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The surprise pack

The so-called underdogs could turn out to be the tournament’s topdogs. Greece and Denmark have shown it’s possible. Here are five teams you could be talking about this month, finds out Nilankur Das.

sports Updated: Jun 06, 2008 00:47 IST
Nilankur Das

Who would have put money on Denmark that summer of ‘92? The team was on vacation, having failed to qualify for the European Championship finals and got a late call after Yugoslavia were banned following the Balkan crisis. The Danish Dynamites went on to win the tournament beating Germany in the final.

Not so long ago in Portugal, Greece did what they did out of nowhere. The list of surprises in the tournament’s 48-year history is long and could get longer over then next three weeks in Austria and Switzerland.

Portugal, Germany, France and Italy look the best bet for a semifinal line-up on paper, but in this tournament of 16, unlike in the World Cup, there are hardly any minnows. Turkey and Switzerland in Group A, Romania in Group C (the group of death) and defending champions Greece and Russia in Group D might go on to surprise the traditional powerhouses of European football. And more so because the difference between teams has dwindled over the years and stakes have only gone up, increasing the competition manifold.

Turkish Terim-inators

For Turkey, the 2008 Championship provides a platform to prove to the world that their third-place finish at the 2002 World Cup was no fluke, especially after they failed to qualify for the Euro 2004 and the 2006 World Cup finals.

Fatih Terim’s boys have shown time and again that they can shift that extra gear when cornered. A forgettable brawl in the last game of their failed 2006 World Cup qualifying campaign against Switzerland had Turkey playing home matches at neutral venues and empty stadiums in the beginning of the Euro qualifiers. But they coped well with in-form Villarreal striker Nihat Kahveci, supported by his strike partner Tuncay Sanli, scoring crucial goals to help them finish second behind Greece. Turkey will open against Portugal, the match Terim tips as key to their chances of reaching the knockout stages.

Home advantage

For co-hosts Switzerland, the stakes are different. Home to FIFA and UEFA, this Alpine nation is yet to make its mark on the pitch. For only a second time in the European finals, this time as hosts, the Swiss take heart from the fact that under Kobi Kuhn, they made it to the second round in the 2006 World Cup. For 64-year-old Kuhn an early setback — his wife Alice was hospitalised following epileptic fits on Monday (she is said to be better now) — notwithstanding, a heartening Euro campaign will be a befitting parting gift before Bayern Munich’s Ottmar Hitzfeld takes over.

Surgery has kept central defender Patrick Muller out for long and injury has ruled out midfielder Xavier Margairaz but the silver lining forms around the return of Dortmund striker Alexender Frei after a long lay-off. Kuhn and the rest of the country hope Philippe Senderos regains the form he showed in Germany two years back and with the likes of young Eren Derdiyok raring to go, anything can happen when they meet Euro 2004 semifinalists Czech Republic in Basel on Saturday.

Mutu and his mates

In the group of death, alongside the World Cup champions Italy and runners-up France are Romania. The presence of Marco van Basten’s Holland in the group as well makes Adrian Mutu and Co the least fancied and they know it. But this knowledge breeds a belief that once through the group, the title is a reality.

Coach Victor Piturca believes Romania are one of the most organised teams in Europe and the key to their campaign would be the opener against France. A defeat would be a huge jolt to their chances. So flawless defending would be vital and Romania have some very tough men there.

Defensive midfielder and skipper Cristian Chivu’s shoulder injury is a concern but Piturca hopes he would be fit and available to choke the likes of Franck Ribery and Patrick Vieira.

On Otto pilot

Despite a failed 2006 World Cup qualification campaign, defending champions Greece can’t be overlooked. With 31 points from 12 qualifying matches, the highest by any team, Otto Rehhagel’s warriors arrive in Salzburg with a squad stronger and more organised than four years ago. The likes of Angelos Haristeas, Giorgos Karagounis, Angelos Basinas and Antonis Nikopolidis are all there from the champion bunch of 2004 and Rehhagel has ignored criticism and stuck to his group of veterans.

And why not? Karagounis scored both goals beating Portugal 2-1 in a 2004 final rematch in Dusseldorf in March rekindling a hope that lightning can strike twice.

From Russia with hope

The presence of coach Guus Hiddink makes Russia a team to be counted in Group D alongside Greece, Spain and Sweden. His run to the World Cup semifinals with Holland in 1998 and with South Korea in 2002 and into the knockout stages with Australia in 2006, balances the pessimism building up in Red Square about the team’s chances of proceeding to the quarter-finals. The way Russia made it to the finals — beating England, losing to Israel and then scraping through as an error-prone England lost to Croatia — it seems Vladimir Putin’s “lucky Mr Hiddink” is yet to lose his charm.