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Between June 7 and June 29 the eyes of the world will turn to focus on happenings in two solidly prosperous Alpine nations, Austria and Switzerland, which are hosting the European Football Championship. From the teterias (teahouses) of Andalusia to the sports bars of Shanghai, the main existential questions will pertain to football and solely to football.


In the build up to the tournament, fans have predictably been deluged with information from every type of mass media outlet -- the number of supplements, Web sites, posters, preview shows and sticker albums available to read, download, contemplate, watch and agonize over exhausting even the most assiduous supporters. However, much of the content is ultimately superficial, with attention being lavished on a handful of already-familiar players and teams and denied to subjects that are at least as worthy of attention. Moreover, many of the more interesting elements to the tournament have been overlooked entirely.


To partially remedy this, what follows are 11 phenomena that matter profoundly from an overall sporting and cultural perspective, phenomena that may end up defining Euro 2008 for the billions of spectators following this summer's soccer extravaganza -- in person, electronically or by any other means.


1. The Changing Face of Europe


In the conclusion to the collection of essays Conversations About the End of Time, Italian author Umberto Eco wrote that in the 21st century, "Europe will become a colored continent." While Eco stated that he was not thinking merely in terms of skin color -- "colorings" or syncretisms of religion were also a possibility -- it is difficult not to recall his remarks when glancing at the Euro 2008 squad rosters.


Co-hosts Switzerland, for so long a relatively homogeneous society, contain in their squad players with origins from, among other countries, Ivory Coast, Colombia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Spain, Kosovo, Cape Verde and Turkey. Spain and Turkey both boast Afro-Brazilian holding midfielders; the French squad, one of the most successful in international football of recent years, increasingly resembles an amalgam of French, North and sub-Saharan African elements.


For all that has been said and written about the decline of the continent, this trend illustrates that, compared to most regions of the world, Europe is a place people of all kinds can still move within and to; this suggests an economic and social dynamism that it is rarely credited with.


2. Fan Zones



Given the chance, there are probably literally many millions of people who want to see at least one match in the flesh at Euro 2008. The official ticket prices being what they are, these people can afford to do so. However, the capacity of a stadium at any such football tournament is such that they cannot possibly accommodate anything more than a small fraction of these people.


The solution? Fan Zones, venues that contain all kinds of food, refreshment and entertainment; above all, giant screens that at match time enable the many thousands of fans without tickets to partake in the "live" experience to at least some degree. The UEFA Fan Zones at the Euro 2008 host cities will have a daily aggregate capacity of 350,000 people. With the increasing secularization of European society and the transformation of football tournaments into quasi-religious pilgrimages, expect these zones to increase in size and importance in years to come.



3. Italy's Golden Generation?


A fact that was all but lost in the aftermath of the 2006 World Cup final, what with the dissection of French icon Zinedine Zidane's cathartic head butt on Italian center-back Marco Materazzi, was that of Italy being world champions. A gritty team had been forged by then-coach Marcello Lippi, one capable of playing with flair and precision, though more often than not favoring a more pragmatic and cautious approach.


Following an unpromising beginning to their Euro 2008 qualification campaign -- a home draw with Lithuania and an away loss to France -- Italy won 9 of their remaining 10 games to top their group. Can the Italians bag the European title as well, and in so doing emulate the West German side of the early 1970s and the French team of the late 1990s and early 2000s by holding the world and European crowns simultaneously? If so, the likes of stylish deep playmaker Andrea Pirlo, the resurgent Alessandro Del Piero and scoring machine Luca Toni will go down in history as part of the most successful generation in the modern Italian game.

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4. The New Zidane


Ever since the final, stunning departure from the pitch of the extraordinary Zinedine Zidane the French national team has been searching for a spiritual successor to "Zizou," for someone who can propel it to the heights of footballing sublimity and set the tone for the country as a whole.


While France now has at its disposal a number of talented attacking personnel of North African provenance, Samir Nasri comes with Zidane's official seal of approval; the sight of the two of them sharing a stage at a May 2007 ceremony where Zidane awarded Nasri the accolade of Ligue 1 Young Player of the Year was portentous indeed.


Nasri, who like Zidane hails from the grim housing projects of the Marseille suburbs, is quick, can dribble skillfully, possesses excellent timing and delivers infinitely teasing free kicks. He will be 20 when the tournament starts and is the youngest member of the French squad. If called upon, it is almost inconceivable that he will not make his mark in this competition and numerous others to come.


5. Romanian Flair


The most celebrated period for the Romanian national team was the 1990s. Reaching the knockout stages of three consecutive World Cups (1990, 1994 and 1998), they delighted many neutrals with their cerebral, technically accomplished game, at the heart of which was the legendary Gheorghe Hagi, a playmaker of immense quality who at club level won continental titles with both Steaua Bucharest (European Super Cup) and Galatasaray (UEFA Cup and European Super Cup).


This year's European Championship is Romania's first major finals appearance since its defeat to Italy in Brussels during the last eight of Euro 2000. While France does not possess anyone of the eminence of Hagi in its squad, it does have the wonderfully talented Adrian Mutu.


Mutu is one of those rare individuals who has managed to put drug addiction and a collapsed marriage behind him to concentrate on what he does best. After his career hit the buffers during his spell in England with Chelsea, he successfully resurrected himself in Italy, at first with Juventus, and now at Fiorentina, where he spearheaded their run to the semifinals of this season's UEFA Cup.


An attacker of delicacy and intelligence, Mutu can play anywhere in an advanced role. He has an able supporting cast in the Romania team, not least the marvelously skillful Nicolae Dica, who has spent his whole career to date in the Romanian top flight, Banel Nicolita, a club mate of Dica's at Steaua Bucharest, and Cristian Chivu, a ball-playing center-back generally regarded as one of the most accomplished in Italy's Serie A.


6. Turks Conquering Europe?


Following progress to the quarterfinal stage of Euro 2000 and a gallant run to the semifinals of the 2002 World Cup, many observers felt that the Turkish national team was on the cusp of even greater things. Yet these successes were not built on. An inexplicable aggregate reverse against Latvia meant absence from the previous European finals in Portugal, and this was compounded by its failure to qualify for the 2006 World Cup in, of all places, Germany, which vaunts the biggest Turkish population in Western Europe.


However, six years after their adventures in Korea and Japan, the Turks are once again in the finals of a major tournament. A largely new-look side, shorn of talismanic striker Hakan Sukur, blends relative experience with youthful hunger. Emre Belozoglu, who garnered the moniker "Maradona of the Bosphorus" during his time at Internazionale, is the team's metronome, and he has looked hugely impressive in the team's recent exhibition matches. Arda Turan of Galatasaray, a midfielder with similar qualities, is another name to note.


Homicidal in attack, suicidal in defense, no result -- good or bad -- is beyond the Turks, one of the most gifted and exasperating sides in international football, at Euro 2008. If they progress beyond the quarterfinals, expect debate about Turkey's political and cultural role in Europe to be ignited and extra credibility to accrue to their European Union candidacy.


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7. The Hosts With the Least


According to many critics, including fabled former international striker Anton "Toni" Polster, co-hosts Austria has the worst side in its history going into Euro 2008: its particularly feeble forward line has prompted a recall for Ivica Vastic, a naturalized Croatian playing out his career at LASK Linz who starred for Austria in its previous outing at the finals of an international tournament, at France '98. Such is the domestic consensus as to the team's ineptitude that toward the end of 2007, 10,000 Austrian fans signed a petition demanding that their team withdraw from Euro 2008 in order to spare the nation acute embarrassment.


A scan of their roster suggests that Austria will join Euro 2000 co-hosts Belgium as being the only European Championship hosts to date not to progress to the knockout stages. Yet if a young side led by the dynamic and iconic Panathinaikos playmaker Andreas Ivanschitz -- another Austrian of Croatian ancestry -- can somehow progress from a pool containing Germany, Poland and Croatia, they could revitalize soccer in Austria for a generation.


8. Cristiano Ronaldo


In many senses, Cristiano Ronaldo is a virtually unparalleled human being. He is the most popular player at the world's most popular club, a fair proportion of the world's female population wish to marry him, and his image adorns advertising hoardings from Manchester to Maritimo. In short, Ronaldo is executing the Beckham blueprint to near-perfection.


Moreover, the 2007-8 season has seen him resembling a player straight out of a computer game. Ronaldo, essentially a winger, nevertheless netted a fit-inducing 42 goals for Manchester United as they became champions of England and Europe. He has rarely produced his best for Portugal, but given that Ronaldo is currently football's Midas figure, he has every chance of inspiring the Portuguese to their first international football title at senior level this summer.


9. Ibracadabra!


Sweden's Zlatan Ibrahimovic -- a player that is often mentioned in the same breath as Ronaldo -- is one of the few genuinely magical players in world football. Blessed with fine dribbling ability, seemingly elastic feet and a rare sensitivity for the transcendental, Ibrahimovic scores goals other players cannot even conceptualize.


An essential component of the last four winners of Serie A (Juventus in 2005 and 2006, Internazionale in 2007 and 2008), Ibrahimovic's best tournament for his country was undoubtedly at the previous European championship in Portugal, where he scored the most outrageous goal of Euro 2004, a volleyed back heel that secured a draw against Italy. If "Ibra" can shake off a knee injury and combine well with the evergreen Henrik Larsson, Sweden could be a surprise success at Euro 2008.

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10. Can Spain End the Pain?


Real Madrid symbol Raul, prototypical fullback Michel Salgado, also of Real Madrid, Valencia holding midfielder David Albeda, rated by many as world-class in his position, and electric winger Joaquin, also of Valencia -- that Spain could afford to leave these players out of their Euro 2008 final 23 speaks volumes about the incredible strength of its squad.


However, Spain's proclivity to crash out in the early knockout stages of big tournaments, usually with tremendous pathos, is at least as famous as the likes of Fernando Torres, Cesc Fabregas and Sergio Ramos -- global superstars who will be expected to propel Spain to glory in Switzerland and Austria. Another premature exit will raise ever higher the psychological barrier separating Spain from further success at full international level.


11. The Absence of England


While the Premier League, fuelled by sensational revenues (around 2.3 billion euros in 2006-7) and even more sensational debts (the net debt figure of the Premier League clubs was 2.469 billion British pounds as of summer 2007, up an astonishing 19 percent on the previous year), continues to capture the imagination from New York to Novi Pazar -- and has a genuine claim to being the first truly global league -- the English national football team has failed to qualify for a major finals for the first time since 1994. Synonymous with woeful technique and characterized by a paucity of imagination, the absence of England will probably not be lamented by most neutrals at Euro 2008.


But is this part of a bigger trend? With English clubs finding foreigners of almost any nationality cheaper and better players than the native product, the number of Englishmen who can be described as having pivotal roles in the better Premier League side is getting ever smaller over time. Whether England will remain a fixture of the final stages of football tournaments in the years to come is open to debate; their nonparticipation at Euro 2008 could either inspire the eventual rescue of English football or signal the beginning of the terminal decline of the national team.


In conclusion, then, Euro 2008 is a tournament that promises a huge amount on a sporting and cultural level. The 11 phenomena detailed above will only make it more fascinating for the watching world; many other phenomena are likely to make themselves felt by the end of the tournament.



PLAYER TO WATCH : Cristiano Ronaldo

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