WARSAW, POLAND – The European Championship kicks off in Poland 's capital against a backdrop of political intrigue, worry over co-hosts Ukraine , and the promise of some genuinely thrilling soccer.
Poland faces Greece in the opener at the newly rebuilt National Stadium. Just three years ago, the stadium was a broken-down, weed-choked area on the bank of the Vistula River. It served as an outdoor flea market, selling pirated CDs and pantyhose; a visible symbol of the doubts many had about Eastern Europe hosting a competition of this magnitude.
Today, it is a gleaming red and white edifice, the river is teeming with cyclists and open-air cafes and seating, and it is now a clear display of the quiet confidence Poland has in both their nation and their team.
The same cannot be said of co-hosts Ukraine, who will join the party Saturday with two big games. They have been bedeviled this week with political protests at the Fan Zones, snubs from European politicians, and real worries over mayhem due their sagging infrastructure.
But right now, the focus is rightly on Warsaw. The irony of the opener is that this nation has a tendency to see the glass as half-empty -- many here are already worried about waking up on Saturday smarting from a loss. But on paper, the Poles have the tools to get out of the group stage and they should be able to handle the Greeks.
Poland has four players who can get the job done: Arsenal keeper Wojciech Szczesny is a proven big-game player, a man who shook off the disappointment of tossing away a Carling Cup final and became the rock that the Gunners clung to last year. The Borussia Dortmund trio of Jakub "Kuba" Blaszczykowski, Lukasz Piszczek and striker Robert Lewandowski means that the Biale Orly (The White Eagles) have both a solid spine and can score.
Lewandowski, in particular, is a special player: he sunk 22 for the Bundesliga champs last season and seems to have eyes in the back of his head. At free gallop, he has to be fouled, or he will score.
The Greeks, on the other hand, look muscular, showing a sharpness this week that belied their reputation for dogged defending. The keys for them are the enigmatic Fanis Gekas and Celtic striker Georgios Samaras. Both men have to score goals because even the rock-solid Vasilis Torossidis can't kick everything away.
As we kick off, there is a bit of history to contend with that folks in Poland are well aware of. Despite the weakness of this group - and the odds are on that the hosts can get out of it - the last time the Greeks featured in an opener was in 2004. They memorably upset hosts Portugal in that game, then went on to repeat the feat in the finals.
The Poles can take comfort knowing they have defeated the Greeks ten out of their past 15 games - but they've never played them in a game of this magnitude.
The nightcap in Wroclaw pits a dark-horse Russia side against a tricky Czech Republic side in what might be the day's most attractive match.
Russia has a fully-fit team to call from with loads of talent top to bottom. Arsenal striker Andrey Arshavin, who was loaned to Zenit this winter in an effort to get him back up to snuff, has a lot to prove, as does one time Spurs hit-man Roman Pavlyuchenko. The key men may well be Pavel Pogrebnyak, who lit it up for Fulham, and keeper Igor Akinfeev, one of the world's most underrated net-minders. Keep an eye on Roman Shirkov as well: the crafty midfielder is sleek and deadly when he's on his game.
The Czechs have experience in Milan Baros and Tomas Rosicky, and a genuine world-class keeper in Petr Cech. After that, well, things decline. Tomas Necid has been erratic up top and Jaroslav Plasil is likely to be made the water-carrier, despite being one of the Czech's more potent creators. Defender Michal Kadlec, however, is class: the Leverkusen defender works well at both ends of the field and will be a key man to start the counter-attack.
Saturday sees the big guns take the stage as Holland face Denmark in Kharkiv, Ukraine while Germany and Portugal meet in the first major clash of the Euros at Lviv in the late game.