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European Cup 2008: Football At It's Best

Every four years sixteen of Europe's top national football (soccer) sides compete in the European Cup. Held exactly half way between World Cups, the European Cup, is in some ways even more intense and passionate than its bigger cousin. Rivalries between nations in Europe, on and off the football pitch, extend back hundreds of years. Border skirmishes and other ancient grudges are now played out by twenty-two men in front of screaming thousands, instead of in the mud and across no-man's land.

As is the case in all major international competitions the country hosting the event automatically qualifies while the rest of the spots are decided in a series of run-off games. Under normal circumstances that would leave fifteen spots up for grabs, but this year's event is being jointly hosted by Switzerland and Austria, reducing the number of spots available. Unlike EuroCup/04 which was hosted by Portugal whose team would have qualified anyway, neither of this year's hosts were likely to have made it into the competition. I'm sure this has led to quite a bit of resentment on the part of teams like England, a perennial power, who failed to qualify.

Of course the security forces of Austria, Switzerland, and Germany, who are lending men and expertise to its smaller neighbours, are probably relieved that they won't have to worry about the notorious English fans and their potential for violence. They've enough to worry about organizing security in two countries and multiple venues, where total attendance is expected to be in the millions, without wondering whether or not inebriated Englishmen will decide to go on a rampage.

Even without the English in attendance things are tense enough as it is with some of the previously mentioned nationalist grudges starting to simmer over already. Hostilities broke out between Polish and German fans in the run-up to Sunday's, June 8th, match between the two countries resulting in the arrest of seven German men. Hopefully once the early elimination rounds are over, when half the teams have gone home and the crowds thinned out some, the chances of this sort of thing happening will be reduced.

The sixteen teams have been divided up into four groups by random draw and play one game each against the teams in their section. The top two finishers in each group advance to the next round where the team with the most points accumulated in the first round plays off against the team with the fewest. A team receives three points for a win and a point for a tie in the preliminary round. From then on the games are sudden death, and decided by penalty kick shoot-outs if tied at the end of regulation and two, twenty minute, overtime periods.

In a shoot-out each team initially starts with five players, selected from those who are currently playing, and take turns trying to score on the goalie from the penalty kick mark. The team that scores the most goals out of five wins the game. If the teams are still tied at the end of the first five penalty kicks they proceed on to sudden death penalty kicks, where the first side to gain the advantage wins. If the first side scores, the second is given an opportunity to tie, but if they fail, the game is over.

With the goalie not allowed to leave his goal line, or move, until the shooter does, the advantage would appear to reside with the kicker. After all he has a huge amount of net to shoot at, and the goalie can only guess where he thinks the ball will be shot. Yet many a star laden team has gone down to defeat at the hands of an underdog because a game has gone to penalty kicks and their sure-footed scorers aren't able to find the net.

In the last EuroCup, underdog Greece won the championship by playing a tight defensive game and winning games on penalty kicks when their more highly rated opponents succumbed to the pressure of the situation. Greece is back again this year and is once again going to be considered fortunate to make it out of the round robin segment of the tournament - of course that's what everybody predicted four years ago when they won it all in the final over host country Portugal.

As is the case with every international football event, there are certain teams which are always considered a threat to win, and this European Cup is no exception. Germany, Italy, France, and the Netherlands almost always seem to field a team that can threaten to go all the way. This year the advantage is clearly Germany's as through the luck of the draw the other three have all ended up in the same preliminary group which means one of them are going home early. Even without that bit of good luck (if you're a German supporter) the Germans have to be considered favoured as their star players are all in top health and at the peak of their careers. Their only weakness lies in goal, as their keeper has a history of giving up weak goals.

Still, with Italy losing her captain, Fabio Cannavaro to injury in their first practice, and both the French and Dutch sides having star players just back from injury, even without the fortuitous draw, the real threat to the first major German international championship since the 1996 Euros could come from another source. Portugal and Spain are Europe's most renowned under achievers. They always seem to be on the cusp of greatness, but never manage to win in the end.

The loss to Greece on their home turf must have devastating to the Portuguese, but it might give them the desperation required to finally win it all. Yesterday's 2 - 0 victory over a tough Turkish side indicated that they aren't about to go quietly, and any team that can call upon Cristiano Ronaldo - arguably the best player in the world right now - can't be discounted. He scored a remarkable forty-two goals this year for Manchester United and is the front runner for the Federation International Football Association's (FIFA) world player of the year trophy.

The great thing about the EuroCup is that you can't count anybody out, except maybe the two host teams this year. Russia, Croatia, Romania, Turkey, The Czech Republic, and Sweden, can always be counted on to field solid teams with enough talent to pull off an upset. All it takes is a couple of missed opportunities - a goal post here and a missed net there - and a favourite can find themselves sitting on the sidelines wondering what the hell happened. Germany only needs to look at its record of no victories, three draws, and three defeats in the last two EuroCups to be reminded of how dangerous a tournament this can be.

While the idea of a tournament exclusive to Europeans is somewhat chauvinistic, excluding as it does teams from South America and Africa where the game is every bit as popular as it is in Europe, there is no denying that the European Cup makes for nearly four weeks of great football action. Do yourself a favour and check out a match or two, but be careful, you might just find yourself getting addicted. In Canada the games are being broadcast on TSN (The Sports Network) and Sportsnet with each station's web site broadcasting taped highlights of all the games.

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