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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

East Has a Surprise For Rest of Europe

Regular readers of this column (and I hope they are both well) will have noticed that among the few crimes of which it is not guilty is making forecasts.

There is, apart from a lack of imagination, a reason for this. I once knew of a newspaper astrologer in London who was fired by his editor with a letter that began, "As you will have no doubt foreseen ..." Ever since, I have regarded the business of predictions as one with very little future.

But I am afraid I am no longer able to resist the temptation. The European Championships gets seriously under way this week with the second round of matches, and I have an instinct about its progress which I feel compelled to share. It is this: Nations from Eastern Europe, large and small, will emerge as the surprise successes of the competition.

Very few people inside or outside Bulgaria expected that country's success in the World Cup. Despite losing its opening game 3-0 to Nigeria, it went on with forceful play to defeat Germany in the quarterfinals and fourth place. With a different referee in charge it could even have won the semifinal against Italy.

On its own, Bulgaria's triumph could be seen as a fluke. But a close look at the first results in the European Championship from other countries in this part of Europe reveals something of a pattern. With some of these nations playing their first competitive international, Slovakia drew with France, the Czechs won 6-1, Romania won 3-0, Croatia won away and Slovenia drew with Italy. Most impressive of all was Macedonia. Facing the holders Denmark and reduced to 10 men for the entire second half, only a late equalizer robbed it of victory.

This trend has no convincing explanation. All kinds of ridiculous theories based on the political and ethnic upheavals in the region could be constructed, but not, you will be relieved to know, on these pages. There is no identifiable Eastern European style, nor is this success the result of some grand cradle-to-retirement coaching schemes.

The only common thread in these nation's success is that, since the destruction of Communist rule, many of their players have gone abroad to play regularly in leagues a good few levels above their own domestic ones. The sudden upsurge in the employment of foreign players in all European leagues is, as this column has noted before, the most significant and exciting development in the game for decades. It could be that the rise of Eastern Europe as a soccer force could be one of its first tangible effects.

Some other nations will be traveling across the continent with rather less hope. San Marino will bring to Russia a European Championship record which reads: played eight, lost eight, scored but one goal, let in 33. Always liable to do a lap of honor if they so much as win a corner, I fear that the only way they can defeat the Russians is to exchange shirts before the match.

Meanwhile Lichtenstein faces the Irish in Dublin. The tiny country (16 miles long, four miles wide) has but a single international victory to its credit -- against China in 1982. But some of the shine of this defeat of the most populous nation on earth by a country of only 30,000 was dimmed when it emerged that the Chinese team was not in fact the national side, but the one normally representing the Beijing police.

Finally, apologies to Moscow's Finnish community, but it is difficult to take seriously the chances of a country whose league recently saw the debut of a 57-year-old player. He was Martin Sanikangas and he turned out for Turku club TPS against HJK Helsinki. Why? Is he a new wonder player whose talents have remained undiscovered for five decades? Has he found the secret of eternal youth? No. He is the chief executive of the shipbuilding compnay who sponsors TPS. Mercifully for him, the team, its fans and the attendant medical services, he was substituted after three minutes.