It takes just one miss, one flub, one moment of wandering concentration and a country's tournament can be over at the European Cup. In a competition so close, one that has proven time and time again that anything can happen - anyone can be bounced - that managers, players and UEFA still entertain the dangers of distraction can be baffling.
Sometimes it is forced upon a team; sometimes they do it to themselves, but as we lead into Euro 2012 there are three side stories that threaten to derail a pair of countries and perhaps an entire tournament.England
What would a major tournament be without England threatening to come apart at the seams - even before they've touched a ball? Questionable selections by their manager Roy Hodgson (really, Stuart Downing? Near daily reports of training ground injuries, while Frank Lampard will miss the entire tournament with a thigh injury) and the initial absence of their star Wayne Rooney (calling it a suspension due to brain cramp would presuppose he had one to begin with), leaves England where it finds itself at each major tournament - tossing and turning ahead of the big day.
And while Nike's famed Write the Future commercial didn't play out as portrayed - a disheveled Rooney banished to a hobo-like existence after World Cup failures - it hasn't exactly been a charmed life since for the England striker. The man burst on to the international scene during Euro 2004 with four goals. At the time he was just an unproven teenager with lots of raw talent. Now he's the focus of constant scorn as the result of a needless, some say stupid, tackle late in an October match.
He was hit with a three match ban by UEFA shortly after. That ban would be reduced to two games, after now former manager Fabio Capello told an appeals committee that he was in some way responsible for not removing Rooney earlier from that game, as the dear boy was clearly suffering from mental distress.
The source of that distress? His father had been implicated in a match-fixing scandal. If England fails to score with consistency in their first two games, Rooney may want to consider growing that hobo beard for disguise as it will be his head the media comes for first.
If that wasn't enough, if you consider the racism trial that awaits former England captain John Terry when he returns from the Euros, then it will come as no surprise if England can't manage to find its way on to the pitch before imploding.Italy
Earthquakes, match-fixing allegations and a player who can cause more distraction than the previous two combined will be in the peripheral view as Italy's story unfolds at this Euro Cup.
Prior to a competition, it wouldn't be uncommon to hear stories from the Italian press using terms like 'storm' or 'volcanic eruptions' to describe the fiery Italians in camp.
Their infighting has become as predictable as any storyline in soccer, but this time around it is an actual natural disaster that has caused havoc in their preparations. An earthquake of 5.8 magnitude leveled parts of Italy including Parma last month, where they were to play a warm-up match against Luxembourg last week. The match was abandoned as the death toll climbed to 17, including 10 from the area.
Just as those tremors were felt all over Italy, so to have been the latest round of match-fixing allegations which have threatened to swallow up half of Italian football and parts of the national team in the process. In an ever widening investigation, national team defender Domenico Criscito has now been excluded from the Euro Cup lineup in order to clear his name as the Italian police continue to raid clubs across the country in what is being compared to the Calciopoli scandal of 2006.
Of course, where England is famous for falling apart, or rather short of expectations under the withering glare of their media, Italy seems to have the ability to come together during times of hardship. Following that 2006 match-fixing scandal, the Italian national team rallied behind that disaster and it propelled them on to capture their first World Cup title in 24 years.
But neither of these distractions compare to the sideshow that is striker Mario Balotelli. From run-ins with police, to on-field antics, to off-field petulance, Balotelli is as entertaining as he is agitating. And he is exactly what the Italians do not need right now.
It didn't take long for Super Mario to make headlines, as he declared last week that he would walk off the pitch if he was confronted with racism at the European Cup, even going as far to say, "If someone throws bananas at me in the street, I'll go to jail because I'll kill him."
And while the young striker, like anybody, should be commended for standing up to racist taunts and threats - they have long had no place in football - his words come across more as attention-seeking bravado than someone genuinely concerned with ridding the world's game of this plague.
In a volatile environment like Poland and the Ukraine - the tournament hosts - making comments like Balotelli's is very much akin to poking a wasp's nest. There were already widespread concerns about racist displays from the host fans - and, once again, to be clear, there is no excuse for those kinds of actions - but his comments are mostly certainly going to provoke an incident given the far-right leanings of some of the more extreme factions.
And that will only further add to the distractions now facing the Italian national team.UEFA in panic mode
If there were concerns over Euro hosts Poland and Ukraine before, UEFA is now in full out panic mode as racism - and more gravely neo-Nazism - threatens to dominate the conversation at Euro 2012.
Last week, the BBC's Panorama released a documentary entitled Stadiums of Hate. In it, they spend a month touring local stadiums in Poland and Ukraine and the images they capture have left the greater soccer community slack jawed in disbelief.
The documentary, which has been dismissed by the Polish and Ukraine governments as sensationalist journalism, shows fans raising casual Nazi salutes, viciously attacking so called foreign spectators, making monkey noises at black players and anti-Semitic imagery around Krakow - which is just miles from the infamous Auschwitz extermination camp.
UEFA may be banking on high ticket prices to keep the ultras and fringe elements away; and that the problems associated with domestic rivalries remain just that - domestic - but for a governing body who has attempted to lay asunder the often unspoken attitudes found throughout Europe, they are looking quite helpless ahead of this Euro.
They aren't victims of bad circumstance either. UEFA made the decision to go into Poland and Ukraine with eyes wide open but unfortunately with a certain level of naïve puritan intent - as if their guiding light would show the way.
But as the Euro first kick draws closer and the lights of international television flick on, never has the message 'Kick Racism Out of Football' rang so hollow.
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