We're a day away from literally millions of people around the world stopping what they're doing to watch people kick a ball around a field.
Euro 2012 starts Friday, June 8 and runs until Sunday, July 1. If you enjoyed the World Cup two years ago, there’s plenty about Euro 2012 to like, including high-stakes soccer matches and rampant nationalism pretty much every day for three weeks. Plus, three of the most recent World Cup's final four teams will compete.
The tournament takes the 16 qualifying teams and arranges them in four four-team groups. Each team plays the other three teams in its group at various sites in Poland and Ukraine. From there, the best eight teams advance — the winner of Group A plays the runner-up from Group B, the winner from Group B plays the runner-up from Group A, and so on with Group C and Group D. Winners from those matches face off in semi-finals, and those winners play in the finals on Sunday, July 1, 1:45 p.m. in Kyiv.
Today, we’ll cover Group A and Group B. Later, we’ll cover Group C and Group D and tell you where in Austin you can catch the action.
FIFA world ranking: 62
Players to watch: Wojciech Szczęsny (G, Arsenal), Robert Lewandowski (F, Borussia Dortmund), Jacub Błaszczykowski (M, Borussia Dortmund), Paweł Brożek (F, Celtic)
The more you know: Teams currently ahead of Poland in the world rankings include not-world-powers like Sierra Leone, Estonia, Montenegro, Armenia and Jamaica. Automatic qualification is the principal perk of hosting — or, in this case, co-hosting — the tournament, which also explains why Ukraine's here. In return, they’ve given the world these mascots. No, Poland and Ukraine, thank you.
Prediction: Despite playing all of its group round games in its home country (with the energy boost that brings to a team, though thankfully, the energy boost does not include the South African vuvuzelas that made the 2010 World Cup sound like a giant insect hive), and having a world-class goalie in Szczesny (or, as the Brits call him, “Chez”), it would take an unlikely series of events for Poland to survive group stage.
FIFA world ranking: 15
Players to watch: Kostas Katsouranis (M, Panathinaikos), Dimitris Salpingidis (F, PAOK), Nikos Liberopoulos (F, AEK Athens FC)
The more you know: The Greeks stunned a Portugal squad loaded with talent and playing in its home nation at Euro 2004 to win the tournament. In fact, odds-makers had them at 150-1 to win the Euros when they started, and Greece's initial victory in the tournament was its first victory ever in a major tournament. The tournament included a theme song from the decidedly pre-“Maneater” Nelly Furtado, called “Força” (which means, depending on who you ask, “strength,” “keep going,” or “kick ass”). The Greeks at the 2004 Euros are now invoked in the same way that college basketball fans invoke George Mason.
Prediction: Despite their surprise success eight years ago and world ranking, they could conceivably miss out on advancing past group stage due to the talent on the Russian and the Czech squads. But neither Group A survivor will make it past the round of eight matchups against the titans in Group B, so getting past groups here is likely just a moral victory.
FIFA world ranking: 13
Players to watch: Pavel Pogrebnyak (F, Fulham), Andrey Arshavin (F, Zenit St. Petersburg), Roman Shirokov (M, Zenit St. Petersburg), Igor Akinfeev (G, CSKA Moscow)
The more you know: The team became a subject of controversy even before it arrived in Poland. Polish organizers requested that the Russian team move from its planned five-star hotel in Warsaw, because it sits next to the site of a monthly rally commemorating the death of Poland’s former president in a 2010 plane crash — which some, including the late president’s twin brother, believe was a Russian-engineered assassination plot. Despite what they might encounter in the way of protest and media attention, the Russians didn't change their reservations. (Here's a picture of the coach next to some hotel art at said hotel.)
Prediction: Many soccer pundits think Russia will win the group, but will then run into one of three teams from the "Group of Death" likely to dispatch them in the quarterfinals.
FIFA world ranking: 27
Players to watch: Petr Čech (G, Chelsea), Mickal Kadler (D, Bayer 04 Leverkusen), Tomáš Rosický (M, Arsenal), Milan Baroš (F, Galatasaray)
The more you know: Čech is one of the best goalies in the world — most recently illustrated in Chelsea’s upset of Bayern Munich in the 2012 Champions League finals, but first-time Chelsea/Czech watchers might wonder, “What’s with the helmet?” Čech wears it to guard against head injury; he suffered a broken skull during a 2006 match following a collision with Reading’s Stephen Hunt, which knocked him unconscious. Still, the helmet is curious enough to garner some speculation that it will... evolve further.
Prediction: The team’s fortunes depend largely on Rosický’s health — he’s currently battling a calf injury, but he’s expected to be ready to play in the team’s opener. They can probably rely on Čech the way Stanley Cup contenders rely on goalies on hot streaks, though emerging from Group A means a round of eight match up with the likes of Germany, Netherlands or Portugal — all teams that give even good goalies nightmares.
Group B (“Group of Death”)
FIFA world ranking: 4
Players to watch: Robin van Persie (F, Arsenal), Arjen Robben (M, Bayern Munich), Wesley Sneidjer (M, Inter Milan), Nigel de Jong (M, Manchester City), Tim Krul (G, Newcastle)
The more you know: A number of the Dutch stars have been in soccer news lately: Robben missed an extra-time PK in the Champions League finals that would have likely lifted Bayern Munich over Chelsea; Sneidjer is the subject of transfer rumors and van Persie, after a stellar year with Arsenal, is a transfer rumor telenovela unto himself. But here's a reason for fans to smile: They unequivocally have the coolest uniforms of the tournament, especially the black away jerseys.
Prediction: Assuming they emerge from group — should that recent loss to Bulgaria worry the Hup Holland set? — they could win it all, though a semis loss to Spain (a rematch of the World Cup 2010 finals) seems a likely destination for the Oranje.
FIFA world ranking: 9
Players to watch: Nicklas Bendtner (F, Arsenal), Daniel Agger (D, Liverpool), Christian Eriksen (M, Ajax), Christian Poulsen (M, Evian Thonon Gaillard), Niki Zimling (M, Club Brugge KV)
The more you know: First-choice goalkeeper Thomas Sørensen has been battling a back injury in the lead-up to the tournament, and was left off the final roster. Either Évian Thonon Gaillard (French team, wears pink unis with pictures of mountains on them — not judging), goalie Stephen Andersen, Leicester City FC goalie Kasper Schmeichel or Manchester United backup Anders Lindegaard will be called upon to protect the Danish net from some of the best shooters in the world. In this tournament, Danish goalie is probably the hardest job of all.
Prediction: Swap Denmark with any of the Group A teams, and they likely end up winning that group. No, really, do it. Denmark would love it. Instead, they’ll face three of the top ten teams in the world (up until last month, it was three of the top five, but Portugal slipped considerably in world rankings in the last month), and probably won’t make it past group.
FIFA world ranking: 10
Players to watch: Cristiano Ronaldo (F, Real Madrid), Nani (F, Manchester United), Raul Meireles (M, Chelsea), Ricardo Costa (M, Valencia), Pepe (D, Real Madrid)
The more you know: Even with the talent assemblage here, there's basically one player to watch — for both soccer and extracurricular reasons — and his name is Cristiano Ronaldo. The cheeky British soccer blog Kickette, which follows soccer from a players-as-man-candy perspective (Example: Are Euro 2012 injury subs hotter than the players they've replaced?) offers this perspective on the debate between whether he or Barcelona striker Lionel Messi is the world’s most talented player. C-Ron is such a gossip magnet that he has his own category on Perez Hilton’s site. (The other Euro 2012 Golden Boot contenders are conspicuously absent from Perez’s worldview.)
Prediction: Probably a "Group of Death" casualty. As the fifth best team in the world as recently as last month, they’re strong enough to win any other group in the tournament, but they have to face two of the four best teams in the world at the group stage.
FIFA world ranking: 3
Players to watch: Mario Gomez (F, Bayern Munich), Miroslav Klose (F, Lazio), Lukas Podolski (F, FC Koln, but signed to Arsenal for the 2012-2013 season), Thomas Müller (M, Bayern Munich), Mario Götze (M, Borussia Dortmund), Bastian Schweinsteiger (M, Bayern Munich), Mesut Özil (M, Real Madrid), Manuel Neuer (G, Bayern Munich)
The more you know: On a totally sobering note, a delegation from the German team visited Auschwitz prior to the tournament. According to PRI's The World, the visit came on invitation from The President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, who noted, "If they visit Auschwitz, it will have a much bigger effect than a thousand speeches." On a totally fun note, here’s a Euro disco duo celebrating the German #10 and Arsenal’s latest addition in the world's most insistent dance song.
Prediction: With one of the best goalies in the world, a number of capable scorers, and a strong performance at the 2010 World Cup (plus Spain’s current woes), this feels like a tournament that favors Germany. They should, at the very least, make it to the finals. They very well could win it all.
Stay tuned for an assessment of Group C and Group D, along with our picks for where to watch Euro 2012 here in Austin.