Fierce competition in store
UEFA EURO 2008 will begin in Basle, Switzerland, tomorrow when 16 teams embark upon the mission to be crowned continental champions on Sunday 29 June in the Austrian capital Vienna. And for the first time in the tournament's history, the European finals will feature all four semi-finalists from the previous FIFA World Cup™; Italy, France, Germany and Portugal.
Moreover, with the exception of Denmark, all the past winners of the event have qualified for this, the competition's 13th edition.
Two years on from their victory in Germany, Italy are dreaming of emulating the achievement of France, who reigned as European and world champions for two years following their EURO 2000 conquest. But the Azzurri's loss of their captain, Fabio Cannavaro, injured during a training session in Austria, could destabilise their defence.
Despite having been voted favourites for EURO glory by the
coaches of the qualified teams, France are still in the throes of
rebuilding, with no less than 11 new players (12 if Patrick Vieira
is withdrawn), ten of whom have no experience in the finals of a
major tournament. Very closely matched for the last few years,
these two teams have been thrown together again, this time in a
highly competitive Group C along with the Netherlands and Romania,
both of whom also harbour lofty ambitions.
In the quarter-finals, the top two finishers from this pool will be pitted against their counterparts from Group D. The latter is also a demanding section featuring reigning European champions Greece, a Spain side that has scarcely looked so complete, Sweden and Russia, who have found a new lease of life under Guus Hiddink's guidance. Then, the winners of these two last-eight encounters will meet in the semi-finals.
On paper at least, this draw appears to have facilitated the task facing Germany and Portugal, whose own groups seem decidedly more straightforward. In Group A, Cristiano Ronaldo and Co would appear to have the edge over co-hosts Switzerland, a Czech Republic side deprived of the injured Tomas Rosicky, and Turkey, who would dearly love to emulate what rivals Greece did four years ago. In Group B, the Michael Ballack-spearheaded Germans look to have a golden opportunity to negotiate an even less potholed path. With Austria still in the doldrums, second place in the group is likely to be a contest between England's tormentors Croatia and Poland, who finished first in their qualifying group ahead of Portugal and Serbia.
The EURO has always served up its share of shocks, like Denmark's triumph in 1992 or that of Greece in 2004. Nonetheless, if the title does not go to one of the semi-finalists from Germany 2006, it will surely end up in the hands of one the continent's heavyweights, such as Spain, the Netherlands or a highly ambitious Croatian team. Nor can you rule out defending champions Greece, with coach Otto Rehhagel insisting "there's no law against the European champions retaining their title".
Stars to watch
Football aficionados watching the event will be naturally drawn towards established stars such as Gianluigi Buffon and Thierry Henry. The 'Little Kaiser' Michael Ballack, the gifted Swede Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the evergreen Dutchman Ruud van Nistelrooy are also among world football's safe bets. But the eyes of Europe will be especially focused on the new wave embodied by Portugal's Ronaldo, a recent UEFA Champions League winner. There will also be plenty of attention on the Spaniard Fernando Torres, who has settled in marvellously in England, France's Franck Ribery, top scorer in the Bundesliga, and Karim Benzema, touted as one of the future stars of world football.
A bit of history
Germany (three titles), France (two), Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Denmark, Greece, Russia (while part of the USSR in 1960) and Czech Republic (as part of Czechoslovakia in 1976) are the nine winners of the 12 European championships held thus far. The tournament involved only four nations from 1960 to 1976, eight from 1980 to 1992, and 16 from 1996.
* Most goals in a match: Yugoslavia 5-4 France, 6 July 1960
* Most prolific striker: Michel Platini, nine goals in five games in 1984
* Teams with most wins: Germany (15), Netherlands and France (both 14)
* Fastest goal: Dimitri Kirichenko in 1'07 (Russia 2-1 Greece, 20 June 2004)
* Youngest scorer: Johan Vonlanthen (SUI), aged 18 years and 141 days (France 3 Switzerland 1, 21 June 2004)
* Youngest player: Enzo Scifo (BEL) aged 18 years and 115 days (Belgium 2 Yugoslavia 0, 13 June 1984)
* Oldest scorer: Nene (POR) aged 34 and 213 days (Portugal 1-0 Romania, 20 June 1984)
* Oldest player: Lothar Matthaus (GER) aged 39 and 91 days (Portugal 3-0 Germany, 20 June 2000)
* Players who have appeared at most final phases: four for Lothar Matthaus and Peter Schmeichel (DEN)
* Teams that have recorded the greatest number of consecutive victories: five for France, Czech Republic and the Netherlands.
* Teams that have played most matches without defeat: 10 for Germany, Italy and the Netherlands.
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