Seven Hot Matches

If you are relatively new to soccer - which I would define as having started to follow the sport at around the time of the last World Cup - then you are going to have a lot of fun over the next few days.

And if you have been at this for a while, then you know that "fun" might not be the best word to describe the range of emotions you'll be feeling.

For some, the trip will only last through early July. For others, the roller-coaster ride that begins now won't end until autumn of next year.

Whichever category you're in, fasten your seatbelts and prepare for takeoff.

Greece at Poland

12:00 p.m. Friday (ESPN; ESPN Deportes;

This summer's biggest soccer tournament, the European Championship, kicks off in Warsaw as one of the two host nations – Ukraine is the other – takes the field.

Poland's slim hopes of success this summer rest on home field advantage and the scoring touch of forward Robert Lewandoski, who won the German Bundesliga title last month with Borussia Dortmund.

Greek fans still remember when their team caused one of the great upsets in soccer history by winning the 2004 Euros. Now they look for inspiration from forward Giorgios Samaras, who helped Celtic win this year's Scottish championship.

Antigua and Barbuda at United States

7:00 p.m. Friday (ESPN; Galavisión;

It would be easy enough to fill this column exclusively with European Championship matches. But for American soccer fans, the most important games over the next few days will take place on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

The road to the 2014 World Cup begins for Jurgen Klinsmann's squad with what looks on paper to be a lopsided matchup at Tampa's Raymond James Stadium. But there's no such thing as an easy qualifying game, even if the opponent is 77 places below the U.S. in the FIFA rankings.

Sunday's scoreless draw with Canada in Toronto has increased the pressure on Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and company to deliver a strong performance.

Germany vs. Portugal

2:45 p.m. Saturday (ESPN; ESPN Deportes;

The Ukrainian city of Lviv hosts one of the most important games in Group B of the European Championship. Denmark and the Netherlands are the other teams in this group, which is clearly the tournament's toughest.

Portugal will be led by superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, who smashed his own Spanish league record by scoring 46 goals this past season. Germany is one of the favorites to win the tournament – as they so often are – and features Ronaldo's Real Madrid teammate, Meszut Ozil.

Spain vs. Italy

12:00 p.m. Sunday (ESPN; ESPN Deportes;

It's not really a rivalry, but these two nations don't like one another very much. Why? Because each side thinks its style of soccer is superior. Spain has its fluid, tiki-taka passing game; Italy has its elegant but often-defensive catenaccio.

Right now, Spain has the upper hand as the reigning European champions – and with midfielders Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta feeding forward Fernando Torres, they could win it all again.

But the azzurri will bring their own midfield maestro in Andrea Pirlo, as well as explosive (in more ways than one) forward Mario Balotelli. The potential is there for a classic matchup in the Polish port town of Gdańsk.

France vs. England

12:00 p.m. Monday (ESPN; ESPN Deportes;

Given all of England's pre-tournament injuries – midfielders Frank Lampard and Gareth Barry and defender Gary Cahill are the most prominent – the odds are strongly in favor of a French victory in Donetsk, Ukraine.

Les Bleus certainly have the talent, with stars such as Franck Ribery, Samir Nasri and Karim Benzema. But the Three Lions come in having won two straight games with solid performances under new coach Roy Hodgson.

England's rabid supporters always have high expectations regardless of their team's talent – and right now there isn't much. Fans in a certain former English colony's fifth-largest city might know the feeling.

United States at Guatemala

10:00 p.m. Tuesday (Pay-per-view TV and online)

The U.S. national team faces a huge test in its first road World Cup qualifier. Trips to Guatemala City are always tough, with fans causing havoc inside and outside the Estadio Mateo Flores.

Former Union striker Carlos Ruiz leads Guatemala, and his next goal will be his 50th for the national team.

Just as problematic for American soccer fans is the fact that the Guatemalan federation, which owns TV rights to its home games, sold the broadcast for this game to a pay-per-view outlet.

If you have iN Demand, DirecTV or Dish Network, you can buy the broadcast for $29.95. UStream.TV will provide a feed online, also for a fee.

If you want to go out to watch the game, a list of bars that will have the broadcast is available at

(Note: That list is still extremely short, because I've only heard back from three locations total across our region. If you know of a place that will show the game, please e-mail me as soon as possible so i can add it.

Netherlands vs. Germany

2:45 p.m. Wednesday (ESPN; ESPN Deportes;

Now this is a true soccer rivalry, with an especially strong history in major tournaments.

In 1974, Franz Beckenbauer's Mannschaft beat Johan Cruyff's Oranje in the World Cup final. It took until 1988 for the Dutch to get revenge in the European Championship semifinals – but that victory propelled Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard to their nation's only major tournament championship.

Could the winner of this game, to be played in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, lift another trophy? There's a pretty good chance of it, because both teams are loaded with attacking stars.

Germany brings Meszut Ozil, Thomas Muller, Mario Gotze and Mario Gomez; the Netherlands brings Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Rafael Van der Vaart. Just to name a few.