x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Euro 2012 is the toughest challenge in football

To no less a luminary than Zinedine Zidane, winning the European Championship is a greater achievement than winning the World Cup.

Spain's Iker Casillas holds up the trophy as he celebrates with teammates after their Euro 2008 finals win over Germany. The holders will not find an easy path to repeating in 2012.
Spain's Iker Casillas holds up the trophy as he celebrates with teammates after their Euro 2008 finals win over Germany. The holders will not find an easy path to repeating in 2012.

When Zinedine Zidane played, people watched. When he talks, they tend to listen.

The greatest player of his generation won both the World Cup - in 1998 - and the European Championships two years later during his distinguished international career.

What in principle is the lesser achievement was, the Frenchman argued, the greater accomplishment.

"For me, the European Championship is harder to win than the World Cup," Zidane said. "There are only big teams. At the World Cup, you have time to get going but here you cannot afford to make a single mistake."

And, just as many longed to emulate Zidane on the field, there was a rush to agree with him off it.

"This is a very difficult tournament to win," said Steven Gerrard, the England captain. "It's harder than the World Cup because the standard is even higher. The 16 teams are all very strong. It's going to be tough." Rather less diplomatically, Wesley Sneijder, the Holland playmaker, said: "You don't have the teams from Africa or wherever when you know you are going to take three points."

Ghana, the World Cup quarter-finalists two years ago, are entitled to disagree with Sneijder's sentiments but in one respect the Inter Milan midfielder is right: whereas the World Cup's Group of Death two years ago contained minnows North Korea, no one is guaranteed a victory in Group B of this year's European Championships.

Arguably no side has ever faced a more demanding start to a major tournament than Germany, who take on Portugal and the Dutch in their first two games.

Statistically - if the Fifa rankings can be called statistics - there has never been a tougher group.

Germany are deemed the second-best team in the world, Holland sit third, Portugal are placed 10th (and, until a few days ago, were fifth) and Denmark, rank outsiders for most people, actually beat Portugal to earn their place at Euro 2012 and are ranked the ninth finest international side on the planet. The average ranking among them is six.

"To win outright you have to get past the best at some point or other," said Mario Gomez, the Germany striker.

It is true, but generally such matches are saved for the knockout stages. Here, however, two of the world's top 10 are guaranteed an early exit.

It could be rather more. If Group B is Euro 2012's resident Group of Death, consider Group C.

Spain are defending champions, World Cup winners and ranked first. The widespread assumption is that Italy will prove its second qualifier. And yet the pool also contains a Republic of Ireland side unbeaten in 14 games and a Croatia team who, without attracting a great deal of attention outside their homeland, are ranked eighth.

To put it another way, that is only one place below Lionel Messi's Argentina. Two of the world's top 20 are certain to go home. It is possible one of them will depart without taking as much as a point.

But that is feasible elsewhere.

Fifa's rankings may not be perfect but they do provide an indication of the strength in depth of European football. Thirteen of the 18 top-ranked nations are European.

Of the three exceptions among the participants, the Czechs have a distinguished record at European Championships: winners in 1976, runners up in 1996, semi-finalists in 2004. The other two can rely upon more than just history.

Poland and Ukraine have home advantage. If there is a distinct possibility neither would have qualified for the tournament otherwise, it is not relevant.

Their home record is, however, and in the last two years, Ukraine have drawn with Germany and Holland while, in 2009, they beat their group opponents England in Dnipropetrovsk.

Poland, officially the worst team in the tournament, have held Portugal, Germany and Mexico at home, and defeated Argentina and Ivory Coast.

Their visitors are not facing a team as much as a nation. And so, to turn Zidane's theory into a footballing cliche, there are no easy games in Poland or Ukraine.

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