Aaron Hughes not surprised by success of so-called smaller teams at Euro 2016
Published 23/06/2016 | 22:41
Veteran defender Aaron Hughes has not been shocked by the success of the perceived minnows at Euro 2016 as his Northern Ireland side prepare to face fellow tournament debutants Wales.
Four of the five countries that had never reached the European Championship finals before this summer are through to the last 16 and Albania only missed out on goal difference.
At least one of those nations is guaranteed to advance to the quarter-finals because the Northern Irish meet the Welsh while Iceland, who remain undefeated, face England and Slovakia's opponents are Germany.
With the world champions, France, Spain, Italy and England all in one half of the draw, one of the smaller countries could even reach the final, though Hughes insists the signs were there during the qualification process that the gap between the continent's heavyweights and others has shrunk.
"You've got to be careful throwing the minnow word around in this tournament because some of the so-called smaller teams are really making an impact," the 102-cap international argued.
"If you look at the qualifying campaigns to get here, that maybe shocked people, but now the teams are here and doing well, I don't see it as a surprise.
"The Portugal-Iceland game wasn't a big shock because in qualifying they (Iceland) topped their group against so-called bigger teams, so why is that then a shock (that they drew)?
"I think it adds to the tournament, it really does. It maybe shows you how far football has come in the past eight to 10 years.
"Every team, whether it's a big football nation or a smaller one, their players are playing at a top level with their clubs and taking that into international football, it really adds to the tournament."
The all-British tie in the French capital on Saturday has whet the appetite too.
The two countries drew 1-1 in Cardiff back in March in a contest that was far more serene than one Hughes played in 12 years earlier, when Robbie Savage was sent off for the first time in his career for reacting to a Michael Hughes tackle which also earned the Northern Irishman a red card.
Northern Ireland's record scorer David Healy was then dismissed too for the celebrations which followed his goal in a 2-2 draw in front of 63,500 fans at the Millennium Stadium.
"There will be a lot of emotion and a big atmosphere, typical of what you'd get playing a home nation," Hughes added of this Saturday's game.
"In the context of this being at a major tournament it might add a bit more to it.
"What can I remember from that one (in 2004)? I just remember the atmosphere, it was fantastic.
"One of the biggest memories was the national anthems. They were awesome. The thought of going back to Paris where we had a great atmosphere and to add the same amount of Welsh fans at the other end - it will be fantastic. I'm really looking forward to it."