Early Doors

Time for football to take centre stage

Early Doors

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So here we are. After hundreds of qualifying matches, dozens of great goals, numerous controversies and one silly red card in Podgorica, the Euro 2012 finals are finally, mercifully, upon us.

Sixteen national sides and 368 players from across the continent have assembled in two countries for 23 days of football and this evening the 14th European Championship gets underway when co-hosts Poland take on Greece. Okay, so it might be a bit of an underwhelming start, but having spent so much of the past few months discussing, politics, racism and "footballing reasons", we can at least be thankful for an opportunity to focus on football itself.

You will be pleased to hear that Early Doors is safely embedded in the Soviet-chic — and that is being distinctly generous - hostel in central Kharkiv it will call home for the next three nights and ready to keep you updated on events in Ukraine during the group stages.

Providing ED isn't chopped into pieces by a masochistic hostel owner — Hollywood tells us this is rather likely in Eastern Europe — it will also be providing further dispatches from Donetsk and Kiev, following both England and Netherlands' group campaigns in full.

England because, well, you have to, and the Dutch because they are actually good at football and far more likely to turn up with a retinue of pretty people illegally promoting beer. Hup Holland Hup!

Back home anticipation, if not outright expectation, is mounting too regarding England's chances for once. England does not expect, but wall charts have been lovingly blu-tacked to walls, Panini stickers feverishly traded and replica shirts purchased for an extortionate price, while dubious excuses to secure afternoons off work have already been painstakingly crafted.

The biennial event of a major tournament is upon us, and this one has the potential to be memorable indeed. Euro 2000 is the high water mark for the European Championship and while we may not get the outright brilliance of that particular finals, there are certainly plenty of reasons to be enthused.

Just look at the teams in action. Andres Iniesta's Spain, Mesut Ozil's Germany, Wesley Sneijder's Netherlands, Franck Ribery's France and, yes, Jordan Henderson's England are all in attendance, those players hoping to become names as indelible in football history as some of the great winners that have preceded them, timeless champions like Michel Platini, Marco van Basten and Zinedine Zidane.

Then you have the young stars hoping to make as big an impact as Wayne Rooney did at Euro 2004. Germany's Mario Goetze, Denmark's Christian Eriksen, England's Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

But what particularly excites Early Doors about the Euros is the unexpected stories that emerge. Andrei Arshavin and Russia in 2008, Greece's loving homage to ultra-defensive football in 2004, Pavel Nedved, Karel Poborsky's scoop and Czech Republic in 1996, Denmark cutting short their beach holidays to triumph in such unexpected circumstances in 1992 and Antonin Panenka's penalty in 1976.

Yet while ED and tens of thousands of fans from across Europe have descended on Poland and Ukraine, David Cameron and friends have decided against doing so. That the UK government feels it inappropriate to travel to watch the national side speaks to the undercurrent of negativity that has shrouded the build-up to the competition.

Their motives are political of course, a protest against the jailing of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, yet approaching the tournament we have also been assailed by concerns both social and financial. Scare stories about racism and anti-Semitism and soaring hotel prices have rarely been far away.

Claims that fears over racism have been overblown by programmes such as BBC's Panorama were undercut in very stark fashion on Thursday when Netherlands' black players were disgracefully subjected to racist abuse during an open training session in Krakow.

"At least now we know what we can encounter," said Netherlands coach Bert van Marwijk. "Very atmospheric."

The reported monkey chants directed at the likes of Nigel de Jong demonstrate that fears over racism are not just theoretical. They are legitimate, and such problems may yet manifest themselves again in particularly unpleasant ways. Though UEFA attempted to deny the abuse was racially motivated, racism continues to loom over this tournament and should not be marginalised as a concern.

However, ED believes that with the opening match between Poland and Greece now only hours away, it is also time to focus on the football, and what could be a fantastic three-and-a-bit weeks in a purely sporting sense.

Once that first ball is kicked, the narrative, for better or worse, starts turning away from political and social concerns and alights firmly on the game itself. After all, that's why we are all here, and we should really be savouring these finals as after 2012 the tournament moves to a bloated 24 teams, diluting the quality on offer in order to swell UEFA's coffers.

It will be a long, long time before we see a group of the extremely high quality of Netherlands, Germany, Portugal and Denmark again. How can you pick two qualifiers from that bunch? Well, if you are Alan Hansen you could just pick three.

If you twisted ED's arm and asked for a prediction, it would plump for Joachim Loew's vigorous and expansive young Germany side to expose some latent fatigue in the wonderful Spanish team in the final. As for England's chances, it would be an achievement to make it out of a tricky group.

Netherlands and France are contenders, while even in the midst of crisis Italy should not be overlooked. There are many potential winners of this tournament, and tonight the process by which we find our champion begins. Enjoy it.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY: "It is a real disgrace especially after getting back from Auschwitz that you are confronted with this. We will take it up with UEFA and if it happens at a match we will talk to the referee and ask him to take us off the field. You need to open your ears. If you did hear it, and don't want to hear it, that is even worse." — Mark van Bommel reacts to the racist abuse directed at the Dutch players in Poland.

FOREIGN VIEW: "I did not like what happened on the weekend. I told him [Boateng] that and I told the team as well. Yes, it was his free time but it was Sunday to Monday. He must be in a position to give it everything he has got in this tournament." — For once it is not England caught up in a sleazy story as Germany defender Jerome Boateng gets a telling-off from Loew after a late-night meeting with former Playboy model Gina-Lisa Lohfink at a Berlin hotel just hours before his team departed for the tournament.

COMING UP: Well, it's the start of Euro 2012 of course. Group A opens with Poland v Greece at 5pm, followed by Russia v Czech Republic at 7.45pm. Ahead of the big kick-off, we will be publishing our comprehensive preview of the tournament and the predictions from our various offices across Europe while Jim White will also be filing his latest dispatch from Poland.

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