Only nine teams have ever won it. It’s the biggest trophy for a nation in Europe – and it’s harder to get your mitts on than a World Cup. The European Championship — EURO 2012 — kicks off Friday in Warsaw, and there are multiple storylines already bubbling up that fans must keep an eye on.
This is the biggie. Both Poland and Ukraine have serious problems with anti-black and anti-Semitic chants and England has gone so far as to set up “safe zones” in Ukraine for their traveling fans. Ukraine is grabbing all the press right now about this issue, largely because of some chilling footage of fans attacking Asian spectators that was aired on the BBC, but Poland is not immune either.
Here in Warsaw, the leading team, Legia, has a history of intolerant actions toward Jewish fans, infamously provoking Hapoel Tel Aviv supporters at this year’s Europa League match with a demonstration calling for jihad. But while this strain is very real in Poland many here feel they are a minority. I chatted with a number of Polish soccer journalists this week who fully admitted the scope of the problem but also said these fans don’t represent the country at large.
Poland has also taken actions to clean up the game after an infamous match-fixing and corruption scandal that ensnared starter Lukasz Piszczek, one of 300 swept up in a far-reaching bribery and rigging probe. The same is not the case in Ukraine, where stadium officials and police have turned a blind eye to the problems.
Another match-fixing scandal, another black eye for a sport that seems not to have learned the lessons from 2006’s Calciopoli. The latest question is: will Italy even take the field? Both the manager and the prime minister have said that the sport might have to take a break to clean these issues up – and if that happens, the whole Euros could be thrown into chaos.
On the field, the azzurri are not vintage material, with the mercurial Mario Balotelli expected to lead the attack. New Jersey boy Giuseppe Rossi is out with a knee injury). After their dreadful performance at the 2010 World Cup, this was supposed to be a chance for redemption. On paper, Italy looks right now like a team on the verge of another disaster.
How many English players will actually show up for this one? Decimated by injury and without Wayne Rooney for the first two games, England is limping into Ukraine. Frank Lampard (thigh), Gareth Barry (stomach muscle) and Gary Cahill (jaw) are out, and John Terry is also hobbling from that tetchy hamstring. Expectations were already low for the English, who have a new manager in Roy Hodgson and a wildly mixed squad. The bright spots have been Danny Welbeck and Ashley Young but with the defense in the state it is, England are going to have trouble against the likes of France and Sweden.
It used to be that the summer tournaments were the apex of the soccer calendar. It’s hard to make that case any longer. The World Cup has been diminished by expansion; the South American championship fails to fascinate as it once did; and the Champions League, Premier League, Bundesliga and La Liga dominate the conversation. The Euros remain a powerful and important trophy to be sure, but the men playing in it are coming off grueling league seasons and European campaigns.
Does anyone really think that the stars of Spain, Germany and England can play at their peak without rest? Fatigue will be a massive storyline here, and fans should pay close attention to Spain in particular. The defending champs are on the verge of burnout.
We’ve mentioned the bad, let’s talk about the good. Poland is shaping up to be a fantastic host. Immensely proud, the entire nation has got behind the Euros and done a first-rate job on getting the city and stadia prepped. Ukraine seems to be far behind, but it must be noted that Kiev is a first-class soccer city with a long pedigree. Ukraine’s issues are political, sad to say – they have regressed and in hindsight, were not ready to take on a tournament of this magnitude. But on the evidence I’ve seen in Warsaw and Poznan, Poland is. This nation is elated to have their chance in the spotlight and we expect a thrilling reception.