Monday, June 2, 2008

Euro 2008: Poetry, Pain and Panenka

It's only 4 days away. The start of the 2008 European Championships. Sure, sure the World Cup's played on a bigger stage. (And according to the countdown on FIFA's web page as I type this, it's only 737 days, 19 hours 20 minutes and 00 seconds away.) And the African Cup of Nations and Copa America provide more free flowing football and ill-tempered hijinks and agony. (Yes, that last link is Argentina's Martin Palermo missing 3 penalties against Columbia in Copa America 1999. An unforgettable game I watched live in Sarajevo at 3 in the morning.)

But for my money, the European Championship is the best concentrated soccer tournament on the planet. Sixteen top-flight teams in four groups. (OK, 14. We're not counting co-hosts Austria or Switzerland, who did not have to qualify. And we're definitely not counting Scotland, Ireland, Serbia, Ukraine or Ing-er-lunt -- 'cause they dinna make it!) Three games in eight days for each team in the first round. No room for error. It may not be free-flowing football, but it really is gut-wrenching stuff. And of course the European Championship saw the best penalty shot ever: Czechoslovak Antonin Panenka in the 1976 final in Belgrade against West Germany. (Those seeking context can read this terrific article on Panenka at Czech Radio's English site.)

I'll have some predictions before the tourney starts up on Saturday. But let's start with a quick look at some of the must see games in the opening round. In the US, the games are on ESPN 2 or ESPN Classic:

* Monday June 9: A doubleheader from the "Group of Death": Romania v. France (12 pm EDT), followed by Holland v. Italy (2:45 pm)

* Wednesday June 11: Czech Republic v. Portugal (noon) could be one of the best games of the tournament. Both teams like to attack. The winner of this game will likely win the group that includes Switzerland and Turkey.

* Thursday June 12: Croatia v. Germany (noon). There'll be no "Danke Deutschland" sung in Klagenfurt, unless German goalkeeper Jens Lehmann muffs an easy save.

* Saturday June 14: Sweden v. Spain at 12 pm. The Swedes are the sort of canny team that Spain always seems to choke against.

*Tuesday June 17: The last day in the "Group of Death," and -- as with all final opening round games -- the kickoffs are simultaneous at 2: 45 EDT: Romania clashes with Holland and France steps up to Italy in a rematch of the World Cup final that saw this lovely moment.

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