One way or another, history beckons for one of the four nations in the top half of the Euro 2016 bracket, Poland, Portugal, Wales or Belgium. Each have made the quarterfinals, which take place in the next few days. The bottom half of the draw contains Italy, Germany, France and Iceland, with the big former three having won a combined 15 major international tournaments. The total for the top half is zero (though Portugal did reach the Euro 2004 final, losing to Greece on home soil, while Belgium fell to West Germany in the Euro 1980 final).
Each of the four sides on the top half boasts at least one world-class superstar, and one of the four is guaranteed a place in the final. With that said, here is how each shapes up entering its quarterfinal match and the case for each to set a July 10 final date at the Stade de France in Saint Denis:
Its quiet progress to the last eight came about after a masterclass in high-pressing against Switzerland in the last round. One Polish newspaper, Sport, went a little overboard on coach Adam Nawalka’s tactics, not even calling him the Polish Diego Simeone, but wondering if Simeone should be called the Argentine Nawalka.
Poland represents more than just a banana skin for Cristiano Ronaldo & Co. It did not concede a goal in three group games, and the only time Lukasz Fabianski was beaten was by Xherdan Shaqiri’s overhead kick, which is a contender for goal of the tournament. Jakub Blaszczykowski has been one of its outstanding players, scoring a perfect goal on the counter against Switzerland that originated with a Fabianski throw.
The team has shown it’s so much more than Robert Lewandowski, who has yet to score in France. Center back Kamal Glik is on the verge of joining Monaco, Bartosz Kaputska is a star in the making and no one can quite believe that Michal Pazdan is still playing in the Polish league, albeit for champion side Legia Warsaw. Poland is the underdog in its quarterfinal matchup, and it might just surprise Portugal with its tactics.
It is almost a default favorite to make it to the final, although surely not based on what we have seen in its first four games in France. Portugal hasn't lost any match but it also hasn't won a single one after 90 minutes yet, either. Its captain Ronaldo has another record under his belt, after becoming the first player to score in four straight Euro tournaments, but he has shone only in fits and starts.
The fact the Portugal drew a blank against Austria and only managed its first shot on target against Croatia in the 115th minute shows that that Fernando Santos is hardly throwing caution to the wind. Ronaldo or Nani, whose fantastic pass set up Portugal’s dramatic winner against Croatia and who says he is in the best national-team form of his life, can create something, are expected to create and finish their chances while the midfield gives them a solid platform.
This game could be surprisingly unpredictable.
Rare Photos of Cristiano Ronaldo
A 23-month old Cristiano Ronaldo smiles for the camera.
Cristiano Ronaldo practices with Portugal U17.
Cristiano Ronaldo lies injured while playing for Sporting Lisbon before his transfer to the English Premiership team Manchester United.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Manchester United teammates Diego Forlan and Ruud van Nistelrooy pose with Casey Ogden during the players' annual visit to children's hospitals in Manchester.
Cristiano Ronaldo was the center of attention during an appearance on Herman SIC
Cristiano Ronaldo attends Christina Aguilera's Back to Basics tour at the Manchester Evening News Arena.
After giving Christmas gifts to a group of underprivileged children, Cristiano Ronaldo takes time to sign autographs.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Bollywood actress Bipasha Basu attend the debut of the New Seven Wonders of the World at Luz stadium in Lisbon.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Adrian Grenier strike a pose during a party in Hollywood.
Cristiano Ronaldo didn't let an injury get in the way of his beach time during a visit to Malibu.
Cristiano Ronaldo with his Barclays Player of the Year, Golden Boot and 30 League Goals awards at Carrington Training Ground in Manchester, England.
Cristiano Ronaldo autographs a team jersey for a Saudi man after arriving at King Khaled airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Cristiano Ronaldo kisses his "Golden Shoe 2008" award, presented to Europe's best goal scorer.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Portuguese national teammate Aziza Makukula pose in a cockpit on their way to Zurich.
WWE star Rey Mysterio with Cristiano Ronaldo as they visit Valdebebas in Madrid.
Cristiano Ronaldo with Russell Crowe during the actor's visit to Madrid.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani celebrate in the dressing room after the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Arsenal at Old Trafford in Manchester.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Raul Gonzalez pose with Rafael Nadal at the Madrid Open tennis tournament.
Cristiano Ronaldo leaves Da Silvano Restaurant in New York City after having lunch.
Cristiano Ronaldo and girlfriend, model Irina Shayk, watch Rafael Nadal serve during a tennis match on day nine of the Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open.
Cristiano Ronaldo participates in a kart race with his Real Madrid teammates at Carlos Sainz Center in Madrid.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Irina Shayk attend the Marie Claire Prix de la Mode gala at the French Ambassador's Residence in Madrid.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Irina Shayk attend the Mutua Madrid Open tennis tournament at La Caja Magica.
2012 Cristiano Ronaldo and Queen Sofia of Spain
Queen Sofia of Spain presents Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo with the Ibero-American Community Trophy during the National Sports Awards ceremony at El Pardo Palace in Madrid.
Cristiano Ronaldo leans in to kiss Irina Shayk as they attend the Mutua Madrid Open tennis tournament at La Caja Magica.
Cristiano Ronaldo and former player David Beckham pose after a training session at UCLA Campus in Los Angeles.
Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo kicks around a baseball as Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig looks on prior to the Dodgers game against the New York Yankees at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.
Cristiano Ronaldo launches his CR7 underwear line in Madrid.
Cristiano Ronaldo attends the unveiling of his wax figure at the Museo de Cera (Wax Museum) in Madrid.
FIFA Ballon d'Or nominee Cristiano Ronaldo, his son Cristiano Ronaldo Jr., and Irina Shayk arrive at the FIFA Ballon d'Or Gala 2013 at the Kongresshaus in Zurich, Switzerland. Ronaldo won the award as FIFA top player over Lionel Messi and Franck Ribery.
FIFA Ballon d'Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo signals during the FIFA Ballon d'Or Gala 2014 at the Kongresshaus in Zurich, Switzerland.
Cristiano Ronaldo sprays his fragance 'Cristiano Ronaldo Legacy' at World Duty Free store at Barajas airport in Madrid.
If Belgium thought that beating Hungary 4-0 laid down its marker as Europe’s top-ranked team in the tournament, according to FIFA, then maybe the Wales staff might not have minded. For a 20-minute spell in that second half, the Belgium defense was all over the place and only woeful finishing prevented Hungary from pulling even.
The 4-0 scoreline greatly flattered Belgium, who may have added confidence–and the performances of right back Thomas Meunier, a late decision from coach Wilmots, have encouraged talk of a bid from PSG–but those gaps at the back will look inviting to Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, who have been outstanding this tournament. Eden Hazard played his best game for a year and Kevin de Bruyne remains a game-changer on his day.
Unless Belgium sorts it out at the back (starter Thomas Vermaelen is suspended for the quarterfinal), though, it could be another tricky time for Wilmots. His side struggled against Italy’s three-man defense in its opening match and will face another such alignment against Wales.
Working in Belgium's favor is the overall draw, with the sides that can match it player-for-player in terms of pure talent all on the opposite side of the bracket.
There is no danger of unfamiliarity for Wales, which beat Belgium 1-0 at home–yes, Bale scored –and drew 0-0 away in qualifying for Euro 2016.
The strength of this Wales camp is that Bale looks like he’s under no pressure and is simply enjoying the moment. His easy wind-ups of English lack of pride and passion–without that, what does the team have, after all?–and claiming that his only motivation is “the Welsh dragon on my shirt” show a man in his element. He scored three goals in the first three games and set up the own-goal winner against Northern Ireland.
It is not just about the Real Madrid man, though. Joes Allen and Ledley have been heroic in midfield while Ashley Williams is a commanding presence marshaling the back three. Were it not for Iceland, Wales would be the story of this Euros. It might yet prove to be.