France and Italy face off as Euro 2008 draw delivers group of certain death
It would be tempting, this morning, to pity the Romanian players. Except they are at least at Euro 2008. Daunting though it may be to be drawn in Group C, C for Certain death perhaps, playing the Netherlands, Italy and France remains a more pleasurable prospect for any international footballer than watching the finals from a beach bar at Ayia Napia.
The pairing of the 2006 World Cup finalists, and two of Europe's most dangerous teams, provided Euro 2008 with the "Wow" factor a competition split between two countries more interested in skiing than football needed. This much was obvious from the gasp in the auditorium when Jurgen Klinsmann, who was among the luminaries conducting the draw in Lausanne, drew Italy as the fourth team in the group.
The 9 June meeting between Italy and the Netherlands in Berne should give the competition lift-off. It is a repeat of the 2000 semi-final, won by Italy on penalties. It also pairs two former Milan team-mates, Marco van Basten and Roberto Donadoni, now managing their national sides. The 2006 World Cup final will be reprised in Zurich eight days later.
Donadoni, who produced a somewhat forced grin when his team came out, said: "I had a gut feeling it would turn out like this." Raymond Domenech, the French coach, was less sanguine. "The way the seedings are worked out is madness," he said. "I would have also preferred to have played in Austria and not Switzerland because we would have been hassled less. I am not happy, nothing I wanted has worked out." His task may not have been made easier by the comments of Gérard Houllier, now France's technical director, who said: "I think Italy will be eliminated because the Netherlands will be better."
Romania will be largely disregarded but should not be. The coach, Victor Piturca, has created a solid team who headed the Dutch in qualifying and includes Christian Chivu, Adrian Mutu and Cosmin Contra. "For us it's a very nice, easy group," joked Piturca.
There is another interesting match-up in group, B. A roar went up when Germany were drawn in Austria's group.
With Poland and Croatia making up the quartet, tickets for this Austria-based group will be scarce, especially for the two German games being played at the 30,000-capacity Worthersee Stadium in Klagenfurt.
Uefa are already concerned about security for Germany's match with Poland. The city's experience of big events extends only to staging Austria's Ironman competition and Beach Volleyball Grand Slam.
Group D pitted Spain with Greece, Sweden and Russia, all decent but limited opposition. Maybe Spain, last successful in the 1964 competition, will at last deliver a tournament to match their undoubted talent. "It's a manageable group but we have to keep our desire to win under control, respect our rivals and show that we're superior on the field," said Luis Aragones, Spain's coach.
The tournament's unglamorous opening game, Switzerland v Czech Republic, will kick off Group A. Portugal will expect to progress along with the Czechs but the hosts focus will be on their Turkish clash. Two years ago a World Cup play-off between the two in Istanbul ended with a brawl that led to the Swiss defender Stéphane Grichting being hospitalised after a kick in the groin. Turkey were ordered by Fifa to play three home matches abroad as punishment while their midfielder Emre Belozoglu, and Swiss counterpart, Benjamin Huggel, served four-match bans.
The Swiss captain, Alex Frei, said: "I have put it behind me and [the Turkish coach] Fatih Terim showed he had too when he came up to me after the draw, but obviously it will be hard for the players who were directly involved like Grichting and Huggel to forgive and forget what happened."