You, Too, Can Learn to Love the European Championship

Starting on Saturday, June 7, the 2008 European Championship – co-hosted by Switzerland and Austria – kicks off in Basel, Switzerland with a noon game between the Swiss and the Czech Republic.

The Euro is an international soccer tournament fashioned much like the World Cup, but with half the teams. The field of sixteen is first divided into four groups (A, B, C and D) and the two top teams in each group advance to the knockout stages. All games past the group stage are single-elimination and ties are broken by penalty kicks.

The tournament is usually overlooked by all but the nerdiest soccer fans here in the United States. Which is shameful, because the European Championship is undoubtedly the best international soccer tournament in the World — better, even, than the World Cup.

Yes, the World Cup is the World Cup. But the Euro is better, and here’s why.

Reason number 1: Better Teams

Qualification for the Euro is by no means assured, even for the world’s best teams. Just ask England, ranked twelfth in the FIFA World Rankings but reduced to spectators this summer after failing to finish in the top two of their qualifying group. Of the 16 teams in the Euro, eight are ranked in the top ten and only hosts Switzerland (48) and Austria (101) have rankings below 30.

While the World Cup field is boosted by the presence of great teams like Argentina and Brazil, it is also weakened by the number of mediocre teams that sneak into the tournament from weak regional qualifying groups. The 2006 World Cup was rife with second-rate teams like Saudi Arabia, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Costa Rica, Angola and Togo. These six teams won a meager five points out of a possible 54 and had an aggregate goal differential of negative 24. Excluding the hapless Austrians, there is not a weak team in the Euro, and that makes for better matches.

Reason number 2: Fewer Blowouts

In every World Cup there’s always at least one unfortunate “match” wherein a plucky underdog takes on a giant favorite only to get crushed. Here are just a few scores of some first round blowouts in the last three World Cups: In 2006 Argentina beat Serbia and Montenegro 6-0; in 2002 Germany crushed Saudi Arabia 8-0; and in 1998 the Netherlands pummeled South Korea 5-0. In the last three Euro tournaments (2004, 2000 and 1996) there has been only one game with a goal difference of more than three. Games are close and always seem to be decided by moments of sheer brilliance (see France’s David Trezeguet’s golden goal in the 2000 final against Italy) or pressure-induced calamity (see England’s David Beckham’s slip-and-miss penalty kick in the 2004 quarterfinals against Portugal).

Reason number 3: The Surprise

Every Euro has an overlooked team that surprises the field and makes a deep run into the final rounds: In 2004, Greece played control football to great effect and stunned the world by defeating a heavily favored Portuguese team 1-0 in the final; in 2000, the Portuguese, a bit younger and less esteemed back then, stormed all the way to the semi-finals and pushed eventual winners France to the brink before bowing out in extra-time; in 1996, The Czech Republic qualified for their first tournament since partition with Slovakia and marched all the way to finals, knocking off perennial powers Italy, Portugal and France before losing to Germany. And in 1992, the whole thing was won by Denmark — who only got into the tournament as a late substitute for Yugoslavia, which was banned.

So who will it be in ’08? Croatia and Romania are dark-horse candidates, as is the hosting Swiss team, which will have a chance of sneaking out of a relatively weak group.

Reason number 4: Great Storylines

There is, as always, a bonanza of compelling plotlines as the tournament nears its start. For instance, is this the year that Spain finally sheds its label as an international underachiever and pushes deep into the tournament? Which two teams will survive Group C, the deservedly titled “Group of Death” in Euro 2008? France, Italy, the Netherlands and Romania are all ranked 12 or better by FIFA, but two only two can qualify for the knock-out rounds. Also, France and Italy face off in an international tournament for the first time since their epic World Cup Final in 2006, which Italy won in penalties. And finally, can Portugal’s prodigious winger Cristiano Ronaldo cap his historic 2007-2008 club season with Manchester United by leading his national team to European glory?

Watch and find out for yourself.