Every four years, the UEFA EURO tournament provides a platform for the best players in Europe to put on a masterclass in goals, skills and saves. And while the festival of football is generally reserved for established names, some surprise guests often manage to earn an invitation to the exclusive gathering. In this respect, EURO 2012 in Poland and Ukraine will be no different.
One of the best examples of this phenomenon can be found in the squad belonging to the defending European champions. Spain will arrive at their Polish base with a defender who received his first and thus far only cap just 24 hours before he was informed of his inclusion in the travelling party.
Juanfran made his international debut on 25 May in a friendly match against Serbia, rounding off a tremendous season which saw the right-back win the UEFA Europa League with Atletico Madrid. At the age of 27, the Real Madrid youth academy graduate has capitalised on his strong performances with Los Colchoneros, but he has also benefited from the absence of Andoni Iraola, injured while playing for Athletic Bilbao.
“Juanfran has had a good season with Atletico and is well placed to fill in for Iraola,” said Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque.
Alvaro Negredo, meanwhile, had no need for a similar chain of events in order to secure a slot in the squad and make up for the disappointment of being overlooked prior to the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. In the eyes of the backroom staff, it was he who emerged triumphant from a virtual battle with Roberto Soldado, leading Spanish goalscorer in La Liga this term, and to a lesser degree, with Adrian Lopez, Atletico Madrid’s flourishing front-man.
In Group C, the Spaniards will cross swords with Italy, whose final 23-man list includes surprise selections such as Torino’s Angelo Ogbonna, a defender of Nigerian descent who played a key role in the Turin club’s recent promotion to Serie A, and the uncapped Emanuele Giaccherini, who is yet to establish himself as a first-team regular at Juventus.
Juanfran has had a good season with Atletico and is well placed to fill in for Iraola.
Italy coach Cesare Prandelli has also called up Fabio Borini, who has one previous international appearance to his name, and who has reaped the benefits of a successful season with Roma.
While the Italian has been recognised for his displays over an entire campaign, Czech midfielder Vladimir Darida may well have booked his berth courtesy of one solitary match. The 21-year-old Viktoria Plzen player was originally due to be brought in only in the event of Tomas Rosicky not recovering from injury, but his impressive performance in a recent friendly match with Israel was enough to convince coach Michal Bilek of his worth.
“He looked like an experienced international, not like someone who was making his first-ever appearance for his country,” said the Czech Republic tactician after the 2-1 success.
Experienced Dutch defender Wilfred Bouma can already boast 35 caps for the Netherlands. Given that his last appearance for the Oranje dates back to 2008, his inclusion on his country’s final list still represents something of a surprise.
Four years down the line, the 33-year-old PSV Eindhoven centre-back would appear to have the ideal profile to mentor some of the younger members of the squad, such as PSV team-mate Jetro Willens who, at just 18 years of age, had only pulled on the famous orange jersey on one occasion before learning of his call-up for the continental competition.
If Bouma’s reappearance is intriguing, Hugo Viana’s comeback for Portugal is remarkable. The Braga midfield man, now 29, has had no involvement with the national side since 2007, but two excellent domestic seasons in a row have seen him brought back into the fold to compensate for the loss of the injured Carlos Martins.
Nelson Oliveira was just 16 when Viana last played for A Selecção das Quinas, but was already making a name for himself in Portugal’s youth teams. He showed particularly sparkling form during the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2011, right under the eyes of national coach Paolo Bento, who travelled to Colombia to see the hot prospect and his team-mates go down fighting in the final against Brazil.
His potential clearly made a significant impression on Bento, as a few months later, he has included the young striker in his definitive squad, despite his having played just 12 times for Benfica and once for Portugal’s seniors.
That is one fewer cap than 19-year-old Greek winger Kostas Fortounis had received when he discovered he would be spending part of his summer in Poland and Ukraine. Selected ahead of the experienced Alexandros Tziolis, the Kaiserslautern player will hope to enjoy better fortune with the EURO 2004 winners than he did with his club, who finished last in the Bundesliga this term.
Denmark, like Greece, have also previously been crowned European champions against the odds. The chances of goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel being included in his nation’s final 23 were similarly low, but that was until the late withdrawal of current No1 Thomas Sorensen through injury.
The Schmeichel family is used to eleventh-hour shocks on the international stage. 20 years ago, Kasper’s father Peter, a veritable legend between the sticks for Denmark, was part of the team brought in at the last minute to replace the suspended Yugoslavia at EURO 1992. On that occasion, the surprise guests went on to become surprise champions.