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Euro 2008 will draw competitive field of 16

June 06, 2008|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

Don't call Europe any time this month, but if you must, first check the clock.

The Europeans have other things on their mind in June, namely Euro 2008, the quadrennial soccer championship that leaves most of that continent -- and much of the globe -- transfixed.

The 16-nation tournament kicks off Saturday and should be the most competitive yet. It is being jointly staged by Austria and Switzerland, but it is neighboring Germany that could carry off the silverware.

Greece comes in as the defending champion, having upset host Portugal in the Euro 2004 final in Lisbon, but the Greeks were a surprise winner, an 80-to-1 longshot, and this time the traditional powers are favored.

Otto Rehhagel, the German who coached the Greeks to their title and is seeking to repeat, said the favorites should be, "the usual gallery of Italy, France, Spain and Germany."

Despite Greece's victory in 2004 and Denmark's similar surprise in 1992, Sweden Coach Lars Lagerback argued that "if you look at it historically, one of the big nations is likely to come out on top."

That means three-time winner Germany. That means former winner and reigning world champion Italy. That means two-time winner and 2006 World Cup runner-up France. That means, well, no, it doesn't actually mean Spain because the Spanish traditionally find a way to lose.

But it could mean the Netherlands, who haven't won since 1988, when Galaxy Coach Ruud Gullit was on the team, along with current Dutch Coach Marco Van Basten and Frank Rijkaard, the third member of the all-conquering trio.

Chances are that by the time the final is played at Ernst Happel Stadium in Vienna on June 29, it will be the Germans and the Italians, or the Germans and the French or the Germans and the Dutch, who will be taking the field.

Either way, the Germans figure on being there.

"There are many teams that are a little better than us in terms of technical quality or individual talent, but I believe that our enthusiasm and team spirit can compensate," German midfielder Michael Ballack said.

The continent's top player at the moment is Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo, whose goals led Manchester United to the English Premier League and European Champions League titles over Ballack's Chelsea.

Portugal Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, who coached Brazil to its 2002 World Cup triumph, said Ronaldo could crown an astonishing season with a victory in Vienna.

"I expect him to have a great Euro 2008 and prove himself to be the best player in the world," Scolari said.

All 31 matches are sold out and the tournament will be shown live in the U.S. on one or another of ESPN's platforms.

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grahame.jones@latimes.com

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