Friday, June 10, 2004
Euro 2004 will be a classic - KHORRAM COUNTRY - THE COMMENTARY
By Babak Khorram, for The Commentary
Soccer is the world's most popular sport and is known, in most places, as football. The sport that has been nicknamed the "beautiful game" is played on every corner of this planet and it has no equal in popularity. Yet, unbeknownst to the average North American sports fan, the world's second most important soccer tournament is set to start in several days - the European Soccer Championships. The tournament, second only to the World Cup, takes place every four years with qualifying tournaments occurring one year prior to the actual championship. It features Europe's top 16 national teams, which qualified through a rigorous qualifying tournament that features all European teams. This European Championship, referred to as Euro 2004, is the twelfth instalment of the popular event and is taking place in Portugal.
The 16 teams are divided into four groups (A, B, C, and D). The four teams in each group play each other once, with the top two teams in each group advancing to the next round. The next part of the tournament is referred to as the knockout phase. The eight teams that advance from the group phase play in the quarterfinals with the winners advancing to the semi-finals. The winners of the semi-finals, in turn, advance to the championship match, which takes place in Lisbon on July 4th. The tournament is set to start in two days, leaving soccer fans licking their chops.
It will feature star-studded teams and the world's most popular athletes, such as England's David Beckham and France's Zinedine Zidane. The French come in as defending champions and will be eager to retain their European crown after a dismal performance in World Cup 2002. Other favourites include England, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and the Netherlands.
France remains the bookmakers' favourite to win a third European Championship. They are blessed with individual talent from the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry, and Patrick Vieira. France's only questionable position remains goalkeeping, but Fabien Barthez has always played well for the national side. Add that they are unbeaten in their last 18 international matches and one only wonders why the bookies are taking bets. However, the French were similarly favoured to win World Cup 2002 but were upset in the first round by Denmark and Senegal. Despite being the best team in the tournament (on paper, at least), victory is far from guaranteed for "Les Blues."
England has been impressive of late. They have tremendous depth at certain positions such as midfield but are mediocre, at best, at others such as defence. Skipper and world icon David Beckham leads England's midfield. But whether Beckham's swirling free kicks can bewilder opposing goalkeepers as much as his hairdo remains to be seen. England plays in Group B, alongside France, which should make an excellent rivalry.
Germany came second place in World Cup 2002, losing to Brazil in the finals. For Euro 2004, the Germans have concocted a unique blend of the old (Oliver Kahn et al.) with the young (Philip Lahm et al.). But it will be a mixture of the two, in midfielder Michael Ballack that will determine how far they can go. Despite their poor play as of late, the Germans are famed for their discipline and work ethic - that alone could take them far.
Italy rarely fails to impress in major tournaments and this year should be no different. As usual, they have a strong backline anchored by Il Capitano, Fabio Cannavaro. They also have, arguably, the world's best goalkeeper in Gianluigi Buffon. Francesco Totti leads the attack, which remains a big question mark for Italy, especially late in games. Even if the Italians do not win this year's affair, the "Azzurri" will get my vote for best-dressed team.
The Portuguese will be playing at home, which makes them an automatic favourite. However, there is more to this team than the mere superficial. They have an excellent midfield headed by Luís Figo and Manuel Rui Costa. If Pauleta and Cristiano Ronaldo (not to be confused with Brazil's Ronaldo) can finish the crosses from the midfield, the Portuguese will be a force to be reckoned with.
Spain has been picked to do well for years, yet always seem to fall short in major tournaments. Many sports columnists have predicted that they will overcome their previous misfortunes and win their second European Championship. With the attacking duo of Raúl Gonzales and Fernando Morientes, the Spaniards could prove their supporters right.
The Dutch are the most enigmatic team. At times they play impeccable defence with an overpowering attack, led by Ruud Van Nistelrooij. Yet, at other times, they look worse than Goldmember from Austin Powers. If the Dutch can play well, and play well consistently, then there is no limit to how far they can go.
Predictions are always a tricky business, especially in a sport like soccer. Nevertheless, I predict France will win its third European Championship. Joining France in the championship match will be Portugal. For the French individual talent and tactical brilliance should lead them to their second-straight championship. For the Portuguese the home crowd will be a huge X-factor, carrying them straight to the grand finale. The championship match will be a close affair with France defeating Portugal in extra-time. I encourage everyone that claims to be a sports fan to watch at least some of the European Championship. Even if your country is not represented, the world's "beautiful game" is.
Babak Khorram will return in three weeks.
Questions and comments may be sent to: email@example.com
Please check the archives for previous columns from The Commentary.