EURO 2012 preview by Riaz Ahmed

The 2nd biggest tournament in international football, the 14th UEFA European Championship 2012 finals, begins tomorrow 8 June 2012 in Poland and Ukraine.

The opening fixture sees co-hosts Poland take on 2004 Euros champions Greece at Warsaw’s 58,000 strong National Stadium with kick-off at 9 PM PST featuring the new Adidas Tango 12 match ball.

The 3 week mega-event will see a total of 16 European football sides battle it out for the Henri Delaunay Trophy to be crowned European football champions with the final being played on 1 July 2012 at Kiev’s 60,000 strong Olympic Stadium.

Defending champions, and favourites, Spain will attempt to become the first team in history to win back to back European championships alongside a World Cup triumph after success in EURO 2008 as well as the 2010 FIFA World Cup. However, they will be without their talismanic striker David Villa of FC Barcelona and his loss will be a challenge as Villa was Spain’s top scorer in both EURO 2008 and World Cup 2010.

Also missing will be vice-captain Carles Puyol also of Barcelona because of injury troubles. Spanish supporters will also be concerned of the poor form of defender Gerard Piqué and Chelsea striker Fernando Torres. However, the inclusion of the young defender Javi Martínez (Athletic Bilbao) will be able replacements at the back following an impressive season in La Liga.

Spain face a stern challenge from 3-time European champions Germany who will attempt to avenge the 1-0 loss of the Euro 2008 final. Bayern Munich striker Mario Gomez has been in top-form in the Bundesliga and for the national team, and a potent blend of youthful talents like Mario Götze (Borussia Dortmund) and Toni Kroos (Bayern Munich) will make Germany a force to win the finals for a record 4th time.

Also in the running are former winners France, Netherlands, and Italy who will look to cash in on their talented squads for a win. France’s Franck Ribéry (Bayern) and Karim Benzema (Real Madrid) will be taking on the quest for another European triumph. The Dutch will also be out to settle a score with Spain after losing the 2010 World Cup final 1-0 in extra-time to them, with stars Wesley Sneijder (Inter Milan), Arjen Robben (Bayern), Robin Van Persie (Arsenal) and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (FC Schalke 04) aiming to paint the town a Oranje. The Italians have mostly relied on experience with veterans like Andrea Pirlo and goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus) leading the charge as they will look to keep the disturbing events of the on-going match-fixing scandals at home behind them.

Other sides like Portugal, England, and Russia will try to pull-off a surprise, with Portuguese looking on to their stars Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid) and Nani (Manchester United) for inspiration against a tough group. England has been ravaged by controversies and injuries that will probably severely hamper their chances of over-coming decades of under-performance in international football. Co-hosts Poland and Ukraine will look towards their strong home support to help propel them past the group stages at least.

The tournament finalists were decided after a lengthy qualification round featuring all 51 UEFA member nations that began in August 2010 and ended in November 2011. The first qualifier saw Estonia beat the Faroes Islands 2-1 in Talinn on 11 Aug 2010.

Germany (Group A), Russia (Group B), Italy (Group C), France (Group D), Netherlands (Group E), Greece (Group F), England (Group G), Denmark (Group H), and defending champs Spain (Group I) qualified to the finals by winning their respective groups. Turkey, Republic of Ireland, Estonia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Sweden, Croatia, Montenegro, Portugal, and Czech Republic had finished runners-up from their respective groups. Sweden was given an automatic spot in Euro 2012 as best runner-up side in qualification, while the rest face each other in a two-legged play-off to decide the final 4 spots. Croatia beat Turkey, Republic of Ireland beat Estonia, Czech Republic beat Montenegro, and Portugal beat Bosnia & Herzegovina to confirm their spots in Euro 2012.

The draws of the final round were held in Ukraine capital Kiev on 2 Dec 2011 to see the 16 teams be drawn in 4 groups of 4 team each. The Groups are:

Group A: Poland, Greece, Russia, Czech Republic.
Group B: Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Portugal.
Group C: Spain, Italy, Republic of Ireland, Croatia
Group D: Ukraine, Sweden, France, England

Group B is being labelled ‘The Group of Death’ featuring 3 former European champions and a finalist. The group stage will play from 8-19 June 2012, quarter-finals from 21-24 June, semi-finals on 27-28 June, and final on 1 July.

Among the over-all records of the UEFA European Championship history, Germany has been crowned European champions a record three times (1972, 1980, 1996). In second place with 2 championships each lie Spain (1964, 2008) and France (1984, 2000). Russia (1960; as Soviet Union), Czech Republic (1976; as Czechoslovakia), Italy (1964), Netherlands (1988), Denmark (1992) and Greece (2004) have been crowned European champions once each.

In addition, Germany (3 times), Spain (1 time), Russia (3 times), Czech Republic (1 time), former Yugoslavia (2 times), Belgium (1 time) and Portugal (1 time) have reached the European finals but haven’t tasted success on those occasions.

UEFA President Michel Platini (France) still holds the record for most goals scored in the final round with 9 goals back in 1984 event. In 2nd place comes England’s Alan Shearer with 7 goals over-all (1996, 2000). A total of 8 hat-tricks have been scored in the event’s entire history, with Michel Platini holding the honour of scoring 2 hat-tricks in the 1984 event.

A total of 8 different players have featured in 4 European Championship events as a record with Lothar Matthäus (Germany), Peter Schmeichel (Denmark), Aron Winter, Edwin van der Sar (both Netherlands), Alessandro Del Piero (Italy), Lilian Thuram (France), Olof Mellberg (Sweden) and Iker Casillas (Spain). Thuram and van der Sar additionally hold the most appearances record in European finals with 16 games each.

The event promises a lot over the summer as international football again returns to the scene in Europe.

Additional information added by FPDC editorial staff.