If Cristiano Ronaldo is finally going to end his wait for a major international trophy, he will have to do it the hard way.
Ronaldo, widely considered to be the best player in Europe and second best in the world behind Lionel Messi, saw his Portugal side landed in the dreaded "Group of Death" when the Euro 2012 draw was made Friday.
Portugal, which also drew into the toughest group at last year's World Cup, is paired with Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands, and faces an uphill task just to qualify for the tournament's knockout stage in Poland and Ukraine next summer.
While every tournament has its own "Group of Death," a term coined two decades ago to describe the most difficult pool at every major soccer event, Group B this time around could be the toughest ever seen.
The Netherlands was a top seed going into the draw after reaching the 2010 World Cup final, but received little reward for that status. Germany was a second seed based on UEFA's ranking coefficient, but many believe it is the strongest team in the world right now and one of the primary favorites to become European champion.
Portugal and Ronaldo – matched against Brazil, the Ivory Coast and North Korea at the World Cup – must do things the hard way once again, and the Real Madrid star could find his ability to shine on the biggest stage called into question again.
Denmark is the outsider of the group and can consider itself very unfortunate. In any other group, the Danes may have fancied their chances of qualification, but few give them much likelihood of achieving that now.
The reason behind this freak draw is the system used by UEFA in allocating the 16 qualifiers into their relative groups of four. As per custom, the host nation – or in this case, host nations – is handed a No. 1 seed, hence Poland and Ukraine joined world champion Spain and the Netherlands in the No.1 bracket. That pushed Germany down into a second-seeded spot and set up the possibility of it being matched with the Dutch.
While drawing three teams of outstanding quality is thrilling for soccer fans, the format is in serious need of an overhaul. It is fine for host nations to be given free passage into the tournament in order to ensure homegrown interest in the event. However, there is little need for them to be top seeds, especially in situations like next summer where there will be co-hosts. It created a total imbalance, with every team outside the top bracket praying it was matched up against Poland or Ukraine instead of Spain or the Netherlands.
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Group A is by far the weakest, with Czech Republic, Greece and Russia joining Poland in a pool where the average FIFA ranking is a touch over 30. The average ranking in Group B, by comparison, is 5.5.
Spain, seeking to win its third major title in a row after clinching Euro 2008 and the World Cup, will not have a particularly easy run of it either. The Spaniards open against Italy, the side that gave them their toughest match four years ago before Spain won a dramatic quarterfinal penalty shootout.
The Republic of Ireland is in the same group and will look to seek revenge after losing to Spain, also on penalties, the last time it featured in an international tournament at the 2002 World Cup.
England, in its final event under head coach Fabio Capello, could afford to feel somewhat pleased with the draw. Despite being matched with France, by far the strongest of the fourth seeds, it managed to avoid the real giants, and was placed alongside Ukraine and Sweden in Group D.
|Group A||1. Russia||2. Czech Republic||3. Poland||4. Greece|
|Group B||1. Germany||2. Netherlands||3. Denmark||4. Portugal|
|Group C||1. Spain||2 Italy||3. Croatia||4. Republic of Ireland|
|Group D||1. France||2. England||3. Sweden||4. Ukraine|