- The Washington Times - Friday, June 11, 2004

Can France be stopped? That’s the question looming over the European Championship, which kicks off today in Portugal under tight security.

Sixteen national teams, drawn into four groups, will compete to win the championship in Lisbon on July4. With so many stars playing in Euro 2004, the quadrennial tournament is easily the biggest and most exciting soccer show other than the World Cup.

High-flying France, in Group B with England, Croatia and Switzerland, is favored to become the first nation to defend its title successfully and equal Germany’s three victories. France boasts a powerful lineup with Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry and also will be looking to rebound on the international stage after exiting the 2002 World Cup in Asia without scoring a goal.

When the French play England tomorrow, it could resemble an English Premier League game. Nine EPL players are on France’s 23-man roster. England’s roster includes David Beckham, Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney.

Italy, which stands out from Sweden, Bulgaria and Denmark in Group C, is expected by many to meet France in the final game. The Italians are led by the powerful strike force of Christian Vieri and Alessandro Del Piero and are due to bring home a title. France beat Italy in sudden-death overtime to win the title in 2000.

In Group A, Portugal opens the tournament today against Greece, and Spain plays Russia. With home-field advantage and stars Luis Figo, Cristiano Ronaldo and Deco, the technical and skillful Portuguese could win it all. Spain, the great underachiever, has more modest expectations. Russia likely will struggle along with Greece, which is appearing in the finals for the first time since 1980.

Group D, which has been dubbed the Group of Death, includes Germany, Holland, the Czech Republic and surprise entrant Latvia.

Germany, making its record ninth appearance, can never be counted out. This appears to be one of Germany’s weaker teams, but the three-time winners always seem to rise to the occasion. Germany first must get past Holland, a team loaded with talent but known for internal squabbles off the field. On paper, the Dutch have amazing firepower in strikers Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Patrick Kluivert and Roy Makaay.

The Czech Republic, led by star striker Pavel Nedved, could be the dark horse. The Czechs were unbeaten in qualifying, finishing ahead of Holland.

The top two winners in each group advance to the quarterfinals. If the tournament goes the way the pundits are predicting, the quarterfinals likely will be Portugal vs. England, France vs. Spain, Italy vs. Holland and Sweden vs. Czech Republic.

Tournament games will be shown live on pay-per-view, except for five carried live on Fox Sports World. The pay-per-view package costs $179, with individual games beginning at $19.95. Fans also can catch the games live at Summers Restaurant in Arlington (703/528-8278).

United faces Rapids — Injury-plagued and undermanned D.C. United (3-5-3) will get some needed relief tonight against the Colorado Rapids (2-3-4) at RFK Stadium. Defender Ryan Nelsen of New Zealand is back from the Oceania Nations Cup, and midfielder Earnie Stewart has been excused from training with the U.S. team to rejoin United. Midfielder Bobby Convey, however, remained with the national team and will miss tonight’s match. The Rapids arrive without injured Mark Chung and Haitian star Jean-Philippe Peguero, who is on national team duty.

Road to Germany 2006 — The U.S. men’s team begins qualifying play for the 2006 World Cup in Germany tomorrow, when it takes on Grenada in Columbus, Ohio. This is the first of a two-game preliminary-round series, with the second game scheduled in Grenada on June20. The U.S. team is ranked eighth in the world, while Grenada is 145th. The winner of the total-goals series will advance to the four-team, six-game semifinal round, which would begin for the United States on Aug.18 in Jamaica or Haiti.

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