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Euro 2008: Football (Soccer) At Its Best

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Every four years, sixteen of Europe’s top national football (soccer) sides compete in the European Football Championship. Held exactly halfway between World Cups, the Euro is in some ways even more intense and passionate than its bigger cousin. Rivalries between nations in Europe, on and off the football pitch, extend back hundreds of years. Border skirmishes and other ancient grudges are now played out by twenty-two men in front of screaming thousands, instead of in the mud and across no-man’s land.

As is the case in all major international football competitions, the country hosting the event automatically qualifies while the rest of the spots are decided in a series of run-off games. Under normal circumstances, that would leave fifteen spots up for grabs. However, this year’s event is being jointly hosted by Switzerland and Austria, reducing the number of spots available. Unlike Euro 2004 which was hosted by Portugal (whose team would have qualified anyway), neither of this year’s hosts were likely to have made it into the competition. I’m sure this has led to quite a bit of resentment on the part of teams like England, a perennial power, who failed to qualify.

Of course the security forces of Austria, Switzerland, and Germany, who are lending men and expertise to its smaller neighbours, are probably relieved that they won’t have to worry about the notorious English fans and their potential for violence. They’ve enough to worry about organizing security in two countries and multiple venues, where total attendance is expected to be in the millions, without wondering whether or not inebriated Englishmen will decide to go on a rampage.

Even without the English in attendance, things are tense enough with some of the previously mentioned nationalist grudges starting to simmer over already. Hostilities broke out between Polish and German fans in the run-up to Sunday’s match between the two countries resulting in the arrest of seven German men. Hopefully, once the early elimination rounds are over when half the teams have gone home and the crowds thinned out some, the chances of this sort of thing happening will be reduced.

The sixteen teams have been divided up into four groups by random draw and play one game each against the teams in their section. The top two finishers in each group advance to the next round where the team with the most points accumulated in the first round plays off against the team with the fewest. A team receives three points for a win and a point for a tie in the preliminary round. From then on, the games are sudden death, and decided by penalty kick shoot-outs if tied at the end of regulation and two, twenty minute, overtime periods.

In a shoot-out each team initially starts with five players, selected from those who are currently playing, and take turns trying to score on the goalie from the penalty kick mark. The team that scores the most goals out of five wins the game. If the teams are still tied at the end of the first five penalty kicks they proceed on to sudden death penalty kicks, where the first side to gain the advantage wins. If the first side scores, the second is given an opportunity to tie, but if they fail, the game is over.

With the goalie not allowed to leave his goal line, or move, until the shooter does, the advantage would appear to reside with the kicker. After all, he has a huge amount of net to shoot at, and the goalie can only guess where he thinks the ball will be shot. Yet many a star laden team has gone down to defeat at the hands of an underdog because a game has gone to penalty kicks and their sure-footed scorers aren’t able to find the net.

In the last Euro, underdog Greece won the championship by playing a tight defensive game and winning games on penalty kicks when their more highly rated opponents succumbed to the pressure of the situation. Greece is back again this year and is once again going to be considered fortunate to make it out of the round robin segment of the tournament – of course that’s what everybody predicted four years ago when they won it all in the final over host country Portugal.

As is the case with every international football event, there are certain teams which are always considered a threat to win, and Euro 2008 is no exception. Germany, Italy, France, and the Netherlands almost always seem to field a team that can threaten to go all the way. This year the advantage is clearly Germany’s as through the luck of the draw the other three have all ended up in the same preliminary group which means one of them are going home early. Even without that bit of good luck (if you’re a German supporter), the Germans have to be considered favoured as their star players are all in top health and at the peak of their careers. Their only weakness lies in goal, as their keeper has a history of giving up weak goals.

Still, with Italy losing her captain, Fabio Cannavaro to injury in their first practice, and both the French and Dutch sides having star players just back from injury, even without the fortuitous draw, the real threat to the first major German international championship since the 1996 Euro could come from another source. Portugal and Spain are Europe’s most renowned under achievers. They always seem to be on the cusp of greatness, but never manage to win in the end.

The loss to Greece on their home turf must have devastating to the Portuguese, but it might give them the desperation required to finally win it all. Yesterday’s 2-0 victory over a tough Turkish side indicated that they aren’t about to go quietly, and any team that can call upon Cristiano Ronaldo – arguably the best player in the world right now – can’t be discounted. He scored a remarkable forty-two goals this year for Manchester United and is the front runner for the Federation International Football Association’s (FIFA) world player of the year trophy.

The great thing about the Euro is that you can’t count anybody out, except maybe the two host teams this year. Russia, Croatia, Romania, Turkey, The Czech Republic, and Sweden, can always be counted on to field solid teams with enough talent to pull off an upset. All it takes is a couple of missed opportunities – a goal post here and a missed net there – and a favourite can find themselves sitting on the sidelines wondering what the hell happened. Germany only needs to look at its record of no victories, three draws, and three defeats in the last two Euros to be reminded of how dangerous a tournament this can be.

While the idea of a tournament exclusive to Europeans is somewhat chauvinistic, excluding as it does teams from South America and Africa where the game is every bit as popular as it is in Europe, there is no denying that the European Football Championship makes for nearly four weeks of great football action. Do yourself a favour and check out a match or two, but be careful, you might just find yourself getting addicted. In Canada the games are being broadcast on TSN (The Sports Network) and Sportsnet with each station’s web site broadcasting taped highlights of all the games.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    A few points of order:

    1. The tournament is called the European Championship, not the European Cup, which was the original name for Europe’s premier club competition now known as the Champions’ League.
    2. No real resentment of the host nations qualifying automatically. England’s failure to win through was due to a combination of poor play, tactical ineptitude and a lack of strength in depth. They flunked a not particularly tough qualifying group and wouldn’t have made it to the finals even if an extra place had been available… It’s also not the first time a major tournament has had joint hosts (Euro 2000 Belgium/Netherlands, World Cup 2002 Japan/Korea). The next European Championship in 2012 is also being co-hosted, by Poland and Ukraine.
    3. English soccer hooliganism is nowhere near the problem it once was. Of far more concern to UEFA nowadays are racism, the vicious Eastern European thugs, and the Turks, although trouble with the latter usually stems from overenthusiasm rather than violence for its own sake.
    4. Extra time (overtime) consists of two periods of fifteen minutes, not twenty.
    5. It’s not chauvinistic to have a competition with just European nations. The other continental associations all have their own international championships, also held every four years – with the exception of Africa, which somewhat masochistically has theirs every two.

  • http://www.EurocriticsMagazine.com Christopher Rose

    Two further points, in the space of barely 20 years, the European Championship has grown to be the third biggest sporting event in the world, behind only the World Cup and the Olympics and only nerds, saddos and the tragically unhip call it soccer. Get with the game!

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    The European Championship has grown to be the third biggest sporting event in the world

    What, bigger even than the World Bog Snorkelling Championships in Llandrindod Wells??!

  • http://www.EurocriticsMagazine.com Christopher Rose

    Yes, even bigger than that!

    Er, that is bog as in marsh not as in khazi, right? Never can be too sure with the Welsh!!

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    Yes, as in one of the stars of that great QPR team of the Seventies, Rodney Bog.

  • http://www.EurocriticsMagazine.com Christopher Rose

    I preferred his brother Peat Bog.

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    Then there was Stan Bowles of course…

    I didn’t have a TV in the 70s, but you might remember this: when QPR played away in Europe against a French team, did the stadium announcer read his name out as ‘Stan Pétanque’?

  • Alex

    From History of Soccer website and on the origin of the word soccer: “As you can see, most of the controversy is sparked from England over the Atlantic, not vice versa. But what few know is that the origin of the word “soccer” actually resides in England and was simply exported to the United States, where it came to be used as to avoid confusion with the American football game that was growing in popularity at that time.”

    Blame the British I suppose.

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    The Association and Rugby codes were at first both called simply ‘football’. Slang terms were sometimes used to distinguish them in cases where it wasn’t obvious which code was being talked about: ‘soccer’ for the feet-only version and ‘rugger’ for the handling version.

    In Australia, there are three different wildly popular versions of the game, plus soccer – which has historically been the poor relation but is growing in popularity. Because loyalties to the various codes are largely regional, you’ll commonly hear all four versions referred to as ‘football’ or ‘footie’ – and no-one will be confused as to which one is meant!

  • Alex

    Doc,

    You da man.

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    Today, I rather think Senhor Ronaldo may be ‘da man’!

  • amy

    Howard Webb is a looser!!!bag your face!you’re such a beanhead!