The 2016 European Championships (or Euro) has been going on in France for the past couple weeks, and it's already delivered some thrilling matches. Just like the World Cup, the Euro happens every four years. Winning it is one of the greatest prizes a European soccer player can dream of. Also like the World Cup, the tournament begins with the group stages. Competing nations are separated into groups of four teams, within which each nation plays each other once. As of Wednesday, the group stages were officially dunzo.
What does that mean? It means we're about to head into the knockout stages! It's do-or-die, win-or-go-home, sink-or-swim, super high drama time for some of the best players on the planet. If you're a diehard, you already know this, of course. But for the casual and curious out there, let's take a quick tour of the Euro's exciting final stages.
Who is out?
First off, here are the countries that have been eliminated from the tournament. They are: Albania, Austria, Czech Republic, Romania, Russia, Sweden, Turkey, and Ukraine.
Most of these countries were indeed among the weaker ones at the tournament, but there are a few small shocks here. Sweden isn't as good as they once were, but they still had Zlatan Ibrahimovic (above), one of the world's best goal scorers. Instead of moving on, they finished dead last in their group and only scored one goal in three games. And Austria, a team ranked 10th in the entire world, also played very poorly. They finished last in their group.
But enough of that... let's see what's in store for the teams still in it.
The knockout rounds
There are sixteen teams left. Only one of them will play and win their next four matches to be crowned Kings of Europe. From now until the semi-finals, teams that lose are out of the tournament.
Here are the match-ups...
Switzerland v. Poland
Switzerland and Poland have had very similar tournaments so far. Both finished second in their group, have only scored twice in three games, and used tough defence to draw their matches against very powerful tournament favourites (The Swiss against France, and the Polish against Germany). So head-to-head, this should be a low scoring match. Give Poland the edge, as they have better strikers, especially Robert Lewandowski (above), and are most likely to break through.
Wales v. Northern Ireland
Both of these teams are British nations playing in their first ever Euro. The difference? Northern Ireland just squeaked through, whereas Wales won their group while scoring the most goals in the tournament. With a star like Real Madrid's Gareth Bale (above) leading the way, the Welsh shouldn't have much trouble getting through.
Croatia v. Portugal
Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo is maybe the best player on the planet (his only competition there is Argentina's Lionel Messi). But Portugal were fortunate to get this far. Croatia on the other hand, have played terrific football, winning their group and beating Spain, the winners of the last Euro in 2012. (Plus the red and white checkerboard uniforms they sometimes wear rule.) Ronaldo won't be able to stop Ivan Perisic (above) and the Croats all by himself.
France v. Republic of Ireland
France are the tournament hosts and they have looked incredible. They have tons of great attacking players, such as the super Dimitri Payet (above), and have only let in a single goal over three games. The Irish on the other hand are pretty lucky to be here. The last time France hosted a major tournament (1998's World Cup) they won it all. Expect a charged-up France to steamroll over Ireland.
Germany v. Slovakia
Germany won the last World Cup. They haven't let in a single goal all tournament. They are one of the world's very best teams. Slovakia can play impressive defence when they need to, but shutting down Mario Gomez (above) and the experienced Germans in a knockout match would really be something. It's Germany all the way here.
Hungary v. Belgium
This one is a toss-up. Technically, Belgium has the better players, like Premier League stars Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku. But Hungary tied with Wales for the most goals scored in the group stages and have surprised everyone with their relentless play. As Portugal discovered, Balasz Dzsudzsak (above) captains a group of underdogs who won't quit. We think the Hungarians can shock the Belgians.
Italy v. Spain
Another one that is super tough to call. Spain are the two-time defending Euro champs, while Italy is one of the world's greatest football nations of all time. Both teams are full of aging superstars and exciting young talent that is striving to live up to their country's high standards. It's a coin flip who wins, but we like Italy (and their great goalkeeper, Gianluigi Buffon, above) to dethrone the champs in a tight match.
England v. Iceland
England likes to call itself the nation that invented football. But the English are well known for failing to do well in major tournaments. Iceland on the other hand, have never been here before. They are the tiniest nation ever to play at the Euros, and literally 8% of their country's total population was at their last match, a 2-1 win over Austria. England is the more talented team, but Iceland plays more like a team. Led by their "Viking" captain, Aron Gunnarsson (above), watch for Iceland to hold firm and frustrate England, before scoring a sneaky counterattack goal to win the match.
That's it folks! See you at kickoff and enjoy the matches!