"What's a Euro?"
"Don't you mean 'hero,' honey?"
"Ask your father."
"What's a Euro?"
"Why son, it's a Greek sandwich.”
Insert Vaudeville cane here.
Brace yourselves North America! Euro 2008 is right around the corner and there's no telling what those devilish bureaucrats in Brussels will be up to.
I don't know what that means either.
So you know, Euro 2008 (formerly known as the European Championship) is a soccer tournament sanctioned by UEFA where 16 of Europe's top soccer nations battle for footie supremacy. This year it will be held from June 7 to June 29 in Austria and Switzerland.
It’s often argued that any Euro tournament is tougher than the World Cup because there are no so-called weak nations competing.
Indeed, 12 of the 16 teams in the tournament are ranked in FIFA's Top 25 countries. The ELO rankings report 11 of the 16 in the top 25. In both cases, one of the hosts – Austria – is the lowest ranking European nation.
Of course, if Austria was ranked for cultural pedigree, it would be a different story. Austria would be ranked among the top nations. Alas, this is not about Ludwig von Mises, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Sigmund Freud. It's about Christiano Ronaldo, Luca Toni and Cesc Fabregas.
Historically, Germany has won three Euro titles with five trips to the finals – more than any other nation. Next in line is France with two titles in its trophy case.
Russia (including the Soviet Union) has compiled a 1-3 record in the finals while Italy, Spain and the Czech Republic (including Czechoslovakia) each have 1-1 records in the finals.
Here’s a rough guideline to the groups for Euro 2008.
Please note FIFA followed by ELO rankings are in parentheses.
Portugal (9,14), Switzerland (48, 27), Czech Republic (6,8) and Turkey (25, 21)
Portugal, who reached the semi-finals in the last World Cup and was runner-up at Euro 2004, is considered among the favorites this summer – even if they did not win their qualifying group after playing some inconsistent soccer.
Naturally, many eyes will be on Cristiano Ronaldo. However, it will take more than Ronaldo to win this tournament. Players like forward Nuno Gomes, midfielders Nani and Pepe (sounds like a Portuguese comedy act) will have to step up as will the solid defensive duo of Ricardo Carvalho and Paulo Ferreira. The question here is whether Portugal has the killer instinct to harness all their talent into one powerful force.
Sleeper player? Striker Ricardo Quaresma.
Always a threat, the Czech Republic is in the process of introducing another great generation of players in the post-Pavel Nedved era. The Czechs mix youth and experience led by the brilliant Petr Cech in goal, captain Tomas Ujfalusi in defense, and Jan Koller up front.
Offensively-challenged Switzerland is low in the rankings but do have world class players in their lineup including Alexander Frei (who’s just recovering from a difficult injury), Tranquillo Barnetta (his name translates into Calm Barnetta) and Philppe Senderos. The strength of this team is in goal and on defense.
Turkey struggled during the Euro qualifiers and did not participate in the last World Cup or Euro 2004, but Coach Fatih Terim believes his team can “be the surprise of the finals.” Indeed, Turkey is no stranger to surprises as they showed at Euro 2000 when they reached the quarter-finals and World Cup 2002 when they earned a semi-final placing.
Led by Villareal’s midfielder Nihat Kahveci, the Turks play a flexible formation that can pose problems for teams. Personally, I hope to see Emre participate.
Germany (5,7) Croatia (13, 12) Poland (27,25) Austria (101, 62)
Logically, the rankings seem to correlate with how they should finish.
Offensively-minded and coached by the innovative Joachim Loew, Germany is a perennial contender at this tournament. Midfielders Torsten Frings and Michael Ballack are healthy again and ready, along with Bastion Schweinsteiger, to lead the charge while forward Mario Gomes will look to make his name at Euro.
But Germany will have to battle technically gifted Croatia (just ask England) and well-coached Poland who won their qualifying group ahead of Portugal. Midfielder Wojciech Lobodzinki should be ready to go for the Poles.
Possible pivotal (and exciting) match: Poland versus Croatia.
Croatia was a good dark horse pick with Brazilian-born striker Eduardo, but he will not return from his injury until July, definitely hurting his team's chances.
It's safe to assume Austria will be the doormat of the tournament – let’s call them the Miami Heat. But be sure to keep an eye for Middlesbrough’s Emanuel “The Pog” Pogatetz and his intense approach to the game.
Italy (3,2) France (7,4) Netherlands (6,10) Romania (12 ,11)
In terms of where they rank in the world, this is indeed the toughest group. Some argue that despite the high rankings, it may be an impossible task for both the highly skilled
Romanians and the star-studded Dutch.
As if a lack-luster qualifier wasn’t enough for the injury-riddled Netherlands, international mainstay and AC Milan stalwart Clarence Seedorf has pulled himself out of the tournament. Team-spirit always seems to be an issue with the Oranje and it remains to be seen if Coach Marco van Basten (another AC Milan legendary alumni) can lead this team or divide it.
Key players for the Dutch include Arsenal striker Robin van Persie, Real Madrid’s gifted midfielder Wesley Sneijder and one of the world’s top keepers Edwin van der Sar of Manchester United.
Romania has injuries as well, as they will be without star defensive midfielder Ovidiu Petre. However, there’s enough depth to at least field a solid starting 11 led by Serie A players like Cristian Chivu (Inter Milan) and Fiorentina legend Adrian Mutu.
A couple of things to consider here: Italy is notoriously slow off the gates and historically does not perform well at Euro, while France didn’t have a strong qualifying campaign suggesting their form may be off. Furthermore, there is controversy and debate among fans of les bleus as Hatem Ben Arfa, Gael Clichy, Bacary Sagna, Phillippe Mexes and David Trezeguet (to name a few)have all been left off the squad.
Given his outstanding season at Juventus, Trezegol’s omission could prove costly.
Still, there’s more than enough class for the controversial coach Raymond Domenech to work with including in goal. While he may not start, Sebastian Frey is coming off a superb season with Fiorentina and is arguably among the top six or seven goalies in the world.
The Azzurri for their part are stacked with talented and ruthless players who martial the pitch with a physical menace. National coach Roberto Donadoni has finally got his team headed in the direction he envisioned.
As World Cup champions, Italy comes in during a time when their domestic league no longer rules over Europe, but their national is extremely healthy (both present and future) with incredible depth and experience at every position. For example, Gianluigi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro, Andrea Pirlo, Gennaro Gattuso, Antonio di Natale and Luca Toni form a formidable back to front line.
Spain (4,5) Greece (8,13) Russia (25, 28) Sweden (23,24)
Spain and Greece look to progress but are confronted by two tricky squads.
Two of these countries are hockey powers. Can you guess which two?
Russia plays an open fluid style led by promising your strikers but could only muster 18 goals during the qualifying campaign. Inconsistent play continues to haunt them and they’re not a team that travels well.
Controversial pick? Despite a strong UEFA Cup campaign, Zenit’s Igor Denisov was passed over by Dutch coach Guus Hiddink.
As for Sweden, a nation with a rich soccer pedigree, they may be the weakest link in the group this time around – especially considering the injury to defender Erik Edman. Henrik Larsson has made the cut (for the first time since 2006), but one has to wonder how much influence he’ll have. In the end, this team will need Inter Milan’s wickedly talented Zlatan Ibrahimovich to lead them if they are to have a chance.
Spain is the Brooklyn Dodgers of soccer and will be looking to put an end to the “losers” tag for good. It’s a new era in Spain as standout striker Raul will not be present. But there’s more than enough depth to make up for his absence with wonderful players like keeper Iker Casillas, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas and David Villa artistically roaming the pitch. The only weak spot that can be debated is on defense. Carles Puyol is an aging work horse and the athletic Sergio Ramos may not be enough to solidify the back line.
Another concern is that while talent-wise they match up well with any side in the world, can they respond when the play gets rough and tough?
The question often posed regarding Greece is whether 2004 was a fluke. While the Greeks played very well in the run up to the tournament, no one foresaw them pulling off what they did. It goes to show you what team unity can achieve. However, this year Greece comes in with the added pressure that comes with being champion, and they will now have to play with a bulls-eye on their backs. The road to becoming a soccer power is a long one.
The Greeks will come in with a little more depth on attack (for example, with the addition of Bayern Leverkusen’s dangerous striker Fanis Gekas) to complement a solid defense, but for Greece it all comes to consistency and experience – 10 players from the 2004 team are returning. Greece no longer has the element of surprise as leverage but has worked diligently to bolster their lineup and come into the tournament on an upward momentum swing.
Of the four groups, Group D seems to be the one capable of the least surprises.
All that being said, one thing is for sure – expect the unexpected at Euro 2008.
There you have it.
Enjoy Euro 2008.