Saturday, June 15, 2024

Europe’s biggest football show to begin in Germany, as usual it’s unpredictable

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A returning Cristiano Ronaldo, a rampant Kylian Mbappé and a resurgent Germany.

Throw in a Harry Kane-powered England and defending champion Italy and Euro 2024 is wide open.

That’s without mentioning three-time winner Spain.

The unpredictability of the European Championship, which begins in Munich on Friday, is what makes it such compelling viewing. Even in its expanded format of 24 teams, there is always the potential for a surprise.

This is the tournament, after all, that was won by rank outsider Greece in 2004. In 1992, it was won by Denmark, a team that hadn’t even qualified for the finals but was granted entry at the 11th hour when war-torn Yugoslavia was banned.

Host nation Germany hopes to create a welcoming and festive atmosphere for millions of football fans who will watch the games in stadiums or fan zones across the country – like it did when it hosted the 2006 World Cup.

However, this tournament will be played in a different political context. Europe’s biggest sporting event since the Russian invasion of Ukraine is taking place in the shadow of the most devastating conflict in Europe since World War II.

Ukraine is participating and can expect a warm reception in Germany, which hosted the team’s home matches during the qualifying campaign. Russia was excluded from qualifying – it has been suspended from all international competitions by European football body UEFA as well as global counterpart FIFA.

Meanwhile, Georgia is coming to its first major football championship as a political crisis deepens at home. The South Caucasus country has seen weeks of protests against a controversial law that opponents say would crack down on media freedom and hinder efforts to join the European Union.

And across the EU, voters will still be digesting the results of elections to the European Parliament – the 27-member bloc’s legislature – as the tournament gets underway. Early results Monday showed a surge in nationalist and far-right sentiment, which has often manifested itself in Europe’s football stadiums, particularly among hardcore ultras.

As always, the threat of hooliganism looms over the European Championship, where clashes between rival fans have become a common feature. The threat of terrorism and political violence is an even bigger security concern, following a series of attacks on politicians in Germany.

German authorities are stepping up border controls during the tournament. More than 20,000 police officers will be on duty.

Given the tensions surrounding the Gaza war, UEFA and Germany avoided even higher security concerns when Israel was knocked out in the playoffs for Euro 2024.

On the field of play, there is reason to expect an exciting tournament, without the COVID-19 restrictions that were in place during the previous Euros in 2021.

England and France are among the favorites.

Three years ago, England was just a penalty shootout away from winning its first trophy since the 1966 World Cup but lost the final to Italy. Since then, manager Gareth Southgate has seen the emergence of Jude Bellingham as one of the top talents in world football, while Phil Foden is living up to the hype he generated when first emerging at Manchester City. Meanwhile, Harry Kane scored 44 goals in 47 games in his first season at Bayern Munich.

France also suffered the heartbreak of a shootout defeat when it lost the World Cup final in Qatar to Argentina. Mbappé remains its star attraction, but he is surrounded by top class talent throughout the French squad in the form of Antoine Griezmann, Eduardo Camavinga, Aurélien Tchouameni, Ousmane Dembélé and Kingsley Coman.

Ronaldo will be back competing in Europe after heading to Saudi Arabia to play his club football. Even at the age of 39 the former Real Madrid and Manchester United striker is still a goal machine — scoring 10 during Portugal’s perfect qualifying campaign.

Germany is a question mark after a string of disappointments at recent major tournaments, but new coach Julian Nagelsmann has lifted the mood of the host nation just in time for Euro 2024, with morale-boosting wins in friendlies against France and the Netherlands.

It’s a dangerous game to make predictions about Italy after the traditional powerhouse of international football failed to qualify for the last two World Cups but won the Euros in between.

Spain is looking to restore its former glory after having dominated international football from 2008-2012 when it won two Euros and was also crowned world champion. There is no shortage of talent at coach Luis de la Fuente’s disposal, with Man City midfielder Rodri establishing himself as arguably the best in his position and Barcelona’s Lamine Yamal among its emerging stars.

Other teams to watch include Croatia, which came third at the Qatar World Cup, and still has Luka Modric producing at the highest level with Real Madrid. Belgium’s golden generation has disbanded, yet it still qualified as a group winner, with striker Romelu Lukaku the top scorer with 14 goals.

If this is the year of another surprise winner, potential candidates could include Ralf Rangnick’s Austria, which impressed during qualifying; Denmark, a semifinalist in the last Euros; or Serbia, which has some serious attacking talent.

In a tournament that has produced some of international’s biggest shocks – anything seems possible.

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