The European soccer championship (Euro 2008) kicks off tomorrow. Switzerland (a co-host along with Austria) will take on the Czech Republic in the opener.
National soccer teams consist basically of all-stars who come together several times a year. If a country has a deep talent pool, its national team will be configured differently each time. Thus, the top-tier teams don’t really exist as such, and the prize tends to go to the outfit, if any, that is able to become a team over the course of the tournament. This makes it quite difficult to predict the winner.
The difficulty is compounded by the fact that the most talented units tend to suffer most from the fatigue produced by the long season which runs from August into May. That’s because their players typically play for clubs that go deep into multiple tournaments, and thus participate in an ungodly number of matches. This, I think, was the key to Greece’s upset victory in Euro 2004. The Greek team was made up of stars from Greek teams that didn’t go deep into European club competition and of benchwarmers at mid-level clubs in more prestigious leagues. Thus the players were fresh. Coach Otto Rehhagel brilliantly organized the Greek defense, and superior teams like France, the Czech Republic, and Portugal were unable to break Greece down. Had these teams been playing together all year, or if their stars had been fresher, the result might well have been different.
Having said all of this, there are four clear favorites in Euro 2008, and they are the four semi-finalists from the 2006 World Cup – Italy, France, Germany, and Portugal. France may be the most talented of the lot; they lost the great Zidane to retirement (his infamous head butt was his final act on a soccer field) but have added the exciting Benzema and feature the improved Ribery, now of the very best attacking players in the world. Italy will be without two huge stars from the World Cup championship team, Totti and Cannavaro. The absence of the latter at the heart of the defense might well prove particularly problematic, since it leaves the talented but erratic former Everton play Marco Materazzi (who provoked Zidane’s head butt) to lead the Italian backline.
Germany seems a cut below Italy and France in terms of talent, but due to a variety of circumstances will have fresher players. Portugal has the tournament’s biggest star in Ronaldo, and will be hoping that Manchester United’s Champions League run hasn’t diminished his match-winning capability.
Spain and Holland are also serious contenders. Spain is as talented as anyone, but didn’t look convincing in their final tune-up match against the U.S on Wednesday. Moreover, I’m not an admirer of their coach, who has excluded the outstanding Raul from the Spanish team notwithstanding Raul’s stellar performance for Real Madrid this season. Holland has fallen a little behind the Euro-elite in years, but the return to fitness and form of star winger Arjen Robben could thrust them back into serious contention. However, the Dutch are in a “group of death” with France and Italy, and thus will be hard-pressed just to make it out of the first round.
Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess. If Greece could win in 2004 (and they are back, with Rehhegel promising more of the same defensive tactics), it’s difficult completely to count anyone out this year except, I think, for Austria.
UPDATE: I spoke too soon about Robben. The Dutch winger picked up another injury in training and will miss the opener against Italy.