ireland managed to go ten straight games without scoring a goal.
Other than sectarianism bleeding into the stands for its games, Northern Ireland was mostly known for producing George Best, a singular attacking talent who thrived at Manchester United for a while before drinking his career away. "I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars," he once declared. "The rest I just squandered." But in this cycle, Michael O'Neill's men not only discovered competence but won their qualifying group. Which is sort of amazing, considering the team doesn't have a single well-known player in it.
Hi, my name is... Slovakia
Slovakia's national team didn't exist until 1939, when it beat Nazi Germany in its first ever game. After World War II, it was swallowed up into Czechoslovakia and this team didn't play another game independently until 1994, after that country broke up. The Falcons came close to qualifying several times, and finally put it all together this time around with a run that included a victory over Spain, the defending European champions' only loss in qualifying.
Also, their playmaker Marek Hamsik has the worst haircut in soccer, which is an enormous achievement, towering over anything he or his country will ever accomplish on the field.
Hi, my name is... Wales
The Welsh have an impressive history of producing one great talent a decade and surrounding him with strictly nobody else of significant use. In the early '80s, it was Ian Rush. For the next decade, it was Mark Hughes. Then it was Ryan Giggs. And now it's Real Madrid's be-manbunned Gareth Bale, who looks like what Khal Drogo and Daenerys Targaryen might have produced if they'd actually had a baby on Game of Thrones rather than hatch some dragon eggs in a fire.
Wales came close to qualifying again and again, but they hadn't been at a major tournament since 1958. And this time, finally, Bale actually has some help, from Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey and from Joe Allen, the Pirlo of Carmarthen.
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