The American’s Guide to Adopting a (European) Football Team: Euro 2012 Edition (Part 1)

The quadrennial UEFA European Championship Finals kick off this Friday in what is the culmination of the largest international soccer tournament outside of the FIFA World Cup.  Sixteen out of UEFA's fifty-three member associations have qualified for Euro 2012, which is being hosted jointly by Poland and the Ukraine.

Over the next few days, Newrosis will provide you with an overview of each team, their chances, and whether you should support them over the course of the tournament.  From hipster picks like Croatia to the long-shot Scandinavian sides and the Iberian dandies, we'll give you all the dirt you need to make an informed decision.

Before we get into the teams, a quick word about the format: the sixteen nations are divided into groups A, B, C, and D.  Each team in the group plays the others once.  The top two teams from each group advance to the knockout rounds, which are exactly what they sound like.  In addition to the championship game, the losing semifinalists play for 3rd place.  Game on.

Part 1: The Front-Runners

Spain: The reigning champions of not only the Euros, but also the World Cup, the Spanish could establish themselves as a legitimate dynasty by defending their crown: no team in history has won three major international tournaments in a row, including the mighty Brazilians.  Led by the likes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta, and Iker Casillas, there will be no chance that this vastly experienced and tight-knit squad will be overawed by the occasion.

Spain are the bookies’ favorites to retain their title, and while they face decent opposition in Group C from Croatia, Ireland, and especially Italy, they will likely advance as group winners.  Their quarterfinal knockout game should also be relatively straightforward, meaning their first real test may not come until the semifinals.  If they make it that far with no disciplinary suspensions or injuries to their key players, they will likely go on to win the tournament.

On the negative side, Spain will be without striker David Villa and central defender Carles Puyol, who both miss out due to injury.  In addition, they have a tendency (shared by their fellow Iberians, the Portuguese) to play a game-within-a-game that involves things like flopping to the ground as though they’ve been shot in the leg when grazed by an opponent’s boots, and subsequently surrounding the referee to demand justice for their fallen comrade. “Distasteful” is a nice way to describe this behavior, “unsportsmanlike” is another word that I’ve heard bandied about, and “bush league douchebaggery” is what it most closely resembles in my opinion.

Despite their penchant for the dramatic, if their key players (namely Fabregas, Xavi, and Iniesta) can stave off injury, Spain are certainly going to go deep into the tournament and could prove to be a juggernaut if they find themselves on a roll.  Recommended for people who cheer for the Yankees, supporters of the theatre, and lovers of great soccer.

Germany: While sometimes accused by football purists as being workmanlike to the point of tedium, no one can deny that Ze Germans have been lethally effective in major tournaments, and boast a world-class lineup to boot.  Built around a formidable spine of Bayern Munich players like ‘keeper Manuel Neuer, captain Phillip Lahm, midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger, and striker Mario Gomez, the three-time European champions (twice as West Germany) are sure to be a force into the later stages of the tournament.

Along with the eight player Bayern contingent (8 players!), Die Mannschaft also boast attacking talent in the form of record goalscorer Miroslav Klose, Real Madrid duo Sami Khedira and Mesut Özil, and future stars like Mario Götze, Tony Kroos, and  Andre Schürrle.  The talent level is almost on par with Spain, and the strength in depth means that the Germans may be better equipped to deal with injuries to their key players. 

The greatest obstacle for Germany will be a relatively grueling route to glory.  While they have to be favorites to emerge from Group B, it will not be easy: the “Group of Death” also includes bitter rivals Holland as well as the flashy Portuguese and 1992 champions Denmark.  If they finish on top of the group, they’re likely to go all the way to the final.  If they qualify second, a tough match against Spain looms in the semifinals.

With an experienced coach in Joachim Löw and the cohesion that the side has displayed in major tournaments, the Germans are a good bet to make the final.  In fact, Germany historically are one of the best teams in the world at qualifying and placing in major tournaments.  They have qualified for every World Cup for which they’ve been eligible (along with Japan they were banned from the 1950 tournament) and all but one European Championship, amassing 3 trophies from each competition.  Recommended for watchmakers, mathematicians, and fans of dominant college sports programs. 

Netherlands: Despite a lineage that includes some of the most influential names in the history of football, the Dutch have won just one major tournament: the Euros in 1988.  They play an aesthetically pleasing style that is made all the more entertaining by the ridiculous offensive talent they have at their disposal.  Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder, and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar are all threats to finish as top scorers over the course of the tournament.

The Dutch have a group of players, including those mentioned above, who are in their absolute prime, and the 2010 World Cup runners-up are surely feeling the pressure to fulfill their potential at this tournament.  In addition to all the attacking talent, the defensive core (two central defenders and two holding midfielders) is made up of some tough customers: Johnny Heitinga, Ron Vlaar, Mark van Bommel, and Nigel de Jong will not win any awards for sportsmanship, but they will certainly do a job in front of ‘keeper Maarten Stekelenberg.

The most troubling historical weakness of the Dutch has been the egomaniacal tendencies that the best players in the squad always seem to possess.  From Cruyff to Davids and Kluivert to Robben, they seem more prone to self-destructive team behavior than any other country.  Even the great sides of the 1970s, who introduced Total Football to the world, were populated with eccentrics and egos that in the end failed to co-exist long enough to win a major tournament (they finished as runners-up in 1974 and 1978 at the World Cup and third in the '76 Euros).  

In addition to off-field issues, Holland has also been known to lose its collective cool on the pitch: you need look no further than the 2010 final in South Africa, where the Oranje should have been down to ten men within minutes of kick-off after Nigel de Jong’s boot to the chest of Xabi Alonso.  English referee Howard Webb was forced to employ possibly the most flexible interpretation of the laws of the game in history in order to keep the Dutch at eleven men until the 109th minute when Johnny Heitinga finally left him no choice but to issue him a second caution and a trip to the showers.  In all, the Dutch amassed nine yellows while committing 28 fouls, and Andres Iniesta's goal in extra time saw the Spanish emerge victorious anyway.  Such thuggery is not likely to work this time around either. 

If the Dutch are to win just their second major tournament, they need to maintain their focus on and off the field.  Holland are in Group B, the "Group of Death," along with the Germans, Portuguese, and Danish, and they need to start strong and avoid disciplinary lapses.  They won’t have any easy games, but they certainly have the talent to go all the way, and no one has ever accused the Oranje of being boring: they are guaranteed to entertain.  Recommended for those who like a little more chaos than order in their lives, and also for fans of Slap Shot, Caddyshack, and Major League.  HUP, HOLLAND, HUP!*

That's your look at the three favorites and their chances.  Tomorrow, Newrosis looks at some other Euro powers who ride the fence; will they contend or just pretend?  France, Italy, Portugal, Russia, and England will all be laid bare, so stay tuned.

*I hereby admit to bias in favor of the Dutch.

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