It's not the World Cup, but it's close. Millions of people around the world will tune in tomorrow for the kickoff of the 2004 European football championships in Portugal. Sixteen teams from England to Russia have qualified for the event, which features many of the game's brightest stars. RFE/RL correspondent Jeffrey Donovan takes a look at the much-anticipated tournament and at how politics and national traits are often reflected in the sport.
Prague, 11 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- "Football? It's the beautiful game."
So once said Pele, soccer's greatest player. But while the former Brazilian star's assertion is often true -- especially when watching his masterful national team -- the game's beauty is not always obvious.
Politics, poor play, and off-the-pitch escapades by spoiled stars often take the luster off the world's most popular sport.
Tomorrow, millions of football fans around the world will be hoping the game's beauty outshines the antics as they tune in to watch the 2004 European championship, which kicks off in the Portuguese coastal city of Porto.
The inaugural match features host Portugal taking on Greece, followed by Russia facing Spain. They are among 16 teams to have reached the final stage after a qualifying round that lasted two years. The tournament ends on 4 July.
Defending champions France are the big favorite, followed by the usual suspects of Italy, Germany, England, Spain, and the Netherlands. Outsiders believed to have a chance at the title include the Portuguese, as well as the Czech Republic, who boast Europe's player of the year in midfielder Pavel Nedved.
Fans will be anxious for real football after weeks of waiting amid a stream of silly stories involving players, coaches, and even national political leaders.
Italian fans, for example, have watched their players bicker openly over who will get to start. Like a whining child, Italian striker Alessandro Del Piero snapped the other day when a reporter dared to compare him to teammate Francesco Totti, whom the coach had praised as the squad's inspiration.
"Totti is Totti, and I'm Del Piero. Let's not even talk about that. It's not right," he said.
Russia was the scene of more antics today. In an apparent bid to bolster team morale, the wives of nine of Russia's national players posed virtually nude in the "Komsomolskaya pravda" newspaper. The photos show the shapely spouses clutching only strategically placed portraits of their husbands.
What this has to do with football is unclear. But that hardly ever seems to matter when it comes to international soccer.
Politics, indeed, usually goes hand in hand with the beautiful game.
Italian dictator Benito Mussolini used his country's two World Cup victories in the 1930s as fodder for his fascist propaganda machine.
And Italy's current prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, is regularly accused of using soccer for political purposes. Berlusconi owns Italy's top team, AC Milan.
The 1998 World Cup victory by a multiracial French team was seized on by opponents of right-wing, anti-immigrant leader Jean-Marie Le Pen as proof that a tolerant "new France" could be successful. Nevertheless, four years later, Le Pen confirmed his popularity -- and perhaps soccer's inability to effect social change -- by making it to an election run-off with President Jacques Chirac.
Frantisek Bouc is a veteran Czech sports writer. Bouc recalled how Czechoslovakia's communist regime tried to use the country's triumph over West Germany in the 1976 European championships to its advantage.
"After the triumph, [the players] were actually accepted by the communist president, [Gustav] Husak, at the castle [government offices] in Prague, and they were handed out some awards and state medals and, of course, it was used to display, you know, 'This is how good we are.' And, of course, it was only on the soccer pitch -- and nowhere else," Bouc said.
But Bouc is also a believer in the beauty of soccer. He said that, unlike perhaps any other game, football is often a reflection of each nation's mentality and culture.
"Think about the Italians or Spaniards. They are very temperamental, and you can see it. Sometimes it's even dangerous for the opponents, because not only are they lively and quick, but on the other hand, they tend to pretend fouls. [They] are more like actors than the others. The Czechs are careful, cautious, sitting back. You can see these styles. Some teams like England or France are usually very confident, and you can see that basically they never focus only on defense but tend to attack quite a lot," Bouc said.
For the record, Bouc is picking the Iberian locals -- Portugal and Spain -- to go the furthest in Euro 2004. He said the extra support they will get from fans is likely to push them over the top.
The tournament, meanwhile, will showcase some of the game's finest talent.
France boasts such stars as Thierry Henry, voted the best player in England this year, and his Arsenal teammate Robert Pires.
Portugal has former world player of the year Luis Figo, while Real Madrid ace Raul will lead the Spanish attack. Manchester United's Ruud van Nistelrooy will be doing the same for the Dutch.
And the tournament could be the international swan song for perhaps the game's greatest player of the last few years, French playmaker Zinedine Zidane. At 32, the Real Madrid star says this could be his last appearance playing for France.
Meanwhile, amid all the partying and playing, there are serious concerns. Portugal has spent millions of dollars on security in a bid to prevent terrorist attacks.
But organizing official Gilberto Madail acknowledged that nothing is foolproof: "Since 11 September, there have always been worries in the United States about security. Now since [the Madrid train bombings of] 11 March, we had some bad luck, too. We are going to do everything we possibly can. But we are organizing a European football championship. We have a lot of things to worry about, and while security is very important, some things are impossible."