Warsaw: Now, finally, UEFA President Michel Platini wants the players to take center stage when the European Championship kicks off on Friday. Football has almost been ignored during a turbulent five years for Poland and Ukraine as they sought to vindicate UEFA's decision to take its showpiece 16-nation tournament to eastern Europe.
Now the former France great, who captained and coached his country, wants the teams to seize the headlines.
"I say to the players, 'Go out and entertain us,'" Platini said on Wednesday. He spoke at the National Stadium in Warsaw — one of many rebuilding projects delivered behind schedule — where Poland will open Euro 2012 against 2004 champion Greece.
"What I would like now after (five) years of work, is to be able to calmly watch the games, to give the ball over to the players and let them get on with it," said Platini, who lifted the trophy in 1984. The potential story lines are rich and deep for what is arguably the best international tournament.
Can World Cup winner Spain become the first nation to successfully defend its European title, and further define an era of Barcelona-inspired greatness?
Will a still young Germany team overcome the Spain-shaped obstacle which keeps blocking its title runs?
Can the Netherlands rediscover its 'Total Football' roots and reconnect with neutral fans dismayed by its negative, aggressive tactics that marred the 2010 World Cup final loss to Spain. Platini echoes the popular wisdom that two favorites stand above the rest.
"These are Germany and Spain if they play at 100 percent of their level," Platini told reporters. "If they don't, there are a lot of teams which can beat them."
The former playing great who captained an exciting France team to victory in 1984 has a fancy for his home country to banish memories of its 2010 World Cup fiasco.
France extended its unbeaten streak to 21 games Tuesday, beating Estonia 4-0 in a last warmup match as Karim Benzema scored twice.
"The French have found their own playing style. You need to be wary of this side — if they get off the bus, of course," Platini joked, referring to the notorious mutiny in South Africa when Les Bleus players refused to train.
Still, backing the favorites has not always paid off at the Euro and another upset winner is due, following Greece eight years ago and Denmark in 1992. Both rode the momentum of underdog status and good early results to lift the trophy.
"These sides become more and more difficult to beat as time goes on," Platini cautioned.
Surprise winners have helped fuel the idea that football purists prefer the European Championship over the World Cup, and that Euro tournaments are tougher to win.
"It will be very difficult, because for me, the Euros is more difficult than the World Cup because you don't have the teams from Africa or wherever when you know you are going to take three points," Netherlands forward Wesley Sneijder said last week. "Now it's more difficult because there are only strong teams, but we will see."
The Dutch found only strong teams in its Ukraine-based group. Germany, Denmark and Portugal complete a quartet of teams who all featured in the top 10 of FIFA's latest world rankings published Wednesday.
Co-host Ukraine is top-seeded in a group that includes France, an England team playing with no pressure of expectation under new coach Roy Hodgson, and Sweden which is settled in Kiev for all three group matches at the Olympic stadium which hosts the final on July 1.
The Swedes are a candidate to cause a surprise having won all their matches in 2012 — a feat matched only by Spain and France — and with star forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic fit from the start this time round.
Spain will begin its title defense in a Poland-based group against Italy, Croatia and Ireland, whose exuberant fans have waited 10 years to return to a major tournament.
No reigning champion has reached the final since 1976, when West Germany was denied by Czechoslovakia in a penalty shootout.
The Czech Republic lines up alongside Poland, Greece and Russia, whose 3-0 warm-up win over Italy last Friday suggested it is capable of repeating its run to the 2008 semifinals.
Asked whether he would be bored by the first match, Platini made it clear he was hoping for goals between Poland and Greece.
"I think we would prefer a 3-3 to a 0-0. It's more fun for the fans," Platini replied, as if challenging teams to entertain.
"When you see the Greek and Polish national coaches ... you can tell them that from the UEFA president."