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What to look for at Euro 2012

Friday - 6/8/2012, 7:43am  ET

WARSAW, Poland (AP) - The World Cup may be the best-known soccer tournament on the planet. It may not be the best.

To many fans, the European Championship ranks as the top competition.

This year's continental championship, generally called Euro 2012, kicks off Friday in Warsaw when co-host Poland plays Greece at the National Stadium. Ukraine also will be hosting games.

With only 16 teams instead of 32, many believe the caliber of play at the European Championship exceeds that of the World Cup, which gets diluted by some of the slots apportioned to areas of the globe without strong soccer traditions.

If that sounds arrogant, consider that only one non-European country (Uruguay) has been among the semifinalists at the last two World Cups.

Both tournaments take place every four years, but in alternate even-numbered years. That puts the European Championship, which started in 1960 but became a full-fledged tournament in 1980 when eight teams competed, in the same summer as the Olympics.

For Euro 2012, defending champion Spain _ which also won the 2010 World Cup _ is the favorite, especially with Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta controlling play. But the Netherlands and Germany are also contenders with their own game-changing players, notably the Dutch trio of Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder.

Others, like England with Wayne Rooney and Portugal with Cristiano Ronaldo, will also be in the mix.

Hooliganism is always an issue at major soccer tournaments; this year's competition has already been marred by racism concerns and political turmoil in Ukraine.

The 16 teams in the championship _ the two co-hosts and 14 other nations that made it through a two-year qualifying tournament _ have been split into four groups of four. The top two in each group reach the quarterfinals.

The final will be played on July 1 in Kiev.

Here's a look at the stars, top teams, and a few players who could surprise at Euro 2012.

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BEST PLAYERS

Cristiano Ronaldo

If it wasn't for Lionel Messi ... Ronaldo has been engaged in a hotly disputed fight with Messi to be considered the best player on the planet, but the Argentine, a three-time World Player of the Year, always seems to get the upper hand. The flashy Portugal forward has all the tricks in the book, but has been accused of never producing his best on the international stage. He can change all that here.

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Xavi Hernandez

With his sublime first touch, vision and passing range, the Barcelona star is the beatkeeper of the indomitable Spain team. Voted player of the tournament at Euro 2008, he placed third in the last three World Player of the Year awards. But Xavi's performances in what is likely his final international tournament may be hampered by fitness problems that have dogged his end to the season.

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Andres Iniesta

Xavi's partner in Spain's and Barcelona's midfield and the scorer of the winning goal in the 2010 World Cup final, which shot the balding Iniesta into football immortality. Iniesta's quick feet and effortless dribbling ability makes him stand out, with Xavi describing him as the "complete player."

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Moody and temperamental, Ibrahimovic is often left frustrated by the limitations of his Sweden teammates. But it's a different story at club level, where he has played for the top clubs in Spain and Italy. Outrageously skillful and a great scorer, he has a distinctive languid style that his critics attack when things aren't going right. Sweden's only world-class player.

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Mesut Oezil

After two stunning seasons with Real Madrid, comparisons are starting to be drawn between Oezil and French great Zinedine Zidane. Rising to prominence at the 2010 World Cup, the graceful playmaker has the rare ability to make the perfect pass and will be the central component of Germany's attacking play at Euros.

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Robin van Persie

His goal-scoring exploits for Arsenal this season have made Van Persie one of the most sought players in world football. He has a wand of a left foot to rival even the great Messi and will lead the Netherlands as they look to shake off their "underachievers" tag.

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Karim Benzema

France finally has a striker to take over from Thierry Henry. The barrel-chested Benzema's explosive pace and unforgiving finishing saw him emerge as Real Madrid's No. 1 striker by the end of the season. He has been France's leader up front in its sensational recent run of 21 unbeaten games.

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Gianluigi Buffon

Buffon comes into the tournament under a cloud of betting-scam allegations as part of the fallout of the Italian match-fixing scandal, but his reputation as the world's premier goalkeeper remains intact. Tall and athletic, there are no weaknesses in the 34-year-old 2006 World Cup winner's armor. A key member of an Italian backline that had the best defensive record in qualifying.

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