It’s that time again. Armies of fans flock to European airports in full national team regalia, singing and downing pints in airport pubs from as early as 0400.

It’s the day of the opening match and hopes and spirits are high as fans exchange lighthearted banter before things get serious and pressures rise. It’s particularly encouraging to see Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland fans mixing here at Dublin Airport given longstanding tensions between the two countries, likely owed to the fact that they haven’t emerged in the same groups (praise be). This year’s championship will be a notable first in UEFA Euro history for several reasons.

Fans don’t appear to be put-off altogether by the fact that France remains in a state of national emergency due to the high threat of terrorism and seem determined not to let it overshadow the spectacular event.

So what makes this year’s UEFA European Championship any different than previous years?

  1. For the first time, 24 teams (the host + 23 qualifiers) will participate in the group stage. Why? For one, we are seeing more first-time qualifiers emerging, including more historically mid-ranking nations. In turn, this generates wider European interest and induces a bigger economic impact. The original championship had only 4 qualifying teams back in 1976 (albeit, teams Yugoslavia and Soviet Union comprised a significant chunk of Europe at the time).
  2. Albania, Iceland, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Slovakia and Wales have qualified in the competition for the first time this year. The Netherlands failed to qualify for the first time since 1984 after losing out to the Czech Republic.
  3. More than 90,000 security personnel will be deployed throughout the 10 host locations in France (source: BBC News). The British Foreign & Commonwealth office have advised all travellers to “Be on the Ball at Euro 2016” and have urged vigilence as “fan zones, venues broadcasting the tournament and transport hubs and links represent potential targets for terrorist attacks“.
  4. Host nation, France are the bookies’ majority early favourites to claim the trophy, with Spain (having won the previous two Euro Championships) second or third favourites. Current Fifa rankings indicate that Belgium rank #1 in Europe, followed by Germany at #2, Spain at #3 and Portugal at #4.
  5. This is the last year of a Euro single host nation in favour of splitting the tournaments across pan-European nations from 2020, with the first twelve host countries yet to be announced. Subsequently, one country won’t have to bear all the costs and have all the “fun”!

Let’s all hope that this year’s competition runs smoothly and wish our national and supported teams the best, especially the newcomers. Here are the final draw groups:

Euro 2016 Group Stage