The European Championships began Friday, as the every-fourth-year tournament got its start with France beating Romania 2-1. The Euros are generally accepted as the second-most prestigious tournament in international soccer behind only the World Cup. In past years, some argued the tournament was even harder to win, and thus more exciting, than its world-spanning compatriot. While the World Cup was padded out with also-ran squads, the Euros were packed with the 16 best teams that Europe — the strongest continent in soccer — had to offer.
This year, though, the finals have been expanded, diluting that strength. Eight teams have been added, giving the tournament 24 teams and — crucially for ticket-sellers and broadcasters — adding 12 more group-stage games and four more knockout-round ties.
This is good for the sheer volume of soccer but bad for the quality. Getting into the tournament was once quite difficult even for Europe’s best teams, but not this year. Most of Europe’s powerhouses cruised into the finals easily, and several mediocre teams qualified comfortably as well. For the first time, there are a handful of teams at this year’s tournament that have virtually no hope of winning, unlike past years when all 16 teams were potentially dangerous.
The group stage will eliminate only eight of the 24 teams. Basically, finishing anything but last in the group will see most teams through; a single victory might be enough for many. For fans, what was once a taut affair from the get-go will now be much slower until the knockout round begins.
France, the host, is the favorite; it has a young, strong squad blessed with more offensive firepower than any other team in the field. Look for midfielder Paul Pogba pulling the strings, as the Juventus star is among the best in the world. As always, though, France’s success or failure will be less affected by talent and more by team chemistry and attitude.
Germany and Spain are closely behind France, less because either has looked good lately and more because both usually find a way to get results. Germany is the 2014 World Cup champion, Spain the two-time Euro champion, and most people are betting that they will still be standing come the final rounds.
England, despite its history of coming up short in major tournaments (usually on the wrong end of a penalty shootout), has more than a few people excited about its young squad. Also keep an eye on Belgium, which was the world’s top-ranked team for much of last year. The Belgians have been mentioned so often as a “dark horse” that they have graduated to simply being one of the favorites.
This is always an entertaining tournament to watch. It will just start a little slower this time around. This year, we will have to focus on the quantity of soccer until things get going later on.
• My pick for the European Championship: France, playing at home, might have some worries with team chemistry, but the team just has too much firepower not to pick it on home soil. I like Spain to reach the final as well but France to win 1-0 on July 10 at Stade de France.
• If the USA wins or ties vs. Paraguay on Saturday, it will likely play Brazil in the Copa America quarterfinals — a tough matchup for the U.S. After two group games, Mexico is through to the quarterfinals already, but El Tri still has plenty to play for. Losing to Venezuela on Monday would likely mean a difficult quarterfinal matchup with Argentina.
• After three consecutive NASL losses, Minnesota United’s U.S. Open Cup game Wednesday looms large. The Loons face Sporting Kansas City, the first time Minnesota has played host to an MLS team in the cup since 2009, a loss on penalties to the then-Kansas City Wizards. A win would make United’s summer break a little more palatable; a loss would add to its misery.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Euro: England vs. Russia, 2 p.m. Saturday, ESPN. England might be young and full of energy, but come tournament time, the hopes of a nation — and the pressure from a soccer-mad media establishment — tends to weigh on the national team. A draw, or even worse a loss, will serve only to turn up the heat.
Copa America: U.S. vs. Paraguay, 6 p.m. Saturday, FS1. For the U.S. men’s national team, the stakes in this game are pretty simple. Losing means the Americans are out, and failure; a win or a draw, and coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s team is into the next round. Paraguay is no pushover, but playing on home soil in Philadelphia, the U.S. should be able to get at least a point.
Euro: Poland vs. Northern Ireland, 11 a.m. Sunday, ESPN. Northern Ireland is a nice underdog story, having qualified for a major tournament for the first time since the 1986 World Cup, but its veteran, anonymous squad is likely to be outgunned in this tournament. Poland, for example, has Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski, who has scored 13 goals in his past 10 international games.
Euro: Germany vs. Ukraine, 2 p.m. Sunday, ESPN. There is a certain sense that Germany is doomed in this tournament despite having just won the World Cup. The Germans weren’t great in qualifying and have lost four of their past six. That said, this was all somewhat true in 2014 as well, and that turned out just fine.