A ball has yet to be kicked, and already Euro 2012 has become the most controversial football tournament in recent memory. After a Panorama documentary for BBC highlighted the horrendous racism and fan violence endemic within Ukraine, UK government ministers have followed their German, Dutch, and Austrian counterparts in boycotting attending matches to be held there (Ukraine co-hosting the tournament alongside Poland). This is in response to the 'selective justice' handed out in the imprisoning of opposition leader Yulia Tymoschenko, jailed on spurious corruption charges levelled by President Viktor Yanukhovic.
In light of this scandal, and in lieu of the horrific racism within the nation's game (which has led the family of English winger, Theo Walcott, to stay at home, and prompted Mario Balotelli to threaten to walk off if he is the target of discrimination), much criticism has justly been levelled at UEFA's choice to host the event there at all; the boycott by UK ministers is a necessary extension of this. For UEFA to herald values of fair play and equality whilst simultaneously allowing a nation in which a Nazi-salute at a match attracts little more than a concerned glance is scandalous. Moreover, the widespread denial of rights of association and free speech (which the UK government is at least nominally protesting against), is the type of thing that supposedly 'enlightened' governments should take a stand against. Like it or not, international sporting events are inherently politicised, and provide an arena for governments to highlight concerns to a base of their population who would otherwise simply not care; without getting all 'Kony' on you, it is a 'good thing' if your average football fan finds out a bit about what's going down in Ukraine. If the boycott achieves nothing else, it's still worthwhile.
Anyway, amidst all of this, there's some football going on. So, what can we expect? England go into the tournament, everyone tells us, with 'low expectations', and this will serve us well. Except this mantra has been reiterated so frequently that the expectation that low expectations will benefit the Three Lions has led to expectations being raised paradoxically high. Let's put a stop to this right now, and admit we're not very good and this will probably reflect in our performance. Roy Hodgson's squad selections were hardly inspiring; a hodgepodge of the old guard with a chronic fear of success (Gerrard, Terry), the woefully mediocre (Carroll, Downing, Henderson) and a token 'wild card' pick (Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, arguably the most exciting player in the squad), whilst eschewing the chance to offer tournament experience to genuinely exciting players (Adam Johnson and Daniel Sturridge spring to mind). Given woefully little time to ready the squad, and plagued by an endless injury list, Roy's boys will be lucky to make their way out of the group stage; France look an exciting prospect under Laurent Blanc, and an entirely different team to that which imploded under Raymond Domenech in South Africa, Sweden have perennially posed England problems, whilst Ukraine, with an intimidating home support behind them, seem a no less difficult prospect. If we do manage to escape, we'll inevitably do what we always do and lose on penalties in the knockout rounds. Probs against the Germans.
England aside, Spain look set to provide a formidable defence of their trophy; Fernando Torres has a point to prove, Juan Mata is coming off the back of an electric first season in the Premier League, and Xavi and Iniesta form a central midfield pairing without parallel in the present day's game (and, perhaps, in the sport's history). Meanwhile Germany, despite being in the 'Group of Death' alongside the Netherlands, Portugal and Denmark, under the tenure of Joachim Low, and with Manuel Neuer in goal, a ludicrously exciting midfield including Mesut Ozil and the workhorse-cum-maestro Bastian Schweinsteiger, and the fact that they're German and always do well at these things, look like a good bet to go far.
Ultimately, English fans should expect little, and not just in the 'winkwink' way that pundits are suggesting we should in the hope we pull off a surprise triumph (á la Demark '92 and Greece '04), and instead just enjoy the tournament; with Cristiano Ronaldo, Robin van Persie and the aforementioned stars in amazing form, this is a chance to view some of football's greatest players in their prime.
So let's hope for an excellent tournament, but throughout keep an ear open for the off-the-field controversies; with the eyes of the world on the great and the good of football, as well as on the truly awful of European politics, perhaps Euro 2012 has the chance to achieve something truly special.
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