Euro Final Day: The Golden Age Of Spain

A much needed correction to a famous quote.  Apologies to Gary Lineker.  “Football is a simple game: twenty-two men chase a ball for ninety minutes and at the end the Germans Spanish win.”

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The Reign of Spain maintained in the Ukraine.  Despite looking shaky at times and causing many to question their mettle and commitment (including *cough* yours truly), Spain won again and in imperious fashion.  This was not the 1-0 bludgeoning to which we have become accustomed.  This was a 4-0 humiliation, a breathtaking display, perhaps the finest of the tiki taka era.  Before tonight, the record in the Euro finals had been 3-0,* and that only happened once.  Not only did Spain completely smash Italy, but in becoming the first side ever to defend its European title, Spain is the first national team in the contemporary era to win three back-to-back major tournaments.**  Fernando Torres (remember him?) became the first person to score in two consecutive Euro finals, and Vicente Del Bosque is the first coach ever to win the World Cup, the Euro, and the Champions League.

No doubt that Pele will come out swinging very soon because already the pundits are debating whether Spain is the greatest national team ever.  This means that the great Brazil sides of 1958-62 and 1970 will be relegated.  Pele, being Pele, will not be able to deal with that (and probably the people of Brazil will not either).  Forget Brazilian football jingoism, Spain 2008-present is indeed the greatest national side ever by virtue of the fact that sport only moves forward; the players and teams of a later era are always better than those of an earlier era.  The newest generation stands on the shoulders of giants, sure, but they still see farther.  Whether or not Spain is greatest if all things are equal is a fruitless discussion.  All a great side can hope for is to enter the world’s collective memory.  That Spain have done.  Like the earlier Brazil sides, and like the other great national teams (successful or not) that have gone down into football folk-lore, Spain are not merely great champions, they represent the apogee of what football can be.

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Before talking about the why of Spain, I want to discuss the when, where, and how that is required for better understanding.  Spain did not really become SPAIN until Jun 22, 2008 when it beat Italy on penalty kicks in the 2008 Euro quarterfinals.  Italy were historically the bogey team for Spain, a superstition with roots dating back to the late 1920’s.  In eliminating Italy, the Spaniards broke the curse and gained the confidence they needed to win the nation’s first major tournament since 1964.  Since 2008, Spain moved from strength to strength and have shed the underachiever label forever.  The roots of SPAIN go back two years earlier though to the 2006 World Cup.  (Actually, the roots go back years before to the planning and implementation of a brilliantly successful youth program, but 2006 was the watershed moment.)

In the 2006 World Cup, Spain were dumped out 3-1 in the first knockout round at the hands of a Zidane-inspired France.  It was a tough loss because of how amazingly Spanish dominated their group.  A few months later Spain began its qualification campaign for Euro 2008.  Despite beating Liechtenstein 4-0, Spain finished the year with consecutive losses to Northern Ireland and Sweden.  While perhaps the away loss to Sweden could be overlooked, the 3-2 defeat at the hands of that European powerhouse Northern Ireland was inexcusable (all the more so since Spain were leading 2-1 at one point).  That loss marked the beginning of a new era, most famously because it was the last time the Real Madrid legend Raul played for his country.  He was unceremoniously dumped and the new generation (spearheaded by Iker Casillas and Xavi) took over.

Qualification resumed in 2007 and since that time, in major tournaments (including qualifications) Spain have played 46 matches, won 43 of them, drew two, and lost one.  (A caveat: I consider the two matches won on penalty kicks as wins rather than draws, which is how FIFA classifies them.)  Spain have scored 101 goals against opponents and allowed a mere 20.  Spain have tied for the fewest number of goals allowed by a winning team at the World Cup (two) and have the sole record for fewest number of goals allowed at a Euro (one).  They are the first team ever to use the same starting XI in their opening match and the final of a Euro.  Casillas is the first person to reach 100 international victories.  The last two Golden Boot winners at the Euro are Spanish (David Villa in 2008 and Torres this year), as were the last two Players of the Tournament (Xavi in 2008 and Andrés Iniesta this year).  Spain also racked up all sorts of awards at the 2010 World Cup including the Golden Gloves (Casillas), the Silver Shoe, and the Bronze Ball (both Villa).  A host of Spanish players made the Teams of the Tournament at the World Cup (6), the 2008 Euro (9), and 2012 Euro (10).

And then there is Spain’s defensive record which is quite possibly the most incredible statistic of all.  In this tournament, Spain conceded a goal to Italy in its first match, and then went a record 509 minutes without conceding a second one.  In its last 10 knockout matches–dating back to that fateful June 22, 2008–Spain allowed opponents 0 goals.  This streak has lasted almost 1000 minutes, or about 16-and-a-half hours.  The last time Spain conceded a goal in a knockout round was its 2006 World Cup loss to France.  In that time, Spain have beaten the following nations at major tournaments (some twice): Italy, Germany, Holland, Portugal, Chile, Paraguay, Russia, France, Honduras, Sweden, Greece, and Croatia.  While neither Brazil nor Argentina feature, this is still a formidable line of opponents.  Spain are the lone European nation to have won a World Cup outside of Europe.  This Spain side have the record for most consecutive wins (15) and are tied with the 1993-95 Brazil side for longest undefeated streak (35 matches).

And almost all of their players will be available for 2014 World Cup–if they can keep their spots against the new generation who are also looking deadly formidable.

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None of this however explains the why of Spain.  Why is this generation of players so great?  For a quick comparison, look at the other young and talented squad of the current era, Germany.  Italy are the historically feared team for both Germany and Spain, but why were Spain able to eviscerate the Italians while Germany barely put up a fight?  Why is it that Spain have dominated the world, while Germany have become the eternal bridesmaid?

I am not sure I can answer for Germany, but I think I understand the Spanish revolution.  What it comes down to is that Spain as a footballing nation has developed tiki taka, which is shorthand for Spain’s own style, ethos, and philosophy about the game.  Spain’s play is instantly recognizable because no one else plays like them (or can play like them).  The cynic may say that so long as Spain keep winning so there is no reason for a stylistic change.  Yet this style has been infused at every level of national team development, and at almost every level Spanish players are successful.  Tiki taka has become as identified with Spain and Spanish football as Total Football has with the Netherlands.

Style is not the same as tactics.  With all due respect to Jonathan Wilson and Michael Cox, I think that tactics only tell a small fraction of Spain’s story, and very little about Spain’s greatness.  Over and over at this tournament, Vicente Del Bosque was criticized for not using a center forward, using instead Cesc Fabregas as a “false nine” (Lionel Messi’s position for Barcelona).  In essence in this system, there is no striker, and the three attacking players (Fabregas, Andres Iniesta, and David Silva) are really just a second set of midfielders.  In tactical shorthand, this is labeled as a 4-6-0.***  It was also heavily criticized by commentators and armchair tacticians until Spain tore Italy apart.

After the problems of the opening match against Italy, Del Bosque experimented a little, and eventually returned to the 4-6-0 opening formation.  Instead of eking out a draw, it provided the means for Spain’s utter domination.  Far more knowledgeable commentators than I can talk about the nuts and bolts of that tactics behind the 4-6-0 formation and what each player’s role was.  Those commentators can better describe the individual match-ups, such as the way Xavi kept Andrea Pirlo out of the match or how Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique neutralized Mario Balotelli.

But tactical minutiae do not get to the larger picture of why Spain could use the 4-6-0, and what being able to use that formation says about Spain.  The common wisdom is that defense wins tournaments.  One could certainly posit, by virtue of its series of 1-0 victories, that Spain is defense heavy.  Yet this is not a fair assessment.†  What the 4-6-0 really does is show how effectively Spain have undermined the common wisdom; defense doesn’t win tournaments, the midfield does.  The reason Spain scores are not higher is because every team that faces Spain sets up an extremely defensive system.  It is the implicit concession that no other side in the world can match Spain’s talent or ability.  When a team does not accept that and tries to play its own game against Spain, the results are disastrous.  Look no further than the Euro 2012 final; Italy, to its credit, played toe-to-toe with Spain.  Their efforts produced an entertaining match, and even an edge in possession at half time, but could not prevent a 4-0 drubbing.

Midfield players, especially Spanish midfield players, need two virtues to be successful: (1) they must be able to pass and control the ball well; and (2) they must have the intelligence and vision to make effective passes.  Midfielders can take on attacking duties or defensive ones.  When a team controls the midfield, it effectively controls the game.  This is the essence of tiki taka: “If I have the ball, I will probably score, and you will definitely not.”  The more midfielders a team has, the more players there are who are able to control and possess the ball (granted, at the expense of the traditional virtues of strikers and defenders).  Spain adapted this philosophy through Barcelona where it was originated by none other than Johan Cruyff.  Tiki taka is latest step in the evolution of Total Football.  Spain are what everyone wanted Holland to be.

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The final against Italy may well be the apex of tiki taka football the way that Holland’s 4-0 victory over Argentina was the apogee of Total Football (or Brazil’s 4-1 victory over Italy was the pinnacle of its jogo bonito style).  Never has Spain come through in such a devastating way at such a big moment.  All four goals (and the passes leading to the goals) were beautiful, the first two astonishingly so.  Moreover, Spain’s goals were the essence of team goals.  They may have been scored by Silva, Alba, Torres, and Mata, but the creators were Xavi, Iniesta, and Fabregas.

For the past four years, Spain have dominated the international scene as no team has ever done before.  In Kiev, they ensured that they will become legendary.  Pele’s Brazil, Puskas’s Hungary, Cruyff’s Holland, Beckenbauer’s Germany–Xavi and Iniesta’s Spain are at the very forefront of the conversation.

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Two quick notes before I sign off.

(1) If you have not been following the animated match reports from Tim Bradford of When Saturday Comes, get thee over to his YouTube page immediate.  They are wonderful.

(2)  Finally, given the television schedule and my work schedule, I am not sure how I will do with the football at the women’s Olympics, but I am really hoping to be able to write about that tournament as well.  Hopefully, I will see you then.

Footnotes:

*  In fact, in the three major international tournaments, the World Cup, the Euro, and the Copa America, there had never before been a four goal victory in a final match.  Even the great Brazil sides of 1958 and 1970 won by “only” three goals–5-2 over Sweden and 4-1 over Italy, respectively.  A caveat: the South American Championship did not become the Copa America until 1975.  Before that time it was a round robin tournament (as were the 1989 and 1991 editions of the Copa America and the 1950 World Cup), and therefore there was no actual final.

**  It is important to distinguish the “contemporary” era (i.e. post-World War II when worldwide tournaments began again after a hiatus) from the modern era.  The contemporary era began in 1950 with the resurrection of the World Cup and an uninterrupted cycle of regular football tournaments.  The modern era, i.e. when the game that we recognize as today’s global football game truly developed, began with the Uruguayan victory at the 1924 Olympics.  In the modern era, Spain is not the first team to win three consecutive major international tournaments.  Argentina won three South American Championships in 1945, 46, and 47.  Earlier than that the great Italian side of the 1930’s won the 1934 and 38 World Cups as well as the 1936 Olympics (which were a major tournament back then) and for good measure the Central European Cup, which lasted from 1933-35.  Uruguay won the 1923 and 1924 South American Championships and the 1924 Olympics.

*** 4-6-0 is not a Spanish system per se.  In 2008, Luis Aragones used a 4-4-2.  At the World Cup the system was more like a 4-5-1 or a 4-2-3-1 (although it was rather fluid).  Even in Poland/Ukraine, Del Bosque, did briefly switch away from 4-6-0, but switched back after being dissatisfied with the result.  Del Bosque used a 4-6-0 because of David Villa’s unfortunate injury and absence and because Del Bosque had more faith in his midfielders than in his remaining strikers.

† Helenio Herrera, the innovative coach who refined and popularized the infamous catenaccio style of Inter Milan and Italy, lamented that a system he believed to be attacking (when correctly applied) had instead become shorthand for stifling defensiveness, grinding out matches, and cynical play.  While catenaccio is a tactical system and tiki taka is so much more, one can see the similarity in the perceptions and misconceptions about both.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.