Soccer will be thrust back into the spotlight this month. Euro 2012 kicks off today after much justified pimping by ESPN to the public. This tournament, in my mind, is the best international soccer tournament in the world. Yes, that includes the World Cup.
This is not an argument on the global scope and effect of the tournament, but more a look at why it is in fact more entertaining than its more famous cousin.
Short and Sweet
The World Cup includes 32 teams from 6 continents. The first round is spread out over the course of 14 days, but the Euros finish up their first round in 10 days.
That might not seem like a big difference, but when you consider the fact that the World Cup has 16 teams qualify for its elimination stage, it means that the World Cup takes three weeks to boil the tournament down to its final eight teams.
The Euros will take only 10 days to decide its top 8, because they cut their field of 16 in half following the first round (unfortunately, this is the last year of a 16-team tournament. In 2016 it is expanding to 24 teams).
Personally, I like the shorter tournament. It allows for Cinderella teams to make a deeper run more easily, making it less predictable.
History runs deep
Everyone gets a crack at Germany again; Greece won't get a bailout on the field; and small countries get to stand up to their big colonial brothers.
Europe is rich in its history. Soccer has become the new type of warfare for so many of these countries who are able to relive victories, and also exact revenge. Everyone gets a crack at Germany again; Greece won't get a bailout on the field; and small countries get to stand up to their big colonial brothers (spoken like a true Irishman).
In the World Cup, many of the countries that play each other have no connection at all. New Zealand and Italy played each other in the 2010 World Cup. No one was really excited about that type of match-up. Oftentimes there is no bad blood, and we all know how much bad blood adds to the drama.
Fewer teams = better teams
Europe is a soccer-playing continent, and it has a lot of talented teams that get showcased during this tournament. During the World Cup the groups are generally weaker, leading to less exciting round robin games. The talent gap is much greater because the World Cup has to include a certain number of teams from each continent. If the World Cup was shrunk to 24 teams it would be a much stronger tournament.
It's a fact that world powers win the World Cup. There have been 19 World Cups, and only eight teams have ever hoisted the Coupe du Monde: Spain, Italy (4x), Brazil (5x), France, Germany (3x), Argentina (2x), England, and Uruguay (2x).
Compare that to 13 Euro Championships which have produced 10 different winners in the last 20 years, including countries that are not considered world powers like Denmark and Greece.
In 1992, the Danish soccer team was selected to play in the tournament as a replacement for war-torn Yugoslavia. Back in those days, only eight teams qualified for the tournament. The Danes triumphed over the Netherlands in the semi-finals before beating Germany in the final.
In 2004, Greece was the cream that rose to the top of a 16 team field. They placed second in their group in front of Russia (a Euro 2008 semi-finalist) and Spain (Euro 2008 winner). Portugal won that group, but lost to Greece in the final.
The European Championship gives smaller countries with less soccer prowess a chance at greatness, and by greatness I mean actually winning. A run to the quarterfinals in the World Cup is a huge success for a small country. However, in the Euros teams have a chance at winning, which is way better than finishing in the top 8.
As the son of two Irish immigrants, I love the Irish soccer team. This tournament is one that gives me hope. They qualified this year, and the unpredictable nature makes me think that a deep run is possible for this scrappy team of no-names. A semi-final or final would be incredible, and that would never happen in the World Cup.
The World Cup is an epic month of fun and camaraderie. People come together, stories and narratives are shared. However, the European Championship lends itself to more excitement, more unpredictability, and more hope for the little countries.
Hope can go a long way during a tournament, the Euros grant hope to all, not just the super-powers of world soccer. So tune in, enjoy, and cheer for the underdog. They just might pull it off.
Fan Hub Action
Michael T Carr May 16th
Another good article, Craig Lowell.
Charlie Lobosco May 1st
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