The end of the domestic soccer season is always a bittersweet symphony. If you’re lucky, your club has brought home the silverware or managed to gain a spot in continental competition. But the euphoria soon subsides when you realise that a two-month-long no-man’s land completely devoid of the Beautiful Game lies ahead. Thankfully, you’ve been granted a reprieve this season, because the thrill-a-minute European Championships take place from 10 June to 10 July in France. The great thing about the competition is that there are virtually no assured results and tons of mouthwatering match-ups to tide you over till next month.
So what of the contenders? France start as strong favourites and not merely because they’re playing on home soil. Coach Didier Deschamps has a galaxy of stars to call upon (Antoine Griezmann and Paul Pogba chief among them) and even had the luxury of leaving out Real Madrid hitman Karim Benzema. I always want them to do well, as the most “African” of the European sides, but France have a tendency to implode into a tumult of change room histrionics at any given moment and I have my reservations about whether Les Bleus will be able to handle the pressure of playing at home.
Spain are right up there with the bookies and are hunting their third consecutive victory in the competition. The men in red and blue are, to their enduring credit, never complacent and boast a rich stock of players who have shone in the Champions League, with Juventus star Alvaro Morata the latest to roll off the La Liga conveyor belt. However, as vastly experienced as they may be, I figure it may be third time unlucky for Vicente del Bosque’s charges. They have looked a bit underdone in pre-tournament friendlies, falling to minnows Georgia, and they shed their aura of invincibility at the World Cup in Brazil.
So to Germany, that well-oiled World Champion outfit that exploits gaps and turns defence into attack with ruthless efficiency, running like a 1993 two-door BMW M3. With Mesut Ozil and Mario Gotze pulling the strings, Thomas Mueller getting onto crosses and the incomparable Manuel Neuer in goal, die Mannschaft have all their bases covered. And you just know that if it comes down to penalties, they will hold their nerve. We’ve got our money on the Germans.
Don’t talk to me about England. The youngest team in the competition, they will flatter to deceive and probably go out in a shootout in the quarters, crying into their jerseys, as is their wont. Sorry Premier League fans.
Or, as Greece did to the eternal wonder of the world in 2004, Northern Ireland might throw the pedigree book out the window and come good at the Stade de France on 10 July.