Fußball kommt nach Hause

Euro2008 kicks-off on Saturday and unlike the last pan-European competition held 12 days ago, the best in class is almost certain to come out on top. Look at winners Greece in Euro2004. Okay, don’t look at Greece in Euro2004.

The Euros are generally considered tougher to win than the World Cup in that, with only 16 teams competing, the strength of the weaker sides means there are always three tough first-round matches and one bad game will likely see you packing for home before the knockout stages (the finals are expected to expand to 24 teams from 2012). The truth is that the 32 team World Cup probably contains no more than half of the top 32 teams in the world, and as much as some managers like to tell us there are no easy games in international football these days, some games are still easier than others. Qualification from 3rd place in your group is still possible in the World Cup, meaning underperforming teams can still progress. Italy won the World Cup in 1982 having failed to win a game during the group stages, scoring only 2 goals. A similar or even slighlty superior perfromance at the Euros and you’re more than likely out.

Unfortunately, none of the home nations has qualified for the finals (meaning our chances of winning the tournament are only slightly less than they are of winning Eurovision), but we can still enjoy our biennial feast of tournament football. Can’t we?

A lot of pundits think this could be Spain’s year. Unfortunately for Spain, there’s always a lot of pundits think it could be Spain’s year, but it never is. They are the biennial under-achievers. The straight ‘A’ coursework student who flunks the exam. They are on a run of 16 games without defeat, including victories over the current world champions, Italy, France and Argentina. So should we expect them to finish third in their group behind Russia and Sweden? No, not this time. I think they’ll go close and with Liverpool’s Arbeloa, Alonso and Torres in their squad, I’m hoping they can finally realize long-unfulfilled potential and lift the…..what’s the name of the trophy again?

The above is what is known as a triumph of hope over expectation. The final will be between France and Portugal, with the former victorious. Looking at the French squad, it’s hard to find any weaknesses whatsoever. The strength-in-depth is unmatched by any side at this tournament, with two genuinely international-class players competing for each position, even if one or two are now in the twilight of their careers. I can’t see past them, which of course is great news for my Scottish half, Scotland having beaten France home and away in qualification, meaning Scotland will in fact be the best team in Europe when France are eventually crowned European champions on June 29th.

Romania, with the best qualification record (pushing the Netherlands into second in their group) would be my choice as a dark-horse, but they are in the ‘group of death’ with my champions-elect France, the Netherlands again and Italy. So the ‘best outsider’ tag goes to England’s conquerors, Croatia, although they will definitely miss their injured Arsenal striker, Eduardo. They ought to get past Poland and Austria to qualify from their group, with a probable quarter-final match-up against Portugal or the Czech Republic.

In short, my money’s on Germany.