FOX Soccer Exclusive
World's best set to light up Euro 2012
Poland kicks off the Euros with a bang as Eastern Europe takes center stage for one of soccer’s greatest tournaments. Euro 2012 gets underway June 8 and moves across the former Soviet state to the Ukraine in a month-long festival.
The European Championship is the biggest prize outside of a World Cup – and it’s a magnitude harder to collect. For one thing, there are fewer teams – just 16 finalists, winnowed from UEFA’s pool. This should mean closer games and fewer of the dismal first-round slogs we saw in the 2010 World Cup, and a far higher overall quality of play.
For another, these are top-flight talents, even if some of the players and teams are unfamiliar on these shores. Powerhouse players from the biggest leagues and grandest clubs — Cristiano Ronaldo, Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Franck Ribery – are just some of the big names on display this summer.
And while few people in Iowa can be expected to be up on the members of Croatia’s squad – starring Tottenham’s Luka Modric – the fact is that these are among the world’s top national sides. Say what you wish about Africa or South America, even a sub-par crop of Euro talent contains 16 teams that can do damage.
The bottom line is simple: The men you see in the Premier League, the Champions League and La Liga, are now fighting for their country. If the Champions League is the ultimate club prize, and the World Cup is the stuff of dreams, then think of the Euros as the ultimate bragging rights prize for a continent. That's no small thing.
Spain enter as the clear favorites, but whether a team loaded with exhausted talent – even as glittering as the likes of Xavi, David Silva and Cesc Fabregas – can prosper in the crucible, is an open question. Largely built around the juggernauts that are Real Madrid and Barcelona, Spain are defending champions but will have to show heart and stamina if they are to succeed.
Germany and Holland are the chasers, with the Germans in pole position. Both teams have the ill luck of facing each other in a group that also comprises Ronaldo’s Portugal and dark horses Denmark. All four teams in the group have big names, but it is the Germans and the Dutch who have the depth and power to go deep.
Germany has back to front grit and a work ethic second to none. Powered by Bayern Munich midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger – now world-famous for collapsing into tears after missing the critical penalty kick against Chelsea in the Champions League final – the Germans are a team that are capable of playing multiple styles and able to score goals when they need to. Think of them as the Green Bay Packers of soccer, a team that can run and play short but also toss the bomb when they have to.
Holland is a bit shakier – they have a lot of juice up top in frantic, fantastic scorers van Persie and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar but they don’t have the mechanical defense that Germany can provide. What they do have is art. Arjen Robben is a winger whom everyone knows drifts right to left and yet remains unstoppable. Like many great artists, Robben is a mercurial pain in the neck; he can be brilliant one minute and quick disappear the next. Both sides were on display in Munich. He bossed the game for Bayern against Chelsea, then flubbed an extra-time penalty kick that would have won his team the game.
Some of the teams — Greece, Ukraine and Poland come immediately to mind – are likely to try and play a suppressive style of soccer, one that clamps down on attacks and looks to withstand and counter rather than create. Europeans call this “anti-football,” and Americans call it crap, because the fact is, it is boring soccer to watch.
But boring soccer can be winning soccer, as Greece memorably proved in 2004 when they backed their way into the title at Portugal’s expense. More recently, Chelsea showed what all hands on deck defending can do at Barcelona and Bayern en route to claiming their first European Cup.
Yet no team has illuminated this tactic with the high wattage of Italy. They are a historically defense-first side. The term “catenaccio” means “locked-door,” and it is their style of play. However, they come into the tournament as wounded animals. Their league, Serie A, appears corrupt, most prominently shown by their second league match fixing scandal in just six years. The current champions, Juventus, were the loci of the last scandal and were subsequently stripped of two titles.
These punishments mean little in the Italian league. When Juve hoisted the crown this year, they promptly claimed those stripped titles back with nary a peep of protest from the Italian football association. Operatic drama, indeed – but one that is just paper over the fact that this year’s Azzurri aren’t very good. They have failed to fully develop young talent and look like a side that is accustomed to a league where results are preordained. They will get whatever is coming to them.
There are outliers and dark horses – France, Russia and the Danes among them – but every game is expected to be competitive. The next month will be a battle. Who will be left standing? That remains to be seen.
Jamie Trecker is the senior editor for FOXSoccer.com covering the UEFA Champions League and the Barclays Premier League.
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