Euro 2012 soccer championship kicks off with excitement and controversy | WBEZ
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Euro 2012 soccer championship kicks off with excitement and controversy

Wales' Gareth Bale, left, gets away from Bulgaria's Ivelin Popov, center, during their UEFA Euro 2012 Qualifying match. (AP/Andrew Matthews, PA)

Editor's Note: Poland and Ukraine will co-host the 2012 UEFA European Football Championship (Euro 2012), but there’s growing concern for potential violence and boycotts. The host countries face scrutiny because of political turmoil in Ukraine and racist behavior by soccer fans in both countries.

As a soccer player in Eastern Europe during the early '90s, Michael Madero saw the fan bases of these two countries up-close. Madero is now the assistant coach for the University of Chicago's men's soccer team and he will blog for us during the 2012 Euro Cup.

Bread and salt (and beer): Poland and Ukraine welcome Euro 2012

Finally! No more dreadful warm-up friendlies. No more pissing and moaning about who’s on the squad and who’s not. No more conspiracies, no more transfer rumors, no more infighting and no more awful media drivel that’s suffocated all who troll the footie websites day after day.

Euro 2012 kicks off Friday as host-country Poland bangs up against the 2004 winner, Greece. While the game may not be a masterpiece, at least the day of reckoning for all 16 teams has come. We can now turn our attention away from Cristiano [Ronaldo] and just focus on the games.

The favorite

Spain: Hopefully the magisterial dancers, artists and maestros that are Spain's players will hog the headlines as they bid to become the first team to ever win back-to-back-to-back major championships (Euro 2008, World Cup 2010, Euro 2012).

How good are the Spanish? Good enough where most football cognoscenti harmonize and croon about witnessing the best football played in a lifetime. And yes, this has everything to do with the “Barca” style. The otherworldliness of Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Busquets and Pique form the spine of the national side. The only thing standing in the way is that they’ve all played an ungodly number of competitive games over the past four years. The cracks are starting to show. The boys from Barca fell just short of the finish line. They lost the title to Real Madrid and the Champions League to Chelsea. The fellas from Madrid (Casillas, Alonso, Ramos, Arbeloa) have also logged hundreds of game miles.

But by all accounts, Spain is as hungry as ever. They’ve studied their lines well for the big show. The sport is at its best when Spain is at its best. We may never see the likes of them again.

Flop: Sorry Fernando. A two year lack of form will not disappear for Torres just yet.

Surprise: Pedro, youthful and rested, will rise.

The opposition

The Germans: Schweinsteiger, Muller, Kroos, Ozil, Badstuber, Gomez — all from Bayern Munich. They lost the Champion’s League final in a dominating run. They’ll be desperate to put that failure behind them to fulfill the promise of the high-level performances they gave us in South Africa.

The Dutch: They are primed as well. Most of their squad returns. The Dutch finished runner-up in South Africa. Van Persie, Huntelaar, Van der Vaart, and Robben might have just had their best seasons ever. On their day, those boys are as deadly as it gets.

The losers

The Italians: Surrounded by past scandal (match-fixing allegations have surfaced everywhere in Italy), they went on to win World Cups in 1982 and 2006. But not this time around. They’re not good enough and lack a genuine goal scorer.

The English: Woeful. What a mess: a coach installed only weeks ago; four players lost to injury before the tournament has even started; a former captain and center back caught up in racism allegations (Terry) that preclude another center back from being part of the squad (Ferdinand). They are so desperate that many of its players do not often get the start for their own clubs (Milner, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jones, Kelly, Defoe, Carroll, Welbeck.)

The Brits may be eliminated by the third game before Wayne Rooney can save them. They might want to start thinking about World Cup qualification.

The surprise

France: After a team mutiny and a national embarrassment two years ago in South Africa, Laurent Blanc brought order to a ship with too much quality and class to bow out early in the tournament.

The wish

All the fears of racism and violence are rendered insignificant a few weeks hence. The miscreants and hooligans might just be gobsmacked by all the holiness and wizardry of the game’s best. Hopefully they’ll have a bit of fun with all the goings-on, and forget about their own inhumanity.

Another wish

Ukraine beats England in extra-time and faces Spain in the quarter-finals. The feel good factor is so great that former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko gets a reprieve from prison. Meanwhile, Poland meets the Germans after the group stage and Germany’s Polish-born player, Podolski, scores the game-winner. [Angela] Merkel is all smiles. With Tymoshenko’s hair back in those braids, Euro leaders abandon their boycott of the games, meet-up, and do a deal to save Greece and the Euro during half-time of the Final.

Well…the Germans might have to win the Final for that to happen.

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