Every four years, Europe stages its championship tournament for national football (soccer) teams. The European map for football stretches from Russia and Turkey in the east to Iceland in the west; from Israel in the south to Norway and Sweden in the north. This year's tourney will be held jointly in Poland and Ukraine, and despite some previous concerns over stadium readiness and transportation issues, the host nations appear ready to welcome 16 nations from around the continent.
It's now commonly acknowledged that the center of gravity in world football is club-level competition (e.g. Manchester United, Barcelona etc.) in Europe.Billionaires have taken over many storied clubs there and, in turn, spent lavishly on players' salaries. In return, the clubs demand 40-50 matches per year out of their players.National teams have, as a result, become less important because the players are feeling more loyalty to their clubs, who pay their multi-million dollar wages and keep them healthy.
In spite of this, the large competitions (Euro's and World Cup) still appeal to Europe's best. Players who might be tired from a long club season always seem to find extra energy when a title is on the line. Those with big reputations might believe they need one of the major national team trophies in their cabinets to validate their careers. Additionally, youngsters can put themselves "in the shop window" if they perform well with a modest team, angling to earn big-money transfers to larger clubs.
The game plan
The tournament starts with round-robin matches within four separate groups. Groups have been "seeded" to minimize the possibility of stronger teams all being grouped together. Winners and runners-up from each group progress to the quarterfinals, at which point the competition changes to single-elimination "knockout" rounds. Draws (a.k.a. games that are tied at the end) are permissible in the group stages but settled by extra-time sessions then penalty shootouts, if necessary, from the quarterfinals onward.
As for who will win the trophy ... well, the usual European favorites will have high hopes, as always, but most of big guns have question marks hanging over them as opening ceremonies approach.
Spain, the reigning European and World Cup champions, are surely the primary favorites. Past Spain teams have crumbled under the dual weights of high expectation and internal squabbling. The current pool of players available for selection is extremely talented and leads many football observers to believe that Spain could easily field two title-contending teams. However, the intense enmity between Spanish super-clubs Real Madrid and Barcelona, dormant for a time but re-awakened in recent seasons, may have unsettled the squad. Injury issues for experienced midfield linchpins Xavi and Andres Iniesta also place in jeopardy the squad's readiness for the tournament.
Holland were runners-up in World Cup 2010 and, like Spain, seem to have finally found the formula required to meet high expectations. Wesley Sneijder of Inter Milan, Van der Vaart at Tottenham, and Robin van Persie from Arsenal are only a few of the many highly-gifted Dutch attackers. But they maintain a delicate balance of egos and could easily revert back to under-achiever status. Also, Holland is as weak defensively as any Dutch team in a generation. The saying "Defense Wins Championships" is often true in football, too.
Traditional heavyweights England enters the tournament in some disarray. The captain's armband carries great importance in England but became somewhat tainted by its association with Chelsea defender John Terry, who will stand trial in August over alleged racist comments made to an opponent. Coach Fabio Capello, manager since 2008, quit the team in February because England's ruling football committee negated his clumsy insistence on naming Terry captain. Liverpool midfield stalwart Steven Gerrard has now been given the armband — but Terry is still in the squad; not an ideal recipe for team chemistry. Add in the fact that their best player, super-striker Wayne Rooney, is suspended for the first two matches, and it's clear that their hopes are faint.
France always has talent, but exited World Cup 2010 in tatters after embarrassing behavior off the pitch and poor play on it. Have they successfully weeded out players and mentalities that could hamper team performance? Possibly, but squad quality seems to be fairly low compared to their relatively recent history (World Cup champions in 1998, European champions in 2000) and probably means a quarterfinal exit for the French, who might "fancy their chances" at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Italy is usually expected to contend but are in generational transition and must be considered dark horses for the title. If they can find the right blend of youth and experience, it's not at all improbable that they could reach the final. Portugal, led by world superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, has typically been a strong contender but need to get past Germany and Holland in the group stages to have a chance at reaching the title match. Russia and the Czech Republic, along with the host nations, might also be long-shot candidates to lift the trophy in Kiev's Olympic Stadium.
The remaining top-level favorite at this tournament is Germany. Young (but not too young), experienced (but not jaded or individualistic), speedy and creative, Germany are bursting with title potential. The coach (Joachim Loew) is progressive and oversees top-notch attacking and defending talent who largely ply their trade in the most competitive domestic league in the world. There are no apparent chemistry problems in a team which, having won three World Cup and European championships each, is free of extra pressure to win the title. These factors – along with the uncertainty that hovers over the other favorites – convince me that Germany will lift the trophy as Champions on July 1st.
The European Championships are second only to the World Cup in terms of national competitions (with apologies to the Copa America), and this year's version should be as exciting as any in recent memory. The sport seems to be shifting towards more open, expansive, attacking (less defensive) play. Will the 2012 tourney be a watershed moment in a long-term change towards more exciting playing philosophies?We'll find out starting June 8, when Poland takes on Greece in the opening match.