So Euro 2008, the European soccer championships -- the world's second-greatest sporting event -- has begun, as some of you, at least, are aware. Let's skip over the usual soccer meta-discussion, which we've had a number of times here before: Is soccer the world's greatest sport? Will Americans will ever become true soccer-philes on the order of the British, or the Argentines, or the Malaysians, or the Ghanaians, or damned near everyone else on the planet (except, oddly the South Asians)? Why do people care as much as they obviously do about the fate of their national soccer teams? Etc. On to the games . . .
Switzerland and Austria, the co-hosts this year, both lost their opening games, 1-0 -- but what a difference between the two! The Swiss come into the tournament with pretty high hopes: they've got a young, untested team, but with a lot of talent, and they've played well in the run up to the tournament. They're in a 4-team group with Portugal, the Czech Republic, and Turkey -- it won't be easy getting through the group stage to the quarterfinals (only the top 2 out of each group of 4 advance to the quarterfinals), but it's certainly not out of the question. Though the Swiss have never gotten through to the quarters before, there's never been a Euro championship where a host nation did not advance at least to the quarterfinals, and they have good reason to hope and believe that this is their year. It's the opening game of the tournament, in Basel, against the Czechs, and the home crowd is pumped. The Swiss thoroughly and completely outplay the Czechs, creating chance after chance but not getting the ball into the net; the Czechs play dispiritedly, they get one shot on goal the whole game, and it goes in. On top of which, Switzerland's top goal-scorer, Alexander Frie, wrenches his knee and is taken out of the game; as he is being helped to the locker room, TV pictures show him crying uncontrollably, just like a kid who's just been taken out of the soccer tournament he's been looking forward to pretty much his whole life . . .
So the Swiss are pretty bummed. The Austrians, on the other hand, are almost jubilant after their 1-0 loss to the Croatians. The Austrian team, it is generally believed, stinks -- there's no chance, zero, that Austria would have made it into the tournament at all had they not, like Switzerland, got the "automatic bid" that goes to the host nation(s). When Austria-Switzerland were announced as the hosts many years ago, I suspect most Austrians were delighted at the prospect that their national team would be placed automatically into the tournament field, without the worry and suspense (and possible failure) of having to go through the qualifying rounds to get there. Now, however, they see the dark side of automatic qualification -- if you really stink, and you're up against the best teams Europe has to offer, the potential for serious humiliation is a real one. Losing 6-0, or 7-1, doesn't happen often in soccer, but it does happen; it's never pleasant, and it's particularly gruesome if it happens in front of 50,000 of your home fans. . . . That's what's going through everyone's mind as the game begins -- and three minutes in, there's a penalty kick awarded to the Croatians, they score, and it's already 1-0. Oh, the horror!!
But it doesn't happen -- the Austrians pull themselves together, play incredibly well for the rest of the 87 minutes, keep the Croatians away from goal and mount a number of serious attacks of their own. The crowd, having prepared for the worst, is deliriously happy, and the team leaves the field to a rapturous ovation.
And on top of all that, there's Germany-Poland. The Poles and the Germans have, shall we say, strong feelings about each other. The Poles have never, in 14 previous meetings, beaten the Germans -- 10 losses, 4 draws. The Germans score mid-way through the first half -- but again, the Poles storm back, launching attack after attack on the German goal and coming heart-breakingly close on a couple of occasions to the equalizer. You have a feeling it's coming any minute now, . . . and then Germany hits them on the counter-attack and scores goal #2 towards the end of the 2d half and it's all over. And get this: both German goals are scored by striker Lucas Podolski -- now a naturalized German citizen, but born, as you might guess from his name, in Poland. Cruelty, thy name is soccer.