- Associated Press - Friday, June 8, 2012

WARSAW, POLAND (AP) - The World Cup may be the best-known soccer tournament on the planet. It may not be the best.

To many fans, the European Championship ranks as the top competition.

This year’s continental championship, generally called Euro 2012, kicks off Friday in Warsaw when co-host Poland plays Greece at the National Stadium. Ukraine also will be hosting games.

With only 16 teams instead of 32, many believe the caliber of play at the European Championship exceeds that of the World Cup, which gets diluted by some of the slots apportioned to areas of the globe without strong soccer traditions.

If that sounds arrogant, consider that only one non-European country (Uruguay) has been among the semifinalists at the last two World Cups.

Both tournaments take place every four years, but in alternate even-numbered years. That puts the European Championship, which started in 1960 but became a full-fledged tournament in 1980 when eight teams competed, in the same summer as the Olympics.

For Euro 2012, defending champion Spain _ which also won the 2010 World Cup _ is the favorite, especially with Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta controlling play. But the Netherlands and Germany are also contenders with their own game-changing players, notably the Dutch trio of Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder.

Others, like England with Wayne Rooney and Portugal with Cristiano Ronaldo, will also be in the mix.

Hooliganism is always an issue at major soccer tournaments; this year’s competition has already been marred by racism concerns and political turmoil in Ukraine.

The 16 teams in the championship _ the two co-hosts and 14 other nations that made it through a two-year qualifying tournament _ have been split into four groups of four. The top two in each group reach the quarterfinals.

The final will be played on July 1 in Kiev.

Here’s a look at the stars, top teams, and a few players who could surprise at Euro 2012.

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BEST PLAYERS

Cristiano Ronaldo

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