UEFA: Home of the cliche

Earlier today, the draw took place for next year’s European Football Championships (Euro 2004), placing the sixteen teams into four groups:

Group A: Portugal, Greece, Spain, Russia
Group B: France, England, Switzerland, Croatia
Group C: Sweden, Bulgaria, Denmark, Italy
Group D: Czech Republic, Latvia, Germany, Netherlands

The BBC Sport website has a good page detailing all the fixtures for the tournament.

I saw a brief interview with England’s coach Sven-Goran Eriksson after the draw. In his usual way he didn’t say much of any substance but did say that ‘there are no easy games in the European Championships.’ While it may be a cliche, it’s become one because it’s broadly true – while some countries may have draws that are relatively easier compared to others, no coach or player can be looking at this draw thinking they’ve got an easy path through to the quarter-finals. The closeness of the tournament means that any team who’ve qualified for the finals has a chance of winning – and as Denmark showed in 1992, sometimes you can win it even if you failed to qualify!

Another cliched phrase used in major championships is the ‘Group of Death’. Before the draw, I’d expected that it would be applied to whichever group France were drawn in, but while Group B is difficult, and neither the French nor the English will be entirely pleased with facing each other in their opening match, it’s likely to be Group D that has the Grim Reaper attending most of its matches, though he’ll want to keep an eye on the others as well.

Group A offers up two interesting matches. Firstly, the chance for Greece and Spain to renew their rivalry from the qualifying round when Greece surprisingly won the group and forced Spain into the playoffs. Greece will be wanting to prove that their qualifying form wasn’t a fluke while Spain will be trying to yet again shake off their tag as a team who flatter to deceive at major tournaments. Secondly, there’s the Iberian derby between Spain and Portugal. As hosts, Portugal will be hoping to use their home advantage to good effect, though it’s worth noting that the last time the hosts of the tournament reached the final was France’s victory in 1984. Russia could be dark horses in this group, though they weren’t that impressive in qualification – they struggled to beat Wales in the play-offs and their path there was eased by Ireland’s implosion in the qualifying tournament.

It’s tempting to say that the winners of Group B will be determined by the opening game between France and England. On paper, both sides seem much stronger than Croatia and Switzerland but they’re two of the most consistently inconsistent teams in international football (though neither can yet rival the Dutch). France qualified easily, but are still haunted by their failure at the 2002 World Cup, and English fans despair over the fact that the team who outclassed Turkey in their two qualifying matches were the same players who laboured against the likes of Slovenia and Macedonia. While neither the Croats nor the Swiss have players of the quality of Zidane, Beckham, Henry or Owen, both qualified well and will know that they’re in with a chance of pulling off surprises.

Group C should be dominated by Italy, who would appear to be a much better side than the other three. However, they’re notorious as slow starters in major championships and an opening match against Denmark could be a major test for their ambitions. Again, like Group B, it will become a test of a team that looks strong on paper with the potential to win the tournament, against teams who may seem weaker and aren’t full of household names, but who have a level of organisation and determination that can surprise a team who play them expecting to win. This is the only group where all four teams won their qualifying group, reflecting its strength in depth. Its a group that’s unlikely to produce and great matches (but then, who would have predicted the drama of Yugoslavia vs Slovenia in Euro 2000?) but it is likely to be one of the closest of the four.

Finally we have Group D (for Death? How the headline writers must love that!) which offers the continuation of many rivalries. It’s starts with a chance for the Dutch and Germans to re-enact their infamous meeting in the 1990 World Cup then the Dutch and the Czechs have the chance to renew their battles from qualifying, before concluding with a replay of the Euro 96 final between Germany and the Czech Republic. It would be easy to ignore the Latvians amongst these clashes, and while they are probably the weakest side in this group, their defeat of Turkey in the play-offs means the other three will be wary of meeting them. Indeed, the lack of expectations for Latvia, coupled with the fact that this is their first major tournament, could well work to their advantage as they’ll be there with nothing to lose and the pressure on the other three to beat them could provide them with the chances on the counter-attack that beat Turkey. As has happened in many previous tournaments, this group could be decided by which Dutch team turns up – the squabbling assembly of individuals who lost 1-0 to Scotland in the first leg of the playoffs or the collective of practitioners of Total Football who destroyed the Scots 6-0 four days later.

At this stage, with over six months till the first ball is kicked, predictions are a hostage to fortune, but I’ll offer one anyway. France appear to have learned the lessons of their World Cup embarassment and they’re my tip to lift the trophy on July 4th, but it’s going to be a tough competition with Italy, Spain, England, Germany and the Netherlands offering serious threats to their chances of retaining the title.

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