It's time for soccer's 15 minutes
By MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- London Free Press
This is the type of tournament soccer in North America lives for.
Please notice we didn't say the type of tournament "soccer fans" live for. That's a given.
Major soccer tournaments enthrall fans throughout the soccer world for a month as they sit glued to the television set, no matter what hour of the day or night a game is being played.
But most importantly to the world governing bodies of soccer, these tournaments afford them the opportunity to get their game splashed on North American television.
In a sport that draws only regional interest at the best of times, the World Cup and Euro 2004 provide major marketing opportunities in the hope one day will come the major breakthrough the sport has looked for on this continent for many years.
The Euro 2004 tournament, billed as the third most popular sporting event behind the Olympic Games and World Cup, begins tomorrow in Portugal. It will run through July 4.
While the World Cup is considered the premier soccer event, arguments have been made that this tournament poses a more difficult challenge. There aren't many weak teams in the European Cup.
There is always a particular pattern to these tournaments. Since they come along every four years, anticipation begins to build with the qualification rounds. Millions of soccer fans will watch the tournament all month. Media outlets that normally ignore soccer or relegate it to back pages will increase their coverage and play it prominently.
When you travel the streets, you'll see an increase in those annoying flags people stick on their cars supporting a particular side. Should two popular teams make it far into the tournament, stores will report a shortage of those flags.
For a month or so after the tournament, you'll notice more soccer stories and a renewed interest in the sport.
With time, soccer will find its level in North America yet again, struggling for recognition and its share of coverage falling somewhere between motocross and extreme cliff diving.
That is, until the next major tournament, the 2006 World Cup, when the pattern will pick up yet again.
It's too bad.
About the tournament. A top-priced ticket for the opener is $229.10, and that's in Canadian dollars.
Some of the best games of the tournament will be played early. On Sunday, defending champion France will play England. France is tagged as the tournament favourite but may have trouble because goaltender Fabien Barthez is not the same quality goaltender who led them to Euro and World Cup titles.
On Tuesday, Germany will play the Netherlands. These are traditional rivals who don't like each other much. The Dutch are supposed to be a team on the rise with a strong attack led by Patrick Kluivert and Ruud Van Nistelrooy. The Germans had a horrible time qualifying and are supposedly rebuilding.
But no matter how awful they look, beware of the Germans.
Later in the tournament, traditional underachiever Spain will play the host Portuguese . . . another classic.
The two toughest groups are Group B with France, England, Switzerland and Croatia and Group C with Sweden, Bulgaria, Denmark and Italy.
So enjoy the tournament. It should provide some outstanding soccer and, for a month at least, give the sport the recognition it deserves.