Friday, June 06, 2008

European Championships set to kick off

Photo: The Euro 2008 Trophy (Photo by Petros Giannakouris, Associated Press, via

Well, one of the greatest tournaments for any (European) football fan is set to kick off tomorrow, as 16 teams from all over take to the pitches in Austria and Switzerland for the 2008 European Championships (popularly known as Euro 2008). Over at Out of Left Field, Duane makes the argument that this tournament’s superior to the World Cup. I don’t agree for a couple reasons: first, any tournament that doesn’t include the likes of Brazil and Argentina is a step down in my books, and second, it’s much more fun to see sides from all over the world competing than merely those from around Europe. He also suggests that the weaker teams in European tournaments are usually better than those in the World Cup. As he writes:

"The World Cup is sexier. It’s a World Cup, after all. And, it must be said that the samba beat of a Brazil doesn’t hurt either. But, the hardcore soccer fan understands that the European championship is the better tournament. Ask England how difficult it is to even qualify. As Greece if upsets ever happen. There are no Saudi Arabias in the draw. Ever game is contested and you never know who is going to emerge on top. To borrow a cliché, the World Cup is sizzle. The Euros are steak."

This is an interesting point: I don’t completely agree, as there are some pretty bad teams in the European championships too (cough, Austria, cough), but I think the majority of the teams in the Euros are probably better than the majority of the teams in the World Cup. There's also a great deal of parity: as the Globe and Mail's Ben Knight and John Doyle each point out, almost anyone could win this.

That isn't necessarily a good thing, though: just look at the NHL for the marvelous television that parity brings. When teams are confident of a victory in hockey, they tend to play a more free-wheeling, offensive game that's a delight to watch. When it's going to be close, they often buckle down, bring out the old neutral-zone trap and defend, defend, defend, hoping to get a break and win 1-0. Similar things often happen in soccer, as many sides become more conservative when faced with a tough opponent. The counter-attack becomes in vogue, along with extra holding midfielders clogging up the middle of the park in a soccer version of the trap and a lone striker hoping for a lucky bounce up front. European teams also tend to be much more defensive-minded than the Brazils, Argentinas and Mexicos of this world, leading to even better chances of them settling for defensive shells in close matches.

Many great games have been close or even low-scoring, however, and I'm not saying that there can't or won't be good soccer matches at this tournament, as I expect the opposite. The point is, parity alone is not sufficient grounds to sell a tournament. The European Championships are fantastic soccer, and they should be enjoyed on their own merits, which are more than ample. It's fine to prefer one tournament to the other, but in the end, the question is moot, as they take place two years apart. I'm a confirmed World Cup fan, but I'm still incredibly excited for this year's tournament, and I'll be watching as many games as possible.

As mentioned above, the parity of this tournament makes it bloody hard to predict anything. There are many contenders with the potential to take home the trophy, including France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and Portugal. All of them have glaring flaws, though: France's squad continues to age, Spain will undoubtedly pull a Spain and choke so desperately they require the Heimlich Maneuver, Italy's team is also getting old, and they're without their best player in Fabio Cannavaro, the Dutch have some defensive issues and also never seem to pull it together on the big stage, and Portugal can only have Cristiano Ronaldo carry them so far.

Thus, I'm going to go with my cultural heritage and pick the Germans to win it all (and even the oddsmakers agree with me)! There's a lot to like about this team, including the in-form Michael Ballack (now with Premier League experience!), the young talents of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Philipp Lahm and Lukas Podolski and the embarrassment of riches up front, including Miroslav Klose, Mario Gomez, Podolski, Kevin Kuranyi and Oliver Neuville. They're coming off a solid third-place finish at the 2006 World Cup, and their fortunate place in the draw leaves them with an easy group (Austria, Poland and Croatia). They also won't have to face any of France, Italy, the Netherlands or Spain until the final, given the way the draw's set up. The only team I can see derailing them on their path to the final is Portugal, but in the end, Germany's strong team play should triumph over Cristiano Ronaldo and his supporting cast. They've also won the tournament three times, more than any other nation, and two of those wins were with only half the country! In the end, it may very well be Deutschland, Deutschland uber alles once more. As former England captain Gary Lineker famously said, "Football is a game played by 22 players, and in the end, Germany wins."

- Stephen Brunt's excellent column on how the host nations may fall short.
- Brunt and Ben Knight have lots more at the Globe's On Soccer blog.
- Cathal Kelly of the Toronto Star has some very interesting stories about his time covering the tournament so far on his blog there: he also has a good column about some of the weaknesses the best teams have.
- Duane Rollins has some great tournament coverage at Out of Left Field.
- Mike Cardillo has an excellent preview over at Deadspin .
- David Hirshey picks Spain to win it all in his final column as Deadspin's soccer closer.
- Hirshey has a nice preview of the tournament (co-written with author Roger Bennett) over at his new gig at
- The Poles are already taking Photoshopping to new extremes in anticipation of Sunday's clash with Germany: their tabloids have manager Leo Beenhakker holding the severed heads of Michael Ballack and Germany manager Joachim Low (Via the excellent World Cup Blog, which also incorporated a nice Fawlty Towers reference).

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