Soccer’s Most Challenging Competition: A Euro 2012 Preview
For the uninitiated, the 2012 UEFA European Football Championship, or Euro 2012 as it is commonly known, is probably harder to qualify for, and to win, than the World Cup. Europe contains within its borders most of the best teams in the world––so much so that the World Cup seems like it’s for rank amateurs, with mandatory teams from the other geographic zones filling out the dance card. With the exception of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and an African flavor-of-the-month, there isn’t much else to fear BUT European teams during the World Cup. Make no mistake: Europe is––emphatically and across the board––the strongest, most competitive soccer region on earth.
Fourteen of the 16 teams in Euro 2012 are ranked higher than the United States (29) in FIFAs worldwide rankings. Only Poland and Ukraine, who automatically qualify for the tournament as the host countries, are ranked lower than the U.S. team. Besides these two automatic-bids, the only team to even have a world ranking as low as the 20s is the Czech Republic (26), who won this competition in 1976 (as Czechoslovakia), and has as proud a tradition of soccer as any European power. Every other team in the tournament is rated in the teens or single digits in FIFAs rankings.
Euro 2012 kicks off Friday June 8th at noon at noon (E.D.T.), when host Poland face Greece. Sixteen teams qualify for the Euros, as opposed to 32 for the World Cup. There are four groups of four teams (Groups A, B, C, and D). In the group phase, teams play the other three teams in their group once, with the top two teams in each group moving through to the quarter finals (which begins the one-game knockout phase). The bottom two in each group fly home and watch on TV.
For extra soccer drama, the British media is stirring up trouble (imagine that), by running unflattering stories about a perceived connection between Ukrainian and Polish soccer fans and white-power racism. (The U.K. media stirred up similar sensationalist stories in the run-up to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, with the scary monster being Violent Crime). Sol Campbell, a recently-retired black British player, and the family of Theo Walcott, who is on the current English squad, have cautioned minority fans against traveling to Ukraine to see England matches. Both Ukraine and Poland have officially, and indignantly, responded.
So, buckle up, there should be a year’s worth of high drama packed into a month of soccer, from kickoff in Warsaw this Friday to the final in Kyiv on July 1. What follows is a short introduction to each group, with brief specifics for each team, and our prediction as to who will go through from each group and who will go home.
Group A: Greece, Czech Republic, Poland, Russia
Pundits are calling this the “Group of Life” since none of these four teams crack the top 10 in world rankings. Three of these teams are second-tier powers, and the fourth, Poland, will have the home-country crowds to make up for any skill deficit and give them a bump up to parity with the other three. It is this near-equality that will make this an exciting group to watch, because every game will be hard-fought.
Greece. With the country in a shambles of economic uncertainty, you can bet Greeks will latch onto this sporting distraction and virtually shut down whenever their boys in blue and white are playing. This team is tough and defensive-minded. Key player is forward Fanis Gekas. Look for Greece to win the group by taking the first game against Poland and earning draws against the remaining two teams.
Czech Republic. The Czechs have one of the top goalkeepers in the tourney in Petr Cech, an ageless wonder who plays for Chelsea. Their other key player is Tomas Rosicky of Arsenal, who put together a fine season for his London club. He’s been hampered by injury his whole career, but when healthy, sees the field as well as any midfielder in the game. Has sick speed to boot.
Poland. Home crowds won’t be enough to see them through the group stage, but it’ll be a fun party while it lasts. Key men are goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny and striker Robert Lewandowski, who had a breakout year for Borussia Dortmund in Germany.
Russia. Surprise semi-finalists from 2008, they won’t fare as well here. Former Tottenham spare part Roman Pavlyuchenko chose to go home and sign for Lokomotiv, just so he would play regularly to prepare for this tournament. Talk about dedication. He could have an impact if he can crack the starting XI. Forgotten Arsenal man Andrei Arshavin is likewise now playing in Russia, for Zenit. Too many questions for this team, which will be answered negatively in this competitive group.
Going Through: Greece, Czech Republic. Greece were shock winners of this tourney back in 2004, and have a few players left from that glory run. I’m admittedly picking Czech Republic for sentimental reasons, as I once lived in Prague.
Going Home: Russia, Poland. Former satellites Poland and Czech Republic will try extra-hard to beat their former Russian overlords; and if you think that is meaningless, water-under-the-bridge dreck, think again. Poland will go down fighting, but go down they will.
Group A water-cooler factoid: Czech goalkeeper Petr Cech wears what looks like a throwback leather football helmet during games. He fractured his skull in a frightening in-game collision in 2006.
Group B: Netherlands, Germany, Portugal, Denmark
Flip a coin because, seriously, any two of these four teams could emerge from this Group of Death. Racking up goals will be important in this competitive group because goal-differential and total goals scored are tie-breakers. This would seem to tilt a decided advantage to Germany, who have the best all-around attack.
Germany. Die Mannschaft (literally, The Team, but to my non-German ear, it sounds so much more imposing) was the most exciting team at the last World Cup; where Spain mesmerized their opponents to death with a million short passes, the Germans fairly steamrolled their way to victories. Just ask England and Argentina. This team should be great for years to come, with budding superstars Mesut Ozil, Tomas Muller, Jerome Boateng, Mario Gotze, and Sami Khedira all under 26. Lukas Podolski, Mario Gomez, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and Philipp Lahm are 28 or under. Goal-machine Miroslav Klose is a comparative graybeard at 33 and adds maturity and stability. Confidence is reportedly high-to-downright-cocky on the homefront, so anything less than winning it all will be considered a failure. The Germans haven’t won the Euro since 1996, or the World Cup since 1990, an inordinately long drought for them. They are tired of being the bridesmaids; the time is now.
Netherlands. This incarnation of the Dutch team is remarkably similar to the one that finished second to Spain in the World Cup two years ago, which can work for or against a team. The Orange have some of the finest attacking talent in the tournament, including Arsenal’s Robin van Persie, Bayern Munich’s Arjen Robben and Inter Milan’s Wesley Sneijder. Hard men Mark Van Bommel and Nigel de Jong will hold steady in the middle, and Newcastle’s Tim Krul will mind the nets. Look for them to exact revenge on Spain in the semifinals, and face fellow Group B alumni, Germany in the final.
Portugal. Always a dark horse in any competition, Portugal’s best player, Cristiano Ronaldo, had an insane season with Real Madrid and will rack up many player-of-the-year awards. Other key players are forward Nani and Ronaldo’s fellow Madrid defenders Fabio Coentrao and Pepe. Like Brazil, Portuguese players sometimes go by one name.
Denmark. The nominal “worst” side in the group, Denmark is ranked 10th (!) in world. They are a rugged team that no one ever wants to play. Key man is Nicklas Bendtner, who thinks he’s one of the world’s best strikers, though Arsenal fans will beg to differ. Still, he does well for king and country, and should score a few here. Coach Morten Olsen is a former national hero, and is an exacting and well-prepared tactician.
Going Through: Germany will win the group and Netherlands will finish second. Netherlands is too good not to go through, though so are Portugal and Denmark. Germany will win the tournament, if they get out of the group stage. These two teams could conceivably meet in the final.
Going Home: I recommended against Portugal in the last World Cup, where they similarly landed in the group of death (with Africa bigs Ivory Coast and Brazil), and I got burned, but I’m voting against them again. Denmark will win a match, but will lose on a goal-differential tiebreaker.
Group B water-cooler factoids: Portugal is the only team in this group who has not won the Euro. Germany has done it three times, Denmark and Netherlands once each. This group will play its games in Ukraine, but all four teams are based in Poland; not something the Tourism Board of Ukraine is likely to trumpet in its 2013 brochures.
Group C: Spain, Croatia, Italy, Rep. of Ireland
Another deceptively tough group, and not just because of the presence of perennial soccer royalty Spain and Italy. Ireland and Croatia are two dogged European teams who always seem to be in the mix. Every game will be a challenge for every team.
Spain. I don’t know how to say “sorta” in Spanish, but if I did, I might add this to their moniker, La Furia Roja, as in The Sorta Red Fury. They are still the tournament favorites, for sure, but… there are a lot of buts. They’ll go through as winners of this group; still, you get the sense that all is not tip-top with this squad. There are whispers that defenders Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid) and Gerard Pique (Barcelona) have let their club allegiances come between them. The recent Madrid-Barca Classicos, as they are known, haven’t exactly been healthy, friendly competitions, with ugly incidents marring the matches. Spain has key injuries to defender Carles Puyol, and their sublime striker, David Villa. Villa was replaced by Fernando Torres, whose slow-motion trainwreck of a demise is one of the enduring mysteries of soccer. To wit, he has gone from scorching 81 goals for Liverpool in three and a half seasons, to netting only 12 for Chelsea in one and a half seasons. Maybe this tourney will serve as a mid-career renaissance, and he does seem to play better in a red jersey (Liverpool, Spain) than blue (his current Chelsea team color).
Croatia. Have the most distinctive and recognizable uniforms in Europe, the red-and-white checkerboard from their national flag. Have one of the best midfield generals in Europe right now, Tottenham’s Luka Modric; other key midfielder is Darijo Srna, a stalwart for Ukrainian club Shakhtar Donetsk. Croatia play, and will beat, Ireland in their first match, giving them a leg-up on Italy or Spain (or both).
Italy. Like France, Italy will try to reconstruct their image after a nightmare group-stage exit from the last World Cup. Unlike France’s off-field melodrama, The Azzurri’s problems were all on the field. It only seems like goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and central midfielder Andrea Pirlo have been playing since the 1950s; they still are key players, along with winger Daniele De Rossi. As always, Mario Balotelli is a big question mark. Super Mario is one of those entertaining and incendiary Presences, who is equally likely to score an otherworldly goal, or argue with teammates, or pout if he doesn’t get to take a free kick. He often appears like a sulky brat, and you half-expect him to take his ball and go home.
Ireland. Employ an Italian coach, Giovanni Trapattoni, who has the team playing well. If they don’t at least draw with Croatia in their first match, they might as well fly home, because their task doesn’t get easier after that. Ireland striker and captain Robbie Keane will be one of the few (maybe the only) starters in Euro 2012 who plays in the MLS (for the L.A. Galaxy). Goalkeeper Shay Given is one of my favorites to watch, for his energy and reflexes.
Going Through: Spain and Croatia. Spain are Spain, and will win this group. Croatia perhaps got the luck of the draw by playing Ireland first.
Going Home: Italy has to play Spain first, then Croatia, a tall order for any team. Ireland, though not exactly in over their heads, just don’t have enough big guns to make a splash.
Group C water-cooler factoid: Balotelli’s glaring, non-celebration goal celebrations are hilarious, in a counter-hype kind of way. He looks angry after he scores, an affectation that has to be seen to be believed.
Group D: France, Sweden, England, Ukraine
Ukraine is the only weak link here, but like Poland, their host-status should give them a boost. England have become a traveling carnival of dysfunction and pain.
France: France are out to regain their status and dignity after their embarrassing showing in the last World Cup, where a players’ strike left the nation wringing its hands. There isn’t a better coach to lead them than Laurent Blanc, who was an integral part of the France team that earned glory as the millennium turned, winning the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000. Have some of the best raw talent in Europe, with the likes of Sami Nasri, Patrice Evra, Franck Ribery, Yann M’Vila, Yohan Cabaye, and Karim Benzema; question is, can they put it all together and make a deep run? I say yes, though not all the way.
Sweden: Another team like Denmark who no one really wants to play. (My apologies to Swedes and Danes everywhere, I know it pains you to be compared to one another). The difference between Denmark and Sweden: go-to striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, scourge of Serie A defenders and goalkeepers. Zlatan is on fire, and will be the difference for his team, and he will be enough to put them through ahead of England.
England: Injuries are mounting faster than a Game of Thrones battle scene. In England’s final pre-tournament friendly, defender Gary Cahill broke his jaw when he collided with his own goalkeeper. Central midfielder Frank Lampard pulled a muscle and is out of the tourney. Defender Rio Ferdinand didn’t even make the team because coach Roy Hodgson thought there might be, er, friction twixt Rio and John Terry, and who stands of accused of racially abusing Ferdinand’s younger brother in a game earlier this season. They are already missing their best player, striker Wayne Rooney, suspended for a gratuitous kick delivered to a prone opponent in England’s last qualifying match. To top it off, England have their toughest match first, against France, play Sweden second, and will undoubtedly then need to win their last match against Ukraine. Since Ukraine don’t get to play Russia, they’ll only have England to kick around––which they’ll be happy to do because of the above-mentioned negative press––in front of tens of thousands of loud and raucous fans in Donetsk.
Ukraine: Ukraine are punching above their weight here. As co-hosts, they didn’t have to qualify, so they missed the opportunity to strengthen through meaningful competition. Most of the squad play for the top two teams in the domestic league, Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk. The aging Andriy Shevchenko is hoping there is enough gas in the tank for one last glorious run. Other key player is midfielder Anatoliy Tymoshchuk, who has played over 100 times for the national team, and currently plays for Bayern Munich. Former national hero Oleg Blokhin will have to work some magic here.
Going Through: France and Sweden. Alas, France might face Germany in the semi-final, which will be the end of the line. Sweden will qualify as second in this group, and face the unenviable assignment of facing Spain in the quarter-final.
Going Home: England and Ukraine. Just like you have to bet against a Triple Crown winner, so to with England going deep in a soccer tournament. Ultimately, all the off-field baggage will be England’s undoing; their recently-hired coach didn’t have time to construct the right team. The hosts will beat England in the last game and exact a big revenge for Ukraine and their fans, and comeuppance for England.
Group D water-cooler factoid: Ukraine coach Blokhin shepherded his country to the quarter-finals of the 2006 World Cup.