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Let the games begin!

Keystone

At 6pm on Saturday the five-and-a-half-year countdown for Euro 2008 ends and the action – and reaction – begins when Switzerland face the Czech Republic in Basel.

This content was published on June 6, 2008 - 20:55

For the next 23 days Switzerland and Austria will be a kaleidoscope of colour, with images of painted fans from 16 nations broadcast round the world by an army of journalists.

And what a journey it's been. Although a study said Euro 2008 could boost the Swiss economy by SFr1.5 billion ($1.45 billion), tricky questions were soon being asked regarding hooliganism, terrorism, forced prostitution and the lack of tickets, beds ... and sausages.

Yes, sausages. In January lovers of the cervelat, the nation's favourite banger, were up in arms over news that unless an European Union ban of a key ingredient was lifted, fans at Euro 2008 would have to make do with a cheap imitation. A "cervelat task force" was set up and a crisis duly averted.

More seriously, in 2004 legal wrangles over rebuilding the Hardturm stadium in Zurich left Switzerland with only three suitable venues. Uefa, European football's governing body, said there had to be four and threatened to give another country the tournament.

This spurred the people of Zurich to approve in June 2005 SFr110 million for a new stadium and work began five months later. The old stadium was demolished and just over two years after the referendum the 30,000-seater Letzigrund stadium was opened.

Media speculation about hooliganism and crowd violence at Euro 2008 grew after some nasty scenes in Basel and Bern in May, but most experts dismissed the likelihood of violence, saying extremist groups tended to ally themselves with club sides rather than national teams.

Also in May calls for a jihad against the tournament appeared on Islamist websites, but terrorism experts played down the threat, seeing no reason why Islamists would want to attack either Switzerland or Austria.

Numbers game

Euro 2008 generates so much buzz because it is more than just a football competition. It is also a massive social event, a gold-plated cash cow and a media circus. Whether you love football or loathe it – you can't avoid it.

Uefa, which expects revenue of SFr2 billion from Euro 2008, reckons some eight billion cumulative viewers followed Euro 2004 in Portugal, a figure sure to be exceeded this year.

And it's not only Uefa officials who are rubbing their hands – hotel owners, bar owners, in fact anyone with something to sell are expecting to do nicely from the 5.4 million fans who are expected to follow the tournament in Switzerland, including 1.4 million from abroad.

Three-quarters of the total 1,050,000 tickets were available directly for fans, the rest were given to sponsors and "the football community", i.e. anyone involved with Uefa, their friends and families.

When tickets went on sale in March 2007, 8.7 million applications from 142 countries went into a draw. Were you lucky?

If you weren't, you could mingle with around 60,000 equally ticketless fans in each of the eight host cities' official fan zones, which will broadcast all 31 matches live and also put on concerts by bands, DJs and orchestras.

The numbers are endless: 15,000 Swiss militia soldiers will be on stand-by, 10,000 "media representatives" will be saying what they see, 5,000 extra lavatories will be getting blocked up, 368 footballers will be singing 16 national anthems – but there can be only one winner...

Swiss chances

What are the chances of Switzerland causing the sporting surprise of the century and lifting the trophy in Vienna on June 29? Around 30-1 if the bookmakers have got their sums right.

In fact the Swiss would do well to qualify for the quarterfinals. To do that, they need to come at least second in their qualifying group, which also includes the Czech Republic (whom Switzerland play on June 7), Turkey (June 11) and Portugal (June 15).

The Swiss haven't lost their opening game in a World Cup or Euro since 1966 and they're going to have to continue that run against the Czechs if they want to make it to the last eight.

The problem for Swiss coach Köbi Kuhn – who is hoping to end his career on a bang and not a whimper – is that you don't go to tournaments with the team you want but with the team you have. Injuries have seriously limited his options and several of the 23-man final squad are lacking match fitness.

The Swiss team are young and fresh – striker Eren Derdiyok is the only teenager in the tournament – but whether they have the experience to shoulder the expectations and pressure of a feverish home crowd remains to be seen.

But football, as they say, is a funny old game – who would have thought the team coming to Euro 2008 as defending champions would be Greece?

swissinfo, Thomas Stephens

Euro 2008

Switzerland is co-hosting the Euro 2008 football tournament with Austria from June 7-29.

The two countries were chosen to host the third-biggest sporting event in the world – and the biggest in Swiss history – on December 12, 2002.

The 31 games will be played in four cities in Switzerland (Basel, Bern, Geneva and Zurich) and four cities in Austria (Innsbruck, Klagenfurt, Salzburg and Vienna). The final will be held in Vienna on June 29. Switzerland will play its three group matches in Basel.

The finals will be broadcast in 170 countries and are expected to be watched by about eight billion cumulative TV viewers.

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