The best soccer teams in Europe square off this summer

By Tyler Allen Explorebigsky.com Contributor

It looks like Americans are finally paying attention to the most popular sport in the world. Sure, every four years the FIFA World Cup inspires a spike of interest in the global game here at home, but that tournament can hardly be ignored since it usually includes our national team. Yet through the first six matches of Euro 2012, ESPN’s live coverage averaged 1.3 million viewers from the U.S., a three-fold increase over the network’s presentation in 2008.

The tournament is being held in Poland and Ukraine, and the storylines surrounding the contest are as compelling as the soccer matchups. Many European leaders have boycotted the matches played in Ukraine over the continued imprisonment of former President Yulia Tymoshenko. UEFA officials have denounced stories of price gouging for accommodations in Ukraine in the months prior to the start of the tournament; concern over racial targeting there has proven accurate; and the rancor of nationalism that often accompanies European soccer has made headlines.

Russia was fined after its first match when fans taunted a black player from the Czech Republic and beat up a security guard. Dutch players were also targeted with racial chants by a few of the 25,000 spectators at a practice pitch before their first game. Polish officials will likely rethink their decision to allow Russian fans to march through the streets of Warsaw on Russia Day, prior to the match between the two countries. Nearly 200 supporters from both sides were arrested for fighting and disorderly conduct as police used tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets to prevent an all-out riot.

As far as the soccer goes, 16 teams qualified—including automatic bids for the two host countries—to compete in four groups, with the top two teams in each group moving on to the knockout stages. The teams played each opponent in their group once, being awarded three points for a win and one for a tie.

Spain, the defending champion, was one of the favorites going into the tournament, having been winners of the last World Cup and looking for a third consecutive major championship. However, that team had a lackluster performance in the group stage, including a 1-1 tie with Italy and a tense 1-0 win over Croatia that was in question until a goal in the 88th minute. While Spain won Group C, they created surprisingly few chances and had to rely on goalie Iker Casillas to bail them out a few times. Italy also survived that group, looking more dangerous this year than most expected.

Germany was another pre-tournament favorite, with a talented, young-but-maturing team that won all 10 of its qualifying matches. They emerged victorious from the “Group of Death” by beating Portugal, the Netherlands and Denmark, each by one goal. Runners-up in World Cup 2010, the disappointing Dutch failed to earn a single point in the group stage after losing a shocking opener to Denmark 1-0. They reached the knockout stages in the 11 previous major championships, but their porous defense and lack of cohesive offense proved fatal. Portugal was the runner-up in Group B, with Christiano Ronaldo, arguably the best player in the tournament, finally able to finish in the team’s last group match against the Dutch. After wasting easy chances against Denmark and early misses in the Netherlands match, he broke through with two goals and clinched Portugal’s entrance into the knockout round.

Group A saw a catastrophic collapse of Russia, who opened the tournament by crushing Czech Republic 4-1, could only manage a tie against Poland, and lost to a surprising Greek team 1-0. Greece took runner-up in the group with scrappy defense, and the Czechs rebounded after their first loss to win Group A.

England stormed into the knockout stage thanks to a header from returning star striker Wayne Rooney; he was suspended for the first two games for an egregious foul in a qualifying match. They beat host Ukraine on the last day of the group stage, silencing a stadium filled with yellow and blue. France was the other survivor of Group D after they limped into the quarterfinals following a 2-0 loss to an already eliminated Swedish team.

Germany continued its dominant play in the quarterfinals as they trounced Greece 4-2 and Spain had a methodical 2-0 win over a France team that could only muster a few inspired counter attacks. Portugal won a tight match over Czech Republic 1-0 off the header from Ronaldo and Italy beat England in penalty kicks after both teams failed to score in 90 minutes or extra time.

The semifinals are scheduled for this week, with Portugal and Spain squaring off Wednesday, and Germany taking on Italy on Thursday. The final match will be played this Sunday at 12:45 MST in Kiev, Ukraine, and is sure to be a quality of soccer you won’t see again until World Cup 2014.

The UEFA European Football Championship has been held every four years since 1960 and qualifying for the finals tournament begins in the autumn after the World Cup. The championship will be expanded in 2016 from 16 to 24 teams. Three countries have won the tournament multiple times: Germany has won three, and both France and Spain have been victorious twice.