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.

Super Club Revolution

Over the past few decades, FIFA has made itself an implacable enemy, a sleeping giant finally starting to stir.  No, it is not any law enforcement authority.  Nor is it the purveyors of good taste.  It is not even those of use who loathe corruption.

No, FIFA is facing something more dangerous, the European Club Association (ECA).  The ECA is exactly what it sounds like, an organization of the European clubs dedicated to protecting their interests.  Specifically, it is an organization dedicated to protecting the interest of the largest European clubs.  These clubs in particular hate UEFA, FIFA, and especially Sepp Blatter.

The clubs’ major concern is the ever-growing list of international fixtures.  The clubs are compelled to follow FIFA’s international calendar.  Whenever the FIFA calendar calls for international fixtures, the clubs must release those players called up to their national team, which the clubs deeply resent (more international fixtures means more potential for player injury.)  FIFA has taken full advantage of this power over the clubs by increasing the number of international fixtures.

It can be argued that international coaches have limited time with their players, and increasing the fixtures makes for a better international game.  The evidence however, does not bear this out.  If anything the standard of international play has gotten worse over the past few decades, and international men’s tournaments really are dull, especially compared to the Champions League.

The real reason that FIFA increases the international calendar (and the other reason the clubs are furious) is that national federations make huge amounts of money from the gate receipts of these fixtures.  Unlike cricket or rugby, in football, one-off international matches (“friendlies” in football-speak) are not all that important.  FIFA uses them for its rankings, but no one takes those rankings very seriously.  It’s a money-making scheme, and the clubs get no benefits but all the potential for loss.  And then there are the international tournaments.  FIFA and co. keep all the money from advertisement, licensing, and television rights, and no one else benefits.  On top of that, the greedy pigs at CAF make the African Cup of Nations every two years, which means every two years the clubs must surrender their top African players.  For a month.  In the middle of the European season.  (The fact that CAF holds a tournament during World Cup years is actually illegal according to FIFA rules, but FIFA will not do anything about it.)

The ECA is currently being driven by the demands of nine clubs: Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, AC Milan, Inter Milan, and Bayern Munich.  (Bayern in particular is at the forefront of this, and Franz Beckenbauer, who was until just recently a member of the FIFA ExCo has been remarkably quiet in the face of Bayern’s noise.)  If these club name look familiar, well they should.  With the exception of Real Madrid, who won the tournament a record nine times, these are the only clubs to have reached a Champions League final since 2005.  In other words, these are the biggest money clubs in the world.  And they are angry.

For now, the clubs have an agreement with UEFA that they will play in the Champions League and follow FIFA and UEFA rules.  That agreement expires after the 2014 World Cup, and the clubs are aching for a fight.  That fight has to come now, because FIFA is weak due to scandals of their own making.  The European public sees FIFA probably worse than it ever has before, and FIFA’s internal factions are divided.  Now is the time to strike.

What does the ECA envision?  The super clubs will form their own breakaway league instead of playing in the Champions League.  No doubt the nine clubs at the forefront will invite other historically successful (like Juventus and Ajax) and monied clubs (like Manchester City and maybe Shakhtar Donetsk.)  What UEFA will learn, and what the clubs know, is that the Champions League brand is nothing compared to the brands of its competitors.  Around the world, most people would rather see the top European clubs play one another than watch their own leagues, which is why leagues around the world are suffering from low attendance.

But the major blow will be aimed at FIFA.  If they are no longer bound by FIFA rules, then the clubs will not have to release their players for international play, i.e. the World Cup.  The clubs would instead make their own international competition in place of the World Cup.  Which one would you prefer to watch?  The one with the best players in the world or the one with history but with poor teams and a recent poor track record?

FIFA clearly does not take this threat seriously.  Hence Blatter continues to visit (other) corrupt dictators like Robert Mugabe and the Burmese junta.  The truth is that FIFA no longer has the cachet it used to or thinks it still does.  What FIFA does not understand is that while national teams are a matter of pride, clubs are matter of love.  Fans will not abandon their clubs because of the fight with FIFA, especially if the clubs offer a more attractive alternative.  FIFA also does not seem to understand that they are perceived as a shadowy, mafioso-led kleptocracy.  Blatter and his ilk should have seen the writing on the wall after the Russia/Qatar votes, but they didn’t.  The long-overdue exiles of Jack Warner, Mohammed bin Hammam, and the soon-to-occur cleansing of Caribbean Football Union is not enough.

It would be a loss if the World Cup were to fade away, but I blame FIFA for its destruction, not the clubs.  What I do worry about is if FIFA is neutered, will it still hold tournaments like the Women’s World Cup?  If the clubs only care about their own collective interests (which they do), then the women’s game could fade, as it is not a priority for the clubs.  (On the other hand, if that is all FIFA has left, maybe it will do a better job with it?  Not likely, but one can dream.)

I don’t blame the clubs.  They are businesses not charities.  A lot of money went into these clubs and the players, and the people who invested that money should be able to protect their investments.  The way clubs were run before (and in many places continue to be run) is a disgrace.  In American, we see our sports teams as organizations owned and operated by a person/group as a vehicle for making money rather than community property.  Sure they are part of the community, but they don’t belong to us.  If a club folded due to mismanagement, it’s sad, but that’s the way of life.  In Europe, the view is different.  Clubs are community property regardless of who sits behind the owner/president chair.  But, that is an outdated view.  Clubs are businesses first.

Right now this revolution is in the nascent stages, but it is very real.  I suspect that the clubs will either get what they really want or they will breakaway.  It’s for the better.  The old way has failed, FIFA is resistant to change, and the sludge needs to be cleared.

Soccer Updates

1.  The US Women’s National Team has won the Algarve Cup.  Again.  This time it was over Iceland.  I didn’t even realize Iceland had a women’s time.  It’s nice to see though that the Nordic nations produce such good women’s football (now if only the men followed.)

2.  Barcelona beat Arsenal 3-1 to advance to the next round of the Champions League.  I was very happy.  For those haters who complain about the quality of La Liga, I pose this question.  Every Spanish team that faced Barcelona this year had at least one shot on goal whether on or off target.  Arsenal did not even have one.

3.  To make matters even more embarrassing for Arsenal, bitter North London rival Tottenham advanced over AC Milan.  (Once again Zlatan Ibrahimovic goes home empty-handed from Europe.  Who will that loose cannon blame this time?)  I wish Tottenham luck with all future opponents except Barcelona.

The Greatest XI Teams

Robin Hackett of ESPN Soccernet posted a list today of the Greatest XI teams in history.  It is a ridiculous list.  I would go so far as to call it biased.  Allegedly it is a list of “some of the greatest sides of their era.”  Here are ESPN’s top XI (not counting the current Barcelona side that inspired the list):

1. Preston (1888-89)

2.  Italy (1934-38)

3.  Sweden (1942-48)

4.  Hungary (1950-56)

5.  Real Madrid (1955-60)

6.  Brazil (1970)

7.  Ajax (1970-73)

8.  Netherlands (1974)

9.  Bayern Munich (1974-76)

10.  Liverpool (1977-84)

11.  AC Milan (1989-95)

Now, if you are paying even the slightest bit of attention, you will notice that 10 of the 11 teams are European.  The lone exception is Brazil 1970, widely regarded as the greatest side ever assembled.  But seriously?  No other South American side deserves to be on this list?  That is borderline offensive.  Especially given that Sweden and Preston made the cut.*

Here are nine of the South American teams that the Euro-centric Soccernet completely overlooked.

1.  Uruguay (1924-1930): The first truly great international side in history (sorry England and Scotland, but you know it’s true.)  The Uruguayans won the 1924 and 1928 Olympics, utterly dominating all the Europeans in the process and showing them what dazzling football was.  Then for good measure Uruguay won the first World Cup, beating arch-rival Argentina.

2.  River Plate (1941-47): The foremost practitioners of Argentina’s beloved La Nuestra.  In the early 1940’s, River’s famed La Máquina won three Argentinian championships.  How good was La Máquina?  Alfredo Di Stéfano was a backup until 1947.

3.  Brazil (1958): Gilmar, Nilton Santos, Djalma Santos, Bellini, Orlando, Didi, Zagallo, Garrincha, Zito, Vavá, Pelé.  Need I say more?

4.  Santos (1962-63): Pelé’s great team at it zenith, they won the Copa Libertadores twice in a row.  Could credibly claim to be the best side in the world after twice beating Europeans Cup winners (Benfica in 1962 and Milan in 1963) in the Intercontinental Cup at a time when that tournament actually meant something.

5.  Estudiantes de La Plata (1968-70): Possibly football’s first international villains and the creators of anti-futbol.  Also the first side to win the Copa Libertadores three times in a row.

6.  Argentina (1978): After the dominance of Estudiantes, César Luis Menotti brought a modern version of La Nuestra back to Argentina.  A side so good that a teenage Maradona did not make the cut.

7.  Flamengo (1981):  Zico’s Flamengo won the Copa Libertadores and then for good measure beat Liverpool (the top team in Europe) in the Intercontinental Cup .

8.  Brazil (1982): Sure they never won anything, but neither did the Netherlands in 1974.  This Brazil squad, which included Zico, Sócrates, and Falcão, is considered one of the finest to ever be assembled, the living embodiment of Jogo Bonito and Futebol Arte.  Purists of the game still mourn this squad’s all too early exit from the 1982 World Cup (and the 1986 World Cup.)

9.  Brazil (2002): Led by the Three R’s (Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho), Brazil recovered from a very weak qualification campaign to dominate the World Cup.  This is currently the the last South American side to win the World Cup (or make the finals.)  In 2002, Brazil become the only national team to win the World Cup on four different continents (South America, Europe, North America, Asia).

These are just a few of the great South American squads that ESPN overlooked in forming a Greatest XI.  There are definitely others worthy of mention.  While one cannot quibble with some of ESPN’s inclusions (Brazil, Hungary, Madrid, Ajax, Milan) the greatest South American sides are certainly more qualified than what Robin Hackett’s lazy article would have you believe.

Footnotes:

* This is not to say these are even necessarily the finest European sides.  Spain 2008-10, France 1998-2000, Germany 1974-76, Grande InterIl Grande Torino, the Barcelona Dream Team squad, and the Austrian Wunderteam are some of the others who could have been considered.

Music That I Listened to While Writing This Post: World Football Daily Podcast.

Weekend Roundup

Marriage Equality Train: Next stops–Maryland and Rhode Island?

That both states are very close is not much of a surprise.  Maryland has been a blue state for quite some time, and its proximity to DC–where same-sex marriage is already a reality–had put added pressure on the state to legalize same-sex marriage.  All the more so after the Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler released an opinion recognizing out-of-state same-sex marriages (and after Governor Martin O’Malley won his reelection bid last November and pledged to sign the bill.)  If the bill passes, there could be a referendum.  The good news is that getting a referendum to overturn an LGBT rights law in Maryland has not been successful in the past.  The bad news is that equal rights supporters have a very poor track record in state-wide referenda.

Rhode Island is, quite frankly, just a matter of time.  If not now, then soon.  Before this week, Rhode Island had a very homophobic governor in office.  Now Lincoln Chafee is governor.  Governor Chafee is undoubtedly a (to quote a now-infamous remark) “fierce advocate” of LGBT rights.  He was when he was in the Senate, the lone Republican one could say that about.  Lincoln Chafee’s ouster in 2006 was a tragedy.  Had he turned independent, Rhode Island would still have a great Senator rather than a future great Governor.  However, he was loyal to the GOP in a year when the country was sick of Republicans.  Despite an approval rating of over 60%, he lost his seat.  When I heard he was running for Governor, I told anyone who would listen that I hoped he would win.  After his election he refused to meet with the anti-gay bigots from NOM, and then he called for a marriage equality bill in his inauguration address.  That, my friends, is fierce advocacy.

Perhaps if marriage equality is successful in Maryland and Rhode Island, the LGBT rights movement can recapture the momentum that it lost after the failures in New York, New Jersey, Maine, and California.

Future Heartbreak? This Sunday Showtime will air the episode of its new series Shameless, which is an American version of a British series of the same name.  One of the characters is a gay teen named Ian Gallagher.  I have not seen the British show, and I had never heard about either the original or the American version  until today (I don’t have Showtime, but I will watch Shameless the next time I visit my parents.)  Having said that, I am excited and terrified at the thought of this show.  I am excited because British shows are usually very good at creating gay characters (Beautiful People, the British Queer as Folk).  It seems like people really enjoyed the British version, which is now on my Netflix queue.  I am terrified because American shows by and large make gay characters horribly one-dimesnional.  While I have not watched Showtime lately, their track record with gay shows has been appalling (The L Word, the American Queer as Folk).  On the other hand, this is not a gay show, it is a show where one of the central characters is gay.  That’s an important difference, and every once in a while, in that paradigm American television does do a gay character well.  Maybe Ian Gallagher will be among the lucky few.  (Although can we talk about this Ian Gallagher as the anti-Kurt Hummel thing that Vanity Fair and Towleroad are pushing?  Gay people come in all shapes, sizes, and colors; to define a gay character as an antithesis of another gay character is to denigrate the entire community, because there is an implied superiority.  Kurt and all effeminate/fey gay men around the world are just fine the way they are; the same is true of not-effeminate/fey gay men.)

I’m a little hesitant to watch this show because I am afraid of what would happen if I like it and then Showtime cancels the show?  My heart was broken by Beautiful People, and I’m still a little gun shy about new relationships with television characters.

edit:  I have been watching the British version on YouTube.  It’s funny, but this whole Ian Gallagher as the anti-Kurt Hummel is complete bollocks (as the British say.)

Turkish Orders Another LGBT To Close: Dear Turkey, do you really expect to join the EU?  And given that you pull this kind of thing all the time, do you really want to join?

Johnny Weir Comes Out: No, really.  I know you’re shocked.  And (what incredible timing!) he’s just about to start selling his autobiography/memoirs.  But it really was because gay kids are killing themselves.  I don’t want to hate on Johnny Weir; I liked his personality, and I liked his skating.  But his desire to play the victim now (Big Bad Gay Media made me stay in the closet!) rings hollow given his constant need for the spotlight–including television shows and a movie about his “outrageous” personality.  Additionally, after all of his complaining about the constant probing into his sexuality he outed his rival/enemy Evan Lysacek on Chelsea’s Hendler’s show.  Dear Johnny, people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, even you really do hate Evan Lysacek.

Politics: President Obama selected William Daley as his new Chief of Staff, and progressives are up in arms.  I share their disappointment that the President appointed someone who believes the Democrats went too far to the left, but we need to be rational about this for a second.  No progressive legislation is going to be passed in the next two years, Daley or no.  As of this past Wednesday, the Administration is unofficially at war with Congress.  In the face of inevitable investigations, government shut-downs, and the 2012 election cycle, nothing progressive was going to get done anyway.  The White House needs a general right now and one who is not afraid to fight.  (But it would be nice if the Obama White House branched out and employed someone from outside of Chicago.  The rest of us are not incompetent.)

League Football: Tomorrow Barcelona plays Deportivo La Coruña in A Coruña.  Depor has not had a great season thus far, but they are still dangerous, especially at the Riazor.  Barcelona barely got past Athletic Bilbao at the Copa del Rey this week, and squeaked by Levante last week, so there is clearly some rust.  That needs to be fixed ASAP given that Real Madrid is always lurking.

For weeks I have been hearing non-stop bashing of La Liga.  The whiner complain that it is boring because only one of two teams is going to win, and that’s only because the rest of the league is so weak.  It denigrates an entire league, whose overall quality is just as good as any other (and team-by-team there is better technical quality in La Liga than anywhere else in the world.)  The bashing is usually from the English (of course), and all they talk about is how only two teams exist in La Liga.  Let’s examine why the detractors are hypocrites.  Every major league in the world has its big two, three, or four.  Spain has Barcelona and Read Madrid; Italy has Juventus, AC Milan, and Inter; England has Manchester United, Arsenal, and Chelsea (and previously Liverpool–sometimes); and Germany has Bayern Munich and occasionally a team that is not Bayern (this year it is Borussia Dortmund.)  Ligue 1 has been more competitive of late, but almost no one pays attention to Ligue 1 because the quality is just not there.  And we won’t even go into the problems with the leagues in Portugal, Scotland, Holland, and the rest of Europe.

Here are some facts.  Since the 1992-93 season, the beginning of the English Premier League, there have been 5 different winners in Spain.  There have been 5 different winners in Serie A.  There have been 6 different winners in the Bundesliga.  There have been only 4 winners in the Premier League.

From the 2000-2001 season to the 2009-2010 season there have been 3 different winners in La Liga, 4 in Serie A, 5 in the Bundesliga, and 3 in the Premier League.

From the 2005-2006 season to the 2009-2010 season there have been 2 different winners in La Liga, 1 winner in Serie A, 3 different winners in the Bundesliga, and 2 different winners in the Premier League.

In the 18 completed seasons since the formation of the Premier League, the top winner of La Liga (Barcelona) has won 8 titles; Serie A has a three tie for the spot as Juventus, Milan, and Inter each have 5 titles (but a lot of suspicion because of the Calciopoli scandal); the top winner of the Bundesliga (Bayern) has won 10 titles; the top winner of the Premier League (Manchester United) has won 11 titles.

This season as it stands, Barcelona leads La Liga by 2 points;  AC Milan leads Serie A by 5 points; Borussia Dortmund leads the Bundesliga by 10 points; and the most thoroughly mediocre Manchester United in recent history leads the Premier League by 4 points with two games in hand.

Meanwhile there actually a race in La Liga with two stellar teams (one possibly among the greatest of all time.)  In the other three major leagues, there is a lot of mediocrity at the top, which is why the league leaders lose and draw so many matches.

Can we please give lie to this canard that La Liga is boring?

World Football: Chile is probably out of a national coach.  The election for head of the Chilean Football Association head was held again, and this time Sergio Jadue won.  Bielsa has said he would resign if Harold Mayne-Nicholls (who did not run in the recontested election) was voted out.  There is a new head.  According to local media, Jadue will try to convince Bielsa to stay, but that probably will not happen.

And FIFA head Sepp Blatter, to the surprise of no one, is now calling for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar to be held in the winter.  When will Sepp Blatter go already?

The Asian Cup has started in Qatar.  Qatar lost 2-0 to the powerhouse that is Uzbekistan.

Women’s Football: Kristine Lilly finally retired, and it is a sad day for American soccer, men’s or women’s.  Lilly participated in five World Cups, and was on the winning side in two of them.  She is the most capped player of all time, men or women, and the second highest scorer in women’s history.  She saved the US in the final match against China in the 1999 World Cup.  It is truly the end of an era, and the US team is all the better for her having played on it.

Music I listened to: Well none, but I did listen to a World Football Daily podcast.

A Eurovision Guide For The Perplexed American Part IV

The Contestants (Continued)

Russia and the Other Former Soviet States: First we have to deal with Russia, because Russia is big, and the center of the former Soviet bloc (both in Eurovision and politics.)  Russia first entered in 1994, and every time Russia did not win, the Russians cried foul.  This is a very Russian reaction to pretty much everything.  In 1997, Alla Pugacheva entered the contest and only placed 15th.  Now, dear reader you probably have no idea who Alla Pugacheva is, but she is a legend in the former Soviet Union.  Forget Dusty Springfield, this was like Judy Garland entering Eurovision–and only placing 15th . . . to Katrina & the Waves (please, please, please stop laughing.)  That Alla Pugacheva is also a huge icon for Russian gays makes the Judy Garland connection even more appropriate.  At some point Russia decided it really wanted to win Eurovision, probably after it saw that Estonia and Latvia had already won.  In 2003, Russia sent in the big guns with t.a.T.u., the pretend-lesbian teenagers who had hit albums all over the world, including the United Kingdom and the United States.  Everyone thought t.a.T.u. was going to win.  They came in third.  Russia was pissed (in the American sense, not the British.)  A few years later (2006) Russia sent Dima Bilan, who I believe is physically incapable of performing a song without gimmicks coming out the yin-yang.  He played a white piano and midway through a ballerina rose out of it. He only placed second (the one good thing about Lordi’s victory), and again the Russians were pissed.  By this time though, Ukraine had also won the competition.  Two years later, Russia sent Dima Bilan back with even more gimmicks (such as 2006 Olympic figure skating gold medalist Evgeni Plushenko skating in the background) and a lousy song that Russia marketed the hell out of to its neighbors.  You want to know how badly the Russians wanted to win Eurovision?  The entries were performed in English.  Once Russia won, the nation collectively lost interest and sent in more lousy entries, but this time without the Moscow marketing machine behind them.

As I mentioned before Estonia and Latvia had won in 2001 and 2002 respectively.  Their entries are forgettable.  In fact, pretty much every entry from the Baltic states has been forgettable except for one entry from Latvia called Wolves of the Sea, which has to be seen to be believed and one entry from Lithuanian that was so bad, I wished pain on the performers LT United.  The entire “song” was a mock-football chant: “We are the winners… of Eurovision!”  They lost.  (They were also jeered by the crowd, which never happens.)

Moldova has yet to do anything memorable, and the same would be said for Belarus if not for the spectacular bomb that is My Galileo.  Me, I love the song.  Once you understand the lyrics (admittedly no small feat even though the song is completely in English), you get that it’s actually a pretty clever pop song.  However, it is near impossible to understand on a first hearing (or second or third), so alas, the larger European audience missed out.

Ukraine, unlike every other former Soviet state, has had exceptionally memorable performances, none more so than its 2004 winner Wild Dances, sung by Xena the Warrior Princess Ruslana.  My words cannot do it justice.  Go ahead, and watch.  I can wait.  See what I mean?  In 2007 and 2008, Ukraine finished second.  Neither song was particularly good.  The 2008 one was a fairly innocuous and mediocre pop song called Shady Lady.  The 2007 song on the other hand, nearly caused an international incident.  It was performed by Andriy Danylko in his drag(?) alter-ego Verka Serduchka (it’s a little hard to tell, Verka does not look like a woman), and the song(?) was called Dancing Lasha Tumbai, which is gibberish.  The Russians heard a supposedly anti-Russsian message in the song, and (as always) they were pissed.

Switzerland: Switzerland was the first winner.  Lys Assia won with the song Refrain in 1956.  She then singlehandedly began another Eurovision tradition of former top-performers returning for a second (or third) bite at the apple when she returned in 1957 (8th place) and 1958 (2nd place).  For the next three decades Switzerland had almost no success, but then in 1988 in Dublin a French song c0-written by a Turkish songwriter (and a Swiss composer) was sung by a Canadian from Quebec wearing a ridiculous outfit apparently from Mars.  The song, Ne Partez Pas Sans Moi, won.  The singer was Céline Dion.

Malta: If you only casually watch Eurovision, you may be excused for thinking that Malta only has two pop singers, and the nation just recycles them.  If you watch Eurovision more than casually, you would know that Malta has far more than two pop singers, but they fall into two paradigms: (1) Chiara and (2) Not-Chiara.  Malta has placed second twice and third twice.  Chiara was only responsible for one of the second place finishes and one third place finishes, but for all intents and purposes there is no one else.  Without having met her or knowing anything about her life, I can say with absolute certainty Chiara is the best friend every gay man wants to have.  The 2005 edition was the first time I actually watched Eurovision and for the most part, I got exactly what I expected.  But then Chiara came on stage, in an elegant red dress and started singing Angel.  It was a beautiful song and a very simple performance.  It is a crime against nature that Chiara came in second to Greece’s generic Shake-It song.  2005 was actually Chiara’s second Eurovision; she had previously come in third in 1998 behind Dana International and the UK entry Imaani.  Chiara blessed Eurovision again in 2009 with a new song What if We.  However, in a year when both Chiara and Patricia Kaas brought their luminosity to the competition, the winner was Alexander Rybak.  It was almost enough to make me swear of Eurovision forever.  Why doesn’t Chiara do better?  Malta has no neighbors.

Portugal: Portugal is quite possibly the most mediocre country in Eurovision history.  There are no highs and few lows, but by and large Portuguese entries have in no way distinguished themselves ever.  Which is not to say they have all been bad or even mediocre.  I loved the 2008 entry and I have a fondness in my heart for the 2009 song too.  Otherwise I cannot remember any other Portuguese entry.  The strangest thing about Portugal though is that thus far the Portuguese has not formed a bloc with their neighbor/frenemy Spain.  Although Spain always got support from Andorra, they have never gotten (nor given) full support from Portugal.  This is why neither Spain nor Portugal will ever win the competition from hence forward.  What is most tragic about Portugal’s tepid songs is that the Portuguese gave the world fado, one of the finest and most dramatic musical traditions in recorded history.  Yet, as far as I can tell, Portugal has never sent a fado song to Eurovision.  If I were in charge, I would send a fadista, dressed all in black with only a Portuguese guitar for accompaniment as he or she sang (voice dripping with saudade) as though shouting headlong into the winds of fate.  The audience would be transfixed, the competition would be elevated to a level previously undreamed of, and some crap from Eastern Europe would win.

The Balkans (minus Greece) and Central Europe: I honestly have nothing to say here.  Serbia won (deservingly) in 2007 with an ethno-ballad, Hungary had a fabulous entries in 2007, and Slovenia sent in strong entries in 2001 and 2007.  The highlights of 2007 aside, this is far and away the worse region for Eurovision songs, particularly Macedonia (or as it is referred to at Eurovision, F.Y.R. Macedonia.)  It’s also the strongest bloc.

Israel: The last nation I am going to talk about, and one that I have a special fondness for.  When I went to Hebrew school, I learned songs that I always thought were Israeli folk songs.  It turns out that they were Eurovision entries that placed well.  My favorite of these songs was Gali Atari & Milk and Honey’s song Hallelujah, which won the 1979 competition.  It is a song that is so cute and sweet that it makes you want to (metaphorically) hug it and pat it on the head–all the more so after you see the performance.  Seriously, it’s cute.  This was actually Israel’s second win at Eurovision, a repeat victory.  The year before Izhar Cohen & Alphabeta won with A-Ba-Ni-Bi. It’s a nifty little song with aspirations of disco, but not nearly in the same class as Hallelujah.  A-Ba-Ni-Bi continues the strain of silly titles that runs throughout Eurovision; it is an Israeli Pig-Latin equivalent (the Bet Language) and the title is part of the song’s chorus, which translated from both Hebrew and the Bet Language to “I love you.”   A-Ba-Ni-Bi is “I”.    After the joint victories of 1978 and 79, Israel did not win again until 1998 with Dana International which I talked about in a previous post.

In the 19 years between victories, Israel had two consecutive second place finishes in 1982 and 1983, both songs I learned before I already knew before I learned they were in Eurovision.  The first was Avi Toledano’s Hora which is a good enough song.  The second was Ofra Haza’s Chai, which is fantastic, not least because of Ofra Haza’s perfect voice (although if it sounds a little like Hora, that is because Avi Toledano composed both songs.)  Chai means “alive” and the song–which was performed in Munich, Germany–is about how she and the people of Israel (which can be translated as either the State of Israel or the Jewish people) are still alive.  It came in second, but it should have won.  Ofra Haza was one of Israel’s greatest talents, and very deserving of her international fame.  Sadly, she died of AIDS in 2000.

Of all the competing nations, I do not think any have sent either the number of well-regarded pop stars or as much overall talent as Israel has.  Looking over a list of Israeli entries, I see a bunch of names that would be familiar to me even if I knew nothing about Eurovision.  The list includes Ofra Haza, Shlomo Artzi, Avi Toledano, Rita, David D’Or, and Achinoam Nini (Noa).  In 2009, Noa entered the competition with Mira Awad, a gifted Israeli Arab singer.   They sang a well-meaning but ultimately very bland “message” song.

Final Thoughts

Thus ends the Eurovision Guide for the Perplexed American.  Watching the contest is a fun way to spend half a day, and allegedly alcohol makes it better, although I have yet to test that theory.  I suggest watching it with a group of friends who are very critical and catty, but who also love camp.

There are always rumors that some American variation of Eurovision will come to these shores, but nothing ever comes of it.  There are two reasons for that: the first is that states don’t have the intense history and competition with one another that European nations do.  The second is that Eurovision is completely commercial free, which is wonderful from a viewer’s point of view and awful from a network’s point of view.  Commercials would make an already long and drawn out competition even longer and more drawn out.  Therefore it is probably for the best that we leave Eurovision to the Europeans (and company) and just watch it once a year so that we may mock that most gaudy and delightful spectacle that is the Eurovision Song Contest.

FInally, my fellow Americans, if you have any questions or comments either about Eurovision or the videos that I linked to, please leave some comments, and I will do what I can.