*yawns* Why did you wake me up?
It's time to explain to you the Euro 2012 soccer tournament. Put a shirt on.
God, all right, all right. Why so eager?
Because the Euro tournament is incredible. Think of it this way: it's like the World Cup, in that there's qualifying and a draw for the bracket and a Group of Death and it happens every four years and all that good stuff. Except, unlike the World Cup, in which countries without anything in common battle it out for the right to advance — oh splendid, it's Serbia vs. Algeria, let me go stare at this baguette for three hours — all the teams in the Euro 2012 hate each other! I mean, it's Europe, the longest they've ever managed to go without a geopolitical crisis is about 37 minutes.
But I don't want people to get hurt!
Don't worry, they probably won't — they get to vent their frustration on the soccer field. Plus, Europe's big problem with racism is finally being challenged this time around.
OK, I hope you're right. But like, OK, so: soccer. Soccer?
So how does this whole thing work?
Well, the 16 European nations that qualified have been organized into four groups; from each of these four groups, two teams will advance, and from there, a playoff will determine the winner. (In case you haven't figured it out yet, international soccer people loveeeeeee groups.) The groups are:
Group A: Greece, Czech Republic, Russia, Poland (co-host)
Group B: Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Portugal (the Group of Death)
Group C: Spain, Italy, Ireland, Croatia
Group D: France, England, Sweden, Ukraine (co-host)
It's in Poland and Ukraine?
Pretty far east for a European tourney, isn't that?
A little. Only three nations decided to make camp in Ukraine for those exact reasons.
What happened in the last Euro?
Spain beat Germany in the finals 1-0, with Russia and Turkey joining them in the semifinals. Spain then went on to beat the Netherlands in the 2010 World Cup, which gives them the rare opportunity to secure an international treble — Euro, WC, Euro.
I though England and France and Italy were the big European soccer powers!
Not really anymore. England tends to be constantly disappointing — manager Roy Hodgson has been downplaying expectations aggressively prior to this year's tournament, as has Les Bleus manager Laurent Blanc — and the Azzurri, as Italy's team is known, have fallen off since their World Cup win in 2006. All three nations would like to prove they've rejoined Spain and Germany in the upper echelons of Europe, though.
How about that. Why am I watching if Germany/Spain is just going to meet in the Finals again?
Not so fast, cowboy.
I mean, I —
JUST STOP, for one second, please. Euro can be unpredictable: in 1992, Denmark came in as an eleventh-hour replacement for war-torn Yugoslavia and stormed to a championship. Greece pulled off a similarly unexpected victory in 2004. Because the tournament comes so soon after the end of domestic leagues, players are often fatigued and dealing with injuries, which means that the balance of power can shift unexpectedly.
Uh-huh. If it isn't Germany or Spain or England or France or Italy, who's it going to be?
Portugal's always a contender considering the fact that they have the best player in Europe, Cristiano Ronaldo. Ireland wants to believe they have a shot, as do their excited and enthusiastic fans, and they'll try to slow the game down to a slog and hope Roy Keane and Aiden McGeady outscore their opponents. Russia's an older version of the team that finished a game away from the championship four years ago. Croatian players care as much, if not more, than any other team in the world about bringing pride to their flag. And the Netherlands lost by a goal to Spain in the World Cup two years ago; Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben, and Wesley Snijder would love to avenge that.
Who should I watch out for?
I'll give you a player on every team and the prevailing narrative:
Greece: the Euro. HAHAHA I'm kidding, sorry, I'm sorry. Ioannis Fetfatzidis: they call him the Greek Messi, and unliek the rest of the team, he isn't 97 years old. Greece will try to distract their country from what's going on at home.
Czech Republic: hat-wearing goalkeeper Petr Cech, of course. The defensive juggernauts will try and score a few goals, for a change.
Russia: Arsenal forward and '08 Euro hero Andrei Arshavin. Like I mentioned earlier, Russia wants to prove '08 wasn't a fluke. That means, coming out of Group A, the tournament's weakest.
Poland: explosive young foward Robert Lewandowski. As the home squad, Poland, the tournament's lowest-ranked squad by FIFA, will try to overcome expectations.
Netherlands: EPL footballer of the year Robin van Persie. The Dutch need their hollow back line to hold up juuuuust enough to support their high-scoring attack.
Denmark: attacking midfielder Christian Eriksen, the youngest player at the 2010 World Cup. The Danes are young and hungry, but coming out of Group B's a brutal task.
Germany: Mesut Ozil, who we really like. Basically, just sit back and enjoy an unbelievably talented squad.
Portugal: Ronaldo, natch. Portugal's task is to support Ronaldo enough to capitalize on his talent, which will hopefully be a little easier with him in his natural winger position.
Spain: fallen deity Fernando Torres, who Spain will be relying on to regain form. What appears to be a nearly flawless team has its only weakness at striker, so it's up to Torres to do something.
Italy: keeper and captain Gianluigi Buffon. There's a match-fixing scandal going on in Italy, for a change. Can the Azzurri ignore it?
Ireland: winger, future of Irish football Aiden McGeady. Ireland basically doesn't surrender goals, but they don't really score either. That might be enough against Croatia, another non-scoring bunch, but a clean-sheet against Spain is unlikely.
Croatia: Tottenham center-midfielder Luka Modric. Croatia has to deal with two soccer giants and a favorite underdog to make it out of their group.
France: Franck Ribery, who's coming off a brutal Champions League finals loss. France will try to ride the Ribery/Benzema/Nasri trio as far as possible.
England: The great and always internationally disappointing Rooney after he returns from his two-game suspension. Before that, Liverpool's beloved Steven Gerrard. Is England less of a mess than we think, or exactly as much of a mess as we think?
Sweden: Inter's dominating forward Zlatan Ibrahmovic. If Sweden can give Ibrahimovic support, they'll try and capitalize on the troubled French and English.
Ukraine: 2004 Ballon d'Or winner and 2006 World Cup hero Andriy Shevchenko, who, at 35 years old, will do his best to give Ukraine a last hurrah.
Sweet names, bro.