London: Kiev’s Palace of the Arts will provide the perfect setting when Spain, soccer’s current grand masters, learn who they play in next year’s European Championship at which they will attempt to become the first team to win three successive major titles.
Spain, crowned European champions in Vienna in 2008 and world champions in Johannesburg last year, will look to create another masterpiece and achieve something not even Brazil have accomplished if they live up to their billing as tournament favourites and retain the Henri Delauney trophy.
No South American or European team has sandwiched a World Cup triumph in between two successive continental successes, or won back-to-back World Cups with a continental prize in between as Spain are attempting to do in Ukraine and Poland.
However, such is Spain’s current standing as the most creative, colourful and dominant team in the world that British bookmakers have installed them as short-priced 5-2 favourites to do just that.
Spain qualified with a perfect record of eight wins out of eight and are grouped with the Netherlands, who they beat in the World Cup final, and host nations Ukraine and Poland in the top seeds pot.
Spain are top of FIFA’s world rankings and the Dutch are second so with Ukraine at 55th and Poland 66th most teams would prefer to be grouped with one of the co-hosts in the draw in the Ukrainian capital at 1800 GMT on Dec. 2.
Poland and Ukraine are bound to be lifted by playing in front of their own supporters but they could still struggle to qualify for the later stages.
No host nation has won the European championship since France’s spectacular triumph inspired by current UEFA president Michel Platini in 1984.
The closest any team has come since was Portugal who were expected to beat Greece in the 2004 final in Lisbon but suffered a shock 1-0 defeat.
Of more relevance to Ukraine and Poland is that neither of the co-hosts of the 2008 finals, Austria or Switzerland, made it past the group stage.
“It would be good for the competition if they survived the first stage,” Platini said. “Because the competition did fall a little flat when Austria and Switzerland both went out early in 2008.
“Everyone in Poland and Ukraine has worked so hard to prepare for the tournament, it would be wonderful if their teams could do well, but you can never tell in football.”
One of the attractions of the 16-team European championship is that unlike the World Cup which is twice the size, it is usually an evenly contested tournament with close matches between Europe’s elite teams.
That may change when it expands to a 24-team finals in France in 2016, but going into next week’s draw only one of Europe’s top 14 sides in FIFA’s rankins is missing — Switzerland.
Apart from the two hosts, the lowest ranked team is the Czech Republic, listed at 33rd but with a proud history including a title-winning triumph as Czechoslovakia in 1976 and runners-up spot to Germany in 1996.
Germany, whose coach Joachim Loew is developing an exciting young team tipped as possible winners, are in the second group of seeds along with Italy, England and Russia.
The third pot contains Croatia, Greece, Portugal and Sweden, while the Czechs are ranked along with Denmark, France and Ireland, in the fourth, although none of them can be dismissed lightly.
The finals, which run from June 9 to July 1 next year, take place in the Polish cities of Warsaw, Wroclaw, Gdansk and Poznan, and the Ukrainian cities of Donetsk, Lviv, Kharkiv and Kiev which will host the final.
The build-up to the tournament, the first major soccer event to be staged in eastern Europe, has been beset with problems regarding stadium building, infrastructure, hotels and logistics, with UEFA threatening several times to relocate it to another venue.
But with the draw approaching next week, all the stadiums are ready and a little more of the canvas is about to be coloured in.