If the World Cup showcases a contrast of styles and a range of skills — which adds variety to the extravaganza — Europe’s quadrennial football meet stands out as the most rigorous and uncompromising of international majors.
The intensity of competition sets it apart from other tourneys. This is a battle between teams with minimum difference in athleticism, tactical understanding and endurance. The gap gets wider if we look at pure skill, but that’s no longer a lethal weapon in this riot of speed, power, passion and colour.
This time, things will be close from the very opening day in groups C and D. The battle to qualify for the quarter finals will see the elimination of two teams capable of making life difficult for many in the last eight. In groups A and B, there will be big clashes and casualties right after the league matches, as the qualifiers from these two pools are in the same half of the quarter-final draw. Let us first take a quick glance at the four preliminary groups.
Greece, Portugal, Russia, Spain
Portugal and Spain are strongly favoured to make the cut. The speed and agility of the Russians may test them but the battle for the top spot is likely to be between the hosts and the under-achievers. It’s true that Greece and Spain were in the same qualifying group which the former topped following an away win over their fancied rivals. But Russia have not done well in any major finals for some time, while Greece usually struggle in the preliminaries. Portugal and Spain are loaded with players from the highest level of club football.
Croatia, England, France, Switzerland
There is little doubt over the potential quarter-finalists. France and England are head and shoulders above the rest. Croatia did look crafty and strong en route the World Cup bronze in 1998, but there has not been anything of note from them once that lot disbanded. It will be a huge surprise if Croatia or Switzerland trouble the big ones. The losers of Sunday’s France-England tie will still fancy their chance and this explains why there will be heart attacks in these two countries if they stop before the quarters.
Bulgaria, Denmark, Italy, Sweden
It will be unwise to take Italy’s progress from this group for granted. Denmark and Sweden also believe they can play in the quarters, based on the knowledge that the vaunted Italian defence is no longer impregnable (as seen in big games in Euro 2000 and World Cup 2002). Italy must be knowing that Denmark are a team on the rise and Sweden a sturdy lot which can sting. This Bulgaria is no patch on the Hristo Stoichkov-led mavericks of 1994, so they are not in the equation, though each point they collect will have an impact on the final outcome.
Czech Republic, Germany, Latvia, Netherlands
This is one snakepit of a group. Traditional heavyweights Germany and The Netherlands have a bunch of Czech upstarts to contend with and it will be no shock should either of the first two fail to survive the first round. All three will be desperate to beat Latvia and the newcomers will hate that. Like Bulgaria in group C, Latvia will not qualify but can have a big say in who does. With due respect to Dutch and German heritage, the bunch I will watch is Czech. Their record in Europe is far more impressive than in the World Cup, and they have a bright lot this time.
The Dutch have consistently disappointed in the majors in recent times, while the Germans are not producing the quality that made them a superpower till the mid-nineties. The 2002 World Cup final appearance was an aberration.
The tightrope ride will begin after the group league games. For all practical purposes, France look best equipped to handle this. There is a big IF here and that is, in what condition their players fetch up after the grind of the club season. I hope they have learnt a lesson from the World Cup.
France are the most complete team at the moment, boasting enviable skill, power and the right men in every position. Success brings confidence and most in this French pack have experienced winning at least one big title. Jacques Santini’s men have the right to believe that they’ll be the first team to defend the European crown.
They have too many attacking options for their own comfort but it can make things uncomfortable for the opponents.
They possess the world’s best midfielder in Zidane, though there may be some concern deeper down where they have a few about to quit international football, like Marcel Desailly.
Portugal are not too far behind. Their golden generation, led by Figo, is out for a final fling and enjoys the company of some young talent like Deco. Like France, they have experience in every position and more so in defence. If they can handle pressure and hold nerves in front of the home crowd, they are capable of big things.
Their magnificent football had lit up Euro 2000 and this time, one Luiz Felipe Scolari is there to temper flair with discipline. This Brazilian’s symphony of European ethics and Latin American artistry may just stir the right tonic.
Spain, England, Czech Republic, Italy, Germany and The Netherlands are also among the aspirants.
The first three interest me more because they have unearthed better talent in recent times. Casillas, Gerrard and Rosicky all have the potential to become stalwarts but are yet to lead from the front.
Beckham, Raul or Nevded, they all have led their clubs to glory, but big success with their national team has eluded them.
It’s possible that this hunger will bring out the best in them while donning national colours. Until that happens, they stay in my stable of dark horses.