The World Cup is definitely the most exciting and anticipated football/soccer tournament in the World. Next in line would have to be the UEFA European Football Championships, or the ‘Euro’. Like the World Cup, it takes place once every four years. Also like the World Cup, it is a contest of the last team standing to win the Cup. This year’s Euro will take place in two countries: Poland and Ukraine from June 8th to July 1st. This is the first time the two countries have hosted a soccer tournament this huge. The draw for the First Round groups were decided back in December and people have made predictions which country will win the championships. This is not easy as it involves group play in the first round and the second round being the last team standing.
For my part, I won’t predict the winner. What I will do is give an analysis of each country group by group in terms of what to expect in terms of current skill and even possible surprises (FIFA ranking of May 2012 in brackets):
-Czech Republic (26)-The Czech Republic always has a talent-loaded team each time they make a tournament like the World Cup or Euro. It’s just a matter of them being on the ball. Since Czechoslovakia split up in 1992 and the Czech Republic has fielded its own team, it has participated in all four Euros since and their performances include being a finalist in 1996 and a semifinalist in 2004. They’ve also been known to lose out early as in the other two Euros and their only World Cup appearance in 2006 where they started strong but racked up a lot of injuries. Lately they’ve been looking strong as they’ve won or drew five of their last six friendlies. Will they go the distance at Euro or will they lose out early? It’ll all be determined in Poland.
-Greece (14)-In the past, Greece’s football team was never thought of as much. Greece’s team of today is a lot different that their team of twenty or even ten years ago. Never underestimate Greece as they are very capable of pulling a surprise. They were the team at the 2004 Euro that was least expected to win and they won. They do have an Achilles Heel and it’s evident as they tied 1-1 in friendlies against Belgium and Slovenia this year. Nevertheless they could prove to be a very formidable opponent this year. Knowing that the nation of Greece has been going through a lot of violent rioting and huge economic turmoil this past year, a win of the Euro could lift the spirits of the country.
-Poland (65)-Poland’s international prowess is always in question. They’ve qualified for seven World Cups in the past and even finished 3rd twice yet only qualified for one other Euro: the previous one. They currently have the lowest FIFA ranking of all the teams at this year’s Euro but were able to tie Portugal and defeat Slovakia, two countries with higher rankings, in recent Friendly play. Being in the weakest of the first round groups–this is the only group without a team in FIFA Top 10– could be an advantage, as well as playing home field. A surprise could await.
-Russia (11)-Russia has always been known to have a strong football team even after the breakup of the USSR back in 1991. Nevertheless acquiring big achievements has always been a challenge for them. They’ve qualified only two World Cups in 1994 and 2002 and failed to advance past the first round both times. They’ve also had lackluster showings at Euros until they had a breakthrough in 2008, qualifying for the semifinal. There’s no question Russia wants to do well here. The next World Cup is two years away and they’ll host the World Cup right after in 2018. They’ve even acquired coach Dick Advocaat to get their team ready. They’re already looking strong as they beat Denmark and Italy in friendlies this year. Hopefully this Euro could write a new chapter for their team.
-Denmark (10)-Denmark is a country that has really come alive in the last 30 years. They’ve qualified for four World Cups and even made it to the quarterfinals in 1998. Their Euro achievements have been better as they qualified for seven Euros including winning in 1992 and qualifying for the semifinals in 1984. They are a strong team as they’ve won friendlies against Portugal and Sweden last year but they also lost to Russia months ago. Nevertheless they could pull a surprise. Don’t forget that their winning 1992 Euro happened as they were a replacement team for Yugoslavia. Also don’t forget this is a tight group: the group most called the ‘group of death’. All four countries ranked in FIFA’s Top 10 which means any two of them can qualify for the quarterfinals and even Denmark has a good shot. It’s all a matter of who delivers.
-Germany (2)-The Mannschaft are always considered heavy contenders and this Euro is no exception. However they too are known for choking big at Euro. They’re the only country ever to win the Euro three times and they even made the finals three other times. However thy have failed to move past the first round in 2000 and 2004. Being in the ‘Group Of Death’ could go either way for Germany. They’re always at their most consistent during World Cup play and they showed in the 2010 that they’re still a strong team. However they’ve lost their two friendlies of this year: against Switzerland and France. Will they show the strength they’re known for at Euro 2012 or will they face an early out? Anything’s possible here.
-Netherlands (4)-Netherlands has what it takes to win; no doubt about it. However they could face an early out. We shouldn’t forget at the last Euro, the Orange were eliminated in the quarterfinals by Russia. This Euro could provide for some interesting results. They’re already known for consistency at the Euro as they’ve always made it past the First Round since 1980. They’ve since won in 1988 and made three semifinals. Since the 2010 World Cup where they made it to the finals, they’ve been ranked #1 in the World back in August 2011. Could they return as champions? It’s possible as they’ve won their last three friendlies but they did lose to Germany in a friendly in November 2011. It can go any way here.
-Portugal (5)-If any country seems to have come from nowhere to become a major force in the soccer world, it has to be Portugal. Before the 90’s it’s had successes in the past with a third at both the 1966 World Cup and 1984 Euro. Nevertheless they would rarely qualify for those events. Starting in the 90’s, Portugal’s football prowess has grown tremendously. They’ve qualified for the past three World Cups and even came in fourth back in 2006. They’ve also qualified for every Euro since 1996 where they even made it to the semifinals in 2000 and finals in 2004 when they were co-hosts. They have the power and the talent to perform well at Euro 2012. Nevertheless they do have an Achilles Heel as they’ve played to scoreless draws in friendlies against Poland and Macedonia this year and even lost to Turkey recently. Will The Navigators excel or will they choke? It’s all in their hands.
-Croatia (8)-Ever since the collapse of Yugoslavia, Croatia has proven themselves to be the little country that can. The Blazers have been able to qualify for four of five Euros and three out of four World Cups including a third-place finish in 1998. The team of that World Cup is known as Croatia’s “Golden Generation”. However the country has been in a struggle ever since most of the Golden Generation have retired. They have had their ups and downs in the past twelve years. This year’s team hopes to revive the successes of the Golden Generation but it won’t come without a fight. Recent friendly results include ties to Ireland and Norway and a loss to Sweden. Nevertheless Croatia could just deliver here and make this their best ever Euro.
-Italy (12)-The Azzuri’s Euro record is just as impressive as its World Cup record as it has won once in 1968, finalists in 2000 and semifinalists in 1980 and 1988. But it too has a habit of choking. The last two Euros have been dismal for them. And they choked badly at the 2010 World Cup. Not pleasant at all when you’re defending Cup champions. They have worked hard to improve its reputation since and even hired a new coach: Cesare Prandelli. It hasn’t been completely easy. Their friendly play these past twelve months have been a mixed bag: they won against Spain and Poland but lost against Ireland, Uruguay and the USA. Will Italy play like the Italy we’ve always known them to be or will they struggle again? It all starts June 11th in Gdansk.
-Republic Of Ireland (18)-Ireland is actually better at qualifying for the World Cup than it is at qualifying for the Euro. It has qualified for three World Cups but only one Euro: way back in 1988. It has the lowest ranking of the four teams of this group but it could pull a surprise. In fact it tied Croatia and beat Italy in friendly games within the last 12 months. Ireland also drew 1-1 against the Czech Republic. Besides Euro wins from Denmark in 1992 and Greece in 2004 remind us not to count the little guys out. So don’t count Ireland out.
-Spain (1)- Spain has always been referred to as ‘football’s greatest underachievers’. They have an excellent team full of talent and capable of winning, but often lose out early in the tournament. Last Euro was a big turnaround for La Furia Roja as they won it. They also went on to win the World Cup in 2010. Finally the greatest underachievers were achieving. They could continue their achievements or they could go back to being the Spain the football world knows. Another important thing to take note of is no winning team has successfully defended their title at the Euro. As for Spain, they’ve so far continued to show their strength in friendlies play this past year but they did lose to Italy 2-1 in one match. This Euro will tell another story of Spain and it will either be continued consistency or back to choking. Time will tell.
-England (7)- It’s the same story all over again. The Three Lions always has a team that can boast of some of the best combined talent in the world. The problem is when they get to a major event like Euro or the World Cup, the TriLi’s aren’t the best at playing as a team unit. They almost always lose out too soon. While they’ve only won one World Cup, they’ve never won a Euro. They’ve qualified for the tournament seven times and their best finish was being a semifinalist twice. This Euro could be different if England plays well as a team unit. Their play in friendlies has been very good as they beat Sweden and Spain and only lost to the Netherlands. Will this be England’s first-ever win at the Euro? It will all be decided this month.
-France (16)-Les Bleus are an enigmatic team. They can go all the way or lose out fast. In the past four World Cups, they’ve been champions in 1998, runners-up in 2006 and out in the First Round in both 2002 and 2010. Even the Euro has seen their all-or-nothing play pay off or fall flat. They’ve won the Euro twice, including 2000 as reigning World Cup holders. However they lost out in the first round at the last Euro. This coming Euro will be a chance to prove themselves again as the team has gone through massive reconstruction since their disappointing World Cup in 2010. Can they bounce back? They’ve been looking impressive in friendlies as they’ve beaten the USA and Germany. The 2012 Euro looks like the playing fields for their redemption.
-Sweden (17)-Sweden is a country that has had their ups and downs in the past. They’ve qualified for eleven World Cups where they’ve been finalists once and semifinalists three other times. As for Euro, they’ve qualified for five including this one and their best finish was the semifinals back in 1992. This year’s team has potential to do well. In recent friendly play they’ve won against Ukraine, Croatia and Serbia but also lost to England and Denmark. Will they have it all together at Euro 2012? It’s all up to them.
-Ukraine (50)- Even though they’re co-hosting Euro, this will be the very first Euro the team will have ever played in. Even though they competed at the 2006 World Cup where they made it to the quarterfinals, they have yet to prove themselves amongst the best European teams. Like co-host Poland, they’re the only other country not in FIFA’s Top 30. Nevertheless they could pull a surprise. In their last seven friendlies, they’ve won five and tied Germany 3-3. So they could still prove to be a surprise contender. Homefield could prove to be an advantage. Never has there been a better time to seize the moment.
And there you have it. The summary of each team competing at Euro 2012. There are many heavy favorites but even they have weaknesses that could cause them to lose out even as early as the First Round. There are also teams that have minimal expectations that could perhaps pull a surprise. It all starts with Poland playing Greece in Warsaw’s National Stadium on Friday June 8th, twenty-nine matches in between, and ends with the winner decided July 1st in Kiev’s Olimpiyskiy Stadium. Excitement awaits.