Weekly Column: Euro 2012 reaches semifinal stage

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All ears: U.S. fans have been almost as receptive to Euro 2012 as those actually attending the tournament like these from semifinalist Germany (AP Photo).

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And let’s hope it’s more interesting than the Euro 2012 quarterfinals (for the most part) as I point out in this week’s column.

The game of the week locally: German fans will gather at Alpine Village near Torrance, while those of Italian descent will live and die with their team at the Italian American Club in San Pedro for Thursday’s decider between the two nations.

American soccer fans in general have embraced the tournament to a greater extent than ever before:

BRISTOL, Conn. (AP) — The European Championship’s viewership is up big from four years ago.

The average audience in the United States was up 82 percent for English-language broadcasts through the group stage. The 24 matches on ESPN averaged more than 1 million viewers. For Euro 2008, the games were watched by an average of 552,000 people.

Where are you going to watch the games?

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Weekly Column: Rooney makes his Euro 2012 entrance for England*

*Updated

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England Expects: Striker Wayne Rooney, seen here watching the game against Sweden, makes his much-anticipated England debut today at Euro 2012 (Associated Press Photo).

You could hardly call Wayne Rooney fashionably late to Euro 2012.

Truth is, most England fans are just relieved the their nation is still in with a chance at the tournament while awaiting Rooney’s return from suspension.

Could Rooney stamp his mark (um, poor choice of words, you know what I mean) on the tournament just as the quarterfinals begin and spark an England run deep into the later rounds? Or not.

We’ll find out beginning today.

For more, read today’s column on Rooney and Euro 2012.

Updated:

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Wayne’s tournament? Wayne Rooney made his first appearance at Euro 2012 today and promptly scored the game’s lone goal in a 1-0 England win over Ukraine (AP Photo).

I’m not sure whether England won the game as much as Ukraine lost it, but with the country meeting Italy in the quarterfinals of Euro 2012 Sunday I very much doubt that many of my fellow England fans are complaining.

And it was the returning Wayne Rooney who made the difference in exploiting a goalkeeping error to seal the victory.

Good thing goal line technology isn’t yet in place though (if you’re an England fan).

Game story here.

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Croatia tops Euro 2012 group with tie against Italy

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Euro stunner: Croatia’s Mario Mandzukic, center, scores his side’s equalizer in a 1-1 tie with Italy today in a Euro 2012 Group C game Poznan, Poland (AP Photo).

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Who would have predicted Croatia would top Euro 2012 Group C after two games (even if the nation has played a game more than world champions Spain, who face Ireland in 15 minutes or so).

Aside from a few optimistic San Pedro Croats few others I suspect, but nevertheless that’s the case after Croatia tied 1-1 today with Italy.

Croatia’s Mario Mandzukic now has three goals in two Euro 2012 games, while Italy has to beat Ireland Monday to assure themselves of advancing.

Croatia play Spain Monday in their third and final group game.

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Video Euro 2012 Preview: Tournament kicks off Friday on ESPN

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As I’ve said before, the European Championship is my favorite soccer tournament given the quality of the teams across the board.

I’ll be relaxed going in mindful that conventional wisdom has it my native England has no chance with the absence of the likes of Wayne Rooney, racial controversy swirling and the inexplicable exclusion of hopefully not to be former Norwich City forward Grant Holt (says the biased Canaries fan).

But this year local fans have an extra chance to cheer with the Galaxy’s Robbie Keane starring for long-shot Ireland.

I’ve no doubt San Pedro Croatians will take over Alpine Village near Torrance as usual.

And the Brits will keep the pubs in Santa Monica running.

Random Factoid: 73 percent of EPL managers believe Spain will retain their title, according to a survey conducted by Barclays, title sponsor of the League Managers Association (LMA).

ESPN has 22 matches and ESPN2 nine. Full schedule is at top right.

The opening game: Poland versus Greece at 9 a.m. on ESPN and ESPN Deportes.

Full disclosure: the following videos are not mine (I don’t have that kind of time), but were embedded from YouTube.

Here’s the Associated Press Preview:

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — The World Cup may be the best-known soccer tournament on the planet. It may not be the best.

To many fans, the European Championship ranks as the top competition.

This year’s continental championship, generally called Euro 2012, kicks off Friday in Warsaw when co-host Poland plays Greece at the National Stadium. Ukraine also will be hosting games.

With only 16 teams instead of 32, many believe the caliber of play at the European Championship exceeds that of the World Cup, which gets diluted by some of the slots apportioned to areas of the globe without strong soccer traditions.

If that sounds arrogant, consider that only one non-European country (Uruguay) has been among the semifinalists at the last two World Cups.

Both tournaments take place every four years, but in alternate even-numbered years. That puts the European Championship, which started in 1960 but became a full-fledged tournament in 1980 when eight teams competed, in the same summer as the Olympics.

For Euro 2012, defending champion Spain — which also won the 2010 World Cup — is the favorite, especially with Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta controlling play.

But the Netherlands and Germany are also contenders with their own game-changing players, notably the Dutch trio of Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder.

Others, like England with Wayne Rooney and Portugal with Cristiano Ronaldo, will also be in the mix.

Hooliganism is always an issue at major soccer tournaments; this year’s competition has already been marred by racism concerns and political turmoil in Ukraine.

The 16 teams in the championship — the two co-hosts and 14 other nations that made it through a two-year qualifying tournament — have been split into four groups of four. The top two in each group reach the quarterfinals.

The final will be played on July 1 in Kiev.

Here’s a look at the stars, top teams, and a few players who could surprise at Euro 2012, again from the Associated Press.

BEST PLAYERS

Cristiano Ronaldo

If it wasn’t for Lionel Messi … Ronaldo has been engaged in a hotly disputed fight with Messi for consideration as the best player on the planet, but the Argentine, a three-time World Player of the Year, always seems to get the upper hand. The flashy Portugal forward has all the tricks in the book, but has been accused of never producing his best on the international stage. He can change all that here.

Xavi Hernandez
With his sublime first touch, vision and passing range, the Barcelona star keeps the beat for the indomitable Spanish team. Voted player of the tournament at Euro 2008, he placed third in the last three World Player of the Year awards. But Xavi’s performances in what is likely his final international tournament may be hampered by fitness problems that have dogged his end to the season.

Andres Iniesta
Xavi’s partner in Spain’s and Barcelona’s midfield and the scorer of the winning goal in the
2010 World Cup final, which shot the balding Iniesta into football immortality. Iniesta’s quick feet and effortless dribbling ability makes him stand out, with Xavi describing him as the “complete player.”

Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Moody and temperamental, Ibrahimovic is often left frustrated by the limitations of his Sweden teammates. But it’s a different story at club level, where he has played for the top clubs in Spain and Italy. Outrageously skillful and a great scorer, he has a distinctive languid style that his critics attack when things aren’t going right. Sweden’s only world-class player.

Mesut Oezil
After two stunning seasons with Real Madrid, comparisons are starting to be drawn between Oezil and French great Zinedine Zidane. Rising to prominence at the 2010 World Cup, the graceful playmaker has the rare ability to make the perfect pass and will be the central component of Germany’s attacking play at Euros.

Robin van Persie
His goal-scoring exploits for Arsenal this season have made Van Persie one of the most sought-after players in world football. He has a wand of a left foot to rival even the great Messi and will lead the Netherlands as they look to shake off their “underachievers” tag.

Karim Benzema
France finally has a striker to take over from Thierry Henry. The barrel-chested Benzema’s
explosive pace and unforgiving finishing saw him emerge as Real Madrid’s No. 1 striker by the end of the season. He has been France’s leader up front in its sensational recent run of 21 unbeaten games.

Gianluigi Buffon
Buffon comes into the tournament under a cloud of betting-scam allegations as part of the
fallout of the Italian match-fixing scandal, but his reputation as the world’s premier
goalkeeper remains intact. Tall and athletic, there are no weaknesses in the 34-year-old 2006 World Cup winner’s armor. A key member of an Italian backline that had the best defensive record in qualifying.

Mario Balotelli
Whether it’s exploding fireworks in his bathroom or ripping off his jersey to display messages on T-shirts, the enigmatic Balotelli always provides a story. The striker has all the talent in the world and unbelievable coolness under pressure, but has too many off days and could easily implode for Italy this month.

Wayne Rooney
For Balotelli, read Rooney. His crazy kick-out at a Montenegro defender leaves him suspended for England’s first two games at Euros, but there was never a doubt he’d be picked on the squad. The Manchester United striker can be the best player in the world when he’s on and is one of England’s few world-class stars.

FAVORITES

Spain
By transforming international football with its tika-taka passing style, top-ranked Spain has
been the team to beat for the past four years. The defending world and European champions are classy and stylish, but aren’t unbeatable. The Spanish are without leading striker David Villa and defender Carles Puyol because of injury, and there also are fears their Barcelona and Real Madrid stars are tired. Spain is looking to become the first country to retain its European title.

Germany
A young team which lit up the 2010 World Cup with its fearless attacking play has blossomed into a force set to be Spain’s biggest threat at Euro 2012. The Germans score goals for fun and cruised through their qualifying run with 10 straight wins. Question marks remain, however, over whether Germany’s eight-strong Bayern Munich contingent recovered from losing the Champions League final in dramatic style to Chelsea.

Netherlands
The Dutch challenge England for the tag as Europe’s biggest underachievers, but also rival Spain and Germany as the most talented team at Euros. Defensively, they look suspect, but they seem unstoppable going forward, led by the lethal Van Persie. Staying true to their expansive, offensive style will be key; they retreated into their shell in the 2010 World Cup final in 2010 and deservedly lost.

France
The French head into Euro 2012 on the back of an unbeaten run of 21 games and coach Laurent Blanc looks to have unified the squad after its infamous mutiny at the World Cup in South Africa. Much will depend on the influence forwards Franck Ribery and Benzema can have and, like the Dutch, France’s defense appears to be its weak link.

Italy
The Azzurri won the World Cup in 2006 amid the fallout from a match-fixing scandal back home. Could history repeat itself six years later at these Euros? Whether the Italian league crisis unites the squad remains to be seen. Italy has arguably the best defense in the competition and in strikers Antonio Cassano and Balotelli, the Italians have two mercurial players who could light up the tournament.

FIVE TO WATCH

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
The one wild-card pick in an otherwise formulaic England squad, Oxlade-Chamberlain could be the “super sub” that coach Roy Hodgson turns to at Euros. The 18-year-old attacking midfielder has impressed when given an opportunity in his first season at Arsenal with his pace and penetration and is set to be a regular for club and country for years to come.

Christian Eriksen
Euro 2012 could be the tournament where the 20-year-old Eriksen shines on the international stage, despite Denmark’s devilishly difficult group. The stylish Ajax playmaker has been linked with some of the biggest clubs in Europe and this summer could be his shop window to secure that move.

Robert Lewandowski
An expectant Poland will be relying on its most recent player of the year to reproduce the
goal-scoring exploits that fired Borussia Dortmund to a second straight German title this
season. Given the co-host’s relatively straightforward group, the 23-year-old striker is being tipped by some as a potential winner of the Golden Boot, given to the tournament’s top scorer.

Ibrahim Afellay
The Netherlands have had high expectations for this winger for years and after recently
returning to action following an injury-plagued season, he could finally deliver at Euros. With his lightning speed and sweet dribbling skills, Afellay provides a touch of Barcelona play in orange, and his smooth link-up play with Van Persie should earn him a starting berth this tournament.

Andre Scheurrle
Reportedly high on the shopping list of mega-rich Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, the
21-year-old Scheurrle is a versatile forward who will be a backup to Lukas Podolski for Germany, but could easily end up taking his spot in the coming years. The emerging star of German club Bayer Leverkusen has the technique and selfless work rate to make himself a star.

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Galaxy update: Keane named to Ireland squad as expected, free HDC parking for Thursday’s CONCACAF CL game

i-97c7506cd01c7642019c46eb08575d73-232167904c-1.jpgHead over heels: Robbie Keane scored on his Galaxy debut Saturday and retains his place in the Ireland squad as expected for two upcoming European Championship qualifiers (AP Photo).

*I’m guessing Robbie Keane will head to Ireland directly after Sunday’s game in New York, which means he’ll miss the rescheduled Galaxy game in Kansas City on Labor Day.

The tough part will be traveling back from Russia for the home game against the Colorado Rapids Friday, Sept. 9.

Keane has described these games as “massive” and reiterated he’s “100 percent committed to Ireland – when he’s not with the Galaxy:

DUBLIN (AP) — Captain Robbie Keane has retained his place in the Ireland squad for next month’s 2012 European Championship qualifiers despite moving to the Galaxy.

The striker will travel back from the United States for the Sept. 2 home match against
Slovakia and the trip to Moscow to play Russia four days later.

Keane scored in his MLS debut Saturday as the Galaxy beat the San Jose Earthquakes 2-0.

Ireland tops Group B on goal difference ahead of Russia and Slovakia.

Coach Giovanni Trapattoni expects players to link up with the squad even if they are injured so they can be assessed by Ireland’s medical staff.

*Did you know? According to MLS, “if the LA Galaxy defeat the New York Red Bulls on Sunday evening at Red Bull Arena, they will become the first team to clinch a spot in the 2011 MLS Cup Playoffs this season. No other scenarios exist by which an MLS club can clinch or be eliminated from playoff contention this week. ”

Incidentally, the league also said today that the game will air in more than 100 nations – “the most international distribution of any regular season MLS game this year.”

*From the About Time Department comes word the Galaxy will provide complimentary parking to fans attending Thursday’s CONCACAF Champions League group game against Costa Rican champion LD Alajuelense at Home Depot Center. The game kicks off at 7 p.m. with parking lots opening at 5 p.m. for all fans.

Let’s hope fans respond to this and show up in greater numbers than they did for the CONCACAF CL opener against Motagua.

From the Galaxy press release:

Alajuelense are currently tied with the Galaxy for the top spot in Group A with identical 1-0-0 records for three points.

Alajuelense won their Group A opener 1-0 over Mexican side Monarcas Morelia behind a late goal from Jonathan McDonald while the Galaxy defeated CD Motagua of Honduras, 2-0, on August 16 with goals from Adam Cristman and Landon Donovan.

In Costa Rican Primera Division play, Alajuelense are in first place with a 4-0-1 record for 13 points from their first five games of the season.

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UEFA bans vuvuzelas from Euro Championships, UEFA CL

i-a6eb5dc20c6f16c1666e02848db62a3e-trumpets.jpgGood news for those of us who don’t want their TV viewing experience ruined by that droning racket. And the lack of true singing and chanting because of them at the World Cup was a travesty:

NYON, Switzerland (AP) — UEFA has banned fans from bringing vuvuzelas into stadiums for European Championship and Champions League matches.

UEFA said Wednesday it wanted to protect the culture and tradition of fans singing at European soccer matches from the “negative effect” of the South African plastic trumpets made famous — and notorious — at the World Cup.

“UEFA feels that the instrument’s widespread use would not be appropriate in Europe,” the organization said in a statement.

All 53 European soccer nations have been told to enforce the ban at UEFA’s national team and club competition matches.

Vuvuzelas provided the World Cup soundtrack in South Africa, right, where every match was accompanied by a low-pitch drone likened to a swarm of buzzing bees.

FIFA refused to ban vuvuzelas despite repeated calls from players and broadcasters, defending them as part of South African soccer culture.

However, they have since been banned by organizers of events such as basketball’s world championship and the Little League World Series, and by most English Premier League clubs.

Europe’s soccer authority acknowledged Wednesday that the vuvuzela had a place in world soccer culture.

“In the specific context of South Africa, the vuvuzela adds a touch of local flavor and
folklore,” UEFA said, before adding that they would change the traditional atmosphere at European matches. “The magic of football consists of the two-way exchange of emotions between the pitch and the stands, where the public can transmit a full range of feelings to the players. UEFA is of the view that the vuvuzelas would completely change the atmosphere, drowning supporter emotions and detracting from the experience of the game.”

The ban will take effect when qualifying for Euro 2012 begins on Friday, and when the group stage of the Champions League and Europa League starts in two weeks.

European broadcasters, who developed sound filters during the World Cup to try to control the vuvuzela noise, will likely be pleased by the ban.

Valuable television rights deals help to ensure that the Champions League earns more than $1.28 billion in commercial revenue each season.

FIBA called vuvuzelas “controversial instruments” when it banned them from the basketball world championship, which is being played in Turkey.

FIBA cited medical advice that the 120-decibel noise in indoor arenas could permanently damage the hearing of players and spectators, and have a “direct negative impact” on the game by making it difficult for referees to communicate.

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