• 10:40 PM ET  06.05
The last time I reported on the European soccer championship for SI, in 2004, Greek captain Theodoras Zagorakis was in the underbelly of Lisbon’s Estádio da Luz asking me and a few other journos if we wanted to touch the championship trophy after the biggest upset triumph in the history of the tournament. Finally, improbably, Hoosiers had come to the Continent.

This time around? I’ll be on my couch in Baltimore. But fear not: Over the next three weeks I’ll be writing a blog for SI.com on Euro 2008, providing thoughts on what I consider to be the highest-level international soccer tournament around. Yes, in many ways the Euro is even better than the World Cup, not least because we don’t have to endure one-sided matches involving the Togos, Chinas and Saudi Arabias of the world.

In the Euro every team is legit--England didn’t even survive qualifying this time around--and the soccer is the real deal. Better yet, after years of having to track down Euro games on pay-per-view and in soccer-friendly sports bars in the States, every single game of Euro 2008 will be shown live on the ESPN networks, with the majority available in HD (which helps soccer more than any other sport).

What does all this mean? Thanks to the time difference Americans will have yet another daily sporting event to drain millions of dollars in production from our office-workers on weekdays.

As we get ready for co-host Switzerland to meet the Czech Republic in the Euro 2008 opener on Saturday, here are five things on my mind:

Will entertaining soccer be winning soccer? As shocking as Greece’s ’04 triumph may have been, it was the result of dour tactics and a victory for negative soccer in general. Italy, too, played a maddeningly conservative style in Euro 2000 on its way to final, which is why we’re hoping to see more eye-popping stuff this time around from the likes of Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands and the Italians (who’ve been more fun to watch of late under Roberto Donadoni). Why, even the conservative French coach Raymond Domenech has dumped his one-forward formation recently in favor of two strikers (Thierry Henry and rising star Karim Benzema), a positive step for Les Bleus in their first major tournament of the post-Zinédine Zidane era.

Can Cristiano Ronaldo live up to the hype? In recent days I’ve seen Argentina’s Lionel Messi being called the best player in the world in some publications, but that’s impossible given the season that Portugal’s Ronaldo has just completed, leading Manchester United to the English Premier League and Champions League titles. But the talk of Ronaldo’s potential transfer from Man United to Real Madrid has so taken over the news in the Portuguese camp that I fear it could have a negative impact on the Lusitanians. Needless to say, coach Luiz Felipe (Big Phil) Scolari has to turn his team’s attention on the games, although Portugal’s somewhat weak Group A foes (Czech Republic, Switzerland, Turkey) should make things easier.

Which team is this Euro’s Greece? The real answer: nobody (not even the Hellas themselves, who are in Group D). What Greece did in ’04 may not be repeated for decades. But if I have to pick a couple of surprises that could get to the quarterfinals (and have a shot once they get there), I’ll go with the two teams that kept England from qualifying: Croatia, which has been on the upswing under coach Slaven Bilic (and has one of the least-difficult groups in Poland, Austria and Germany) and Russia, which Dutch master Guus Hiddink has turned into a formidable side. See what oil money can buy you these days?

What sort of antics will Marco Materazzi get involved in this time? I’ll admit it: I have a soft spot for The Matrix, whom I spent time with in Milan for a profile in SI last year. Yes, he can be a thug, but he’s an amusing thug in the tradition of Dennis Rodman during his NBA glory days. (Like Rodman, Materazzi has a shtick that overshadows his skills; remember, this guy scored in a World Cup final.) But wouldn’t you know it: Italy has yet another showdown coming with France on June 17, and while Zidane won’t be on the field we still can’t wait to see that one.

Can Germany seal the deal? If Portugal’s Scolari looks just like Gene Hackman, then German coach Joachim Löw is a dead-ringer for Kyle MacLachlan. For many insiders Löw (the top assistant to Jürgen Klinsmann at World Cup ’06) was the brains behind Germany’s run to the semifinals, and he has such a wealth of talent in the middle (Michael Ballack), at outside back (Philipp Lahm and Marcell Jansen) and up front (Miroslav Klose and Mario Gomez) that he may have to find a spot for Lukas Podolski on the left wing. The tournament-favorite Germans have an easy Group B, too, with Austria, Croatia and Poland, but we think the pressure will get to them in the semis against a ready-for-prime-time Portugal side. I’m no big fan of predictions, but what the heck:

Quarterfinals: Portugal beats Croatia, Germany beats Switzerland, Italy beats Russia, Netherlands beats Spain.
Semifinals: Portugal beats Germany, Netherlands beats Italy.
Final: Portugal beats Netherlands.

Check back in the coming days for updates and reactions to the games!


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