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  News: Countdown to EURO 2004

  

Football's power base on display at Euro 2004
The display of talent is daunting.
Tuesday, 08 June 2004

There's David Beckham of England, Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry of defending champion France and Luis Figo of Portugal. There's even a good chance three-time winner Germany won't survive the first round.

The 16-team European championship begins Saturday, with all the continent's main rivals in contention. The three-week showcase may well be the toughest soccer competition anywhere, including the World Cup.

The World Cup qualification system allows weaker teams to join a 32-team field, and the seeding system means powerhouse nations can avoid each other until the late stages. In the Euros, they meet right from outset.

France, favored to become the first to win back-to-back titles, faces England on the second day. Spain and Portugal are in the same group, creating matchups of Real Madrid teammates Beckham and Zidane, and Figo and Raul Gonzalez.

"I think we have the team to go very far at the European championships," Zidane said. "Now we just have to be ready on time."

Germany is grouped with two more former champions, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic, in the toughest of the four groups.

The Germans, featuring midfielder Michael Ballack and goalkeeper Oliver Kahn from their World Cup runner-up team, enter the championship reeling from a 2-0 loss at home to Hungary, which failed to qualify.

The Dutch are coming off a 1-0 loss at home to Ireland but have one of the most talented squads. Manchester United's Ruud van Nistelrooy and Barcelona's Edgar Davids and Patrick Kluivert are three of their biggest stars, and the biggest problem coach Dick Advocaat has is getting them to play as a team.

The Czechs, who won the title in 1976 as Czechoslovakia before the country split in 1993, could be the surprise team of the tournament.

They are led by Pavel Nedved, who plays for Juventus in Italy and is one of soccer's top midfielders. The Czechs went undefeated for 20 games until a loss to Ireland at the end of March.

Italy, which lost in overtime to France in the 2000 final after leading with a minute to go, may have the best chance to topple the French.

The Italians are backed by an experienced defense and perhaps the world's best goalkeeper, Gianluigi Buffon. Italy should emerge from a group that includes Sweden, Denmark and Bulgaria.

The French, coached by Jacques Santini, have Zidane operating behind Henry and David Trezeguet. France won all its Euro 2004 qualifying games and should be too much for Croatia and Switzerland. The French have not conceded a goal in more than nine games.

England's best hope is that Beckham, strikers Michael Owen and 18-year-old Wayne Rooney, and midfielders Steven Gerrard and Paul Scholes can all recapture their form.

Two games in Lisbon -- France-England and Germany-Netherlands _ will also be good tests of the host's ability to handle potentially violent crowds and hooligans.

England has been warned it could be kicked out of the championship if its unruly fans don't behave. Portuguese authorities have assembled an unprecedented security operation, aimed at hooliganism and terrorism.

Terrorists struck neighbor Spain in March with a series of deadly bombings in Madrid.

"Never in Portugal have we put so much into training and instruction," said Gen. Leonel Carvalho, the Euro 2004 security coordinator. "We are ready for everything we can be."
- AP

 

 

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