Germany's style winning over Ukrainian fans
Traditionally, Germany is the national side that soccer fans love to hate. They have always been decried for a bland, machine-like style that slowly drains the life out of opponents. Even worse, they win: three World Cup titles and three European Championships, to go along with seven second place and four third place finishes in the competitions.
At Euro 2012, though, the emotionless Germans have morphed into a stylistic, relentlessly attacking fan favorite. With their own side out of the competition, Ukrainians have nearly unanimously adopted Germany.
"This team is just so strong," said Kiev native Andriy Gnibulsky through a translator. "In (this) competition, this team has been on fire."
That may be an understatement. Germany has rolled through the field unscathed, going three-for-three in group stage play before showcasing their class in a 4-2 quarterfinal rout of Greece.
At the heart of this transformation from pragmatism to style is a young core of gifted attackers. Mesut Ã--zil is the focal point, sitting just behind the striker as a vital link between the back and front lines. He has been flanked by a rotating cast of dangerous wingers, Marco Reus, André Schürrle, Thomas Müller and Lucas Podolski. Only Podoski is older than 23, hinting at a limitless future.
First, though, they must overcome a field of semifinalists bursting with quality and history.
Seven of the last eight World Cup finals have involved at least one of the four. More importantly in maintaining local interest, Spain, Italy and Germany all boast a thriving domestic league, while Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo is a draw all his own. Dynamo Kyiv's series of deep runs into the UEFA Champions League has spawned a Ukrainian passion for club soccer, ensuring that the Euro has kept its buzz in the city even after the national side was eliminated.
"The tradition of our football is very oriented toward foreign football clubs," said Artem Frankov, editor of a local soccer magazine. "... Ronaldo is an idol to many of our fans. I think that interest in Europe is great all over Ukraine."
This focus on the club game would seem to benefit Spain and Italy. Ukrainian interest in the Italian league was sparked by national icon Andriy Shevchenko's glory years with AC Milan, and Spain's Barcelona-Real Madrid rivalry is perhaps the most glamorous in the world.
But neither side has captured the imagination of the public quite like Germany, whose list of admirable qualities can seem endless when talking to local fans.
"Germany is the least arrogant side in Europe, plus they have plenty of Poles playing for them," said Jakub Parusinski, a Polish native living in Ukraine. "It is the team, along with France, that best embraces the multiculturalism of their population."
It would be in the best interest of the winner of today's Spain-Portugal semi-final to root hard for Italy on Thursday. Because not only is Germany picking up seemingly unstoppable momentum, they would have the force of the crowd behind them in Kiev's Olympic Stadium at the final.
Matt Pentz is a freelance writer who is covering Euro 2012 for the Kyiv Post.