Tuesday June 17th, 2008

My wife thinks I've lost it. And she might have a point.

Turkey and the Czech Republic are two countries whose sports fortunes probably shouldn't cause me to whoop like a madman, fall to the floor and roll around in front of the TV barking "holy ---!" over and over again.

But there I was the other day, scaring the bejesus out of my bride as the Turks scored three times in the last 15 minutes to eliminate the Czechs in a 3-2 instant classic at the 2008 European Championship. So heart-stopping was the finish that it reduced 6-foot-7 Czech forward Jan Koller, the Andre the Giant of international soccer, into a blubbering, teary mess.

But don't worry: Koller's OK, and I'm OK, too. In fact, with every Euro game being televised live on U.S. cable TV for the first time, I'm in heaven.

And here's the great thing about the Euro: It's not too late.

Not too late -- if you're a World Cup-only soccer-watcher or an open-minded U.S. sports fan -- to catch what has been (so far) the best major soccer tournament since the 1986 World Cup.

Not too late to sneak off early from work, grab a pint at your local sports bar and watch the heavyweights of world soccer act like those studious coeds who take off their glasses, lose their inhibitions and turn into bombshells.

Four years after Greece won the European championship with painful, defensive-minded soccer, an epidemic of attacking fútbol has taken over Euro 2008. You want goals? I give you the Netherlands, which blew the doors off Italy and France (the two participants in the '06 World Cup final) by a combined score of 7-1. You want comebacks? I give you the remarkable Turks, who've erased second-half deficits to win against both the Czechs and the Swiss.

You want fantastic finishes? I give you Spain, which got a sick last-second game-winner from emerging superstar David Villa (four goals in two games) to beat Sweden 2-1.

You want drama? So rarified is the air at Euro '08 that France and Italy will meet Tuesday in a monumental Group C finale (ESPN, 2:45 p.m. ET) in which at least one of them is guaranteed to be eliminated.

That's one of several enticing storylines in a tournament that hasn't even reached the knockout rounds yet. So let me bring you up to speed on the latest talking points:

France vs. Italy. In recent years, this has become one of the most heated rivalries in sports, symbolized most memorably by Zinédine Zidane's shocking head-butt on Marco Materazzi in the '06 World Cup final (won by Italy on penalties). The two teams met twice during Euro '08 qualifying (a 3-1 France win and a 0-0 tie), but they've also thrown down on two other significant occasions in the past decade

In the Euro 2000 final, Italy was seconds away from celebrating a 1-0 victory when France threw the equivalent of a Hail Mary pass, equalizing through Sylvain Wiltord and winning the championship when David Trézéguet scored a sudden-death goal in extra time. (I'll never forget the silence of the Italian fans who were sitting around me in the stadium that day.) And in the '98 World Cup quarterfinals, the French won when Italy's Luigi Di Biaggio slammed his penalty kick against the crossbar, allowing Les Bleus to triumph in the shootout (and go on to win the whole thing).

Will we see more fireworks Tuesday? Most likely. Few things are more fun to watch than powerhouse teams that are desperate. France absolutely has to win to have a chance at qualifying for the knockout rounds, and while Italy could qualify with a tie it will almost certainly need a victory. (Then again, if Romania beats the Netherlands in a match being played at the exact same time, then both France and Italy will be out.)

Entertaining soccer can be winning soccer. No longer is boring, defensive soccer winning out. The best three teams in the tournament so far -- the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal -- have thrown caution to the wind and resolved simply to outscore their opponents. Best of all, they've been rewarded by winning their first-round groups. Consider: When the Dutch were up 1-0 on France at halftime, most coaches would have brought on defensive subs. Not Marco van Basten, who brought on another attacker for a defensive player and saw his team rip off an epic 4-1 victory.

As for Greece, the defending champs tried sticking to their mind-numbing Simpsons-style defensive strategy -- defender holds it ... holds it ... holds it ... -- only to get bounced after two losses in two games. Hallelujah.

The quality of the goals has been ridiculous. When both teams attack the way the game was meant to be played, the end-to-end action can be breathtaking. If you like watching the Phoenix Suns play basketball, you'll love the counter-attacks that have been rampant in Euro '08. The Netherlands' second goal against Italy was a thing of beauty as the Dutch turned an Italian corner kick into a whooshing sprint the other way, moving the ball literally from goal line to goal line in a flash to set up Wesley Sneijder's no-look finish. Meanwhile, Spain scored even faster on a counterattack goal that started on a Russian corner kick.

But if you prefer a little foreplay in your build-up, nothing could match Croatia's first strike against Germany, in which the Croats strung together 15 passes involving every single one of their 10 field players before Darijo Srna smacked home the goal. You won't see a 47-second possession better than that one in this tournament.

The stars have come to play. Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo, the Netherlands' Ruud van Nistelrooy, France's Thierry Henry, Germany's Michael Ballack, Spain's Villa and Fernando Torres: All of them have scored goals in Euro '08. On the other end Italy's Gigi Buffon, the world's best goalkeeper, stopped a late penalty kick by Romania's Adrian Mutu that would have put the Italians on the brink of elimination.

The breakout youngster isn't who everyone thought it would be. Before the tournament, the favorites to emerge as starlets in Euro '08 included French forward Karim Benzema (20 years old), German striker Mario Gómez (22), Croatian midfielder Luka Modric (22) and Portuguese midfielder João Moutinho (21). But the standout rising star has instead been 21-year-old Turkish left-midfielder Arda Turan, who scored the last-minute game-winner against Switzerland and found the net to start the Turks' furious rally against the Czech Republic. As we learned in both games, the Galatasaray youngster won't crack under the pressure of the big moment.

The best may be yet to come. The White Stripes' Seven Nation Army has been the stadium anthem of choice this year for chanting soccer fans, but it's the Eight Nation Army of quarterfinalists that has me pumped for the start of the knockout rounds on Thursday. We already know that Portugal is meeting Germany in one quarterfinal, and another could feature Spain against Italy or France.

No wonder a lot of soccer junkies look at the World Cup as a watered-down European championship. It's not too late to hop on board. (And if you want to catch up even more, check out SI.com's daily Euro Blog for the rest of the tournament.)

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