Euro 2008: Europe takes center stage

Euro 2004 drew record television audiences across Asia, and Euro 2008 will attract large audiences in the United States, where the finals are being televised in their entirety for the first time on cable (the ESPN family of networks).

HOSTS. Switzerland is known for banks and bratwurst and Austria has Mozart and mountains, but soccer?

You'd have to go back 50 years or more to find a time when both teams would have been considered legitimate international contenders.

Austria is arguably the least fancied team to ever host a major championship — more than 10,000 fans signed a petition urging Austria to withdraw from the tournament because it is so bad — and Switzerland has hardly inspired confidence, losing to, among others, the USA at home last fall in a tune-up game.

Both countries are hoping the tournament will give them a boost to their economies, experts are skeptical about the long-term impact of the tournament.

Locals are pulling out all the stops, though. In Vienna, plastic statues of former great Hans Krankl have been erected and bled in with the stone statues of famous Austrians.

Swiss bank UBS, which suffered more than $37 billion in losses because of the subprime mortgage meltdown, is hoping to boost its image by organizing 16 public viewing areas.

In recent weeks, Euro fever began to take hold. Almost 2,000 fans — they were hoping to get exactly 2,008 — gathered to pose nude for a group shot at Vienna's Ernst-Happel-Stadion, site of the final.

There are concerns, though, about fan violence.

Riots involving rival club fans at two Euro '08 stadiums in Switzerland brought a swift response from police.

"We had to intervene because otherwise the fans of Basel would have taken apart the fans of Zurich," said Nicolas Drechsler, spokesman for the Basel canton security department, after trouble at the St. Jakob Park in Basel.

Viennese businesses were encouraged to buy vandalism insurance at a rate of $1 for every $167 in damage.

Trying to cash in on fears of violence, Vienna Insurance Group noted,"The 2008 European Championship is a brilliant event for football fans. But winning games doesn't just bring joy, it can also mean malicious damage to front doors, buildings, fittings and furnishings in local businesses."

Racism in soccer has been on the rise in recent years as more national teams integrate immigrants and players of color.

French star Lilian Thuram, who was born in Guadeloupe, is calling on referees to take the lead at Euro '08.
"I think it could be something very important," he said. "The referee has the right to stop the match if he wants."

But Austrian organizers are optimistic that trouble will be minimal and are counting on Euro 2008 to present a positive image of the country, which made international headlines recently when it was discovered that an elderly Austrian had kept his daughter prisoner in a cellar for 24 years and fathered seven children by her.

"Euro 2008 will show Austria like it really is," Austrian sports secretary Reinhold Lopatka said. "A hospitable and sophisticated country, where sports and culture are at home."

HISTORY. The European Championship didn't always enjoy the popularity it has today. When qualifying for the first championship for European nations began in 1958, only 17 teams entered. Among the notable absentees were West Germany and Italy. The Soviet Union's path to the final four in Paris — where it beat Yugoslavia, 2-1, in the final — included a forfeit in the quarterfinals. (Spain's Franco government was not on good terms with the Soviets.)

The tournament continued with the same format — the quarterfinals were played in two legs on a home-and-away basis and the final four was hosted by one of the quarterfinal winners — until 1980 when the finals were expanded to eight teams. In 1996, the European Championship was expanded to 16 teams.

Only rarely have the big-name teams won spectacularly.

Arguably the best team in German soccer history is the 1972 European Championship team that defeated the Soviet Union, 3-0, in the final.

France won with Michel Platini (eight goals in five games) in 1984 and the Netherlands won with Marco Van Basten (six goals) in 1988.

But France's Euro 2000 championship (two years after its World Cup title) was a struggle — the Bleus needed a goal in the dying seconds of stoppage time to send the final against Italy to overtime. Four years earlier, efficiency ruled as Germany eked out another 2-1 overtime victory — over the Czech Republic.

Twice a surprise team that has emerged victorious. Euro 1992 will be remembered for Danish Dynamite. The Danes, last-minute replacements for Yugoslavia, won the tournament in Sweden.

The most recent tournament, Euro '04, was hardly satisfying (unless, of course, you were Greek). Otto Rehhagel's boys conjured one upset after another, beating host Portugal in the opening game, 2-1, and then recording three straight 1-0 victories in the knockout phase over favored France, the Czech Republic and Portugal.

GROUPS. Co-hosts Austria and Switzerland and defending champion Greece were classified as Euro '08 top seeds, creating a wide-open draw.

UEFA ranked the remaining teams based on their results in qualifying for the 2006 World Cup and 2008 European Championship. The Netherlands earned the fourth spot as a "top seed," creating the possibility of a group with the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and France.

The draw was almost that dramatic. The Netherlands ended up in Group C, where the Oranje are the "top seeds" but underdogs in a group with Italy, France and Romania.

Group A is the most balanced with Switzerland (the stronger of the two co-hosts) joined by 2004 runner-up Portugal, 2004 semifinalist Czech Republic and 2006 World Cup semifinalist Turkey.

Germany and Croatia should advance ahead of Austria and Poland, arguably the two weakest teams in the tournament, in Group C, while Group D is only slightly stronger with Spain favored over Greece, Russia and Sweden.

FAVORITES. Six teams stand out in the field of 16: Portugal, Germany, Italy, France, the Netherlands and Spain.

That doesn't mean they will be around at end. Indeed, at least one from among Italy, France and the Netherlands will exit after the first round.

Portugal has the world's best player in Cristiano Ronaldo but an otherwise unsettled team.

Spain has one of Europe's best strikers, Fernando Torres, and a deep midfield but a long history of failure in big tournaments.

Germany is the favorite of the bookmakers but must be considered the weakest of the big six.

Much will depend on which team's the freshest. Will Cristiano Ronaldo still have something on his tank after a long season with Manchester United? Will French players be gassed after playing key roles on Champions League semifinalists Manchester United, Chelsea and Barcelona?

OUTSIDERS. Russia and Turkey will be two teams to watch at Euro '08.

Coached by the veteran Dutchman Guus Hiddink, Russia is loaded with young talent from Zenit St. Petersburg, the enterprising UEFA Cup champion.

After finishing third at the 2006 World Cup, Turkey failed to qualify for Euro 2004 and the 2006 World Cup, but it is back with a team full of promise.

Croatia created a sensation in eliminating England — at Wembley — from Euro '08 and still could be a factor even with the loss of Brazilian-born striker Eduardo da Silva.

Euro '08 Cities

VIENNA: Vienna was the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which dominated Central Europe for more than 50 years (1867-1918). Soccer flourished in Vienna in the early part of the 20th century with clubs such as Rapid, Admira, Hakoah, Wiener SC and First Vienna FC. Stadium: The Ernst-Happel-Stadion (capacity: 53,008) will be the site of seven games, including the final. No other stadium will have as many games. The stadium was formerly known as the Praterstadion.

SALZBURG: Salzburg is home to Red Bull Salzburg, the sister club of MLS's Red Bull New York. Salzburg is best known as the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Stadium: EM Stadion Wals-Siezenheim (capacity: 30,000) is the home of Red Bull Salzburg and the only stadium in Austria's Bundesliga with artificial turf. (A grass surface has been temporarily installed for Euro '08).

KLAGENFURT: Located on the shores of Lake Woerthersee, Klagenfurt is Austria's summer Alpine capital, attracting tens of thousands of water sports enthusiasts. It is home to SK Austria Kaernten, the club to which Houston Dynamo Joseph Ngwenya moved this spring. Stadium: The Hypo-Arena (capacity: 32,000), known as the "UFO," opened last fall.

INNSBRUCK: Innsbruck, capital of Austria's Tyrol province, has twice hosted the Winter Olympics — in 1964 and 1978. The ski jump towers over the city as a reminder to its Olympic past. The ski slopes are open year-round on the glaciers above the city. Stadium: Tivoli NEU Stadium was built in 2000 and expanded to seat 30,000 fans for the European Championship.

ZURICH: Zurich is Switzerland's financial capital and its most international city. Its also considered Switzerland's liveliest city. It's also home to FC Zurich and Grasshoppers, both clubs with rich traditions. Stadium: The Letzigrund (capacity: 30,000) will be the site of three first-round games, including the Italy-France showdown that closes out Group C play on June 17. It's better known as a track stadium — 24 world records have been broken at the stadium.

Lake Geneva separates Switzerland from France and draws tourists and locals alike for boat rides. The Jet d'Eau, which shoots water 500 feet in the air (pictured), can be seen for miles. The largest city of Romandy (the French-speaking part of Switzerland) is home to many international agencies. Geneva's best-known club is Servette, which went bankrupt in 2005 and now plays in Switzerland's second division. Stadium: The Stade de Geneve (capacity: 30,084) is home to Servette. It was completed in 2003 but is usually empty when Servette plays. It averages about 2,000 a game.

BERN: The Swiss capital was the site of one of the most memorable games in soccer history. The "Miracle of Bern" took place in 1954 when West Germany, still recovering from the devastation of World War II, upset mighty Hungary, 3-2, in the World Cup final. Stadium: The old Wankdorf Stadium was torn down in 2001 and replaced by the Stade de Suisse, completed at a cost of $560 million. A grass surface has been installed to replace the artificial surface on which local club, Young Boys, usually plays.

BASEL: Located on the Rhine, Basel is Switzerland's main port. The river's clean waters attract bathers during the summer. FC Basel is Switzerland's current champion and winner of four league titles since 2002. Its 12 titles are the third most in Swiss history. Stadium: St. Jakob Park (capacity: 42,500) is Switzerland's largest stadium. The Swiss will play all three of their group games at St. Jakob Park, which was renovated at a cost of $220 million in 2001. A grass surface has also been installed to replace the artificial surface.

(This article originally appeared in the June 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.) 

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