A glance at the odds provided by European bookmakers for who will be named player of the tournament at Euro 2012 offers something of an insight into who fans are likely to be lauding when the event ends in Kiev on July 1. Cristiano Ronaldo, Franck Ribéry, Mesut Özil, Robin Van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Xavi. They are the elite of the elite, and they’re all listed.
But there are other players who could use the tournament’s platform to launch themselves directly into the attentions of the soccer fraternity and to prove their value alongside that European elite. Here are 12 to keep an eye on:
JAKUB BLASZCZYKOWSKI (Poland)
Talent often arrives in clusters. It’s a belief supported by the success achieved by Spain over the past five years and by the famous French triumphs of 1998 and 2000. Although not to the same all-conquering level, Poland may be the latest to adopt this theory, with the co-hosts’ boasting a new wave of talent that includes the Borussia Dortmund teammates Robert Lewandowski, Lukasz Piszczek and Jakub Blaszczykowski.
The 26-year-old Blaszczykowski, with his convenient gift for scoring when a goal is most needed, was instrumental in Dortmund’s successful Bundesliga title defense this season. The days of third place finishes at the 1974 and 1982 World Cups might be a fading memory for Polish soccer, but the energy exuded by their captain, who is known as Kuba, and the overall vibrancy of their Dortmund contingent could see them emerge as something of a surprise.
CHRISTIAN ERIKSEN (Denmark)
Johan Cruyff is a hard man to please, but when the chief advocate of Total Football offers praise to a young talent, you should probably listen. So when Cruyff likened the young Dane Christian Eriksen to Michael Laudrup, he was no doubt making a point about Eriksen’s technical ability, which betrays his Danish background but also reveals his Ajax upbringing. Voted the Danish F.A.’s player of the year last year at age 19, Eriksen is an attacking midfielder who contributed 7 goals and 15 assists in 31 appearances for Ajax this season.
Arsenal and Manchester United, among others, have taken notice. The World Cup in South Africa two years ago came too soon for Eriksen; this tournament doesn’t.
OLIVIER GIROUD (France)
Franck Fife/AFP — Getty Images
In France, they speak of the 1987 generation — a nucleus of the national team including Karim Benzema, Hatem Ben Arfa, Jeremy Menez and Samir Nasri who were all born that year. This month, it is Giroud, a player born a year earlier, whom many are tipping to complete a full breakthrough in Eastern Europe. When France found themselves trailing Iceland by 2-0 at halftime last week, Coach Laurent Blanc introduced Giroud, a Montpellier striker, and he sparked a turnaround that produced a 3-2 victory. Giroud, 25, proved to be the perfect foil for Benzema, providing assists for Ribery and Adil Rami as Les Blues avoided embarrassment.
But despite this display and a tally of 21 goals for the new Ligue 1 champions, Giroud, who was a member of the French squad that won the Under 17 European Championships in 2004, may not be guaranteed a starting spot. But just like as against Iceland, if he is given a slot, he might not let go of it.
MATS HUMMELS (Germany)
As far as regret goes, Bayern Munich must be suffering from an acute case with regards to the decision to let Mats Hummels join Borussia Dortmund in 2009. Since then, the German center back — often likened to a young Alessandro Nesta — has struck up a formidable partnership with Neven Subotic at the heart of Dortmund’s defense, providing a platform for the club’s dynamic attacking talent to fire it to consecutive Bundesliga championships. But at the international level, Hummels has yet to fully prove himself. Reports suggest Germany’s manager, Joachim Löw, will opt for Per Mertesacker over Hummels, despite fitness concerns about the Arsenal defender. Should Löw consider those concerns critical, Hummels will have a chance to make sure he has no regrets.
NIKICA JELAVIC (Croatia)
Before his January move to Everton, questions about Nikica Jelavic’s ability at the top level persisted. His scoring record with Rangers was exceptional, but his statistics were often countered by the entirely reasonable argument that he had scored those goals in Scotland, hardly a top-level league. His international record did little to quell these doubts; he had scored only twice in 16 appearances for Croatian before his move to England.
However, in less than six months at Goodison Park, Jelavic, 26, has added 9 Premier League goals in only 13 appearances. Now, after an injury to Ivica Olic, Jelavic has a chance to set his sights on improving his international credentials, and to answer some more questions in the process.
TONI KROOS (Germany)
For many, Bastian Schweinsteiger is the embodiment of club and country for Germany. He is both Mr. Bayern Munich and Mr. Germany; imposing in stature, creative in attack and effective in possession. However, now both club and country have a new manifestation: Toni Kroos. A self-professed student of the game, the 22-year-old Kroos commands such a degree of reverence at Bayern Munich that Schweinsteiger is often positioned alongside Luis Gustavo in a defensive partnership in order to facilitate Kroos’s innate intuition in supplying Franck Ribéry, Arjen Robben and Mario Gomez in attack. Joachim Löw could expect to achieve the same effect on his front line should he opt to deploy Kroos alongside Schweinsteiger, rather than Sami Khedira.
ROBERT LEWANDOWSKI (Poland)
When Borussia Dortmund faced Bayern Munich in the German Cup final last month, it pitted two of the Bundesliga’s most potent strikers against each other, Robert Lewandowski and Mario Gomez. In what was billed as a close contest between two similarly equipped teams, Dortmund’s Lewandowski, 23, scored a hat trick, to add to his 22 league goals, propelling his side to a hugely impressive 5-2 win. Now, with Poland picked by many to be most likely to do a Greece this summer, Lewandowski’s regular season form may command expectation rather than just hope from fans of the co-hosts.
Lewandowski’s appearance is deceptive, as stereotypical norms that dictate that those who play tall do so without the ball do not apply to the Warsaw-born attacker, who combines technical ability with uncanny positional awareness to make him one of the most accomplished, prolific and subsequently in-demand strikers in Europe.
CLAUDIO MARCHISIO (Italy)
Spain has the Barcelona factor; Germany has the Bayern Munich factor and Italy have the Juventus factor. Cesare Prandelli’s lineup for his team’s opening game against Spain will most likely consist of six Bianconeri players, one of which is likely to be the dynamic, attacking virtuoso Claudio Marchisio. After drawing comparisons to the former Juventus and Italy midfielder Marco Tardelli as an integral part of his club’s unbeaten run to the Serie A title, Marchisio will be deployed alongside Andrea Pirlo as Prandelli aims to replicate a midfield engine that was a revelation for Juve.
JAVI MARTINEZ (Spain)
As a Spanish central midfielder, opportunities were always likely to be sparse for Javi Martinez, as he found at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, where he made only one substitute appearance as his team lifted the biggest prize in soccer for the first time. But two years later, Martinez finds himself in an entirely different situation, and position for that matter. Athletic Bilbao Manager Marcelo Bielsa’s conversion of Martinez into a central defender has eased Vicente Del Bosque’s defensive worries after injuries sustained by Carles Puyol and Alvaro Arbeloa, and Martinez’s tika-taka heritage gives him a solid footing in the ethos of the reigning champions and tournament favorites.
YANN M’VILA (France)
Some players are burdened with a tag placed upon them from an early age. As a tireless central midfielder of African origin, who after demonstrating his ability in Ligue 1 established himself in the French national set-up at age 21, Yann M’Vila faced almost unavoidable comparisons with Patrick Viera. However, despite the confession by France Coach Laurent Blanc that M’Vila was “a lot better” than his other midfield options, the Arsenal transfer target may not start on Monday against England as a result of the ankle strain he sustained during a warmup match against Serbia. Presuming his recovery in time for the remainder of the tournament, any success France enjoy this summer will have been heavily influenced by their new Viera.
KEVIN STROOTMAN (Netherlands)
As if losing a World Cup final wasn’t painful enough, soccer turned on the Netherlands after their defeat to Spain in Johannesburg two years ago. The masters of Total Football had become the protagonists of Anti-Football, and no area of Bert Van Marwijk’s team endured as much scrutiny as his central midfield pairing of Nigel de Jong and Mark Van Bommel. Both players were viewed as evil in opposition to their Spanish counterparts’ good. But now Van Marwijk may turn to Kevin Strootman in attempt to reverse a poisonous tag that has characterized his tenure as the Dutch national team coach. Strootman, a PSV midfielder, has shown himself to be a classy operator in the Eredivisie, summing up his role as “making sure the artists can shine.” If he’s given the chance this summer, the Dutch may be given an artistic license.
DANNY WELBECK (England)
As Manchester United’s title hopes hung by a thread, their 21-year-old striker, Danny Welbeck, saw his chances of extending his season deep into the summer appearing equally fragile. When United effectively relinquished their Premier League crown to their fierce rivals Manchester City with a 1-0 defeat at the Etihad Stadium, Welbeck slumped to the ground under a hard challenge from Nigel de Jong late in the game. He left the ground with his foot in a protective cast. But just over a month later he was scoring the winner in England’s last warmup against Belgium at Wembley before heading East to prepare for their opening clash with France in Ukraine. His finish for that goal, a deft chip over the goalkeeper after a disguised run off the shoulder of the last defender, demonstrated why many, including the new England manager Roy Hodgson, appear to favor the option of Welbeck’s intelligent movement over the target man option provided by Liverpool’s Andy Carroll.