Dear reader, I am going to accompany you during the 2016 European Football Championships. I greatly enjoy serving an international audience, especially in those countries where I played one or several of my 150 international matches for Germany, and where, starting on Friday when hosts France open the tournament against Romania in Paris, millions of people will start to spend a month of watching the exciting football action on their TV sets.
Fans of Cristiano Ronaldo just might break out into tears when I predict that of the 24 teams in the European Championships, Portugal is in danger of being eliminated in the preliminary round. By appearances, Portugal has an easy group with such opponents as Iceland, Austria and Hungary. But all three teams have improved immensely. And if Ronaldo were to bow out by the quarterfinals, then his reputation would be intact — the reputation that he can only win titles with Real Madrid, such as most recently in the Champions League.
Portugal, by contrast, looks to me to be too weak, despite their 18-year-old super-talent Renato Sanchez, whom Bayern Munich has just purchased from Benfica Lisbon for 35 million euros. My advice to Cristiano Ronaldo: Remain brave. Don't cry.
Far and wide, I don't see any country that could pull off the kind of surprise that Greece did in winning the 2004 championships in Portugal.
In my view, such strong footballing nations like Croatia with its often outstanding Luca Modric, or like the slightly improved England and maybe Italy will at most make it to the quarterfinals. The Italians have embarked on a total revamping, with trainer Antonio Conte deciding to do without the 37-year-old genius Andrea Pirlo, who is playing far away in New York. And striker Mario Balotelli also has been dispensed with. At the moment the Italian team doesn't have a face, except of course for their 38-year-old keeper Gianluigi Buffon.
This brings us to the top favorites, and naturally at the very top are World Cup champions Germany and defending European champions Spain.
German trainer Joachim Loew is again counting on an axis Bayern Munich players. Besides Manuel Neuer in goal, in the center-back positions are Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels, who has just transferred from Dortmund to Munich. Up front the coach is betting on Mario Goetze, the man who scored the 2014 World Cup match-winner against Argentina, as well as on Thomas Mueller, the best World Cup scorer. The resignations of Captain Philipp Lahm and of striker Miroslav Klose however will be hard to compensate. And the fact that the new team captain, Bastian Schweinsteiger, who was almost always injured at Manchester United, is to be slowly brought back into the German team is a good plan, but a risky one.
Spanish trainer Vicente Del Bosque has now definitively dispensed with the services of striker Fernando Torres, who eight years ago scored the 1-0 goal to beat Germany in the final. Del Bosque is also going without the experienced Diego Costa as well as the younger dangerous goal-getters Isco Alarcon Suarez and Saúl Ñíguez and instead is banking completely on the youngster Alvaro Morato, whom Real has loaned out to Juventus Turin, and on Real substitute Lucas Vazques. Then there is 35-year-old Aritz Aduriz of Bilbao.
So Del Bosque has put together an interesting mixture. With the exception of Xavi, he can count almost completely on the solid bloc of Barcelona stars - Andres Iniesta, Jordi Alba, Gerard Piqué and Sergio Busquets. Virtually a guarantee of success.
France, naturally, counts as a top title contender as the host country. Just such names as Paul Pogba of Juventus, Olivier Giroud of Arsenal London and Antoine Griezman of Atletico Madrid promise not only fun football-watching, but also a lot of goals. It is really interesting to see how Griezman has evolved. No more of a new hair color every three days, no more of the night-time escapades. Griezman could be the top star of this tournament - something that I also think possible for Germany's Toni Kroos with his outstanding passing game.
Now, don't be surprised that I see yet another country well at the top of the field — the Belgians. They have this highly explosive mixture of robustness and technical finesse. All I need to do is look at Kevin de Bruyne of ManCity, Eden Hazard of Chelsea, or Yannick Carrasco, who scored the 1-1 equalizer for Atletico Madrid against Real in the Champions League final: These are just three players out of a really super-strong team.
If Belgium were to win this tournament, it would not come as a surprise. - dpa