Exciting fare on the cards

Co-host Austria is secretly hoping for another “miracle of Cordoba,” when the team beat the then world champion West Germany 3-2 in the World Cup in Argentina in 1978, a defeat which sent the favourite home.

I will again be watching live as many games as possible during the European Championships, but I look forward to the tournament in a much more relaxed manner than I did at the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Then, as head of the World Cup Organising Committee, I flew from city to city in a private helicopter, once even through a heavy storm.

This time I have an equally busy programme as a member of the executive committee of European football’s governing body UEFA, but not nearly as much pressure or fear of mistakes being made.

I would like to reassure all those who are worried that a tournament being hosted by two countries — this time Austria and Switzerland — will lead to confusion and annoyance. Marin Kallen, the head of the Swiss organising committee, and his Austrian partner Christian Schmoelzer are doing a great job.

The tournament in Belgium and the Netherlands in 2000 also went well despite some reservations ahead of the event. And the concerns which were raised ahead of the World Cup in Japan and South Korea in 2002 that things could go wrong between the former political enemies proved to be unjustified.

I will not judge between continents. I know the quality of football played at this year’s African Cup of Nations. I also know that South America’s continental tournament is a festival of football. However, nowhere is the depth of ability so great as in Europe. After all, the World Cup final in 2006 was between Italy and France, and the game for third place between Germany and Portugal. I don’t want to overly praise the European game because the stars of many European clubs are Brazilian and Argentinian players.

But looking at the teams for the Euro 2008 from June 7 to 29, I find it hard to predict a winner. Many experts tip France. Others go for the Dutch, Portugal with Cristiano Ronaldo or Germany. But be careful, I’ll say. Just look at what happened in Euro 2004 in Portugal, where all the experts were proved wrong. The title went to a rank outsider, Greece.

Of course, world champion Italy is among the leading favourites, although some of the experts are now saying the team is getting too old, playmaker Andrea Pirlo is worn out and the side in general is only a shadow of its former self without a player like Francesco Totti, who retired from international football after the 2006 World Cup.

Again, I would say: be careful. Italy has a hard draw in the so-called ‘group of death’ alongside France, the Netherlands and Romania, but whenever a tournament begins, Italy always seems as if it has suddenly jumped into a fountain of youth. Italy is, in fact, a tournament team, something that always used to be said of Germany.

I am also looking forward to seeing how Spain performs. It is always seen as having a chance before every tournament, but then it never seems to do itself justice. Coach Luis Aragones has discarded Real Madrid striker and captain Raul Gonzalez, but can rely on the speed and goal-scoring abilities of the Liverpool frontman Fernando Torres, who has made the breakthrough in England as a world-class forward after moving from Atletico Madrid a year ago.

And this season, for instance, it was not the foreign players who were making their mark with teams like Barcelona but Spanish players such as Xavi and Andres Iniesta, a player of whom I expect much in the tournament.

Even Russia is highly fancied than during the days when many of its players were with foreign clubs and did not always have the necessary discipline. Now, thanks to the new riches enjoyed by Russian clubs, most of its top players are staying at home, enjoying success with the Moscow clubs or at Zenit St. Petersburg.

Zenit’s triumph in winning the UEFA Cup and the fact that top Dutch coach Guus Hiddink — one of the best coaches in the world according to me — is in charge of the national team has raised hopes of a successful tournament.

Despite home advantage I see Austria only as a rank outsider. The team is secretly hoping for another “miracle of Cordoba,” when Austria beat the then world champion West Germany 3-2 in the World Cup in Argentina in 1978, a defeat which sent the favourite home. The radio commentary of the winning goal is still played today in Austria, especially now that Austria is coming up against Germany in its group.

There was even an organisation formed in Austria which lobbied for the country to withdraw from the tournament in order to save the co-host from embarrassment. Yet, there may be a surprise in store in a group which also includes Croatia and Poland.

Fellow-host Switzerland has a stronger team. While Austria can play without too many concerns, Switzerland is carrying the burden of its fans’ expectations of even winning the title. That can prove to be a big disadvantage.

Cristiano Ronaldo could perhaps be the best player of the tournament. But despite his skills on the ball and strength in the air, the Manchester United winger is dependent upon his Portuguese team-mates. He has, however, developed in a positive way because he now no longer overdoes the fancy tricks on the ball and looks to play a quicker pass. And, as his goal in the Champions League final against Chelsea in Moscow showed, he knows how to time a jump and meet the ball with his head.

France’s midfielder Franck Ribery of Bayern Munich could also lend the tournament some magic. If he can produce his Bayern form for France the fans will be delighted. In Munich’s Allianz Arena he often gets a standing ovation for his ideas and the way he celebrates the game.

Germany captain Michael Ballack could also be a star of the tournament. Anyone who can, in 18 months, claim a regular place in a difficult team like Chelsea shows that he is physically and mentally tough enough to stamp his mark on the tournament.

Germany has the advantage of the tournament being practically at home. Fans don’t have to travel far. The Bayern bloc of Miroslav Klose, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Lukas Podolski, Philipp Lahm and Marcell Jansen plus former Bayern player Ballack, will lend stability. Then there’s midfielder Tim Borowski, who will be joining Bayern from Werder Bremen for the next season.

I am also interested to see how Jens Lehmann performs in goal for Germany, after a season in which he was coach Arsene Wenger’s second choice at Arsenal and had little match practice. However, with his experience he should be able to compensate for the sporadic appearances in the Premier League this season.

I hope we see attacking football similar to that experienced four years ago. It’s a bit of a shame that England is not taking part, after failing to get through the qualifying stage. I hope, too, we see a tournament played in a harmonious atmosphere, with peaceful and happy fans — and that the weather is as good as it was during the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

© 2008, distributed by gms/Asia Features