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Over the next month, 24 countries vie to be the men's European football champion

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

Today, the men's European Football Championship kicks off in Munich with the host country, Germany, playing Scotland. This is more or less a World Cup of soccer just for Europe, and over the next month, 24 countries will compete in cities across Germany, including where I am in Berlin, for the title of European champion. Musa Okwonga is a sports journalist and co-host of the podcast "Stadio Football," and he joins me now. Hey, Musa.

MUSA OKWONGA: Hey. How you doing?

SCHMITZ: Good. Thanks for joining us. Musa, here in Berlin, as you know, the government has closed down a milelong stretch of road in front of the Brandenburg Gate and covered it in green turf so that people can watch these matches together on massive screens, lay down a blanket, drink beer. The city is in festive mode, but let's get to the matches themselves. Defending champions Italy defeated England in 2021. This time around, who do you think are the teams to beat?

OKWONGA: I've got to say, I think it's France. They feel like the front-runner. Incredible squad of players, battle-hardened, road-tested. They've won plenty at club and international level, the players in that squad, so they have to be the number one. And then I think Germany, who've reconfigured very well under Julian Nagelsmann, their coach, they feel like the primary threat. And then you've got England, of course, in the mix. But you never quite know with England. Hopefully they'll deliver the goods this time.

SCHMITZ: And I would imagine England is your favorite. You're British, right?

OKWONGA: Yes, yes. My sentimental favorite is England, and also, they have a very strong squad, but I think they're kind of joint second favorites behind France. That would be my view.

SCHMITZ: Got it. Germany, as we all know, has been very - a kind of fraught team in the past few years. They lost in the group round of the World Cup. They are hosting it this here. Do you think they will be revived by that?

OKWONGA: Absolutely, and also the return of Toni Kroos, the Real Madrid player who had actually retired with National Football after the disastrous world cup last time around, is a huge, huge factor because he's very much their kind of on-field quarterback. So I think that - statistics of that fact combined with the tactical brilliance of Julian Nagelsmann makes him a real threat in this tournament.

SCHMITZ: So, Musa, tell me about specific players that you're particularly excited about seeing this time around.

OKWONGA: I've got to say Eduardo Camavinga for France. I think also Kylian Mbappe, who is sensational. Also for Georgia, Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, the winger of Georgia, qualifying in spectacular fashion for this tournament. And Kvaratskhelia's starring for Napoli - and a superb winger, so someone I'm really looking forward to seeing an action.

SCHMITZ: Musa, you just mentioned a bunch of players that you're excited to see. Many of these players, some Americans may not know very well. What excites you about these players?

OKWONGA: Well, if you use a bar stool analogy, someone like Camavinga is someone who can guard all five positions. He's offensively superb, but also can defend anybody. I mean, he guarded Leo Messi in the World Cup final at left back even though he's actually a midfield. I love him for his versatility and his selflessness. I love Kvaratskhelia because he's so imaginative; he's thrilling. Football fans or soccer fans of an older vintage will remember Roberto Baggio, and he very much reminds me of a Georgian version of Roberto Baggio. I also mentioned, of course, Kylian Mbappe, the peerless forward who's just moved from Paris Saint-Germain to Real Madrid, who is, on his day, the most thrilling attacking threat in world football. I'm really excited to see those three players shining on the biggest stage.

SCHMITZ: That's sports journalist Musa Okwonga. Thank you.

OKWONGA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Rob Schmitz
Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.