EURO2012 JUNE 8, 2012
It is sometimes said that the European Championships are the World Cup without Brazil and Argentina. Though this might be more or less true on the field, it misses the obvious truth that the World Cup is not just a matter of determining the best team on the planet. That's one reason why it includes teams who are not among the top 32 sides in the world.
The Euros are a different matter. The best 16 teams in Europe are involved. It is a meritocracy that should be enjoyed while we can savour it before it expands—like a New Yorker binging on too many Big Gulps—to 24 teams in four years time. For the time being the tournament remains manageable too. Few people can really watch three games a day—as the World Cup demands—without exhausting themselves. The European Championships lighten the workload, offering a more sensible two matches each day. This is good.
The last tournament was a cracker and there's reason to suppose this might be a good 'un too. First question: can anyone knock Spain off their perch? No one has completed a Euro-WC-Euro triple. It would elevate this Spanish side—already splendid—into the upper reaches of any list of all-time great national sides. And yet, despite their enduring excellence, there is a sense that Spain are not the side they were. Carlos Puyol is absent while, just between us, I'm not sure Andrés Iniesta is displaying quite the form he showed a couple of years ago. Spain is still pretty good but they're not invincible.
The pretenders? Surely the Netherlands and a rejuvenated France shorn of Raymond Domenech's baleful, nutty influence. Look out too for the Russians and, perhaps, for the co-hosts. England, accompanied by unusually low and realistic expectations, may prove stubbornly bloody-minded and do better than predicted.
Most of all, however, this tournament begins with a rum sensation: the team I'm most looking forward to watching is Germany. The Germans offered glimpses of splendour in South Africa two years ago. That experience will have done them good and there's reason to suppose they are ready to flower in Poland and the Ukraine.
The old-stagers such as Klose, Lahm and the irreproachable Schweinsteiger are supplemented by youthful vigour in the likes of Özil, Müller, and Götze. Indeed the Germans are so amply-stocked with attacking talent that the new wunderkid Marco Reus, newly signed by Dortmund, may not feature much at all.
It is not that we have tired of tiki taka. Far from it. Merely that football needs variety and the Germans seem best-placed to offer a different kind of attacking approach in this tournament. This is not the German machine of yore, always admirable but rarely scintillating. On the contrary, this is a rare beauty indeed: a German team that begins the tournament as one of the most likeable squadrons in the tournament.
They are hardly a brave pick to win the whole thing but there you have it.