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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.

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Soccer. Soccer. And More Soccer.

My last posting about the European soccer championships generated some of the usual soccer/anti-soccer comments, which I had hoped to avoid so that we could talk about the games, instead of talking about whether we should be talking about the games . . . Listen, I understand that some of you don't like soccer -- that's your loss, as far as I'm concerned, but there you go. Watching sports is fundamentally an aesthetic experience, and some like Radiohead and some people don't, some like Rauschenberg and others like Bellini, some can watch an NBA game and actually enjoy the experience, others (like me) are unable to do so. There's really not much point in arguing about it. What can be said about comments like:

"Even pro-soccer articles make it sound horrible. Exciting 1-0 games! Inspiring 2-0 games!"

My response to someone who can't even imagine an exciting 1-0 game is much like my response to someone who says they can't listen to Wagnerian opera or the symphonies of Beethoven -- man, you're missing something pretty amazing, but what can I say? I don't get NASCAR -- some people do. Or this:

"Soccer is a game with flawed rules and I can prove it. First of all a team can be man down for an entire game and not be assured of losing. That means that the rules are set too far in favor of the defense, there is no other sport that you could play with 1 fewer player all game and still be competitive or actually win."

It's true -- teams that are a man down can, sometimes, actually prevail. That's a bad thing because ? ? ?

Anyhow, on to the games. I'm going to keep writing about the Euro2008, because it's a global event of significant magnitude for hundreds of millions of people, and because the soccer is so damned good. [And if you are posting comments, please do respect the "Tivo courtesy" rules -- don't give away any scores, please, in case some of those reading the comments have yet to see the games. [Uefa.com, incidentally, has a nice "replay" subscription you can buy, 20 euros for a streamed version of every game, beginning 6 hours or so after the final whistle]

The Netherlands destroyed Italy, 3-0 -- with many interesting back stories flying around, not the least of which was that the crucial first goal was (notwithstanding UEFA's declaration to the contrary, the result of a blown offside call). Not only had the Dutch not beaten the Italians in 30 years (since the days when they were led by the great Johann Cruyff), but they had been knocked out of the 2000 championships by Italy under the cruelest of circumstances. I actually attended that game, and it was without question the most extraordinary sporting event I have ever witnessed. It's the semifinal, the game is in Amsterdam, the Dutch have looked completely unbeatable (they took Yugoslavia apart, 6-1 I think it was, in the quarterfinals), and the Dutch -- who have produced some remarkable teams, but only one European champion to go along with their zero World Cups) -- were delirious. Amsterdam was in a frenzy all day long. At the Amsterdam Arena (capacity 55,000), there are 50,000 people dressed entirely in orange, waving little orange flags, singing in unison, beginning an hour or so before kickoff. And one little tiny patch of blue -- the Italians, maybe 3,000 strong. The Dutch play beautifully -- but simply cannot put the ball in the net. Bergkamp hits the post . . . Kluivert hits the crossbar. There are not one but TWO penalties awarded to the Dutch -- and they miss them both!! The feeling in the stadium was palpable, and unlike anything I've ever experienced -- dread and foreboding and a kind of horrified resignation that it wasn't to be. The Dutch players -- quite visibly -- began to tighten up, to get frustrated and angry. The game ends 0-0, and the Dutch, predictably, make a horrible hash out of the penalty shootout, missing three of their four attempts. It was ghastly. The crowd, walking back to the subway, was silent. Not quiet -- completely silent. It was quite terrifying, actually. At about 3 AM I walked from the train station in Rotterdam to my hotel; not a soul on the street except for me and one old man, who, as he walks by me, just puts up his hand with all five fingers spread out in the air, and grunts "Funf!" [referring, of course, to the 5 penalty kicks they missed].

I've always pulled for the Dutch, and I think they could make a run for it this time. It's a hell of a squad they've got -- though their defense is suspect, and they are in a true "Group of Death" with Italy, France, and Romania in the first round. My money, though, is still on Spain (who looked wonderful in taking apart the Russians). Look for a Spain-Netherlands semifinal -- that would be a helluva matchup.

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  1. The Euros March On:
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60 Comments
The Euros March On:

The reason sports gambling is good for the soul is this: it reminds you that all of those great "hunches" that you have had -- you just knew that it was Boston's year, back in April '04, just like you just knew, way back in '93, that AOL stock would quadrizilliontuple over the next 5 or 6 years -- are, in fact, balanced out by a lot of really lousy ones that didn't pan out (but which don't stick in the mind nearly as well as the others do). I've been using an online sports gambling site -- come and get me, federales! -- for about 5 years, and I've had some fabulous hunches; I did know that Italy would win the last World Cup (when they were 12-1!!), and I did know that the Packers would make it to the NFC championship game (15-1). But over 5 years, I'm about $150 in the hole because of all the ones I've forgotten about. [Not that I'm not complaining -- I'm happy to pay $30 a year for the entertainment value alone].

I knew that the Portuguese, the Croatians, and the Dutch -- certainly the Dutch -- would make it through to the Euro 2008 semis, but of course none of them did. [Spain, another one of my pre-tournament favorites, is still in the hunt]. The Croatia-Turkey game was extraordinary and bizarre -- 0-0 after 90 minutes of regulation time and 29 minutes of the 30-minute "extra time," at which point the Croatians finally score; on the ensuing goal kick, with what is literally the last kick of the game, Turkey gets an equalizing goal; the Croatians, psychologically devastated, make a horrible hash of the penalty kick shootout, and Turkey goes through to the semis to meet Germany. It should make for a pretty interesting match-up; over 2 million people of Turkish descent live in Germany, and the two countries have about as complicated a relationship these days as two countries can have, and downtown Berlin, where several hundred thousand people will gather this evening (Berlin time) to watch the game on the big screen they're setting up, should be one of the more interesting places on the planet at that moment. It's just a game, right?

And Italy's loss to Spain exposed all of the contradictory qualities that seem to inhere in Italian soccer. It is a strange and inexplicable thing: the Italians -- the Italians! -- have always been known for a peculiar brand of plodding, defensive, unimaginative soccer. Italian soccer begins with impenetrable defense, and whatever it takes to make it impenetrable. For people who have so much style, who care so much about style, and who adore stylish and beautiful soccer -- there's a statue of Diego Maradona, for goodness sake, outside the stadium in Naples -- they can't seem to find a way to play with the kind of style and grace that seems to come so easily to them in other fields of endeavor. If they can find a magician -- Roberto Baggio in the '90s, Francesco Totti more recently -- who can conjure up some goals, great; if not, they'll hunker down and hope they can sneak out some 1-0 wins. It's not that it's a bad strategy; they've won 4 World Cups, and are perennial contenders at international tournaments. It just seems so un-Italian. This year's team was, by a considerable margin, the most boring team in the tournament, and though I adore all things Italian, I have to admit I was not at all sorry to see them go.

The Italy-Spain game did have, though, a really memorable image, one that captured, for me, something about why these international soccer tournaments are so wonderful and so important. For a few seconds on the ESPN broadcast, while the Italian national anthem was being played and sung -- Italians are among the great national-anthem-singers in the world; they sing at full voice, and at 40 or 50 thousand strong can make an incredible sound -- they showed a guy in the Italian section, all decked out in Italian blue (azzurro), tears in his eyes, singing along while alternating between pressing his hands over his heart and blowing kisses to the team on the field. Do us proud, ragazzi!!

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. The Euros March On:
  2. Soccer. Soccer. And More Soccer.
  3. One - Nil:
22 Comments