For pure pageantry and true international flavor, there is no soccer tournament better than the World Cup. But when it comes to quality of play and historic feuds, nothing beats the European Championship. It is the sport’s hardest trophy to win.
This year, 10 of FIFA’s top-15-ranked teams are in the field of 16. In other words, there are no easy matches.
The tournament opens Friday in Poland and Ukraine, and continues through July 1, so don’t be alarmed if your soccer-crazed colleagues play hooky in mid-afternoon during the next month.
Spain is the defending champion, and also won the 2010 World Cup, but odds are the slick-passing Spaniards will have a hard time winning the trifecta. Nine different teams have won the Euro title in the 13 times it has been played since 1956.
Germany is the only team to win three times. France and Spain have two titles apiece. England, despite its rich soccer history, has never won.
Here’s a primer:• Favorites: Spain. Germany. Italy. Holland.
The Spaniards will be without injured captain Carles Puyol and scoring threat David Villa, but their roster is stacked nonetheless with the likes of Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique, Daniel Silva, Xabi Alonso, and Iker Casillas.
Germany is Germany. Always disciplined. Always tough. The Germans finished third at the 2010 World Cup, and that young squad is more mature two years later. Mesut Ozil, Toni Kroos, Marco Reus and Mario Gotze will be a handful, and Bastian Schweinsteiger wants a happier ending than Bayern Munich’s loss to Chelsea in the Champions League.
Italy is looking to rebound from a disappointing World Cup, and the Dutch, who were runners-up in South Africa, are as talented and hungry as ever.• Others to watch: England (it’s about time) and France (a new attitude under new coach Laurent Blanc).
• Long shots: Russia, the Euro 2008 runner-up, and Sweden, winners of eight of 10 qualifiers with hotshot Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
• Group of death: No question it’s Group B. Netherlands was the World Cup runner-up in 2010, and Germany finished third. Portugal is led by superstar Cristiano Ronaldo. Denmark got the toughest draw.
• Easiest Group: A. Co-host Poland gets Greece, Russia and Czech Republic. Greece, don’t forget, was the surprise winner of Euro 2004 after knocking off favored Portugal.
• Set your DVR: Sunday, Spain vs. Italy, noon. Monday, France vs. England, noon. Wednesday, Germany vs. Netherlands, 2:45 p.m.
• Prognosticators: Who can forget the octopus that did a heck of a job predicting matches during the 2010 World Cup? This time, a pig will be making picks in Kiev, Ukraine, and an elephant in Krakow, Poland. One prediction we know will come true is that Euro 2012 will be intense.
Four years from now, the tournament will expand to 24 teams. Time will tell if that was a good move. In the meantime, settle in and enjoy the show.