In other words, none of the North Koreas, Hondurases and Saudi Arabias that have populated recent World Cups will provide filler at the Euro. What's more, if the electrifying Euro 2008 is an indicator, then the play over the next three weeks will be more entertaining than the World Cup, with open games and fantastic finishes. That's part of the reason ESPN platforms started showing every Euro game live in 2008, even though the U.S. isn't involved. ESPN's decision has been a godsend for soccer fans in the U.S., and the sport has grown here because of it.
The storylines at Euro 2012 are compelling, too. Can Spain become the first team to win two straight Euros and three straight titles that include the Euro and World Cup? Can Germany and the Netherlands, probably the next best two teams in the world, end Spain's stranglehold? Can the co-hosts, Poland and Ukraine, exceed expectations and make a deep run before their nervous fans? Can Italy change the talk from match-fixing scandals and the volatility of forwards Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano to tales of Azzurri perseverance? And might we see a stunning title run from an underdog like Denmark in 1992 or Greece in 2004?
I'll be arriving in Poland on Sunday (due to a family wedding this week) and reporting for SI, SI.com and the Fox Soccer Channel. So hop on board and enjoy the ride. Here's my list of good Euro 2012 media to follow. You don't need to be a hardcore soccer fan to enjoy the Euro, but you may end up becoming one as a result! Here are my quick takes on the four groups.
GROUP A: Poland, Greece, Russia, Czech Republic. Easily the least sexy of the four groups, Group A should still be a remarkably tight, competitive race in which every team can see itself not just advancing, but potentially winning the group. I know that Greece under Fernando Santos is a bit more offensive-minded than Greece under Otto Rehhagel, but I don't expect a lot of goals from the '04 champs. Russia (a surprise '08 semifinalist) and the Czechs are clearly on the down slope, and the big wild card is how Poland (the lowest-ranked team in the competition) will perform under pressure at home. The Poles lucked out with this draw, and I see striker Robert Lewandowski becoming a national hero.
The Picks: Poland, Greece.
GROUP B: Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Portugal. Why is the Euro such a great tournament? Only here would you ever get a group with four of the top 10-ranked teams in the world. (Of course, that will change when Euro 2016 switches from a 16- to a 24-team tournament.) This young, dynamic German outfit (with the terrific string-puller Mesut Özil) is my pick to win the tournament and, along with Spain and the Netherlands, is far and away one of the three best teams. Most people seem to think that if there's a spoiler in this group it would be Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo, Europe's top player, but I think it's Denmark, which has beaten the Portuguese in recent competitions. I still don't think the Danes will advance, though. Too bad: They could have won Group A.
The Picks: Germany, Netherlands.
GROUP C: Spain, Italy, Ireland, Croatia. SI soccer podcast czar Richard Deitsch will laugh at this one, because I changed my pick for second place in this group from Italy to Croatia after we recorded our Euro podcast on Wednesday. (Sorry, Deitsch: I had too much chalk!) Anyway, Spain has too much talent to struggle here, while Italy (which has defensive issues, of all things, and a front line that includes the red-card-waiting-to-happen Balotelli) has the misfortune of playing Spain first. Whoever wins the opener between Croatia and Ireland will be in a solid position, and I think it'll be Croatia, with Everton's Nikica Jelavic doing a star turn up front in place of the injured Ivica Olic.
The Picks: Spain, Croatia.
GROUP D: Ukraine, Sweden, France, England. Poor Ukraine: the co-host wasn't nearly as lucky as Poland and drew a tough group, in which the chalk outline of Andriy Shevchenko may not be enough to escape last place. England has to deal with Wayne Rooney's two-game suspension and injuries to Frank Lampard and Gary Cahill, but I actually have slightly higher expectations for Roy Hodgson's team than most of the English media. But if I have a sleeper pick to win the tournament, it's France, which has gone 21 straight games without a loss under Laurent Blanc and is in position to ease its stigma with the French public from the 2010 World Cup fiasco. Forward Karim Benzema and midfielder Franck Ribéry have their mojo back, and I have Les Bleus winning the group.
The Picks: France, England.
Quarterfinals: Netherlands over Poland, Germany over Greece, Spain over England, France over Croatia.
Semifinals: Spain over Netherlands, Germany over France.
Final: Germany over Spain.
Enjoy the games!