BEFORE EUROPEAN SPORTS FANS turn their attention to the Olympics in July, all eyes will be fixed on the 2012 UEFA European Football Championship (more commonly called Euro 2012), which begins in Poland and Ukraine on June 8.
Of the 16 nations who gained entry via the qualifying tournament in 2011, Spain, Germany, and the Netherlands are considered frontrunners, with England, France, and Italy as outside bets. The winner of the tournament, in addition to bragging rights and a big shiny trophy, will gain automatic entry to the FIFA Confederations Cup held in Brazil in 2013.
In no particular order, here are five reasons to follow Euro 2012. Only some of them actually relate to football.
1. The host countries are attempting to clean up.
Ukraine and Poland are the first Eastern European nations to ever host the tournament, a bid they won with great excitement in 2007. While stadium preparations in the eight different host cities are almost complete, officials in Kiev are also making preparations of a different kind: stemming the illicit sex trade.
Prostitution and human trafficking have been a problem since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the media spotlight of Euro 2012 represents, to some, an opportunity for positive change. Not to local women’s rights group Femen, however; they staged a topless stunt last week protesting the tournament, which they believe will only bolster the sex trade.
2. Sports mix with politics.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, along with other EU ministers, have cited treatment of the jailed Ukrainian opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko as unacceptable and grounds for an EU boycott of the tournament.
But with just a couple weeks remaining until kickoff, no agreement has been made by EU leaders and no players or fans are threatening to sit out. Thus, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry says it is not worried that a boycott will materialize.
3. There’ll be drama.
For the first time in Euro tournament history, officials have limited the number of players each nation can bring to 23, a move that has been criticized by some pundits as arbitrary and pointless.
For the English squad, it’s resulted in seriously hurt feelings, as top Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand was notably left out, while controversial Chelsea player John Terry was selected. England manager Roy Hodgson insists he made the call solely “for footballing reasons,” though others disagree.
Ferdinand’s brother, QPR player Anton Ferdinand, pressed charges against John Terry for an incident of alleged racial abuse that occurred on the pitch in October 2011. Terry will face prosecution in July, and some posit that Hodgson wanted to avoid any potential conflict on England’s squad.
4. Meet the Ukrainian vuvuzela.
You probably remember the widely used — and widely hated — vuvuzela that gained international recognition during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Not to be left out of the noise making, Ukrainians have introduced their own version: the Trypillian penny whistle, or “zozulitsa” (not quite as fun to say as “vuvuzela”).
The whistle was apparently used by Ukrainian tribes during the country’s early history, and officials insist its sound is more pleasant than the cacophony created by thousands of blaring vuvuzleas.
However, doubts remain over whether UEFA rules will allow the ceramic whistles to be brought into the stadiums.
5. Football is a lingua franca.
Even if you don’t play or particularly enjoy football, being able to watch and understand a game of the world’s most popular sport is an asset for any traveler who wants to start conversations and make friends abroad.
Following Euro 2012 is a great way to start gaining an understanding and, if nothing else, it’s a good excuse to head down to the pub with your mates.