Euro Day 16: A Comedy Of Errors

The football gods have a dark, ironic sense of humor.  The British football media and fans have complained endlessly about Spain’s tiki taka style.  Therefore, those same complainers were forced to watch an England team that could not keep possession, could not pass, and could not score.  And then they lost in that most English of ways.  Penalty kicks.  Again.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

The first twenty minutes of this match were surprisingly entertaining; the next hundred were unbearable.  Italy were woeful; England were worse.  Neither team could score, and all attempts (particularly those from England) were almost a parody.  But beyond the shooting, at least Italy looked like a football team–albeit a mediocre one.  England’s players are supposed to be elite; instead they looked like a group of toddlers who had never actually seen a ball before.  The passing in particular was horrendous.

Based on all available evidence, one must conclude that the football gods hate England.  Or maybe not hate exactly.  More like they take pleasure in the suffering of England.  The more ironic the punishment, the better.  This is the only conclusion I can draw from the six years I have been watching the sport.  At the 2006 World Cup, England were ignominiously dumped out by Portugal and a winking Cristiano Ronaldo, then one of the rising stars of the Premier League, who got Manchester United teammate Wayne Rooney red carded for stamping on another Portuguese player.  England didn’t even make the 2008 Euro, and had to hear the rest of the world extol the 2008 Euro as the best ever.  In 2010, England finished second in their group to the United States, were booed of the field by their fans after a lackluster draw against Algeria, and then lost 4-1 against hated enemy Germany after a legitimate England goal was disallowed (calling to mind the famously controversial English goal from the 1966 final against West Germany).  The entire Fabio Capello era was a just a big joke at England’s expense, ending in his abrupt resignation just before the Euro.  And in the years before I watched there was the 1-0 loss to the US in 1950, the dog that urinated on Jimmy Greaves in 1962, the World Cups England did not qualify for in 1974, 1978, and 1994, the other Euros England failed to qualify for in 1964, 1972, 1976, and 1984, all the losses to German opposition (especially those in penalties) who barely think of England as a rival, the 1998 loss on penalties to England’s other hated enemy Argentina (after a red card for a petulant David Beckham), all penalty kick losses (5 out of 6), and, of course, the Hand of Diego.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

The American football fan must at some point come to terms with England.  Given the closeness of the UK and US politically, culturally, and linguistically, it is unsurprising that most Americans fans generally see England as something of a big brother to be emulated.  I tend to see them as the drama queen neighbor with whom I am constantly forced to interact and whom I resent for it.  But there is really no other frame of reference for most monolingual Americans because outside of the UK there is very little in the way of football coverage in English (save for American coverage which varies dramatically in quality).  Additionally, the English Premier League is the richest and glitziest league in the world and the one with the best marketing arm, which means everyone around the world watches it.

Look at any American media outlet that has a section about soccer/football.  If there is a writer from another country, the chances are that said writer is English (even if he or she writes about another country that is not England).  Because of the language barrier, Americans, when they read coverage in the foreign press, are more likely to read the British newspapers.  Likewise, American blogs and newspapers are more likely to follow the lead of British media.  ESPN learned that for international tournaments, it is a good idea to have at least one football announcer with an English accent.  It may seem chauvinistic and insulting, but this comes following the failures of many different American announcers, one of whom had never watched a game of football in his life prior to calling a World Cup.  (As I side note, I was really bothered by the cheerleading and excuse making coming from Ian Darke and Steve McManaman in the booth.  It was not until the absolute end that either would admit that England were awful.  It’s one thing to cheer on the US team for an American audience, but it another to cheer on the English team for an American audience.)

As a result we in America are inundated with the opinions of the British.  Trust me when I say it is claustrophobic, especially for me who sees the English ideal as the enemy of football.

As I mentioned yesterday, I am really tired of hearing the English media drone on and on about how boring Spain are.  Tiki taka is the opposite of the English ideal which holds that technique is suspect, possession is cheating, and short passes are beneath contempt.

So the gods of football delivered their latest ironic punishment to England.  England’s players displayed no technique whatsoever, their passes went wrong more often than right, and Italy routinely stripped them of possession.  (And to rub it in just a little bit more, England took the lead in the penalty shootout only to blow it.)   Sure the result was technically a 0-0 draw, but England were thoroughly outclassed and shown up as utterly awful.  One cannot even blame Roy Hodgson given how little time he had to work with the team.

Perhaps it is time to rethink the bias against tiki taka, no?

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Italy meanwhile have just come off an emotionally and physically draining match that showed up their weaknesses and pushed them to the physical limits.  Germany, their opponents in the next round, will have had 48 hours longer to rest and were on cruise control against Greece.  Germany also have a far more talented squad.  The odds are incredibly stacked against Italy.

Expect an Italian victory.  Germany never beat Italy.

Advertisements

What If The Best American Athletes Played Soccer?

This meme comes up every once in a while.  I found it here.  To tell you the truth, I am kind of sick of it.  While I agree that the United States probably has better potential football players than the ones who are currently on the national team, different athletes have different skill sets that don’t necessarily translate across different sports.

Or to put it another way, the best national team in the world is made up of midgets* as is the best club side in the world.  The best player in the world is one of those midgets.

Keep LeBron and Kobe in basketball.

Footnotes:

* Comparatively.

Euro Day 15: Sacre Bleu!

In eliminating France, Spain broke its streak of consecutive 1-0 victories in knock out rounds.  Sort of.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

1-0, 1-0, 1-0, 1-0, 1-0.  This is not binary code; it is the scores of Spain’s five previous knockout round matches in official tournaments (the Confederations Cup doesn’t count because it’s an exhibition with delusions of grandeur).  First came the Euro final of 2008, a 1-0 victory over Germany.  In the Round of 16 at the 2010 World Cup it was 1-0 over Portugal.  In the next round it was 1-0 over Paraguay.  Then it was 1-0 over Germany again.  And in the final round it was 1-0 over the Netherlands.

So when Spain went up 1-0 in the 19th minute of today’s Euro 2012 quarterfinal against France (a fabulous header from Xabi Alonso), it was lights out.  Spain would tiki and taka Les Bleus (who ironically wore an all white kit) to death without actually scoring another goal.  Ruthless but effective and who could blame them?  Perhaps if France were less lackluster they could have gathered themselves together to score a tying goal.  There were moments where France threatened, but in the end Spain’s possession game plan strangled them to death as it has done to so many others.  I think France managed exactly one shot on goal.

In second half stoppage time Pedro earned a penalty, which Xabi Alonso converted to make the final score  2-0.  Officially, Xabi Alonso’s penalty broke the 1-0 streak, but to anyone who watched the entire match it was effectively another 1-0 victory.  Coincidentally, this match was Xabi Alonso’s 100th cap.  Today’s goals were the only two he scored for Spain.  Ever.

Next up Portugal.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

In winning today, Spain put yet another demon behind them.  Although Spain have an edge in the official head-to-head statistics, before tonight, Spain never beat France in an official tournament.  The last time they played one another officially was the 2006 World Cup, where a Raul-led Spain fell 3-1 to a Zidane-led France (happy birthday, Zizou).  At the time the match had no symbolic significance, but in hindsight it marked a turning point in the fate of both national teams.

Following the 2006 World Cup, Spanish coach Luis Aragones dropped Raul and led his team to an impressive 2008 Euro victory–the first tournament victory since the 1964 Euro (a much different tournament back then).  That was the moment Spain stopped being a jinxed team, the sick man of Europe, and became everyone’s favorite world beaters.  Unlike almost everyone else, Spain actually played with a national style.  Moreover, that style was difficult to play, distinct (and lovely) to watch, and easy to recognize–a football wonk’s dream.  The 3-0 annihilation of Russia in the Euro 2008 semifinals was particularly eye-opening.

Aragones, sick of the politics of the Spanish football association and the Spanish sports media, kept a pre-tournament vow to quit following the tournament, and he was replaced by former Real Madrid boss Vicente del Bosque.  Del Bosque had the pedigree; he had coached Real Madrid to a Champions League victory.  There was fear he might bring back Raul, who generally considered a team cancer, but del Bosque decided to make only very minor tinkers (such as famously dropping Marco Senna and bringing in more Barcelona players).

Spain won every match in its 2010 World Cup qualification campaign, and (after ironically losing its first match to Switzerland 1-0), Spain 1-0’ed its way to victory.  En route however, Spain stopped being everyone’s darling and started to be perceived as a second Germany–ruthlessly efficient and dreadfully dull.  Or at least this is the perception of the British media (and the American media which parrots the British).  If anyone else out there speaks a different language, please let me know how Spain’s dominance is perceived in your country. What the media overlooked though is that Spain “ground out” 1-0 victories because all their opponents parked the bus.  We tremble with dread when we think of Greece’s 2004 victory at the Euro, but Spain essentially faced those same Greek tactics over and over again in each round.  That Spain kept winning is truly a credit to their talent and their patience.

It makes sense that the British would come to despise the Spanish game, because Spain are the opposite of England (and to a lesser extent Scotland, but really when we talk about Britain we mean England): technical rather than physical, patient rather than daring. strategic rather than foolhardy.  Spain like the short-passes and keeping play on the ground, England prefer the long kick and run and the cross and the header.  And most importantly, Spain have completely changed its image from losers to world beaters, whereas finding excuses for losing has become a national hobby in England.

Therefore it is no surprise to hear the English gripe about boring, boring Spain.  But if the English National Team won a Euro, and World Cup and was now in the semifinals of the next Euro using tiki taka, you can bet that no one would think it was boring at all.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

In contrast to Spain’s upward trajectory, France have gone from disgrace to disgrace.  The warning signs were all there in 2006; had it not been for Zidane effectively taking charge of the team and through sheer will dragging it to the finals, France would have exited in disgrace at the group stages rather than losing in the final round in penalty kicks–a loss that may have been prevented had Zidane not vicariously fulfilled the dreams of everyone else in the world by headbutting an Italian footballer.  Once Zidane was exiled to the dressing room, decisions were left solely to coach Raymond Domenech, a man who was completely unqualified to coach a high school team.  Hence the French lost on penalty kicks to a national team whose penalty kicks record ranks only slightly better than England’s.

Following the World Cup, the French football association kept Domenech on even though it was widely known that the team despised him.  (Granted, firing a coach who takes your team to second place makes no sense unless you are Brazil.)  The federation would however, have had every right to fire Domenech two years later after France’s miserable showing at Euro 2008.  Domenech was retained despite the poor showing and despite some very strange behavior that bordered on lunacy.  The federation put him on “probation” for the World Cup qualifiers.  Not to toot my own horn, but when the federation’s then-president stood by Domenech, I told anyone who would listen that this was a horrific mistake that would eventually cause said president to resign after the World Cup.  I was right, but I had no idea about how right I was.

By now everyone knows the story.  France did not win their World Cup qualification group, and only qualified for South Africa because of a Hand of Thierry goal against Ireland in the play-offs.  Almost everyone knows about the strike in South Africa, but if not, the story of the French team’s behavior is told briefly and succinctly here.  It was horrifying and hilarious at the same time.  Again, France failed to make it out of the group stage (they finished dead last and were quite possibly the worst team at the tournament with only North Korea for competition), but the team behavior overshadowed the miserable performance.  It cause un scandale at home.  The president resigned, Domenech was (finally) sacked, and the players were disciplined to varying degrees.  Nicolas Anelka was effectively banned for life.  Sarkozy  himself threatened to get involved, but recanted when FIFA threatened sanctions.

Bordeaux manager Laurent Blanc replaced Domenech and it looked like he finally started to get the team in order.  They went on a 23 match unbeaten streak and began to look like contenders (although Blanc had his doubters, and the early days of his reign were, to say the least, not smooth).  At the this year’s Euro, France was drawn into a fairly easy group, with only England as potential competition.  Despite a draw with England, France seemed on pace to win Group D and avoid Spain in the quarterfinals.  Then France lost badly to Sweden who lost its previous two matches, and again all hell broke loose.  The details are sketchy, but there was some sort of problem or problems in the French dressing room following the Sweden loss.  Given that and Blanc’s generally defeatist attitude about the match against Spain, it is a wonder that the score was only 2-0.

Since 2006, one could say that France have effectively turned into the Dutch in that their internal squabbles derail their ambitions.  On the hand, the Oranje have never humiliated themselves quite to the extent that Les Bleus have.  (The Dutch tendency to fight comes from a tradition of independent thinking inherent in the Dutch culture at large.  France do not that excuse.  Rather it appears without a strong leader like Platini or Zidane, the French team’s natural inclination is to hate each other.)  Given that both France and the Netherlands have had disastrous showings at this Euro, both on and off the pitch, one can say there is very little difference between the team of Holland and the team of Hollande.

It is probably fair to say that the dream of 1998 is effectively dead, killed by poor stewardship and team disharmony.  Perhaps France can turn their fortunes around for 2014 in Brazil, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.  Blanc’s tenure looks far less secure, but they did keep on Raymond Demenech….

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

On a completely unrelated note, following today’s match, ESPN aired a special about Title IX and its impact on American women’s sports, particularly football, and with particularly emphasis on the 1999 Women’s World Cup (recycling much footage from the years-old documentary about that World Cup).

To my mind, this half hour encapsulates everything that is wrong with women’s football in America–as the world moves forward, Americans keep reflecting on a moment that has long since passed.  Last year the American women’s team repeated over and over again that they were sick of living in the shadow of the 1999 team, and who can blame them?  The 1999 victory has become so legendary that it will forever overshadow any future accomplishment of any other American women’s football team.  The fact that ESPN and the American football establishment continue to worship 1999 covers up some major problems: (1) the rest of the world has caught up to the US, but any serious conversation is swept aside for nostalgia; (2) the US is in danger of creative emptiness, and that needs to be corrected; and (3) the 1999 success cannot disguise the fact that now two women’s professional football leagues in this country have failed.  A successful tournament is one thing, sustained growth is something completely different.

And for all the good Title IX has done, the question must be asked: is the collegiate system really the best way going forward to sustain a successful national program?  It is not in the men’s game, and I suspect that one day it will be the same in the women’s game.  Perhaps it is time to move beyond Title IX as the fountainhead of all women’s football and to start thinking about alternatives.  Nostalgia has its place, but not at the cost of the future.

I have no objections to remembering and celebrating the good times, but I am really tired of the 1999 fetish, particularly the focus on Mia, Brandi, Kristine, and Julie (especially Mia).  The truth is that the greatest American football hero, woman or man, is consistently and completely overlooked: Michelle Akers.  She is our national legend, our Pele.  Perhaps it is time for ESPN to show her a little love rather than just retread the well-worn ground of the 1999 World Cup.

Euro Day 10: Agent Oranje

What do Portugal, the Netherlands, and Denmark all have in common?  They were all beaten by Germany at Euro 2012.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

I have a love/hate relationship with the last round of the group stages of international tournaments.  These are the most exciting matches of the early round because so much is at stake (conversely, they are also the dullest matches of the tournament when very little is at stake, which, mercifully, is not the case at this year’s Euro).  On the other hand when, like me, you don’t have two televisions, a DVR, or a way to stream the second match on your computer, then you are missing half the excitement.  Even if you do record the other match, there is little point in watching it as the announcers will update you on the score.  The players know in real-time, so you should too.  And flipping between the matches is a good way to induce nausea.

Holding the two matches at the same time is a necessary evil, and the history of football is full of cautionary tales.  Blame West Germany and Austria or Argentina and Peru.  Even if those infamous incidents had not occurred, holding the final matches at the same time is just common sense–which is probably why is took such blatant acts of cheating before FIFA recognized this as sound policy.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Football is full of truisms: a game of two halves, a game resistant to statistics, the beautiful game, etc.  The most potent and perhaps deceitful of these truisms are national stereotypes.  For example we have all heard about stolid Germany, flopping Italy, beautiful/fun/samba Brazil, tiki taka Spain, rough and tumble England, Americans who don’t know what a football looks like (and why do they call it “soccer” anyway?!?), etc., etc.  These stereotypes are largely a product of television, specifically the earliest years of the live, in color, worldwide broadcast, and despite now being decades beyond that, these stereotypes are nearly impossible to kill.  For example, Brazil have not played O Jogo Bonito in decades, yet every World Cup time we are reminded by a lazy sports media that Brazil play beautiful, attacking, samba football–all visual evidence to the contrary.

One of the most potent of all outdated stereotypes is Total Football of the Netherlands, an ethos which has shadowed and haunted all subsequent Dutch team since the great team of 1974.  Without fail, at any major tournament some ignorant journalist will write about the Dutch Total Football style without realizing that Total Football was outdated by the late 1970’s if not earlier.  That’s why the 2010 World Cup final was so shocking; it was undeniable evidence that Total Football was well and truly dead and the Dutch team no longer cared about artistry.

The reason the world loves to talk about Total Football still is because there is something so romantic about it.  Here was a style that touched something in the intelligentsia and cognoscenti as well as the average fan.  Everything about it was flamboyant and radical, from the method of play to the bright orange kits to the personalities of the players: foremost among them Johan Cruyff.  The fact that Total Football came from Amsterdam, a once European backwater that in the decade before refashioned itself into the world’s hippest city, only added to the mystique.  (Who besides Jonathan Wilson remembers Valeriy Lobanovskyi, the great coach of Dynamo Kiev, who independently fashioned a similar method of play–only with a Soviet focus of the collective rather than the Dutch focus on the individual?)

The fact that the greatest of all Dutch teams failed in spectacular fashion (in the final match of the World Cup after going up a goal before the West Germans even touched the ball) only added to the romance of Total Football.  The equally successful Dutch sides of 1978 and 2010 and the more successful 1988 Euro winners cannot dislodge the place of the 1974 team.  Their loss affirmed one of the great truths of the sport: fairness has no place in football (if it did, the debate over the best World Cup winning team ever would be between 1954 Hungary, 1970 Brazil, 1974 Netherlands, 1982 Brazil, and possibly 1934 Austria).  The 1974 loss was so collectively traumatic, especially for the Dutch people, that we forget that West Germany too played an exciting and creative game.  Because of who they beat, we remember the 1974 West Germany team as the dull but effective spoilers.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

There is however, one Dutch stereotype that seems to actually be true: the Dutch propensity to implode.  The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.  Players on Dutch teams fight and argue and let their disagreements become public.  Occasionally you will get a strong figure who quiets the dueling personalities: Rinus Michels, Guus Hiddink, Bert van Marwijk.  But that is only a temporary bandage for a gaping wound, sure enough, the personalities reassert themselves and overcome the strongman.

Whatever has gone on in the Dutch locker room this summer has led to a flameout of spectacular and unprecedented fashion.  During van Marwijk’s stewardship at the World Cup, it appeared that the Dutch had finally gotten themselves together.  Granted this meant playing a brutal and ugly style, a betrayal of the Total Football heritage, but it also worked.  (Dutch fans were openly ambivalent about supporting the 2010 World Cup runners-up because of how awful their play was.  Cruyff flat-out stated he was rooting for Spain.  Compare that to the Irish fans, the supposed “world’s best fans” who serenaded their team after crashing out of this Euro in a most limp and pathetic fashion.)  However the van Marwijk magic has worn off, and the tournament went very wrong very quickly.

First there was the 1-0 loss to Denmark, a loss that shocked the superior Netherlands side (superior in that they had better players and more possession).  Then the Germans, the ancient enemy, inflicted national trauma by destroying the Dutch in a 2-1 match that was not nearly as close as the score indicated.  Today the Dutch lost to Portugal 2-1 despite taking an early lead (Germany beat Denmark 2-1, so the Portuguese advance to meet the Czech Republic and Germany will take on Greece.  Let the Eurozone comparisons commence.)  This is the first time that the Dutch have lost all three group games.  This is a team with so much talent that they were expected to compete with Spain and Germany for the title.  To my mind the Dutch wipe out is the story of the tournament.  What, if anything, does this say about the future of the Dutch National Team?  Is this a temporary setback or the beginning of a journey that will leave them alongside Scotland, Hungary, and Austria–former powers whose best days belong to history, never to return?

Whatever it says for the future, Euro 2012 was an example of the Dutch team doing what Dutch teams do best (aside from playing breathtaking football).  They argue and they fight and they choke and then they implode.

And we wouldn’t love them as much as we do if they were any different.

Euro Day 9: Greek Lightning

They did it again! For those of you who have nightmares about the 2004 tournament, expect a very unwelcome relapse as Greece beat Russia to advance at the 2012 Euro.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Defying all odds, logic, and common sense, the Greeks beat Russia to advance to the quarterfinals of the Euro.  Russia had been the favorite to advance, and ran riot over the Czech Republic on Day 1.  Greece barely held on for a draw against a superior Poland.

Now Czech Republic qualified first from Group A and Greece squeaked out a 1-0 victory in a way that only Greece can.  Russia and (host) Poland are done and dusted.  God help us all if Greece win the tournament again.  I think Germany may declare war.

Euro Day 3: All Tik And No Tak

I have a math equation for all you football fans.  Spain = Barcelona – Lionel Messi + red shirts.

~*~*~*~*~*~

Day 3 of the 2012 Euro showcased what is arguably the highlight match of the first round: Italy v. Spain.  It was this match-up four years ago in the quarterfinals of the 2008 Euro that propelled Spanish football to its current Golden Age.  After Spain’s youngsters beat Italy in penalty kicks, they massacred Russia in the semifinals and dominated Germany to win the nation’s first international title since the 1964 Euro (this excludes all youth tournaments and the 1992 Olympics which is not a major tournament in men’s football).  Following 2008 win, Spain, exuding confidence from every pore and terrifying opponents into submission, won every match in World Cup qualifiers, broke or tied records for win streaks and unbeaten streaks–streaks broken by the USA in the Confederations Cup semifinals–and promptly lost to Switzerland in the first round of the 2010 World Cup.

Of course Spain went on to win the World Cup, but in the Switzerland match something changed.  Tiki taka football, once the darling of the cognoscenti, started to look stale and boring as Spain ground out a series of 1-0 wins en route to the title.  Suddenly, many of the same people who once toasted Spain (and Barcelona) complained about how boring their dominating style was.  Spain and Barcelona though are not a fair comparison, because while the two teams played the same style and shared many of the same players, the Spanish lacked something, a scoring threat.  The difference of course is that Spain does not have Lionel Messi, and to a lesser extent Dani Alves running down the wing.  (Messi, for his part, scored a hat trick last night for Argentina in a 4-3 victory against hated rival Brazil–quite possibly the first player to do that to the Brazilians since Paolo Rossi in 1982.)

All styles of play and all great teams eventually end.  No Golden Age lasts forever.  Whether or not this tournament marks the end of the Reign in Spain remains to be seen, but the national team’s tiki taka was already on the wane in 2010 when Switzerland, Portugal, Paraguay, and especially the Netherlands, figured out that the way to stop Spain from scoring (if not winning) was to play organized defenses and rough the Spaniards up.  Without a Messi to terrify opposing defenses, tiki taka lacks its killer edge.  That has been Spain’s problem, all the more so since the injury to David Villa and the vanished confidence of Fernando Torres.  Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, Xabi Alonso, David Silva, and Sergio Busquets are all great and intelligent players, but they are midfielders, and when things get tight, they prefer to pass rather than shoot.  Or, in a tortured analogy, they unlock the door but cannot walk through it.  Spain’s coach Vicente del Bosque must share some of the blame.  He has a quality forward at his disposal, Fernando Llorente of Athletic Bilbao, but instead he chose to start instead a midfield sextet rather than use an actual forward–a fact that Ian Darke and Steve McManaman could not stop talking about during the match.

None of this of course tells you the score of the match, which was actually a 1-1 draw.  To Spain’s credit, when Italy went up 1-0, Fabregas scored four minutes later.  They held their nerve and got better.  But watching the match, I got the feeling that given Spain’s difficulties in scoring and the departure of Guardiola from Barcelona, the sun has finally set on the era of tiki taka.

There are other reasons why Spain merely drew, and the top one of those is the good play of Italy.  Italy is the most maddening national team in world football.  They come from the land of Michelangelo and Verdi but their play reminds you that they also come from the land of Silvio Berlusconi and Cosa Nostra.  Whenever one complains about their cheap fouling and diving, the Azzurri faithful complain about the critic being “anti-Italian.”  Add whining fans and players to the list of things to hate about the Italian National Team.

By all rights, Italy should be done and dusted as a footballing nation.  Yet again, their national league has fallen to scandal (is it coincidence that this happened the same year Juventus finally won the league again?).  Their economy is falling apart (like Spain’s, I might add), and their political system is so broken that the European Union (i.e. Germany) had to replace their dysfunctional but elected government with one that might actually govern.  Ironically, when the nation is in crisis, Italy is at its footballing best, and the Azzurri win tournaments–most famously the World Cups of 1982 and 2006.  Equally aggravating is that Italy play at its best when it faces top teams.  This is why Italy are the bogeyman of both Spain and Germany; neither of those national teams have ever been able to actually beat Italy.  Even Spain’s 2008 win was officially a draw as the victory came as a result of a penalty shoot-out.

Spain were a pre-tournament favorite, Spain has dominated the world, Italy is in crisis, Italy exited the World Cup in ignominious fashion.  Yet today Italy played the better game.  Somehow Spain still managed to eke out a draw.  Perhaps that is progress, or perhaps the era of tiki taka has come full circle and ended where it began–with a draw to Italy.

~*~*~*~*~*~

In other Group C news, Croatia beat Ireland, the whipping boys of the Group.  I was not able to watch the match.  The problem with working during the week is that during the weekend, I have to make sure that all the chores are done.  While I could reasonably get away with watching Spain v. Italy, Croatia v. Ireland just did not have the same urgency.  Till next weekend.

Euro Day 2: Welcome To Hell

Day Two of Euro 2012 proved it was good to be white, as both the white-shirted squads from Denmark and Germany beat (respectively) the Netherlands (orange) and Portugal (red). Also, Ukraine and Poland have huge neo-Nazi problems.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

So first an apology.  Because of my work schedule I cannot post daily updates about the Euro, which depresses me tremendously.  Although I like to eat as much as the next person, a part of me was hoping to get fired for the summer so that I could sit in front of the television and write about the foibles of the European Championship participants (especially England).  That did not happen, and although I am sure I will be thankful about that when the tournament finishes, right now I am just devastated at not being able to watch my time watching televised football.  As it is, I am forsaking overtime just to write these blog entries.  (If you could do me the favor of spreading the word about this blog, I would be much obliged.)  I will try to write updates on Saturday and Sunday.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Day 1 started with all the bloated pageantry and self-regard that one expects from a FIFA-sanctioned tournament.  Apparently the actual matches were entertaining, but I could only follow by live blog, so the less said on my part, the better.  Greece and Poland drew 1-1 and Russia demolished the Czech Republic 4-1.  This proves two things: (1) Russia are the Group A favorite and everyone else is playing for second; and (2) Russia are a Euro-only tournament team that falters come World Cup time.  More than likely, none of these teams which is probably a good thing.  Winning will only make people, and giving happiness for Eastern Europeans is like giving a seal a million dollars; sure the seal is now rich, but it has no idea what to do with the money.  (The Greeks, on the other hand, certainly will know how to celebrate, but right now they probably shouldn’t.)

The major problem of the Euro is the specter of racism which has already reared its ugly.  I’m not quite sure anyone should be surprised by this given that we have all been complaining about this inevitability since UEFA awarded this tournament to Poland and Ukraine.  FIFA and UEFA are dealing with it in completely expected ways–pretending it isn’t happening until they are forced to, calling the nations who are complaining hypocrites, and forcing everyone to shake hands.  Bill Archer has been writing some good columns about this.  No sports tournament will ever solve the problem of racism, but the fact that FIFA and UEFA hide their heads in the sand until they are forced to accept awful reality of the situation shows exactly how meaningless their words and gestures really.  Expect the same problem (and officials reactions) to come up before the World Cup in Russia in six years.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Without fail, in the months leading up to the Euro the talk turns to how this the best tournament in football, lacking only Brazil and Argentina.  (Which is also how it is also viewed in Brazil and Argentina.)  Because Asians, Africans, and Americans (North and South) can’t really play that well, and get into the World Cup only because of affirmative action.  It’s a dangerous fallacy, but it pops up like clockwork every four years.

Group B of the Euro though actually is the toughest I have ever seen, and it is called the Group of Death for good reason.  Every tournament has a Group of Death, but usually what that means is that there are two top teams, one potentially dangerous second tier team, and one unknown quantity.  Group B of Euro 2012 though is a real Group of Death in that every team is a top 10 team in the FIFA rankings (make of that what you will).  Even little Denmark, widely expected to be the cannon fodder won their qualification group (over fellow Group of Deather Portugal).  Germany, Denmark, Portugal, Netherlands.  This is the closest you will get to a real Group of Death, short of losers actually being killed–which will probably happen when UEFA inevitably award Serbia the right to host the Euro.

As it became clear that Denmark was going to beat the Netherlands 1-0, we heard over and over again that this is the biggest upset of the tournament so far.  No matter how true this is–and this was a huge upset–it is still an incredibly stupid and hollow thing to say on the second day of a tournament after only three matches have been played.  But it was a huge upset.  Germany and Holland were expected to be the two survivors of Group B and the two teams most likely to challenge Spain for the championship.  Today’s results don’t make that prediction untrue, but it is certainly much that much harder for the Oranje to advance.

Credit to Denmark who were up against a far more skilled team yet found a way not only to win but win in an entertaining fashion.  Part of the entertainment value is because Denmark were a scrappy underdog up against a veritable football Goliath (granted, one prone to self-destruction) and won without draining the life from the match through incessant fouling and such.  Denmark even looked good, which Adrian Healey had to keep repeating, possibly because he himself was having trouble believing that this was possible.

Like most people, I have a soft spot in my heart for the Dutch, and like most people it is because of Total Football, a style that has not actually existed since the late 1970’s, a style that I never saw, and a style that never actually won an international tournament.  I have a soft spot because who doesn’t want to see the Netherlands finally get the World Cup victory it has gotten so desperately close to winning three times before failing?  (Answer: Germans.)

Nevertheless, I was quite happy to see Denmark win.  Until the day I die, I will never stop believing and repeating that there is no such thing as deserve in football.  Yet the Dutch waltzed in thinking they deserved the win because they are the Clockwork Orange who have a proud history of beautiful football (pretend 2010 never existed), whereas Denmark are just boring Viking spawn.  Keeping in mind that Denmark have just as many international titles as the Netherlands have (one) and Denmark also have a much beloved team that failed in glorious fashion (the 1986 World Cup team).  Also remember that that the Danes beat the Dutch when they improbably won the tournament in 1992–expect to hear a lot about that the farther Denmark advances in this tournament.

Denmark was certainly defense-minded (like most teams from small nations… and Italy), but they actually played rather than resorting to incessant, cheap fouls–a lesson the Dutch could have learned in 2010.  Smart money says that the Dutch will still advance in to the next stage and the Danes will not, but for Holland, it has just become much harder.  If they are not in Hell, then they are at least in a limbo.  And their next match is against ancient archenemy Germany.  If the Oranje lose that one, not only will they be eliminated, they will retraumatize their countrymen.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Ah, Germany.  What is that famous quote by Gary Lineker?  “Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.”  It’s so true.  Except that it isn’t.  Germany have not won a tournament since 1996.  In that time, France, Brazil, Greece, Italy, and Spain have won the tournaments that Germany entered and Germany have at best finished second.  At the World Cup two years ago, Germany were the revelation, this new, exciting, young, multicultural squad with such potential.  They were the instant favorites for this tournament.

Since 2010, Germany’s performance has been lackluster.  Now I grant you that there is not much to rate, but they stopped looking like the impressive side from two years ago, and started looking deadly ordinary.  Probably because now other teams are expecting them (see also: opponents’ reaction to Spain).  Against Portugal, Germany did find a way to win, but it was not pretty, and Germany look awfully mortal.

As for Portugal, why do analysts given them any credit?  They talk big, but can’t pull it out.  Every tournament it’s the same thing.  The only time they got close was the 2004 Euro at home in which they still came in second.  Even Holland and Denmark have a Euro title.  But Portugal?  Nothing.  The reason they are given so much credit is because they have Cristiano Ronaldo, the second-best player in the world (MESSI!  MESSI!  MESSI!)  and for some reason analysts who should know better think that one player will make the entire difference.  Even Maradona did not all by his lonesome drag Argentina to victory in 1986.  That is historical revisionism.  And the Greasy One is by no means Jesus Cristiano, a messiah who will lead Portugal to footballing glory where even Eusebio failed.

Portugal are strong (unlike their national economy), defensively organized, and they poach second-string Brazilians.  Much like every other national team, including those with better overall players but no superstars.  Against better teams once Portugal are broken, they cannot respond; they can only prevent the score from becoming a humiliation.  That is what happened at the World Cup with Spain, and that is what happened today with Germany.

Germany and Portugal also carried the shadow of another Euro, and the crumbling European economy.  Today’s match had the potential for much metaphor.  Depending on which economist you trust, Germany are trying to either (1) keep all those other lazy spendthrift nations afloat; or (2) prevent nations harmed by the 2008 Recession from growing their economies by forcing upon them harmful austerity measures.  And in football, like in the Eurozone, Germany again proved that it could have its way with Portugal.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

I didn’t watch much of the ESPN commentary between matches (weekends are when I do my chores, so the chance to listen to Alexei Lalas prattle on is going to have remain untaken), but I did notice Michael Ballack in the booth, and I wondered what he was thinking.  Four years, he was Germany’s star.  Two years ago, after an injury that kept him out of the World Cup–and estranged the Boetang brothers–Germany performed wildly beyond expectations.  Philip Lahm turned out to be a good replacement as stand-in captain and did not want to give the armband back, despite Ballack’s protestations and veiled threats.  Finally coach Joachim Low came out and told Ballack in so many words that his services were no longer required.*  What was going on in Ballack’s mind.  Alas, I will never know.

Footnotes: 

*  As a side note, this demonstrates how powerful the British media is.  Low says that Ballack is no longer coming back, and this dictate goes unquestioned.  Fabio Capello says (correctly) that David Beckham is too old for the national team, and the media and therefore the British population go crazy resulting in Capello having to walk back his statement and become further emasculated in his job.  This is why Germany win titles and England do not.