May 26, 2012

Euro 2012: Forecast, History and Other Things Worth Knowing

For the first time in nine months we are facing a weekend with no top flight soccer action in the northern hemisphere. (We're talking men's professional soccer here and no, Major League Soccer does not qualify as top flight). What better time to take a look at the main event of this summer's soccer schedule, the 2012 UEFA European Football Championship (aka Euro 2012)?

With its geopolitical influence waning, its economy in shatters and its currency union on the fritz, the "old continent" at least gets to hold what it can rightfully claim as the most competitive soccer tournament in the world. Unfortunately, "most competitive" does not always mean "most entertaining" or "most memorable." With few exceptions (van Basten, Bierhoff, Rehhagel) there are no great sagas that emerge from Euro tournaments the way they do from World Cups or even club soccer competitions. There are no equivalents to the Maracana miracle (Brazil, 1950) the "Wunder von Bern" (Miracle from Bern, Switzerland, 1954), football coming "home" (England, 1966), Showdown in Seville (Spain, 1982), "hand of god" (Mexico, 1986), etc etc. For whatever reason, the exploits of the Euro are quickly forgotten. Despite the high level of competition, or perhaps because of its resulting parity, Euro games very rarely enter the annals of the sport's history. In many ways this is a shame, or perhaps it is entirely fitting given the issues facing Europe at the moment.

Somebody else can pontificate on this at greater length should they so choose. For now, let's keep the focus on the field -- which in soccer is called the "pitch" (lesson number one for American readers looking to sound knowledgeable at Irish pubs this summer). Here, then, are some fearless forecasts for the Euro 2012:

1. Germany will either make the final or exit at the group stage. With one exception, this has been the pattern since 1972. That one exception was in 1988 when (West) Germany hosted the tournament and lost to the van Basten/Gullit-led Dutch juggernaut in the semifinals, so consider that an anomaly for those reasons. Apparently even Germans can succumb to pressure when they have to play in front of home crowds. Which leads us to...

2. Unless the host country is world class, it probably won't go anywhere. This is a stark contrast to the World Cup, where South Africa just became the first host not to qualify for the elimination round. Just two host countries, Portugal in 2004 and France in 1984, made the finals and just one (France) won it. Both of those clubs were at the top of their game at the time: France was a semi finalist at (and probably should have won) the 1982 and 1986 World Cups. Led by Michel Platini, the French played beautiful soccer, featuring prominently in the very best games of that era (that would be the 1982 semifinal against West Germany, still considered a traumatic event in France, and a 1986 quarterfinal victory over Brazil, still the best game this blogger has viewed in his lifetime). The Portugal side from 2004 featured Luis Figo, Deco, Cristiano Ronaldo and others and Porto won the UEFA Champions League that year. Besides those two, only two teams others won elimination round matches: England in 1996 and the Netherlands in 2000 (true story. Prior to 1996 the first "elimination round" was the semifinal). So things do not look good for Poland and the Ukraine and if you're a gambling man (or woman) you may not want to place bets on either club.

3. England will not win. This is like saying the sky is blue, but it's still worth pointing out. Besides, in the Ukraine the sky isn't always blue. Isn't that where Chernobyl is? Anyway, England may have looked impressive in qualifying but the runner-up in their group was Montenegro for God's sake. Montenegro! Since when is that even a country? Anyway, England don't face the most challenging competition in the group stage either, with France, Sweden and the aforementioned Ukraine. Consider their chances of surviving the group very good. But that will probably be the end of the road. The runner up in England's group D face the winner of group C, which will probably be Spain. If they win Group D, England would be most likely to face Italy, which we just can't see ending well either. But again, you knew this already and aren't holding out any unrealistic hopes, right? Right???

4. The semifinals will probably feature at least one team nobody was expecting. Since the Euro tourney expanded to include a quarterfinal, in 1996, there has been one of these each time except 2000. In '96 you had the Czech Republic and France, in '08 Greece, and Russia and Turkey last time. Who will it be this year? Probably not either of the hosts, if history is to be believed, and not England. That still leaves plenty of teams, such as Ireland (wouldn't that be fitting after the 2010 debacle vs. France), Russia (again), Greece (again) or maybe Croatia. Greece would be nice for obvious reasons, but if they're back on the drachma by then one would hope the bonuses get paid in euros.

Yes, these are strange days in Europe, but the more things change the more they (often) stay the same. Germany is pretty predictable at this tournament, as we have seen. If you're looking for a safe bet, invest in US Treasuries. If you're looking to gamble, bet on Germany if they advance to the elimination round. But it will still be gambling. If the recent history of Europe (both soccer and otherwise) is any guide, patterns and paradigms are bound to change, often with no notice. They play these games for a reason and nobody, least of all us, can tell you with any degree if certainty what is going to happen. Except England won't win. We're pretty sure of that.

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