Euro Day 15: Sacre Bleu!

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

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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.

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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.

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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….

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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.

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