The second and final legs of the Euro 2016 play-off matches took place over the weekend amid the continued struggle by the civilised world to come to terms with the brutality of the attacks in Paris on Friday which led to at least 132 people dead.
Sport managed to play its role as a unifying factor for players, coaches and fans alike and highlighted the unbreakable spirit and solidarity across the Europe.
In drama of a far more pleasant nature, four national teams scooped up the remaining places for next summers Euro 2016 in France.
In scenes of pure jubilation kit Manager Dick Redmond dressed up as superman and kicked off Ireland’s dressing room celebrations after they secured their spot at the European Championships.
Their qualification comes six years after Thierry Henry’s infamous handball denied the Irish a place at the 2010 World Cup.
Martin O’Niell’s men beat Bosnia-Herzegovina 2-0 in the play-off second leg in Dublin to progress 3-1 on aggregate.
Jon Walters scored both goals for the home side who can now look forward to the finals where they’ll hope for a better display than four years ago. In 2012 in Ukraine and Poland, Ireland equalled the worst performance by a team in the tournament’s history. They finished bottom of their group with no points and a goal difference of minus eight.
Ukraine break play-off hoodoo
Ukraine broke their play-off hoodoo by beating Slovenia 3-1 over two legs.
Slovenia trailed 2-0 from the first leg and opened up the scoring at the Stadion Ljudski courtesy of captain Bostjan Cesar.
But Andriy Yarmolenko equalized from close range in stoppage time to ensure Ukraine drew, booked safe passage to the finals and ended the nation’s play-off misery of five consecutive near misses at major tournaments.
Against the odds
Against the odds Hungary qualified for a major tournament for the first time in 30 years with victory over Norway in their qualifying play-off second leg in Budapest.
Tamas Priskin and an own goal by Markus Henrikse sealed Hungary a 3-1 aggregate victory.
The side’s German coach Bernd Storck was full of praise for his side.
“Today, you saw, the level was absolutely amazing what we saw from my team, they were fighting all together. And they played football, they can play football. I think we deserved to go to France more than 100 percent,” said the 52-year-old.
As Superman appeared for the Irish in Dublin, Zlatan Ibrahimovic once again turned out to be Sweden’s super hero, scoring twice to help send his side through at the expense of neighbours and former champions Denmark.
Denmark levelled on the night for a 2-2 draw but fell two goals short on aggregate.
Sweden coach Erik Hamren said: “We said to each other before this gathering that if we get our defence to work, we’ll win these matches. As for Ibrahimovic, I can say that even if he’s not part of my family – I love him!”
What happens now
We now know all 24 national teams that will compete on the pitches of France next summer all gunning for the European crown.
The draw for the group stage of the tournament is scheduled on 12th of December in Paris.
When the draw takes place France will already be sitting pretty in position one in group A having automatically qualified as hosts.
One by one the other teams will be drawn into six groups of four – Groups A to F.
The top two from each group advance automatically to the last knockout stage while the four best third-ranked sides will also progress.
So here’s a look at the draw pots for the 15th edition of the tournament, which for the first time will feature 24 nations, having been expanded from the 16-team format used since 1996.
• Pot 1: Spain, Germany, England, Portugal, Belgium
• Pot 2: Italy, Russia, Switzerland, Austria, Croatia, Ukraine
• Pot 3: Czech Republic, Sweden, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Hungary
• Pot 4: Turkey, Republic of Ireland, Iceland, Wales, Albania, Northern Ireland
Up and down
Now lets see who stole the limelight and who was left in the darkness over the past week of European football.
Sweden’s Superman himself Zlatan Ibrahimovic makes our up lists as with two goals on the night against Denmark he became only the 6th European player to surpass 60 international goals.
He has now fired in 62 goals in 111 matches.
Joining ‘Zlatman’ on the up is László Kleinheisler.
The 21-year midfielder made a dream debut for Hungary in the first leg of the play-off against Norway and scored the only goal of the match. Ultimately that helped send his nation to the Euros for the first time since 1972.
Hungary’s last major tournament appearance was at the Mexico World Cup in 1986.
On the down – and out – is Morten Olsen, who after 15 years at the helm announced his resignation as the head coach of Denmark after his side failed to reach the European finals.
66-year-old Olsen, who announced he would retire after the tournament next year, was the longest-serving national coach in Europe.
Also on the Down – and it’s as low down as you can get – is a group of Turkish supporters who booed the minute’s silence observed for the 132 victims of terror attacks in Paris last week.
The shocking behaviour took place before their team’s game against Greece at the weekend.
Brothers in arms
We wrap up our special Euro 2016 edition with special images from one the most symbolic football matches in recent years.
Just four days after the terrorist attacks in Paris, France played a friendly match with England at Wembley.
This match was preceded by a ceremony honoring the victims of the tragic events, a ceremony that included a moving joint performance of La Marseillaise by all present at the stadium and a minute’s silence just before kickoff. (Check out the clip above)
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