In the summer of 2010, those fans suffering from World Cup withdrawal – those in Europe anyway – didn’t have to wait long to find their next international soccer fix. On Aug. 11, 2010 – just a month after Spain defeated the Netherlands in the World Cup final – qualifying for Euro 2012 commenced with Estonia defeating the Faroe Islands, 2-1 in Tallin. Almost two years, and 247 matches later, the finals of the tournament are about to begin, with sixteen teams set to square off in Poland and Ukraine.
The European Championship is a tournament that at first glance stands a bit in the shadow of the FIFA World Cup, which boasts 32 teams, many of the world’s best players, and a month of soccer memories that can last a lifetime. But those who have participated in both tournaments will tell you that the Euros are tougher to win than a World Cup. By now it’s a cliche to say that “there are no easy teams," but in the Euros it also happens to be true. The strength in depth of the participating squads, tempered by the lengthy qualifying process, along with the absence of teams from weaker soccer-playing regions, means there is even less separating the teams than in a World Cup.
Here’s what else you need to know as the tournament approaches.
For the uninitiated, Euro 2012 is a tournament apart, with its own qualification process that has no bearing on qualifying for the 2014 World Cup. Fourteen teams survived that odyssey to join cohosts Poland and Ukraine. The teams have been split into four groups of four teams each, with the group winners and runners up advancing to the knockout stages.
This marks the third time that two countries have cohosted the tournament, with the Netherlands and Belgium hosting the 2004 edition, while the 2008 tournament was held in Austria and Switzerland. The tournament opens in Warsaw on June 8 when Poland takes on Greece. The final will be held in Kiev on July 1.
What’s at stake
The teams will be playing for eternal glory, bragging rights, and the Henri Delaunay trophy. It was Delaunay who proposed the idea for a European competition in 1927, but the first tournament wasn’t held until 1960, five years after his death. Delaunay’s son, Pierre, helped the competition become a reality in his father’s absence, and the trophy was ultimately named after the elder Delaunay in order to recognize his contributions to the game in Europe.
The tournament’s evolution
From 1960 through 1976, the tournament consisted of just four teams which played a semifinal and final. Given that tied games went to replays instead of shootouts, there were instances were multiple games had to be played in order to determine which team advanced. In 1968, a coin flip was used to determine who between Italy and the Soviet Union should advance to the final. Italy prevailed, and eventually won the tournament, but not before needing another replay to subdue Yugoslavia.
In 1980, the tournament field was doubled to include eight teams that were placed in two groups of four. That format held until 1996 when the field was expanded again to the current format of 16 teams.
As a starting point, the contenders for the Euro 2012 title can be gleaned from those countries with multiple triumphs. Germany – including two victories as West Germany – has the most European titles with three, while France and current holder Spain have two each. Other candidates are the Netherlands, Italy and Russia.
Spain is attempting to become the first repeat winners of the tournament, as well as the first team to win three major tournaments in a row, having won in South Africa in 2010. Germany, which fell to Spain in the Euro 2008 final as well as the semifinals of the 2010 World Cup, seems to be the team best poised to unseat La Furia Roja given its glut of young attacking talent. That assumes that Germany can survive a proverbial Group of Death that includes fellow contenders Netherlands, Portugal and Denmark.
France, after producing an embarrassing display at the 2010 World Cup, appears to have rehabilitated itself under new manager Laurent Blanc, while Italy is always a threat to contend – or implode – at major tournaments. Russia is a bit more of a fringe favorite, but a forgiving draw into Group A should see them advance, at which point anything can happen.
Don’t forget the shocks of the past
What really separates the Euros from the World Cup is the wide-open nature of the tournament. In 13 editions, nine different countries have won a European title, while the World Cup boasts eight different winners in 19 tournaments.
And there have been some real outliers that have claimed a European crown. In 2004, Greece was a 150-1 shot to win the tournament, but adopted a defend-and-defend-and-defend-and-counter strategy that was equal parts ugly and effective, beating host Portugal 1-0 in the final.
In 1992, Denmark had already been eliminated during qualification, but when Yugoslavia was expelled from the tournament because of its civil war, the Danes took their place and went on a miracle run, defeating Germany 2-0 to win the title.
The 1976 tournament was notable for more than Czechoslovakia’s upset victories over the Netherlands in the semifinals and then reigning World Cup champions West Germany in the final. It was the first major tournament to be decided by a penalty kick shootout, with Antonin Panenka’s chipped spot kick straight down the middle providing the winning margin, and creating one of the tournament’s iconic moments. Pele later remarked that a player who took a penalty like that was “either a genius or a madman.”