Soccer supporters

Poland fans celebrate before the start of the international friendly soccer match between Poland and Portugal at the National Stadium in Warsaw. (Peter Andrews, Reuters / February 29, 2012)

For three weeks in June, Europe will shut down for the sake of soccer. Streets will empty, plans will be rearranged, and a million suspicious sick notes will land on bosses' desks all because the continent's 16 best national teams are converging on Poland and Ukraine for the 14th European Football Championships.

This event (visit uefa.com marks a pinnacle in the calendar of what is, on foreign shores, the most popular spectator sport around. Though they may not feature highly on the U.S. sports schedules, major soccer leagues such as the English Premier League and Spain's La Liga are among the biggest cultural exports in the world. More than 1billion people are expected to tune in for the tournament final July 1.

But there's no substitute for the thrill of seeing a game firsthand. If you find yourself in a European city in season, going to a match may just be the most memorable thing you do. You can discover as much about a country in two hours on its football terraces as you can in a week of urban sightseeing. With about 12 weeks to go until things kick off in Warsaw's National Stadium, here are some tips to help you join in the fun.

The nomenclature: Across the Atlantic, the sport is called football, futbol, fußball, le foot. Using the word "soccer" instantly marks you as a greenhorn and may evoke condescending head shakes from Europeans who are convinced of American naivete in all things football-related. Given that the game is played almost exclusively using the lower appendages, you cannot really argue.

When to go: The European club season runs from August to late May, with the European Championships, or "Euros," sandwiched into the intervening summer months at four-year intervals. For early planners, the next competition is destined for France in 2016.

Where to go: Almost all European countries have their own professional league and cup competitions. Most armchair pundits would agree that the English and Spanish leagues are the top of the heap; this is where you'll see the superstar players and the most dynamic football (the current Barcelona team is thought by many to be the best club team of all time). On the second tier are Italy's Serie A and the Bundesliga in Germany; the latter has some of the continent's biggest crowds, in part thanks to the league's commitment to keeping tickets cheap (less than $40 in most stadiums).

Getting tickets: Official sales for this year's Euros closed, but last-minute hiked-up tickets still can be found at sites such as tickets2012.org. For domestic league games, a good port of call is livefootballtickets.com, which sells tickets for a host of major European clubs, albeit at inflated prices. If you're sure of where you want to go and when, check out individual club websites to find out when tickets for your game of choice go on general sale. Expect to pay anything from $15 to $100, depending on the club and country.

Match day: A football match may consist of two 45-minute halves, but the accompanying ritual lasts much longer. If you're visiting a locale for the first time, make a day of it by doing as the locals do: Enjoy a beer or two in a partisan local bar, browse the shelves of scarves, shirts and branded mementos in the club shop, treat yourself to some invariably unhealthy food at a street-food stall, then enter the stadium half an hour early to soak up the pregame atmosphere.

The big games: With the days of war in Western Europe thankfully a thing of the past, the football pitch, or field, has become the place where age-old rivalries are played out and updated. Barcelona vs. Real Madrid; AC Milan vs. Internazionale; Anyone vs. Germany — these are the kind of red-letter fixtures that set soccer fans streaming for the turnstiles. Of course, tickets for such powder-keg matchups can be hard to come by, but it's worth remembering that the most hyped matches do not have a freehold on sporting drama. Often a bottom-of-the-league dogfight will be just as atmospheric as a championship decider.

The fans: To understand the primacy of soccer among its most passionate fans, the hackneyed habit is to quote Bill Shankly. "Some people believe football is a matter of life and death," the legendary Liverpool FC manager once said. "I can assure you it is much, much more important than that." For some — the peculiar sort of zealot who tattoos his back with the club's badge and dresses his newborn son in a pint-size home uniform — it is the start and end of existence. For even the most passive fan, club loyalty feeds a strong sense of local, almost tribal, identity. There could be no such thing as franchise relocations here. If Bayern Munich suddenly were to move to Berlin? Well, it just couldn't happen.

Safety: It's important to debunk some out-of-date preconceptions here. Though still supported with a fanatical fervor sometimes verging on delirium, soccer is not the violent, male-dominated arena of yesteryear. Matches in England, once the crucible of hooliganism and casual racism, are now largely family affairs, albeit ones with plenty of halftime beer-chugging and lots of swearing. There'll normally be sections of each stadium that are home to the more vocal hard-core fans and others that are more visitor-friendly, so it's worth seeking advice on which section of the terraces best suits the experience you want.

Chants: Football fans pride themselves on the impassioned songs that reverberate around the ground from kickoff to final whistle. As the supporters' collective voice, chants serve a variety of expressions, evoking standing rivalries, eulogizing a favorite player, excoriating an underperforming manager or condemning the shortsightedness of the forever put-upon referee. They're often belted out to the tune of popular songs that cross national as well as regional boundaries, and most tend to be simple, repetitive and laced with wry humor. Don't be afraid to lend your own voice to the noise.

Etiquette: The modern game may be more civilized now, but some conventions never change: If you're sitting in the home end, you would be well-advised to support the home side!

ctc-travel@tribune.com