Euro 2012—the European soccer tournament that starts today—is a big f**king deal, as Joe Biden would say. It’s basically the World Cup of Europe, and many soccer aficionados actually prefer it to the World Cup because it clears out some of the soccer riffraff from Africa, Asia and the Americas (yes, the US is still soccer riffraff at this point). Plus, all your European pals are going to be talking about it for the next month, and it’s just a fun thing to watch at the pubs.

So get pumped for it—and get informed about it—with this primer.

Dates it runs: June 8 to July 1

Channels: ESPN and ESPN2

Occurs: Every four years

Where it’s played this time: Poland and Ukraine

Number of teams: 16

Format: Group round-robin, then an eight-team single-elimination tournament (similar to the World Cup)

Why it’s important: It’s the battle for bragging rights in Europe. The winner gets to say they’re the best national soccer team in (arguably) the finest soccer region in the world.

The favorites: Spain (the 2010 World Cup champs and 2008 Euro champs), Germany and the Netherlands

The dark horses: Portugal, Croatia and England

Most difficult group (aka the Group of Death): Group B, with Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Portugal

Second most difficult group (aka the Group of Near Death): Group C, with Croatia, Ireland, Italy and Spain

Five games to watch: Germany vs. Portugal (June 9, 2:45pm ET, ESPN), Spain vs. Italy (June 10, noon ET, ESPN), France vs. England (June 11, noon ET, ESPN), the Netherlands vs. Germany (June 13, 2:45pm ET, ESPN), Italy vs. Ireland (June 18, 2:45pm ET, ESPN2)

Five players to watch:
Wayne Rooney, forward, England: Nicknamed the White Pelé, this bulldoggish goal-scorer has been his country’s best player for several years. He raised his game even higher after a hair transplant last summer.

Andrés Iniesta, midfielder, Spain: At 5’7” and 143 pounds, Iniesta looks like he should be managing a human resources department in Madrid. But good luck getting the ball from him.

Mesut Özil, midfielder, Germany: If Germany plays like a well-oiled BMW, this 23-year-old of Turkish descent is the fuel injection. He also has the bulbous eyes of a Simpsons character, which sort of makes him endearing.

Mario Balotelli, forward, Italy: A 21-year-old hothead with unlimited ability, the Ghanaian-descended Balotelli is a true wildcard. He could be the tournament’s leading scorer. Or sent home early for fighting a teammate.

Cristiano Ronaldo, forward, Portugal: Probably the second-best player in the world behind Argentina’s Lionel Messi, Ronaldo has more tricks than Houdini. He can also be a world-class crybaby. Bottom line: you can’t take your eyes off him.

One final fact: Italy is embroiled in a match-fixing scandal in its domestic league. The last time this happened was 2006—when the Italians won the World Cup.

—S.D.

CONTRIBUTORS

  • Shawn Donnelly