The expansion of 2016’s UEFA European Championship tournament from 16 teams to 24 might be seen by some as a dilution of the competition and making the tournament as a whole less difficult to win, but is seen by others as increasing the amount of competition as well as opening up the floodgates for unheralded nations to cause major upsets. Given how the qualifying stages of the tournament – which resume later in March – have been going, there’s plenty of room for the latter to happen. With that in mind, we’ll be counting down 10 of the best players from lesser-rated footballing countries who could make an appearance in France in the summer of 2016.
For this list, we’ve ranked it based on both the fact that none of these players made it to Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine, as well as how well their nations have been doing in qualifying relative both to the quality of their qualifying group and their reputation as a footballing nation in general. In fact, the top three players on the list are regarded as being among the very best in the world in their respective positions. Long story short, these players could end up carrying their country to the newly-expanded Euro tournament in 2016, and who knows how they’ll actually do once/if they get there?
Whether or not they do make it, it goes to show how there’s not only a good amount of talent outside the usual European suspects for footballing countries, but that they could upset the status quo based mainly on their footballing abilities. For competition’s sake, let’s hope they do. Here are 10 of the best footballers in the world whose countries could surprisingly go to Euro 2016, ranked based on their market values (converted to American dollars) according to Transfermarkt.
10 Kolbeinn Sigthorsson - Market Value: $6 million
Iceland are a surprising candidate to make it to Euro 2016, but they are starting to look a bit like an emerging country within European football. One reason for that is Ajax striker Kolbein Sigthorsson: the 24-year-old has started some games and subbed on for others, but when he does play, he’s made it count in the form of five goals and two assists in 16 league games for Ajax. He's not one of the more well-known names on a young Ajax team, and is only worth $6 million in market value, but he’s arguably one of the best offensive weapons Iceland have, and will be counted on to provide them with just that during the rest of their qualifying campaign.
9 Vlad Chiriches - Market Value: $10.5 million
Romania hasn’t had a whole lot to be excited about as far as individual footballers go, but this guy might be the closest thing they have to that. Vlad Chiriches earned a transfer to Tottenham Hotspur in 2013, but he could benefit from a loan to a smaller club: he’s only played 10 games for the Spurs between domestic games and Europa League ties so far this season. That said, the centre back with a market value of $10.5 million is likely to be a major figure in the Romanian defense, and the country currently sits at the top of their Euro 2016 qualifying group – albeit a pretty weak one.
8 Jonny Evans - Market Value: $10.5 million
He’s been one of Manchester United’s ever-present defenders for some time now, but Jonny Evans has never been given the chance to strut his stuff in a major international tournament. The $10.5 million-rated Northern Irish centre back has been mired in controversy recently thanks to a spitting incident involving him and Newcastle striker Papiss Cisse, but he’s still his country’s most valuable player. As for the Green and White Army, their odds of qualifying for Euro 2016 aren’t that unrealistic, as they sit second behind Romania in a weak Group F that has initial favourites Greece at the bottom of the table.
7 Bibras Natkho - Market Value: $12 million
Not only is Bibras Natkho one of the more experienced players in Israel as far as national team experience goes, he’s also arguably the best weapon they have. The $12 million-rated CSKA Moscow midfielder has been in tip top form for the Russian club this season, with 10 goals and six assists in 17 games in all competitions – extremely impressive numbers for a defensive midfielder. As for the Israeli national team, they sit at the top of Group B in Euro 2016 qualifying, with three games won out of three. The challenge now is to stave off Belgium, Wales and Bosnia-Herzegovina to stay among the top two of the group to automatically qualify for the tournament.
6 Balazs Dzsudzsak - Market Value: $13.3 million
His name looks like it’s both hard to spell and pronounce, but Balazs Dzsudzsak is arguably one of the most underrated wingers in football, if only because of his status of playing for the Hungary national team as well as for Dynamo Moscow in Russia. Although he’s not always a starter, the $13.3 million-rated Dzsudzsak put up solid numbers for the club considering that, with five goals and six assists in 23 games in both the domestic league and the UEFA Europa League. Hungary certainly aren’t the Magical Magyars of decades past, but a Euro birth for the first time since 1972 might be on the cards largely thanks to this guy.
5 Gylfi Sigurdsson - Market Value: $14.5 million
Few could have really predicted Iceland to be a rising force in European football, but they’ve got a group of players now that is arguably their best to date even compared to the days of Eidur Gudjohnsen. One major component of the Icelandic national setup is Swansea City midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson, who is worth roughly $14.5 million in market value, and the set piece maestro is having a pretty strong season in Wales so far. He’s put up five goals and eight assists in 23 games for the Swans, and will likely be relied on in a big way to lead the midfield in Iceland’s quest for a Euro 2016 berth.
4 Aaron Ramsey - Market Value: $33 million
As talented as he is versatile in terms of his ability to play different positions in midfield, Aaron Ramsey has well and truly established himself for club and country, putting up five points and three assists in 24 games in all competitions for Arsenal and eight goals within 32 caps for Wales. Oh, and his market value sits at $33 million. With Liverpool midfielder Joe Allen and global superstar Gareth Bale (more on him later) on the same national team, it’s not out of the question for Wales to qualify for Euro 2016, and Ramsey’s contributions will likely be a big reason for that.
3 Marek Hamsik - Market Value: $40 million
They’re definitely not the most heralded footballing nation in the world, but in a group featuring perennial European threat Spain, Slovakia are doing pretty well for themselves – they’re in first place with a perfect 12 points in four games. The country’s undisputed best offensive player is Marek Hamsik, the attacking midfielder from Napoli who is not only regarded as one of the best in his position, but has a market value of about $40 million to back it up. Despite rumours of him signing with clubs like Manchester United or Chelsea, Hamsik has remained faithful to the Partenopei, who are tied in third with Lazio in the Serie A standings so far.
2 David Alaba - Market Value: $50 million
There aren’t many left-backs in the world that can be better than him right now, and the 22-year-old David Alaba has been in tip-top form over the last several years for Bayern Munich. With 33 caps and eight goals for his native Austria, the $50 million-rated Alaba will be counted on to help lead his country to Euro 2016 in a group featuring Russia and Sweden. It remains to be seen whether or not the rest of his team can deliver the goods, but should he feature in Austria’s upcoming qualifier against Liechtenstein and beyond, they stand a decent chance of qualifying for only their second ever Euro tournament.
1 Gareth Bale - Market Value: $106 million
Even if his transfer fee to Real Madrid might have seemed a bit extravagant, his abilities on the wing are certainly deserving of a place at one of the biggest clubs in the world. His market value of about $106 million is proof of that. Gareth Bale played a big part in helping Los Galacticos win the Champions League last season, and the Welshman will now be faced with helping to bring his country to their first major tournament since 1958. A combination of both his pure talent, Wales’ place in a group featuring Belgium and a struggling Bosnia-Herzegovina, and a decent supporting cast can surely help him accomplish what Ryan Giggs before him could not.