Forget World Cup, Euro is football’s top competition
I absolutely love the FIFA football World Cup. I take time off work when it’s on, watch every game, weep when it’s over. It’s an amazing spectacle and the level of skill on display is generally very high.
But there is another great footballing tournament that receives much less attention on this side of the world, and it’s about to kick-off in Poland and the Ukraine.
The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) European Championship, known this year as Euro 2012, will be fought out by the continent’s finest national teams from June 8 until July 1.
It may be a geographically restricted event, but the skills on display are almost limitless.
In fact, it is arguably (well, I’ll argue it anyway) the world’s highest quality national-team tournament. The question is, how do you quantify quality?
Some people think sporting success is measured by statistics. Some are convinced it is all about spectacle. Others believe it’s determined by skill. I like to think of it as a recipe combining all three ingredients, but it’s important that the right measurements are used.
For the statistically minded among you, consider this: of the 16 teams competing at Euro, seven are ranked in the world’s top 10. A further six are ranked between 11 and 20. Only the Czech Republic (26) and co-hosts Ukraine (50) and Poland (65) fall outside the top 20.
Let’s put that in perspective; there are only four South American teams in the world’s top 20, a single African team and absolutely no Asian teams (Australia just misses out at 21).
Before you point out that the so-called FIFA/Coca-Cola World Rankings are as artificially flavoured and full of gas as the soft drink itself, let me just say that I agree with you.
But despite their faults, they are still the best guide we have to national team quality.
For those swayed by spectacle, consider the fact that stadia all over Poland and the Ukraine will be filled with spectators actually from the countries playing in the games. Too often at World Cups, ‘real’ supporters get pushed out by large numbers of largely quiet neutrals (read: suits who can afford the tickets).
This can leave some matches lacking that big-game atmosphere. And when big sides like Spain, Italy or Germany meet, the streets will be filled with the fans who can’t get tickets.
Is the level of skill shown at a tournament your preferred measure of success? The percentage of players at Euro 2012 who play in the world’s top seven leagues – those of England, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Portugal and Spain – is a lot higher than in the 2010 World Cup.
You’d be hard pressed to find a player at Euro 2012 who isn’t being handsomely paid to ply their trade in a decent European league. A number of teams at the last World Cup contained no players playing in Europe, or even outside their own country.
And less teams, but of higher calibre, means more games between heavyweights, and therefore more chances to see the crème de la crème of the sport competing against each other.
Keep an eye out for Real Madrid maestro Cristiano Ronaldo and Manchester United regular Nani lining up for Portugal, for example, or Barcelona’s Andrés Iniesta and Xavi Hernández in midfield for Spain.
If you’re a football tragic like me, I’m probably preaching to the converted. You’ll have already handed over your money to pay-TV channel Setanta Sports for the right to spend the wee hours slumped in front of the TV in a pool of caffeine-infused drool.
But if you’re yet to be convinced, consider switching on. You can also see highlights on SBS, which has secured the free-to-air TV broadcast rights for eight Euro 2012 matches, including the final.
It mightn’t have the hype of a World Cup, but Euro 2012 has the quality to justify a succession of sleepless mid-winter nights.
And without a Socceroo in sight, most Australians can relax and enjoy the tournament without worrying about results.