|Over the past decade-and-change, France has been Europe’s most successful footballing nation, and I think bettors and pundits are mad not to consider Les Bleus favorites to win Euro 2008.
Yes, they are saddled with a succession of group-stage opponents that could be perhaps described as frying pan, fire, and molten lava (Romania, Holland, and Italy), but for my money they simply have the best squad in the tournament. I’ll explain why in a moment, but first let me take the three teams ahead of them in punters’ eyes down a peg.
Favorites Germany (on around 4-1) have Michael Ballack, a splendid big-game player and proven leader who, considering he only returned from injury in December, comes into the tournament in midseason form. What’s more, the Chelsea player has a supporting cast that’s skillful and experienced at nearly every position, yet is still rather young. And in Joachim Löw, Germany has a coach who’s schooled the core of the side for nearly four years now, having taken over for his old boss Jürgen Klinsmann.
But Löw’s reliance on this core, especially at the back, will likely be his undoing. His mooted first-choice squad includes a goalkeeper and a central defender who each played sparingly for his club this season (Jens Lehmann at Arsenal and Christoph Metzelder at Real Madrid), along with another center back, Per Mertesacker, who played quite a lot for a Werder Bremen side who seemed to spend the season working on a new self-help book called “Maximizing Your Goals, At Both Ends” – not really one on which any good defender should be listed as a co-author.
Sooner or (more likely) later in the tournament, that underbelly’s softness is going to be found out and exploited.
Second-favorites Spain are the only team that has the top-to-bottom quality to match France. Nick profiled them on Tuesday, so I’ll skip the gory details, but as he and others so rightly point out, 44 years of history is not on their side. I’d love to see Spain finally make some noise in a major tournament, and believe they well might, but not nearly enough to throw my money after them at 11-2.
Italy are third favorites, available at 15-2, and it’s not hard to see why. Aside from the loss of Paolo Maldini and Franceso Totti to retirement and Fabio Cannavaro to a bum ankle, they enter the tournament with all key players that took them to the final in Berlin.
But a closer look at those ‘asides’ yields a gloomier outlook. Italy’s defending corps, with names like Zambrotta, Materazzi, Panucci and Grosso, is a strong group, but none are even in the same orbit as Maldini and Cannavaro. Totti’s creative slack may one day be taken up in midfield by his young Roma colleague Alberto Aquilani, but not yet.
Moreover, more established fixtures in Italy’s midfield at present – like Gennaro Gattuso, Mauro Camoranesi, and Andrea Pirlo – are all two years older (30, 31, and 29, respectively), and thus not hitting the upper heights of form quite as often as they were two years ago. It’s no surprise, then, that the Italian press, along with Gattuso himself, is putting the fate of Italy squarely on Luca Toni’s shoulders. They’re broad, those shoulders – 24 league goals for Bayern Munich broad – but depending on the form of a striker, all of whom have dry spells, does not make a team a solid tournament favorite.
Which brings me to France, a team who used to have a man shouldering the load. A man among the few players that helped define irreplaceability, a man who defied the laws of form, coming into the last World Cup on the back of a downright indifferent final season in Spain with Real only to skin defenders with boggling ease in Germany with his national side. That man is now gone, of course, which could lead one to believe there is a Z.Z.-shaped hole in the current France team.
But there ain’t, and that’s because France is the hydra of European football, producing top players at a rate no other country can hope to match. Constant regeneration is their secret, and one that has served them well.
They went to the semifinals of the Euros in 1996 and won the World Cup in 1998 with one side, then blended in several key youngsters and promptly won again with an improved one in Euro 2000. After stale performances in 2002 and 2004, France built yet another new side for 2006, though they wisely kept on a set of training wheels in the form of Zidane, Claude Makelele, and Lilian Thuram.
The latter two are still there, but are less stanchions than cogs in this 2008 France team. 2006 newcomers Eric Abidal, Florent Malouda and especially Franck Ribery have matured since the World Cup, and 20-year old Lyon striker Karim Benzema is so good he may keep Thierry Henry out of the side, depending on coach Raymond Domenech’s preferred formation.
Domenech, much maligned for his tactical tinkering and capricious selection policies (including a prejudice against players with the starsign of Scorpio – sorry Robert Pires), is widely considered to be the weak link in the France set-up. But he has some things speaking for him.
The former Lyon and Strasbourg defender had the guts to select an uncapped Franck Ribery in 2006 for the World Cup side, and has, since then, helped turn Enigmatic Striker™ Nicolas Anelka into a force at the international level. Looked at in this light, Domenech’s current inclusion of the Marseille youngster Samir Nasri and internationally unknown striker Bafetimbi Gomis of St. Etienne looks potentially canny – especially since Gomis scored two last week against Ecuador.
At 9-1, I’d say France is the best bet going.
|Austria and Switzerland are expected to rake in several hundreds of millions of euros in profit from the European Championships. But just think how much more they could have counted on had England qualified. Forget about the boozing hordes, I'm talking about those notorious Wives and Girlfriends – the dreaded WAGs.
While the residents of Baden-Baden – the England team's base during the 2006 World Cup – may not have been the biggest fans of Posh & Co., the local boutiques, however, may be thinking of opening up again now, some two years after the moneyed lasses of the Three Lions went credit card crazy in the exclusive German spa town. Most of the owners probably took that month's profit and shut up shop for a while, taking an extended break on the island of Mustique or somewhere equally expensive.
Marathon shopping sprees, drunken wine bar nights and threats of assault with a deadly check book may not be hitting the headlines this summer, but that doesn't mean that Euro 2008 will be WAG free. While no other country can "boast" such a high profile group as the English, the wives and girlfriends of the biggest stars are still likely to feature…just not in the gossip columns and local police reports.
The closest there is this year in terms of a "gang" - although in terms of behavior they're at the opposite end of the spectrum - are the Germans. The WAGs of the Germany team showed a united front during the World Cup, all sitting together in matching shirts, cheering on their men. On the surface, at least, there were no signs of the bitchiness that split the English camp into splintered groups, presumably over a Marc Jacobs clutch bag or a preposterously unfounded slur over someone's lack of singing talent.
The likes of Sylwia Klose, Petra Frings, Lena Borowski and Michael Ballack's partner Simone Lambe showed a togetherness off the pitch which mirrored the harmony their fellas showed on it. Germany's men will go confidently into this tournament knowing that, at least in public, there won't be any cat fights upsetting their preparations.
Elsewhere there are some more welcome distractions in the form of Dutch playmaker Rafael van der Vaart's model wife Sylvie (left), Italian goalkeeper Gianluca Buffon's other half Alena Seredova, a former Miss World contestant, and Eva Gonzalez, the former Miss Spain who shares her life with Spanish goalie Iker Cassilas.
And if Sweden's campaign starts to flounder, maybe midfielder Andres Svensson's girlfriend Anine Bing can stand behind the Swedish goal. Posters advertising the Danish model had to be removed from the streets of Birmingham after they were blamed for a number of car accidents. She could prove useful in distracting the opposition strikers.
So while there will be less scandal this year, and a drastic reduction in the sale of luxury goods in comparison to the World Cup, there will be no lack of glamorous female support.
Getting the glamor ball rolling ahead of the arrival of the Euro WAGs is Dominika Huzvarova (right), who was named Miss Euro 2008 on Thursday. The 22-year-old Czech student was elected after competing against 15 other candidates, one from each participating country. While the soccer stars of her country had to endure a long qualification process in far-flung European lands before even reaching the final stages, Ms. Huzvarova had a simpler challenge: she just had to look good in a ballgown, a swimsuit... and her national team shirt.
If only winning Euro 2008 was that effortless.