Few things are able to capture the hearts and minds of people all around the world like soccer tournaments. While the World Cup is the pinnacle of footballing achievement, becoming champions of Europe can often be the first step towards reaching that goal. On June 8th, as the eyes of the world descend on Poland and Ukraine, the finest in the game will be out in droves to prove that they have what it takes to be considered the true class of European football.
The European Championships have been played every four years since 1960, when the Soviet Union beat Yugoslavia 2-1 in the final at the inaugural tournament in Paris. Since then, there have been nine different winners of the Henri Delauney Trophy, with only Germany, Spain, and France having won multiple times. Last year, in a nervous and edgy final, Spain outlasted Germany in Vienna, giving them incredible momentum heading into their eventual World Cup victory in South Africa.
Nevertheless, what makes these tournaments so riveting to watch is their unpredictability, and, though not the pinnacle of international competition, the European Championships have proven time and time again that they can quite easily be the pinnacle of footballing drama.
When I was a kid, my family made it over to England to visit some friends and take in the atmosphere of Euro 1996. We got tickets to the Denmark vs. Croatia match held in Sheffield and watched as the Croatians toyed with Denmark, who won the previous tournament, and their famed goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel. Croatia, itself a relatively new country let alone soccer team, came and played a captivating style that bewildered the more tactical Danes. Behind stunning striker Davor Suker’s two goals, including his iconic chip over Schmeichel from 25 yards out, the Croatians shocked the Danes and advanced to the quarterfinals.
In Euro 2000, needing only a draw to advance from the group stages, England took on Romania in Charleroi, Belgium. Sitting in the stands with my Dad and my brother, we watched as the English came out to raucous applause, while the Romanian contingent tried to make their voices heard. In the 89th minute, with the score knotted at 2-2, Phil Neville gave away a clumsy penalty which was dutifully slotted home by Romanian striker Ionel Ganea, sending the English packing.
In 2004, host nation Portugal, with the whole country on its side, played a relatively unknown Greek team for the crown. Despite continual attacks from the Portuguese, the Greek team held strong defensively, eventually seizing an opportunity on the counterattack to notch a goal in the 57th minute. From then on, the resolute defense of the Greeks eventually won out over Portugal’s assault, earning them the victory against 80-1 odds.
What I’m trying to say is that this tournament, for all the fanfare, can be one of the most unpredictable and downright shocking three weeks of soccer you will ever see. With only three matches before the quarterfinals, a bad mistake here or there could spell gloom and doom for any number of the favorites. As Greece showed us just eight years ago, predictions and prognostications can all be for naught if one team simply wants it more. The familiarity of the players, the incredible displays of skill, and the fervent fanaticism of the people in the stands gives this tournament an unmatched charm and condensed excitement that not only builds in anticipation, but keeps all of us on the edge of our seats.
By the way, both Ireland and Greece are listed at 80-1 longshots to win the tournament. Coincidence? I think not.