Players, not politics, in the spotlight at Euro 2012

WARSAW, Poland — Now, finally, UEFA President Michel Platini wants the players to take center stage when the European Championship kicks off Friday.

Soccer has almost been ignored during a turbulent five years for Poland and Ukraine as they sought to vindicate UEFA’s decision to take its showpiece 16-nation tournament to eastern Europe.

Now the former France great, who captained and coached his country, wants the teams to seize the headlines.

“I say to the players, ‘Go out and entertain us,’ ” Platini said on Wednesday. He spoke at the National Stadium in Warsaw - one of many rebuilding projects delivered behind schedule - where Poland will open Euro 2012 against 2004 champion Greece.

“What I would like now after [five] years of work, is to be able to calmly watch the games, to give the ball over to the players and let them get on with it,” said Platini, who lifted the trophy in 1984.

The potential storylines are rich and deep for what arguably is the best international tournament.

• Can World Cup winner Spain become the first nation to successfully defend its European title, and further define an era of Barcelona-inspired greatness?

• Will a still young Germany team overcome the Spain-shaped obstacle which keeps blocking its title runs?

• Can the Netherlands rediscover its ‘Total Football’ roots and reconnect with neutral fans dismayed by its negative, aggressive tactics that marred the 2010 World Cup final loss to Spain?

Platini echoes the popular wisdom that two favorites stand above the rest.

“These are Germany and Spain if they play at 100 percent of their level,” Platini told reporters. “If they don’t, there are a lot of teams which can beat them.”

The former playing great who captained an exciting France team to victory in 1984 has a fancy for his home country to banish memories of its 2010 World Cup fiasco.

France extended its unbeaten streak to 21 games Tuesday, beating Estonia 4-0 in a last warmup match as Karim Benzema scored twice.

“The French have found their own playing style. You need to be wary of this side — if they get off the bus, of course,” Platini joked, referring to the notorious mutiny in South Africa when Les Bleus players refused to train.

Still, backing the favorites has not always paid off at the Euro and another upset winner is due, following Greece eight years ago and Denmark in 1992. Both rode the momentum of underdog status and good early results to lift the trophy.

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