By Simon Fudge/whitecapsfc.com
One of world soccer's biggest tournaments begins on Saturday, as the 2008 UEFA European Championship - better known as EURO 2008 - begins in Austria and Switzerland.
Technically considered in equivalence to the Copa America, AFC Asian Cup, Africa Cup of Nations, and the CONCACAF Gold Cup, the European Championship usually comes a close second behind the FIFA World Cup in terms of prestige for many soccer fans. 16 nations were drawn into four groups of four at last December's draw in Lucerne, Switzerland, with the ultimate prize being a new and enlarged Henri Delaunay trophy.
It is only the second time that the tournament has been hosted in two countries, and though there are hopes that Austria and Switzerland can fare well at home, the reality is likely a brief campaign from both sides.
Swiss fans will know by Saturday if their national side have any chance of advancing from Group A when they raise the curtain on EURO 2008 with a crucial game against Czech Republic at St. Jakob-Park in Basel. Where the Czechs are odds-on to advance to the quarterfinals, Kubi Kuhn's Swiss squad will have a home crowd to give them plenty of support. Key to the co-hosts' hopes will be Borussia Dortmund striker Alexander Frei and Bayer Leverkusen midfielder Tranquillo Barnetta. Karel Bruckner's Czechs, meanwhile, may struggle to find the spectacular free-flowing form that dazzled many at EURO 2004 in Portugal. Though strikers Milan Baros and Jan Koller lead an experienced squad, youngster Martin Fenin may prove essential to their hopes after he impressed at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Canada last summer.
One of the tournament favourites are also in Group A, as Manchester United star Cristiano Ronaldo leads Portugal into their first game against Turkey in Geneva on Saturday. After reportedly declaring his desire to play for Spanish giants Real Madrid on Thursday, it remains to be seen if Ronaldo can maintain the incredibly high standards he showed in leading The Red Devils to English Premier League and UEFA Champions League glory this past season. Experience and talent is evident in Luiz Felipe Scolari's side, but delivering on their potential remains Portugal's challenge. In Fatih Terim's Turks, the Portuguese face a difficult opponent. Included in the Turkish squad is English-born striker Colin Kazim-Richards. Known in Turkey as 'Kazim Kazim', the forward has seen his career take a meteoric rise over the past three years. Starting out at English League Two club Bury, moves to Brighton & Hove Albion and Sheffield United followed before Kazim-Richards made a name for himself with Fenerbahce this past season.
Group B sees tournament long shots, and co-hosts, Austria start their campaign against promising Croatia in Vienna on Sunday. Josef Hickersberger's side will do extremely well to defy odds of up to 150 to one to win their own tournament. Included in the Austria squad are two members of the side that reached the semifinals of the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Canada last summer, with defender Sebastien Prodl and striker Erwin 'Jimmy' Hoffer in the 23-man squad. Croatia boss Slaven Bilic, meanwhile, is hoping to overcome the absence of Brazilian-born striker Eduardo by challenging Europe's elite international sides with his committed squad. The likes of new Tottenham Hotspur signing Luka Modric and Borussia Dortmund midfielder Mladen Petric may prove key to the Balkan nation's high hopes. The group also contains another tournament favourite in Germany, who start their campaign against Poland in Klagenfurt, Austria, on Sunday. Where Germany's attention may be on Chelsea midfielder Michael Ballack and Bayern Munich forward Miroslav Klose, Stuttgart striker Mario Gomez could play a role in fulfilling the Germans' aspirations of a fourth European Championship title. The Poles, meanwhile, will need Artur Boruc to play well in goal, with Manchester United shot-stopper Tomasz Kuszczak already ruled out of the finals with a back injury.
Many eyes will be cast on happenings in Zurich and Berne on Monday, as Group C begins play. Talented outsiders Romania can judge themselves as having nothing to lose in this so-called 'Group of Death', with Victor Piturca's emerging side sure to cause a stir if they claim a result against France. Though Bleus boss Raymond Domenech left out Djibril Cisse and David Trezeguet from his squad, the tournament could potentially launch the likes of Karim Benzema, Bafetimbi Gomis, and Samir Nasri into soccer stardom, should all three perform to their potential. An in-form France would also spell bad news for the Netherlands and an injury-plagued Italy. Harmony in the Dutch camp has always been an issue at major tournaments, and despite the rich talent that manager Marco van Basten has on offer, the Oranje have a reputation of underachieving in finals. One player that could rise his stock with the Dutch is Ajax striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. Holland will fancy their chances against World Cup holders Italy on Monday, as the Azzurri have already lost influential captain Fabio Cannavaro to an ankle ligament injury. Boss Roberto Donadoni has a large portion of the squad that triumphed in Germany two years ago, but it is that group's resolve that will face a stiff examination in the next couple of weeks.
Where Group C looks menacing, British bookies are having a tough time determining who may join Group D favourites Spain in qualifying for the last eight. The Spanish may possess great talent in their side, but their reputation of falling short in major tournaments hangs over them like a constant dark cloud. Innsbruck, Austria, will be the venue for Spain's first game with Guus Hiddink's Russia. After qualifying ahead of England for the finals, the Eastern Europeans have emerging talent in the likes of striker Roman Pavlyuchenko and winger Vladimir Bystrov that make them a dangerous prospect for any side in the tournament. Their rise in form will be more evident, should they advance at the expense of current European champions Greece and experienced campaigners Sweden. Both those nations start their tournament in Salzburg, Austria, and likely needing to get a result to boost hopes of reaching the knockout stages. The likelihood of the Greeks repeating their heroics of EURO 2004 seem remote, though their German head coach Otto Rehhagel will not mind having the underdog tag put on his team yet again. The Swedes, meanwhile, went back to the future by luring veteran striker Henrik Larsson out of international retirement for the finals, but with odds of 40 to one to win the tournament, expectations will be generally low for Lars Lagerback's squad. An in-form Zlatan Ibrahimovic would be a major boost to the Scandinavian's hopes.
One thing is for sure, the next three weeks will resolve all matters of predictions and expectations for the millions of soccer enthusiasts around the world, with Vienna's 50,000-seat Ernst-Happel-Stadion set to host the final on Sunday, June 29.
All 31 games at EURO 2008 will be shown live and in High Definition across Canada on TSN and Rogers Sportsnet. CLICK HERE to the view the broadcast schedule of games from Austria and Switzerland.
For live streaming of EURO 2008 matches over the internet, CLICK HERE for the uefa.com video page.
For all the latest happenings at EURO 2008, click below on the links provided.
EURO 2008 official website
Skysports.com EURO 2008 website
Setantasports.com EURO 2008 website
TSN/Rogers Sportsnet EURO 2008 website