In spite of the conceit expressed by American baseball in calling its championship “World Series” and the hype surrounding American football’s “Super Bowl,” there are two events held every four years, alternating every two years, which can be more genuinely referred to as World and Super respectively. The Federation Internationale de Football Association’s (FIFA) World Cup was last held in 2010 in the Republic of South Africa and the competing teams were from countries in every hemisphere on the planet. While the Union of European Football Associations’ (UEFA) European Cup only features the best teams of Europe coming together every four years, the competition is, if anything, even more exciting than its larger compatriot.
After two years of qualifying games, the top 16 national teams in Europe spend three weeks playing intense matches to decide the championship. Unlike the World Cup where it always seems inevitable one of six teams will walk away with the win, in the European Cup there’s more of a chance of one of the long shots, if not winning, then at least making their way through to the latter stages of the tournament. Unheralded countries like Greece and Turkey have surprised more famous sides in recent years, with the Greeks actually winning the cup in 2004. In 2008 things returned to something akin to form as perennial power Spain won the Cup, though even that was considered something of a breakthrough as it came after years of the country’s team failed to live up to expectations.
With Spain continuing its winning ways by taking home the 2010 World Cup, they have to be considered one of the favourites in Euro 2012. However, such is the fickle finger of fate they come into the tourney having lost their leading scorer and most experienced defender to injuries. In their first game against Italy, a one-all draw, they played their usual excellent ball control game. But, they seemed to be lacking the ability to finish their passes off with quality shots on goal and showed some alarming weaknesses in their ability to defend against quick counter attacks by the Italians. Only the Italians’ inability to score on their chances prevented Spain from losing their opening match. However, they looked much more impressive in their 4-0 result over an admittedly outclassed Republic of Ireland.
There is one game remaining in the group stage for each team—the teams are divided into four groups of four, with the top two teams in each advancing to the quarter finals after a round robin of three games. Each team is awarded three points for a win and one point for a tie.
Spain still has to be considered one of the favourites, but they don’t seem quite the sure thing to win as they did two years ago in South Africa. Still, they are in better shape than other teams one normally thinks of as always in the running, and along with Italy should advance out of their group with no trouble. In Group B the Dutch are almost eliminated, having lost their first two games. Portugal lost to Germany in their first game but redeemed themselves by defeating Denmark in their second and only need to beat the Dutch to advance. Denmark can still advance if Portugal loses and they either draw or defeat Germany. If they both lose, it will come down to who has the best goal differential among the three as they will all end up with identical records.
While England and France are currently tied for first in Group D at four points, co-host Ukraine are only one point behind. France showed flashes of their familiar brilliance in defeating the Ukraine 2-0, but England was fortunate to defeat a weak Swedish side, and face the real risk of going home. Although the Brits only need a tie to advance, the Ukraine might be more than they can handle. Playing in front of a home audience with a chance of advancing out of the group stage for the first time since the end of Soviet Union, their talent will be augmented by a drive to succeed that will make them tough to beat. Neither side had an answer to France’s ball possession but the Ukraine had a much easier time of it beating Sweden than the British and look to be the more dynamic side. As long as France doesn’t do anything stupid they should have no problems defeating Sweden in their final match and winning the group.
Group A, made up of Russia, Poland, Greece and the Czech Republic, were considered the weak sister before start of play, in spite of Greece winning in 2004, beating teams who have never been considered real powers in international soccer. Russia has had good teams in the past and it was assumed they would advance to the quarter finals with the other three fighting it out for the final spot.
After the first two games, everything looked like it was going according to prediction, and co-host Poland only had to beat the Czech Republic to advance. Well the beauty of this tournament is that strange and wondrous things can happen. Thanks to Russia’s inability to take advantage of their numerous scoring chances, Greece stunned them 1-0 in their final match to advance, giving them the dubious honour of facing the winner of Group B, most likely Germany. The Czech Republic followed closer to form by beating the Poles 1-0 and winning the group, and they will face the second place finisher in Group B, which will be either Portugal or Denmark. (Holland are still alive mathematically but it would take a miracle for them to advance.)
Unlike the group phase where games can end in ties, from the quarter finals on, there has to be a winner. While that’s great and usually makes for some exciting soccer, it also raises the ugly spectre of penalty kicks. If, after regulation time and two overtime periods the match remains tied, the game is decided by each team selecting five players and the side which scores the most by kicking the ball from the penalty spot, 18 yards out from goal, wins. I’ve always found this to be a far too arbitrary way to end a game. However, even worse, is the fact there have been teams who have deliberately played the entire game with the goal of pushing it to penalty kicks. If you thought defensive hockey was bad, there is nothing quite as ugly as a soccer team who only plays defence. Let’s hope nobody resorts to this tactic in the days to come.
While I’d question anybody who says the best players and teams in the world come from Europe, with fewer weak teams qualifying than one sees in the World Cup, nothing can be taken for granted. (Ever heard of Lionel Messi or countries called Argentina, Brazil, Cameroon, Japan, all who have made their presence known internationally and play an exciting brand of soccer that can stand up to anything the Europeans can produce?) I’m sure the Greeks defeating Russia isn’t the last upset will see this tournament. However, that being said, judging by play during the Group Stages, it still looks like the tournament is going to come down to one of the traditional four European powers: France, Italy, Germany and Spain.
I don’t think I’m going out on too much of a limb by saying of the four that Spain is still the side to beat. They not only can control the ball with their pin point passing, as they showed against Northern Ireland, they can also bury their scoring opportunities.
At its best, soccer has a rhythm all of its own. There’s an ebb and a flow as the action moves up and down the field and as a side gradually builds an opportunity for a chance to score. Unlike the sports North Americans are used to with the instant gratification of the long pass for the touchdown or the home run shot that clears the bases, a goal in soccer can take 10 minutes to develop.
Watching teams like Spain or Italy work the ball into a position for taking a shot is to watch artistry in motion. I find it amazing that people who will gladly watch golf or curling on television can call soccer boring. As we come down to the final games in the group stage and move on into the sudden death playoffs in Euro 2012, you’ll have the chance to see for yourself why outside of North America soccer is still the world’s most popular sport.