As qualification for the 2020 European Championships gets underway, certain games will jump out at the neutral observer. Top seeds France and Iceland will meet in the March international break, while Belgium and Russia face off after both making deep runs at the 2018 World Cup.
Further down the line we will have the first ever international meeting between England and Kosovo, while Azerbaijan – one of the competition’s host countries in 2020 – will take on 2016 semi-finalists Wales.
Both are opportunities for giant-killings, which are a more common occurrence than some might think. We’ve picked out five of the more notable shocks in Euros qualifying – one from each of the last five campaigns.
Cyprus 3-2 Spain, September 1998
In the qualifying campaign for Euro 96, Cyprus had won just one of their 10 matches, with their heaviest defeat coming against group winners Spain.
Four years later, they had a chance for revenge against the heavyweights, but even on home turf they can’t have been too confident: Spain had gone unbeaten throughout qualifying campaigns for Euro 96 and the 1998 World Cup, winning 16 games and drawing four, and even their World Cup group stage exit featured a 6-1 demolition of Bulgaria.
Spain boasted three players who started the previous season’s Champions League final, but fell two goals behind in Larnaca before the hour mark. Raúl pulled a goal back, but Milenko Špoljarić sealed victory, ensuring a late goal from Fernando Morientes counted for nothing. La Roja won their remaining seven qualifying games, but they did so without Javier Clemente. The coach, who had led his country to the quarter-finals of Euro 96, was dismissed after the defeat.
Poland 0-1 Latvia, October 2002
When qualifying for Euro 2004 began, Latvia were not expected to trouble the upper reaches all that much. After all, just 18 months had passed since they were held at home by San Marino, the microstate’s first ever away point in a competitive international.
Clearly, though, no one had told Juris Laizāns what his compatriots were supposed to do. The CSKA Moscow midfielder beat Jerzy Dudek from 25 yards, and Latvia held out for a memorable victory in Warsaw, with Crystal Palace goalkeeper Aleksandrs Koļinko and his defenders keeping the hosts at bay.
That result clearly gave Latvia a new-found confidence, and they would go on to stun their rivals by qualifying for their first and thus far only Euros, beating already-qualified Sweden to reach the play-offs and coming from behind to stun Turkey, with Māris Verpakovskis scoring the clincher in a 3-2 aggregate victory.
Kazakhstan 2-1 Serbia, March 2007
In Kazakhstan’s first qualifying campaign as a UEFA member, they picked up just a single point from 12 World Cup qualifying games against Ukraine, Turkey, Denmark, Greece, Albania and Georgia. Serbia & Montenegro, meanwhile, had topped a group containing Spain, Belgium and Bosnia & Herzegovina, going unbeaten throughout to boot.
By the time the nations met in 2007, the latter were just Serbia, but they still had the likes of Nemanja Vidić and Mateja Kežman at their disposal. Unfortunately, though, they also had Javier Clemente in charge, and we all know what he’s achieved – or failed to achieve – against minnows in the past.
Kairat Ashirbekov opened the scoring with his second ever international goal, before midfielder Nurbol Zhumaskaliyev doubled the lead with his first and only goal in a competitive game. By the time Nikola Žigić pulled one back, it was too late. Serbia ultimately missed out on Euro 2008 qualification by three points, with a late victory in the return game not enough to save their Spanish coach.
France 0-1 Belarus, September 2010
France’s 2010 World Cup group stage exit was one of the stories of the tournament, with the 2006 finalists crashing out amid reports of rifts in the squad, but they didn’t tend to let these distractions take hold in qualifying.
An in-form Scotland were the only team to beat them in qualifying for Euro 2008, while they earned 13 points from a possible 15 in qualifying for the World Cup in South Africa. Belarus, meanwhile, had only won four away games in the two previous campaigns: against Albania, Luxembourg, Kazakhstan and Andorra.
However, when the two met for the first ever time at the start of the Euro 2012 qualifying campaign, Belarus demonstrated the power of an unknown quantity. Substitute Syarhey Kislyak struck four minutes from time, ruining Laurent Blanc’s start in charge of Les Bleus. It was a depleted team after the suspension of the 2010 World Cup squad members, but the assorted talents of players such as Hugo Lloris, Bacary Sagna and Florent Malouda ought to have still had enough for victory.
Greece 0-1 Faroe Islands, November 2014; Faroe Islands 2-1 Greece, June 2015
When the Greek FA appointed Claudio Ranieri to take charge of the national team, they thought they must have been getting a safe pair of hands to carry on the work of Fernando Santos after the run to the last 16 of the previous summer’s World Cup.
Ranieri had just led newly-promoted Monaco to second place in Ligue 1, after all, and had decent pedigree across Europe. Even after some poor early results, things were expected to improve with what many will have seen as a gimme against the Faroes, who had picked up just five points across their two previous major tournament qualifying campaigns combined. And yet, after Jóan Símun Edmundsson put the minnows ahead, Greece had no answer.
It doesn’t end here, though. In June 2015, with Ranieri no longer in charge, Greece travelled to Tórshavn in search of some pride, if nothing else. Somehow, though, the Faroes won again, racing into a two-goal lead and holding out after Sokratis Papasthatopoulos pulled one back.
Greece were stunned, but both of their previous two managers would be smiling just 12 months later – Ranieri as a Premier League champion, and Santos as the Euro 2016 victor with his home nation of Portugal. We’re still trying to figure out which is the biggest shock.