Why Euro 2012 will rock
From the mind-boggling stadiums to the tension-fuelled grudge games, here are 15 reasons why FourFourTwo can't wait for the fun to start...
Anyone can win the trophyA victory by the Republic of Ireland, Poland or the Czech Republic may be about as likely as Nigel Reo-Coker poking Craig Bellamy on Facebook Ã¢ÂÂ but it would take a fool to completely rule out the chance of a minnow triumphing this summer. Miraculous 80-1 shots Greece shocked us all in 2004, and both Denmark (1992) and the Czechs (1976) have also pulled off unlikely Euro wins.
With nine different champions from 13 competitions, and only Germany, Spain and France winning it more than once, this is the most unpredictable international tournament. The longer format means a true outsider has never won a World Cup, with eight teams monopolising its 19 tournaments, while Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay boss the Copa America. But with a bit of luck and the right tactics, every nation fancies their chances of escaping the group stages here.
Slavek and SlavkoYou canÃ¢ÂÂt beat ludicrous mascots, and following on from South AfricaÃ¢ÂÂs Zakumi Ã¢ÂÂ a camp teenage leopard in tight-fitting green disco shorts Ã¢ÂÂ Poland and Ukraine have produced the goods with Slavek and Slavko, who look every inch like an Eastern Bloc version of reality TV oddballs Jedward. Our heroes grasp the mascot mantle from Trix and Flix, the equally Jedwardesque Austro-Swiss abominations of nature, who bizarrely released a single with Shaggy.
The madness is already in full swing: Slavek (the Polish one) and Slavko (the Ukrainian one) are currently starring in a cartoon in which they sleep in gigantic leaves, balls grow on trees and they pass their days playing Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-style one-a-side football. Admirable nonsense.
No involvement from FIFAThe World Cup is still the greatest show on earth, but FIFAÃ¢ÂÂs frankly surreal behaviour of late (potential winter events, figures of ÃÂ£138bn being bandied about for air-conditioned, white elephant stadia in the desert) means itÃ¢ÂÂs refreshing to enjoy a tournament free from Sepp Blatter. Michel Platini may be a mini-Sepp of sorts Ã¢ÂÂ we wonder whether UEFA are making a mistake raising the number of teams to 24 for 2016 Ã¢ÂÂ but the scope for megalomaniac meddling is lessened considerably when the thing has to be held in Europe. Good.
A decent ballThe Jabulani not only had an idiotic name, but throughout the last World Cup it flew more erratically than a 747 piloted by Charlie Sheen. Thankfully, AdidasÃ¢ÂÂ boffins have recognised the PR disaster, got their act together and gone back to creating what they create best: a classic Tango.
The Tango 12 arrives amid the usual bragging about it being the most tested football of all time Ã¢ÂÂ the company have even used a mechanical Ã¢ÂÂrobi-legÃ¢ÂÂ to develop it Ã¢ÂÂ but FourFourTwo can confirm the hype is true. WeÃ¢ÂÂve been hoofing it around every Thursday lunchtime since January, and itÃ¢ÂÂs a good-looking little belter Ã¢ÂÂ even when spooned 40 yards over the fence and into the car park. WeÃ¢ÂÂre certain EuropeÃ¢ÂÂs top players will concur.
Multiple grudge matchesIf one good thing has emerged from thousands of years of war, slaughter, enslavement, oppression and vile dictatorship across the westernmost peninsula of Eurasia, itÃ¢ÂÂs the frying up of some seriously delicious football rivalries. Almost everyone in Europe has some sort of payback to carry out, and the 2012 draw has resurrected a few crackers.
Whether itÃ¢ÂÂs Russia vs Poland (decades of communist rule!), Holland vs Germany (Anne FrankÃ¢ÂÂs attic!) or England vs France (their President snubbing our PM at the EU summit!), it contains more grudges than a reunion party at Roy KeaneÃ¢ÂÂs house. Time to settle the scores with a ball and army of 11 each.
Sensible kick-off timesThe reality of the 2014 Brazil World Cup for British armchair viewers will be numerous midnight and 2am kick-offs, and while we canÃ¢ÂÂt stand the thought of missing a 0-0 group game between Gabon and Norway, weÃ¢ÂÂve all got to be up for work. The Euros, however, have refreshingly convenient kick-offs Ã¢ÂÂ Ukraine is only a couple of hours ahead Ã¢ÂÂ meaning you wonÃ¢ÂÂt miss any play and can give that ProPlus a swerve.
Topless protestsProtests in the Ukraine seem to consist primarily of topless women angrily Ã¢ÂÂ yet alluringly Ã¢ÂÂ clutching placards. At least, the ones that make it into the British media do. While thereÃ¢ÂÂs a serious feminist agenda to it all, weÃ¢ÂÂre not sure the message will get through to millions of beery football fans arriving in the country. Oh well Ã¢ÂÂ carry on.
Two Ã¢ÂÂgroups of deathÃ¢ÂÂGermany, Holland, Portugal and Denmark: bingo. Spain, Italy, Croatia, the Republic of Ireland: bingo bongo. EnglandÃ¢ÂÂs group isnÃ¢ÂÂt shabby either.
Fantastic finalsLetÃ¢ÂÂs be honest: France winning in 1998 was fun, and Zizou sticking his angry nut on Materazzi in 2006 was an unforgettable Ã¢ÂÂwowÃ¢ÂÂ moment, but there hasnÃ¢ÂÂt been a genuinely enthralling World Cup final since 1986. The Euro end games have been far more interesting.
Recall the stunning quality of France vs Italy in 2000 (a reflection of the superb tournament as a whole), the Danish and Greek fairy tales of 1992 and 2004, the genius of Platini in the 1984 final, Van Basten and GullitÃ¢ÂÂs majesty in 1988, Spain breaking their trophy drought in 2008 Ã¢ÂÂ all of these matches have either been absorbing spectacles or had a dramatic underdog narrative. We expect Ã¢ÂÂ nay, demand! Ã¢ÂÂ more of the same this summer.
Nice team, shame about the shirts
There really are no easy gamesItÃ¢ÂÂs a clichÃÂ© to talk about the lack of easy games at virtually every level of football Ã¢ÂÂ and from the Champions League to the Blue Square North, itÃ¢ÂÂs nonsense Ã¢ÂÂ but in the case of the Euros, the point stands. Ten of the worldÃ¢ÂÂs top 15 sides are here, and thereÃ¢ÂÂs no Iraq or Togo to lower the tone.
At Euro 2008, only four games were won by three goals Ã¢ÂÂ two of them by Spain Ã¢ÂÂ and none by four or more. Browse through the fixtures for 2012 and see if you can spot a nailed-on thrashing: Spain vs Croatia? Germany vs Denmark? Tricky, isnÃ¢ÂÂt it? The unpredictability only adds to the excitement.
Great window shoppingNew stars are born at every European Championship, and a host of young pups will spend this summer dancing for the coins of the zillionaire oligarchs who control the worldÃ¢ÂÂs richest clubs. Among those looking to give themselves global profiles are DenmarkÃ¢ÂÂs slippery schemer Christian Eriksen, already the youngest ever scorer in Euro qualifiers after netting against Iceland; Germany midfielder Mario Gotze, hailed as the best ever German prospect by Matthias Sammer; and clinical CSKA Moscow and Russia forward Alan Dzagoev. ThereÃ¢ÂÂs also young Greek keeper Stefanos Kapino, Yann MÃ¢ÂÂVila of France, HollandÃ¢ÂÂs Kevin Strootman, Ivan Perisic of Croatia, SpainÃ¢ÂÂs Thiago Alcantara and plenty more. Their time is now.
World class WAGsWill EnglandÃ¢ÂÂs brigade of models, actresses and pop princesses paint Donetsk red this June? Will Mrs Casillas embrace her stopper boyfriend on the box again? WeÃ¢ÂÂve no idea, but a major tournament will once again offer the opportunity for the cream of the continentÃ¢ÂÂs womankind to secure fashion shoots and reality TV contracts.
Sylvie van der Vaart and Sarah Brandner (Bastian SchweinsteigerÃ¢ÂÂs squeeze) were among World Cup 2010Ã¢ÂÂs limelight-winners, but this time round weÃ¢ÂÂre tipping Lara Alvarez (beau of Sergio Ramos), Danish model-singer Anine Bing (Anders Svensson) and Daniella Semaan (Cesc Fabregas) to prevail. And if Shakira wants to croon some Colombian pop to Gerard Pique from the stands, you wonÃ¢ÂÂt hear us complaining, although presumably Vicente del Bosque wouldnÃ¢ÂÂt be too thrilled.
Seriously impressive stadiaWith each passing tournament, the stadia get more impressive. This time around we can marvel at arenas that resemble a Chinese lantern (the Municipal Stadium in Wroclaw), a giant 50p (Lviv Stadium), a vast wicker basket (the new Polish National Stadium in Warsaw) and a mini Soccer City (the PGE Arena in Gdansk).
Then thereÃ¢ÂÂs the technologic marvels of the Olympic Stadium in Kiev Ã¢ÂÂ which is being given a huge makeover and transparent roof Ã¢ÂÂ and the ÃÂ£262m, infrared-heated Donbass Arena in Donetsk. Yes, itÃ¢ÂÂs probably a bit much, but be honest Ã¢ÂÂ you want to visit all of themÃ¢ÂÂ¦
It's like, wicker, manÃ¢ÂÂ¦
Goodbye vuvuzela, hello zozulicaOh Lordy. If your World Cup 2010 experience was marred by a million wallies with plastic trumpets, then we wouldnÃ¢ÂÂt retire the earplugs just yet. The zozulica is a traditional Slavic whistle, named after and shaped like a cuckoo and usually parped by a local folk musician. Inevitably, this summerÃ¢ÂÂs hosts have spotted an opportunity, and cheap versions of this chirruping monstrosity will be widely available across the tournament.
Thankfully, the zozulica canÃ¢ÂÂt reach the volume of the vuvuzela, which produced an ear-splitting 127 decibels, so it wonÃ¢ÂÂt be startling any goalkeepers in Poland and Ukraine, but it should give the competition a Ã¢ÂÂuniqueÃ¢ÂÂ soundscape, nonetheless.
England have a chance of winning Ã¢ÂÂ honestly!A reality check: England have never made it to a European Championship final, let alone won it. But as one of the best seven sides in a 16-team tournament, and with an eminently winnable group, a decent run is far from beyond hope. The Three Lions have shown their ability in friendly wins against the likes of Spain, but tournament football Ã¢ÂÂ with the pressure and expectations of a nation playing on the minds of the whole squad Ã¢ÂÂ is a different matter, and England need to turn into a more ruthless team to have a chance of getting their hands on the Henri Delaunay trophy.
They will also need to eliminate at least two of the worldÃ¢ÂÂs best sides, and many of the teams who didnÃ¢ÂÂt play well at the last World Cup (such as France) will be equally determined to return to the top of their games. But who knows, with a bit of luck it could just be EnglandÃ¢ÂÂs year. ItÃ¢ÂÂs certainly about time.