In Europe's High Season For Sports, Soccer Rules

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It's a prime irony that while Europe is suffering a great financial crisis, in counterpoint, the Continent is starting to spend the summer awash in a veritable plethora of joyous sporting events, a rolling athletic circus to divert Europeans from Angela Merkel telling them to get serious and tighten their belts.

Now, as is the case every summer, there are two Grand Slam tennis championships — the French Open, which is already under way, and Wimbledon. Then the Tour de France and British Open golf.

But hardly will these perennials be over when, this year, the Olympics will return to Europe, opening in London on July 27. Add to that the quadrennial Euro Cup soccer championship, which is being hosted by Poland and Ukraine, and Europe becomes one big summer stadium.

But not everybody is up just for fun and games. Already we've had trouble at the season's first big Continental competition, the spectacular Eurovision Song Contest, which is sort of like a mixture of American Idol and Miss America.

The finals were Saturday in Azerbaijan, and although the venerable Engelbert Humperdinck represented England, a singer from Sweden won. But the happy songfest was put off-key by crowds being manhandled and hauled off to the pokey for protesting the government's human-rights record.

Moreover, even before the Euro Cup has begun, demonstrators have been up in arms and off with blouses.

Feminists are charging that holding the soccer championship in Ukraine will only encourage football fans to patronize prostitution, which is already a blight upon the country. And in Europe, to attract attention to any cause, use soccer. When the cup itself has been displayed, women have shed their tops, then attempted to snare the trophy, which they call a "phallic symbol."

But then, Americans cannot really conceive exactly how overwhelming a presence soccer has in Europe. We have several popular team sports, but they know their seasons.

Our football, for example, ended with the Super Bowl way back at the beginning of February. But the top domestic soccer leagues in Europe go on from August to May or June, and then there are all the various Continental team and national competitions — plus so-called friendlies and eternal World Cup qualifying.

Yes, there are cricket in England and rugby in a few countries, and basketball is a second banana, but soccer is ubiquitous. And in some respects, when I've been abroad, I've found that the European Cup brings out even more passion than the World Cup, simply because it's all in the family.

The Olympics may call itself a "movement," but to most fans over there, Euro Cup soccer is a rock concert. Given all the problems and the visibility of the tournament, we can expect more protesters to borrow the soccer spotlight to address their grievances — undressed and otherwise.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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