Euro Finals Kick Up Age-Old Rivalries

About 250 million people will tune in Sunday to watch Italy and Spain duke it out in the Euro 2012 final in Kiev. As always with European soccer, this battle has laid bare more than just skills on the field. Guest host David Greene talks with ESPN's Roger Bennett about the national undercurrents.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOCCER GAME)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And the final whistle has gone now. Mario Balotelli's two goals send Italy to the European championships final where they will play Spain. It's heartache again for Germany.

GREENE: Heartache it may have been for Germany in last week's quarterfinal of the Euro 2012 football championship, but because Germany is not the most popular team in Europe, their loss was cause for celebration in a lot of European capitals. About 250 million people will tune in later today as Italy and Spain duke it out in the Euro 2012 final in Kiev, in Ukraine. As always with European football - well, we call it soccer in this country - this battle has laid bare more than just skills on the field. Cultural differences, age-old rivalries are hard to escape. And to talk about that, we reached ESPN columnist and co-host of Grantland's "Men in Blazers," Roger Bennett, who joins us from the Ukrainian capital Kiev. Hey, Roger.

ROGER BENNETT: David, good to speak to you.

GREENE: Great to speak to you, too. So, the tournament this year has actually been hosted by two different countries, Poland and Ukraine. I mean, has that made it almost feel like two different tournaments in a way?

BENNETT: Well, it's not just two different countries - it's two very different countries, Poland and Ukraine. Poland's been very much a party. Ukraine has been more, let's say, like a party that no one has actually come to. And at many of these games, the fan base has just not been there. And at the semifinal for Portugal and Spain in beautiful downtown Donetsk, there was probably about 2,000 Spanish fans, about 50 Portuguese. Ten thousand Russians came to the game just so they could chant Russia, Russia, Russia all the way through the game as a show of their own political power.

GREENE: Eastern Ukraine, you have some of these really industrial, you know, old Soviet-style cities. I guess not what soccer fans from Germany and Italy are used to.

BENNETT: Well, I've grown very fond of Donetsk while I've been there for the past 11 days. I have actually thought about buying a summer residence there. It's a mining industrial town in east-east-east Ukraine, the slag heaps everywhere, the air - the hot air, the hot wind that blows smells positively flammable. But the football, thank God, on the field has been remarkable.

GREENE: You know, well, let's get to some of the countries that are still in the tournament. I mean, Spain has done pretty well in this tournament and this comes at a time when their economy, I mean, has just taken an absolutely beating. Has that made them sort of a favorite of some fans?

BENNETT: Well, Spain are a very interesting story. They are trying to do something that has never been done in the history of the sport, which is to defend a Euro championship, having won a World Cup in between. So they'd become almost back-to-back-to-back champions. They have not let in a goal in knockout play since 2006, which is a remarkable achievement. Their style of play is unique. They are tiny little Smurfs, most of them come from Barcelona and they buzz around like angry little wasps, paper-cutting opponents to death with tiny little passes. But there's almost been a backlash to their success, and within the football world they've been deemed boring. Because really once Spain score, the game is over. The honest truth is Spain are magnificent.

GREENE: Well, is Italy terrified coming onto the field against Spain, or do they have a shot?

BENNETT: Honest truth is it's too close to call, David. I will say the only team to have beaten both of these teams since 2009 is the United States of America, which in my book makes the American national team the unofficial champions of Europe.

GREENE: Wow. Well, what a lovely way to go out, Roger. A lot of American soccer fans are really cheering you right now.

BENNETT: Take a quiet pride, take a quiet pride, David.

GREENE: There you go. ESPN columnist and co-host of Grantland's "Men in Blazers" show, Roger Bennett. Roger, it's been fun. Thanks for joining us.

BENNETT: Thanks for having me on, David.

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