Much like a month of March Madness, about the only thing anyone knew for certain before Euro 2012 is that there’s sure to be a surprise result or two by the time all is said and done. Even so, as kick off arrives today in Poland and Ukraine, it's hard not to go with Germany as the favourite to lay claim to a continental title when the championship is awarded in Kiev on July 1.
It's not that there aren't any other worthy contenders. But if any team can end the reign of Spain, the 2008 Euro champions and 2010 World Cup winners, it's the Germans. They're young and deep, tactically sound and team-oriented … much like the Spanish squad that has ruled the sport for six years, edging the Germans 1-0 in the 2008 final, and by the same scoreline in a semifinal showdown in South Africa two years hence.
With an average age of 24, but already battle-tested by their experience at the last World Cup, coach Joachim Loew's side steamrolled through Euro qualifying, winning all 10 matches and outscoring their opponents 34-7. Spain was the only other unbeaten squad, while only the Netherlands (with whom the Germans share a spot in a stacked Group B) scored more goals. Around Europe, the Germans haven't been this ruthless since … well … you know when.
Eight members of the squad, from superlative goalkeeper Manuel Neuer to midfield duo Bastian Schweinsteiger and Thomas Muller, to attacking star Mario Gomez, all play for the Bayern Munich team that reached the recent Champions League final, falling short to Chelsea in a penalty shoot-out. Few will be more motivated than them to erase the memory of that result and return home as champions.
Even so, it won't be easy. No path through the playoffs ever is at what's arguably a tougher tournament than the World Cup. But before they can worry about the knockout stage, Germany first has to emerge from undoubtedly the most challenging of the four groups. Not just the potent Dutch lie in wait, but also Portugal and Denmark, neither of whom will be pushovers. Even the slightest slip up will put nerves on edge and cause probing questions to be asked. Miss more than one opportunity and a big team might be packing their bags ahead of schedule.
Besides Spain and the Netherlands, France and Italy will also have something to say about who goes home with gold, with both teams seeking to wipe away the stain of World Cup campaigns gone horribly wrong in 2010. The Italians, who bonded together in the face of adversity (and Zinedine Zidane headbutts) to win World Cup 2006, may well be similarly motivated by the latest match fixing scandal to hit their domestic league, one that brought police swooping down on team headquarters during a pre-tournament training camp and saw defender Domenico Cristico dropped from the squad in order to clear his name.
That untidy episode is just one of the dark clouds threatening to take the shine off this tournament, the first Euro to be held in Eastern Europe. Just as disturbing are the widespread allegations of racism among soccer fans in both host countries, laid bare in a damning report by the BBC news program Panorama that showed supporters performing Nazi salutes, taunting black players with monkey chants, unabashed incidents of anti-Semitic behaviour and the brutal beating of a group of Asian students.
Racism, of course, remains something of a sensitive issue around the England team, with long-tenured defender Rio Ferdinand passed over by new coach Roy Hodgson in favour of untested youngster Martin Kelly but a spot saved in central defence for Chelsea's John Terry who, once the tournament is over, is due to face court charges of racially abusing Rio's brother Anton during a Premier League match last season.
The fallout from that little spat, not to mention a raft of injury problems and the suspension of striker Wayne Rooney for the first two group games, seem likely to leave England looking in from the outside once the tournament gets down to its final four.
Germany's Loew, meanwhile, was so confident in his team's focus that he planned to let his players drink, smoke and even enjoy conjugal visits with their WAGs while the tournament is going on (although he remained undecided on whether to allow overnight encounters).
Among the dinner guests at German training camp this week (but probably not asked to spend the night) was Chancellor Angela Merkel. The visit was surely welcome break for a leader who's spent most of her time in recent months using her nation's financial largesse to bail out struggling neighbours. Financially, the gulf between Germany and Spain is a massive one. Things are a lot more even on the soccer field. But there, too, the Germans are poised to flex their muscles and perform with a power that few others can match.