Back in October 2002, in front of more than 70,000 fans at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, Wales moved top of their European Championship qualifying group with a 2-1 win over Italy.
The most striking thing, though, was that they entirely deserved it.
If anything, the narrow loss flattered Italy, who had no answer for the pace and dynamism of Craig Bellamy and the guile of Simon Davies. Wales looked all set to make the Euros for the first time and, given Greece’s eventual success in Portugal in 2004, who knows what might have happened after that.
However, they ultimately fell short, denied in controversial circumstances. We’ve delved a little deeper into that campaign, and into four more of Europe’s exciting ‘nearly’ teams,
Wales, Euro 2004
With Italy and a strong Serbia & Montenegro squad in their way, Wales weren’t meant to even be in the running.
They had won just one of their 12 qualifiers for the 2002 World Cup, a 1-0 triumph over Belarus, and things weren’t exactly looking rosy. However, rookie manager Mark Hughes learned from that campaign and led his country. Finland were seen off in Helsinki and, after the success against Italy, a double over Azerbaijan left them looking very healthy indeed.
Even a run of one point from the final four qualifiers was enough to earn a play-off spot, where they succumbed 1-0 on aggregate to Russia, but that wasn’t the whole story.
Yegor Titov, who played in the first leg, tested positive for a banned substance. The Russian was banned for the second leg, but Welsh fans felt the punishment should have been more severe. Ultimately, Vadim Evseev’s goal in Cardiff made the difference, and Russia were eliminated in the group stage despite being the only team to beat eventual champions Greece.
Israel, Euro 2008
The big story in Euro 2008 qualifying was England’s failure to make the cut, but there was another exciting team that almost made it out of the same group.
Israel looked to have handed England a lifeline with their last-gasp victory over Russia in the penultimate game, but Dror Kashtan’s squad might have even surpassed the Three Lions with a bit more luck.
After going unbeaten throughout their 2006 World Cup qualifying campaign (and not even making the play-offs despite four wins and six draws), Israel won’t have been happy with their draw, but still ended up with an identical record to England after seven wins, two draws and three defeats in their 12 games, putting them a point behind second-placed Russia.
A goalless draw with England in Ramat-Gan helped, while the attacking threat of players like Roberto Colautti, Toto Tamuz and teenage Chelsea striker Ben Sahar – all supported by rising Premier League star Yossi Benayoun – served them well.
Two defeats to group winners Croatia proved their undoing, with Arsenal striker Eduardo the main culprit with the only goal of the game in one meeting and a hat-trick in another. Israel have never been as close again.
Scotland, Euro 2008
While England ended up being the highest-profile casualties, that honour could easily have gone to France.
Scotland went toe-to-toe with the Euro 2000 champions – and fellow group B rivals Italy, with Gary Caldwell scoring a winner against Les Bleus at home and James McFadden – one of the stars of the Scottish campaign – doing the same at the Parc des Princes.
With two games left, Scotland had their fate in their own hands. Four points from games away to Georgia and at home to Italy would guarantee their progress, while three would be enough if France didn’t get the maximum from their final two outings. In the end, Scotland got none.
With 17-year-old Georgi Makaridze making his debut in goal for Georgia, Scotland can only blame themselves for drawing a blank, but the defeat to Italy might have been even more painful.
Having clawed their way back from 1-0 down to draw level on points with France – who still had a tricky trip to Ukraine to navigate – Scotland appealed for a late free-kick when Alan Hutton was felled. The referee gave Italy the call instead, and Christian Panucci got to the ball for his first international goal in five years. France were through before they needed to kick a ball, and Scotland’s wait for a major tournament went on. More than a decade later, they’re still waiting.
Armenia, Euro 2012
When an unfancied side gets itself in with a shot at a major tournament, it’s often because they’ve discovered a golden generation of sorts. It worked for Latvia in 2004, with 16 of their squad aged between 24 and 30 as they defied the odds to take their place in Portugal, but Armenia did things very differently in 2012.
The stars of that squad included big names of old approaching the end of their career, like veteran goalkeeper Roman Berezovsky and captain Sargis Hovsepyan, a man who began his career before the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, these two were supported by Henrikh Mkhitaryan, just 21 when the qualification campaign got underway.
It was a now-or-never situation, and Armenia really went for it, scoring 21 times in their first nine games, highlighted by a stunning 4-0 win away to Slovakia.
A win in Ireland in their final game would have secured a play-off spot where, as it happened, Estonia would have been waiting. However, a first-half red card for Berezovsky put them on the back foot and they ultimately fell to a 2-1 defeat. Four years later, their Euro 2016 qualifying campaign saw them finish dead last with no wins from their eight games.
Ukraine, Euro 2000
Slovenia’s run to Euro 2000 was a fantastic achievement, but we often forget it came at the expense of a Ukraine side who could easily have gone far in Belgium and the Netherlands.
Ukraine boasted a number of players who helped Dinamo Kyiv reach the semi-finals of the Champions League in 1999: strike pairing Andriy Shevchenko and Serhiy Rebrov might have been the main stars, but others like Vladyslav Vashchuk and goalkeeper Oleksandr Shovkovskiy also played their part.
Yozhef Sabo’s squad went unbeaten throughout their qualifying group, culminating in a truly massive game against Russia. Victory for either team at the Luzhniki would see them top the group, while a draw would leave Ukraine second, Russia third and France – who were busy beating Iceland in Paris – as group winners by a single point.
Shevchenko’s lucky late free-kick earned Ukraine a vital point, and when they drew Slovenia in the play-offs they’ll have thought they were all but there, especially when Shevchenko put them ahead in their first leg in Ljubljana.
However, their opponents fought back to take a narrow lead to Kiev, where Miran Pavlin’s equaliser saw them through.