Everyone loves heroes and villains. The battle of good vs. evil. If you're watching a game, and you don't have a rooting interest heading in, you can make one quickly if you find that one team has a personality or player you don't like. It makes for a more compelling storyline, of course, but it also gives you a vested interest in the outcome when you otherwise may have felt uncompelled.
The sheer number of club and national teams, coupled with the vast pool of players, makes soccer a tough sport to keep tabs on for the novice. As Euro 2012 gets underway this weekend, and millions tune in around the world to see a number of players and teams they've hardly paid attention to previously, they'll look for a reason to latch on to one team or root against another.
To save you the trouble, here are the heroes and villains from each group. As a disclaimer, this piece is not advocating rooting for only heroes. Maybe you're a "root for the bad guy" kind of person. And ThePostGame can't argue with that. Follow your heart...or your sinister side. But either way, enjoy one of the best continental tournaments on the planet.
Hero: Petr Cech, Czech Republic
Though you may not like his club team Chelsea, Cech is the consummate professional who has seen his game reach an unexpected apex after some brutal injuries and lapses over the last few years. He is unmistakable in appearance, a lanky giant of a goalkeeper who wears a protective skullcap because his own skull was literally caved in thanks to a collision with Stephen Hunt in 2006. That nearly killed him. Yet, here he stands, perhaps playing as well as he ever has. And he's been doing that for a while, being named the outstanding goalkeeper of Euro 2004 when the Czech Republic reached the semifinals. Beyond that, he is one of the most decorated keepers of all-time, while remaining reserved and humble. He has endured, he has celebrated, and he has kept pushing for more.
Villain: Andre Arshavin, Russia
If Cech is the tall, noble knight of Group A, then Arshavin is the much shorter, much more inconsistent counter. To see glimpses of Arshavin's enigmatic brilliance is to see the Transit of Venus: you can't believe you're seeing it, and it's clear you'll probably never see it again. At his most sublime, Arshavin carried Russia through Euro 2008, and in 2009, scored four goals in one game for Arsenal in a 4-4 away match at Liverpool.
But often, he notoriously can't get out of his own way or out from under his strange ego. He is confusing for a number of reasons, all of which leave one feeling sort of annoyed with his presence. He steps on his teammates during celebrations, he seems less-than dedicated during training, he looks like he's maybe 21 years old but is actually 31, he has puzzling comments about his teammates' shower habits, and his pets disappear under unclear circumstances. He's the Russian Metta World Peace -- he's not really an all-out villain, per se, but he's so annoyingly weird and unpredictable that you can't help but just want to punch him.
When they'll play each other: Today (Friday) at 2:45 p.m. ET on ESPN
Hero: Bastian Schweinsteiger, Germany
He is the supremely efficient robot with a heart of gold. Often overlooked because of teammates that score more goals in bigger spotlights, Schweinsteiger is relentless in his desire to win soccer matches. He played on absolute fumes in the Champions League loss to Chelsea for club Bayern Munich. He plays hard and physically, and seems undeterred in the face of exhaustion. And he is greatly moved by his ultimate success and failure. He was inconsolable after that loss to Chelsea, seemingly carrying the weight of expectation by himself.
More German players will score goals in the tournament, and he will mostly facilitate and control from the middle of the field. He will quietly do his duty as part of Die Mannschaft, plugging in as a vital cog in a well-tuned machine.
Villain: Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal
It would seem in the current state of soccer fandom, that there is Lionel Messi and then there are all other footballers. But there is an argument to be made for Ronaldo as the best, there always is. And your reaction to that statement reveals your vested interest. It's easy to love Messi for all his undersized, odd-featured brilliance and humility. But there is no Messi in this tournament, and so we are all left with Ronaldo as the undisputed best player. How you feel about that ultimately shows how neutral you will be during a Portugal match.
Ronaldo is anything but undersized. He is perfectly featured. He is effortlessly brilliant, and is the least humble person, perhaps ever (well, until Mario Balotelli came along). He falls easily at any challenge. He is determined to execute, but hardly relentless in the face of adversity. His free kicks and their impossible movements through the air are breathtaking. His speed and power are amazing. But he also self tans while exposing too much thigh in public, and paid the mother of his unexpected child millions to just go away and keep her mouth shut. And he and his national teammates are forever disappointing their fans, despite tremendous club success abroad.
The skill is impossible not to love for all, but the man it comes with is impossible to love for many.
When they'll play each other: Saturday at 2:45 p.m. ET on ESPN
It seems far easier in this group to highlight a good vs. evil battle of existential levels in the soccer world. Spain is the darling of the game. La Furia Roja play beautifully, connecting on an endless array of passes and holding possession for much of every match. Spain's players are staples of some of the biggest clubs in the world, with David Silva an integral part of Manchester City's Premier League title, Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos and Xabi Alonso integral for Real Madrid's title in La Liga, and Juan Mata a driving force for Chelsea's Champions League title run. When clubs remodel, they try to remodel to be more like Spain, like Barcelona. It is the favorite style of play and organization around the world.
And why shouldn't it be? It's responsible for the last Euro title in 2008, the World Cup, and the endless run of trophies Barcelona has won. Everyone wishes they were more like Spain. It is pure football.
Meanwhile, the Italians' trip to the tournament was in jeopardy because of yet another match fixing scandal in their home country. Match fixing is a blight on all of soccer, but either the Italians are the worst culprits or the worst at covering it up. Regardless, it's tarnished the country's reputation in the soccer world, even as they've continued to win at the top levels with a World Cup in 2006 and Champions League titles by Inter Milan and AC Milan in the last five years.
Italian football can be beautiful, most notably whenever Andrea Pirlo is involved in anything, but generally, the Italians play a gritty style that is anything but enjoyable to watch. It's clunky, lacks pace, battles for scrappy goals and does its damnedest to lock down in the box. And lately, it's been uninspired, including a 1-0 friendly loss to the US.
But that loss didn't include Mario Balotelli, the young rising star of the squad, who will be looked upon to provide the goals, and the crazy streak -- two things he always brings to the table. If Ronaldo is too full of himself, then Balotelli thinks he's the second coming. Except he would say he's the first coming, or something like that. He's shown 2 percent of the results Ronaldo has in a career, but has maintained an ego far greater. No small feat. He crashes cars, sets off insane fireworks displays, throws darts at youth players from his window, strolls around womens' prisons just 'to have a look,' can't put on substitute bibs to save his life and heads to the store for house supplies but comes back with a trampoline, two Vespas and no supplies. He is equal parts entertaining (not for the right reasons) and frustrating (like we said). The brilliantly weird cherry on top of a seedy Italian sundae. Just as vital to Manchester City's trophy as Silva, simply for being a part of the final goal that won the title in the final game.
And that's all before you even get to goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, who's a Bond villain on appearance alone.
When they'll play each other: Sunday at 12 p.m. ET on ESPN
Hero: Steven Gerrard, England
To Liverpool fans, he is Captain Fantastic, the local boy turned legend. To England fans, he is the actual team captain for the first time in a major tournament, who has never really fit in with whatever scheme or teammates he's been saddled with at the national level. And while he has built a career out of dragging his teams to victory through cutting passes and thunderous long range shots, he's in the last few years of a rousing run, and doesn't seem to possess the same kind of magic anymore.
Couple this with the fact that he's leading a team with unfair expectations back home, that will be without its best player (Wayne Rooney) for the first two matches, and Captain Fantastic is suddenly the unlikely underdog. However, if you are not a big Phil Collins fan, Stevie G probably doesn't want your support in the first place.
Villains: John Terry, England
You're being thrown for a loop in this group, obviously, by being told that the ultimate hero and villain are part of the same team. But are they? And so the plot thickens.
You could spin a long tale about the insufferable members of the French team like Frank Ribery (and his prostitute scandal) or Patrice Evra (and his absurd mutiny at the 2010 World Cup), but the reality is that there is no more rage-inducing player in Group D than Chelsea defender John Terry. He slept with a teammate's wife. He routinely parks in handicap spaces. He complains about the length of the grass in friendlies. He undermines the managers of both club and country. He is under investigation for racist slurs. And before Didier Drogba made the most important penalty kick in Chelsea's history, Terry missed the most important penalty kick in the club's history in the 2008 Champions League final loss to Manchester United. And come on, his haircut is stupid. To be completely fair, his list of atrocities gets worse.
Despite all of this, he is continually given opportunities that much younger players deserve, as his form becomes somewhat comical as he ages. Amidst the racist abuse scandal, he was stripped of his captaincy, and will no doubt attempt to undermine the new captain, Gerrard, at some point in the tournament.
When they'll play each other: If Terry proves healthy, they'll play every match together, and perhaps battle in the dressing room. A test of wills inside a test of wills. It starts against France on Monday at 12 p.m. ET on ESPN
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