VIENNA, Austria Get ready for a wide-open European Championship.
Three-time champion Germany is only a lukewarm favorite with the bookmakers, having not won a Euro finals match for 12 years. World Cup holder Italy has lost dependable captain Fabio Cannavaro to injury.
Nine teams in the field of 16 look capable of winning the biggest title they can go for outside of the World Cup. That includes defending champion Greece, which wants to prove its surprise triumph four years ago in Portugal was no fluke.
The 13th championship, being played in the heart of Europe in Austria and Switzerland, has something for everyone, quite apart from picking up the trophy.
Germany is both embarrassed and frustrated it hasn't won a major title since the 1996 Euros in England and is out to re-establish itself as European soccer's strongest nation.
Its combined record at the 2000 and 2004 Euros reads no victories, three draws and three defeats. Joachim Loew, who took over as coach from Juergen Klinsmann after the 2006 World Cup, has the pressure of knowing there are no excuses if it flops again.
The draw has been kind to the Germans, with a comparatively easy group of Poland, Croatia and co-host Austria. They have never lost to the Poles in 15 meetings, were beaten once in seven games by Croatia back at the 1998 World Cup and haven't been beaten by Austria since 1986.
Poland, even though it has a respectable World Cup record, makes its debut in the Euros and hopes to capture its first victory over its neighbor after 11 losses and four draws. The teams meet in Klagenfurt on Sunday.
"In Holland, we say you are sure if you want to beat Germany you have to play them until they are on the bus after the match," Poland's Dutch coach, Leo Beenhakker said. "Before that you are not sure if you've won the game."
The Poles aren't expected to get to the quarterfinals, however, and Austria's team appears to be weak. By contrast Croatia, which visits Austria in Vienna on Sunday, is considered a strong candidate for a first title in international soccer.
At age 39, coach Slaven Bilic is a rising star and, although Croatia is without Eduardo Da Silva (broken leg), it has a well-organized team capable of beating any of the traditional powerhouses.
Another advantage for the Germans is that three of their biggest rivals Italy, France and the Netherlands are not only in the other half of the draw, but are even in the same Group C. That means at least one of them will go out in the first round.
Italy is bidding to add the European title to the World Cup crown it won in Berlin two years ago.
Cannavaro's injury during a training session only six hours after the Italians touched down in Austria is a major blow, however. Although Italy has a wealth of defensive talent, Cannavaro's influence on the field will be missed.
"The absence of Fabio will weigh heavily, but the fact that he is staying here is really encouraging," said Italy coach Roberto Donadoni, whose team opens against the Dutch in Bern on Monday. "It's going to be important for the group."
While the Italians still look strong in defense despite Cannavaro's absence, Dutch coach Marco van Basten has plenty of talent on attack. But the Dutch haven't won anything since the 1988 Euros, when Van Basten's spectacular angled volley in the final was the highlight, and they are notorious for failing to deliver at the big events.
Robin van Persie is only just returning from a long injury layoff and dangerous Ryan Babel has been ruled out. But Van Basten still has Ruud van Nistelrooy, Arjen Robben, Dirk Kuyt, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink to choose from to test the Italian defense.
France limps into the championship nursing injuries to four players: captain Patrick Vieira, defenders William Gallas and Willy Sagnol, and winger Franck Ribery. But the French argue that they perform better under stress.
"Every time the French team has problems, it has done well," said defender Lilian Thuram, whose team faces Group C outsider Romania in Zurich on Monday. "When you are a bit scared, you pay attention to everything. It is good to have some doubts before the Euro. This may enable us to have this fear which is necessary to go all the way."
European champion in 1984 and 2000, France had problems at the last World Cup, too, but recovered and made it all the way to the final and only lost to Italy on penalties. If Ribery gets fit and teams with Thierry Henry and Karim Benzema in an eye-catching forward line, the French should begin with a victory over the Romanians, who could struggle to get a point in the first round.
In a wide open Group D, Henrik Larsson has come out of international retirement for the second time at age 36 to combine with star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic as the Swedes, who have never been past the semifinal, look to make an impact.
Spain and Portugal are striving to end their reputations as championship underachievers.
Although the Spaniards won Euros back in 1964, Spain has never played deep into a World Cup despite having two of the greatest club teams, Real Madrid and Barcelona.
Once again it has a talented lineup, with the likes of goalkeeper Iker Casillas, midfielder Cesc Fabregas and striker Fernando Torres, and kicks off against Russia in Innsbruck on Tuesday.
By coincidence, Greece faces two of its group rivals from Euro 2004, when it drew with Spain and lost to Russia, yet still advanced and did not lose again.
Otto Rehhagel, the German coach who masterminded that triumph, has 10 members of his 2004 squad back as Greece bids to become the first repeat winner of the European title.
"At every game we have to demonstrate that we really did deserve to be called European champions," said defender Giourkas Seitaridis, whose team faces Sweden in Salzburg on Tuesday. "At this Euro, we have come as the champions and we'll be feeling greater pressure because we have to show that what happened four years ago did not happen by chance."
Four years ago, the Portuguese lost to Greece both in the opening and final games in front of their own fans.
But reaching the final of Euro 2004 and semifinal of the 2006 World Cup represents rare consistency for them. With Cristiano Ronaldo the front-runner for FIFA world player of the year by scoring 42 goals for English and Champions League winner Manchester United, coach Luiz Felipe Scolari has the ingredients to add a European title to his 2002 World Cup crown with Brazil.
Portugal faces unpredictable Turkey on the opening day of the championship in Geneva, when co-host Switzerland faces the Czech Republic in the first game in Basel.
Turkey lost to the Portuguese at Euro '96 and four years later, but will rely on a stronger midfield, including Brazilian-born Mehmet Aurelio, to try and advance.
The Czechs won the title back in 1976, long before their split from Slovakia. But they are another team that fails to play consistently well at the major championships. Midfielder Tomas Rosicky misses the tournament with a left knee injury and his absence could mean failure to get very far.
The Swiss were eliminated from the last World Cup without conceding a goal going out on penalties in the first knockout round and will do well to reach the quarterfinal stage this time.