There's an old joke about international soccer tournaments, saying they're just a few games and then the Germans win on penalties. Euro 2012, which starts Friday in the Ukraine and Poland, could stick to that, thanks to a strong Germany side. Realistically, though, the field is wide open and the group stages are packed with great matches, which should make this a great tournament.
Every four years, the top national teams of Europe (as decided by a qualifying tournament) converge for a title to decide the continent's champs. Spain won the last tournament at the start of their period of global domination, then went on to win the World Cup in 2010. While they remain a strong team, they're carrying a number of injuries and are no longer clear favorites. Germany are up there, as are Holland, Italy, France, Portugal and maybe even England. Here's a preview of what you can expect.
And be sure to join in the action in the Barking Carnival Euro 2012 Fantasy League. It's a fantasy game, just like you play in other sports, with the same frustrating sense of failure when your players completely suck and you lose to a 12-year-old in Idaho! Only this time, it's Vasherized rather than the 12-year-old.
16 nations will compete, starting with four groups of four teams each, playing in a round-robin format. Teams get 3 points for a win, and 1 for a draw, with head-to-head results being the first tie-breaker; the top two teams from each group advance into the knock-out stages.
Euro 2012 is being held in Poland and the Ukraine, a decision which has attracted some criticism, thanks to infrastructure issues in the Ukraine, corruption issues in Poland, and more recently, the Ukrainian government's imprisonment of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Violence and racism issues continue to plague soccer in both countries, with some fairly shocking footage from inside stadiums being shown last week on the BBC.
ESPN will be covering the tournament in the US, with most matches being shown on ESPN and a few on ESPN2 (see the full schedule). Every match will be available on the WatchESPN online streaming service as well, which is handy for daytime office viewing, assuming you have access to it.
Some good sites to follow the tournament are:
In some ways, I enjoy the Euros more than the World Cup. Maybe it's just because UEFA is slightly less reprehensible than FIFA, but it's a smaller, more even tournament. While there are certainly favorites, underdogs and longshots, the variance of the teams from top to bottom is much narrower than the World Cup (i.e. no Spain vs. North Korea type of matchups). Each certainly has their appeal, but I sometimes feel like the group stages of the World Cup are just a warm-up for the real tournament, whereas things are tighter in the Euros. Take this year's Group B, where all four teams are ranked in FIFA's top 10.
That said, the Euros also throw up their fair share of surprises: Denmark won in 1992, when they were pulled in as a last-minute replacement for Yugoslavia, who got bounced from the tournament because of the war there. In 2004, Greece went into the tournament at 150-1 odds to win, and went home with the trophy (thanks to some of the ugliest soccer you'll ever see).
And there's always a certain level of joy you can take from these tournaments when you don't really have much in the way of personal allegiances at stake. Though, let's be honest, as a US fan, personal stakes typically end pretty quickly.
Group A - Czech Republic, Greece, Poland, Russia
After my love note to the Euros above, it's fitting that the first group to tackle is the one I'm least excited about. Greece, Russia and the Czech averaged 1.5 goals per game in qualifying (Poland got a free pass as a host), nearly 1 goal per game less than the rest of the qualifiers. Russia had a good side a few years ago, but just as their star Andrei Arshavin's form has fallen, so has the whole team's. Greece is riding on the hopes of their economically challenged nation, while the Czechs are dependent on the journeyman Milan Baros for goals. The one hope of excitement from this group is Poland's Robert Levandowski, who led the German Bundesliga in scoring for champions Borussia Dortmund, picking up the player of the year title along the way.
To advance: Russia, Poland
Group B - Denmark, Germany, Holland, Portugal
This is the group of death to end all groups of death. Three teams (everybody but Denmark) here have legitimate shots at the title, but only two of them will emerge from the group stage. Germany are generally regarded as second favorites behind Spain, but they're being written about in such a way that it makes Spain seem like they're favorites because of their previous Euro and World Cup wins, rather than the current side's actual chances. Coach Joachim Low has built on the success of the 2010 campaign, and his young attacking side are formidable going forward (scoring an average of 3.4 goals per game in qualifiers, the second highest of any nation, after Holland); but they've got some potential problems in defense. If Germany can hold things together at the back -- and they will be severely tested by Holland and Portugal -- they've got a good shot at the trophy.
Holland and Portugal share some similarities, in so far as they're teams with great players, but who often can't put it all together as a team. Both have been beaten finalists in major tournaments (Holland in the last World Cup and Portugal in Euro 2004), underlining their potential. Both teams' rosters are full of household names (Ronaldo, Van Persie, Nani, Snijder, Pepe, van der Vaart, Coentrao, Kuyt and on and on...). But can they shake their legacy of unfulfilled potential? Of the two, my money would be on Holland, who cruised through qualifying.
To advance: Germany, Holland
Group C - Croatia, Ireland, Italy, Spain
On paper, this group looks pretty straightforward: Spain and Italy to walk it. But there are some interesting threads within it. Spain has what could be some serious question marks: its captain, center back Carles Puyol, will miss the tournament, through injury, as will their top striker, David Villa. Fernando Torres, a Champions League semi-final goal aside, has been in poor form since before the 2010 World Cup, so it's not clear if Vicente del Bosque will stick with him, or turn to Fernando Llorente, who has enjoyed a great season at Athletic Bilbao. Of course, all this is relative, since spain can still rely on the likes of David Villa, Cesc Fabregas, David Silva, Andres Iniesta, Xabi Alonso, Pique, Sergio Ramos, and more.
Italy are tipped by many as dark horses for the tournament, but things have been shaken up by (another) investigation into match-fixing in the Italian game. Police raided the team's training camp last weekend -- in what honestly looked like little more than a machismo-driven show of force -- and announced defender Domenico Criscito was under investigation. Criscito, a starter for the team, was subsequently dropped from the squad, and more prominent players in Italian soccer have been implicated. On the pitch, Italy's issues revolve around its attackers. Two key players for the team upfront are Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano -- both gifted players, but both with tempermental histories. If they can stay on the pitch and keep cool heads, they should bring goals.
From Ireland, the story comes from their coach, Italian Giovanni Trapattoni, a legendary manager who once led his home country's national team. He's stuck to an old-school 4-4-2 formation and used it to frustrate a lot of top sides, and while Ireland may be short on talent, they can rely on Trap's tactics to tie up opposing teams. Can he pull an upset against the country of his birth? Meanwhile, Croatia feature some talented players like Luka Modric, but need goals.
To advance: Spain, Italy
Group D - England, France, Sweden, Ukraine
This is a bit of a rough-and-tumble group where a lot could happen. France have a talented squad, but will be looking to avoid their penchant for self-destruction, which killed their 2010 World Cup campaign. They've also got some issues at the back, especially center back Philippe Mexes' cornrows -- never a good look for a white dude. Sweden feature the ever-fearsome Zlatan Imbrahimovic to score goals, but like France, have questions at the back. Still, they haven't been beaten by England in a competitive match for 40 years.
England's story is one of change: previous manager Fabio Capello steered them safely through qualifying, but quit in February after being forced to revoke the team captaincy from John Terry, who will stand trial after the Euros on a charge of racially abusing an opposing player during a match against QPR earlier this season. Roy Hodgson came in just about a month before the tournament, while his roster's seen a number of enforced changes thanks to injuries -- the latest being Gary Cahill's double-fractured jaw in yesterday's friendly with Belgium. Expectations are low for England, which is a great thing for them. Too often England teams have been faced with unbelievably inflated expectations and pressure from a bloodthirsty media, but there doesn't seem to be that sense at all this time around, which will work to the teams advantage. However, missing Wayne Rooney through suspension for the first two group matches is a significant hurdle.
To advance: England, France
The Rest of the Tournament
The eagle-eyed among you will notice how many teams seem to have problems in defense. This raises a couple of possibilities: this tournament could turn into a free-scoring free-for-all; or teams who can keep things tight and allow few goals could pull off some major upsets, a la Greece in 2004. That should mean good things either way, for us, the viewers. In terms of outcome, it's hard for me to look past Germany. I think that Barcelona's failures don't bode well for a Spanish squad that's been in their image, while Holland will continue to fall just short.
And don't forget to join the fantasy league!