The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly: A Euro 2012 Wrap Up: UPDATED
Seems like just yesterday that this whole shebang kicked off, with an entertaining 1-1 draw between Greece and Poland. Like all of these short-form tournaments, there were underachievers (players and teams), overachievers (looking at you, Italy), and insipid and scintillating soccer. Now, three weeks on from the kickoff, we sit in eager anticipation of a Spain v Italy final on Sunday afternoon, and look back on some of the interesting stories from the past month.
Best Game: England v Sweden, Group Stage
For sheer drama and number of lead changes, this game was the most entertaining (though the Greece v Germany quarterfinal was pretty good too, and closer than the final 4-2 score line indicated). This was a pivotal Game 2 match in the group stage, crucial to win for both teams. Sweden lost their first match to co-host Ukraine; a loss to England would effectively eliminate them from contention. England had drawn their first game, so a loss here would similarly jeopardize their hopes of making it through the group stage. England struck first, on an Andy Carroll power header in the first half. Sweden came back with two goals in the second half from defender Olaf Mellberg to take a 2-1 lead (though the first goal was officially credited as an England own-goal, because defender Glen Johnson was the last to touch the ball).
At this point, I thought England was down and out, but they proved me wrong. Speedy forward Theo Walcott made things happen when he entered as a substitute in the 61st minute. Three minutes after coming on, he scored from distance, then a dozen minutes later, set up Danny Welbeck with a cross that Welbeck backheeled in between his legs past the stunned Sweden keeper. It felt more like a hockey-style tip-in, than a well-struck soccer tally, but was skillful, athletic and done with purpose, not some lucky flick. One of the goals of the tournament, for sure.
Worst Game: Spain v Portugal, Semifinal
Let’s say you have a friend who is maybe just starting to enjoy soccer, he’s coming around, is caught up in the pageantry of the game, has enjoyed following this month-long tournament, he is beginning to agree that 3 billion people can’t be wrong. Maybe he still doesn’t quite like the theatrical faking and diving, and still doesn’t quite get the whole continuous clock and injury-time thing, but he’s starting to see––maybe––why it’s referred to as the Beautiful Game. Then, tragedy: your friend watches a game like the Spain v Portugal semifinal, where even you see why soccer detractors belittle soccer. You just have to shrug and know that every once in a while, an indefensibly ugly game is played before a TV audience of hundreds of millions worldwide.
Nil-nil draws eventually settled by penalty kicks are not a good advertisement for The Game, and this match seemed far, far longer than its 90+ minutes of scoreless regular time, plus 30+ minutes of scoreless overtime. Ponderous doesn’t even begin to describe the dull, dull reality of this game; to poach a line from the spy spoof Archer: it was forever-taking. Sadly, the only drama in the game came during the deciding round of penalty kicks, even though the team that shoots first (Spain in this case) has a far better statistical chance of winning.
Both teams missed their first shots, then both made their next two. Spain made their fourth shot, so the pressure mounted for Portugal defender Bruno Alves, shooting fourth. He hit it high––an inch or so too high as it turned out. The ball violently shook the cross-bar, leaving the heroics to Spain’s Cesc Fabregas. Strangely, Portugal’s best player (and arguably the best player in the world this past year), Cristiano Ronaldo, was set to take kick number 5, and never got a chance to make a difference because Spain had already won it. Back in Lisbon, they’ll be asking coach Paulo Bento for years––maybe decades––to come, why one of the best players in history didn’t kick earlier.
Dutch Disappointment: A History Continued
It’s not a total surprise that the Netherlands bowed out at the group stage; they were, after all, in the Group of Death with two eventual semifinalists (Germany and Portugal). But to not win a game? And to look so pedestrian? That’s a shocker.
On paper, the Dutch had perhaps the most fearsome scoring power ever assembled. Weapons? Jaysus, they had Robin van Persie and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, the respective goal-scoring leaders in the most recent English Premier League and Bundesliga seasons. Plus a few other attacking nobodies called Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben, and Rafael van der Vaart. Yet all tournament there were whispers that everyone was unhappy, in a big-ego kind of way. As in, why’s that guy playing? I’m as good as he is.
Van der Vaart went on record before the tournament stating he was unhappy coming off the bench. Got news for you dude: we get it. You are all hyper-competitive superstars and if you were NOT pissed off pulling splinters out of your ass we’d be both surprised and disappointed. But could you just STFU already? We don’t feel sorry for sporting millionaires. Christ, it’s so boring and obnoxious to hear you complain. Sounds cliché, but whiny bullshit like that splits teams and loses games. And when you don’t win games, you don’t win tournaments. It’s not rocket science.
Maybe this Dutch debacle will cause some kind of sea change in their outlook, and maybe some day they’ll come together to win a major tournament. They always seem to have the talent to do it, just not the knowledge of how to pull it off.
Italy Appears to Be Back
Recent history: I would refer to their exit from the 2010 World Cup as a crash and burn, except that it was kind of just relentlessly boring, compared to France’s soap-operatic hijinks. Italy entered this tournament unsure of themselves and mostly overlooked; a once and future dynasty in a down cycle, if you will.
Italy in the final? Crikey, I had them crashing out in the group stage. But, Italy always know how to win and, incredibly, are most dangerous when they seem most fragile and mediocre. There’s something admirable in a team that finds a way to win year after year. Italy is the yin to the Netherlands yang––an unfancied team who finds ways to advance through tournaments, versus a team loaded with talent who finds ways to lose––and this psychological dichotomy is always fascinating.
Sure, this Entity Called Italy is annoying to soccer fans because, you know, chicks who know nothing about the game root for Italy because they universally agree that most of the team is gorgeous. And I have traditionally eschewed Italian teams because of their shut-down (some would say tedious) style of defensive soccer. Indeed, this style is referred to as Catenaccio, which translates as door-bolt, as in score one goal and slam the fucking door shut on the other team, park ten players in defensive third of the field and call it a day.
But this incarnation of the Azzurri, as pointed out elsewhere, has personality in spades, and attacking flair as well. Their semifinal win against Germany was not only a major upset in the context of where both teams sit currently in the spectrum of expectations, but it was perhaps the third most entertaining match in the entire tournament. It put the above-mentioned Iberian snoozer to shame. And how can you not love watching goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon? Not only does he punch wayward soccer balls and opposing players from his area, but I swear I saw three bobby pins (bobby pins!!) holding back his hair. Why not?
GLT for UEFA? NFW
Ye Olde Soccer got itself enmeshed in yet another goal-line technology (GLT) debacle, after five, count em, FIVE officials somehow missed a clear goal during the Ukraine v England match. Ukraine needed a win to advance in their last group-stage game, and if the goal had counted, the game would have been tied, with time left for a go-ahead strike and possible win. No doubt, the goal in question was good; the refereeing team has even fessed up to blowing the call.
Some would say it was sporting karma, as an eerily similar incident occurred against England in the last World Cup: England had a goal that was clearly good, that would have tied the game at 2-2, but the refs saw it differently than the entire stadium and the––I don’t know––billion or so people watching around the world. And here it was happening all over again, different tournament, but another game-tying, possibly tournament-altering goal that was somehow missed by a quintet of referees.
Here is the most ridiculous thing about UEFA’s (Europe’s governing body of soccer) refusal to deploy cameras to triple-check fuzzy goals. There are already hundreds of cameras in the stadium recording the matches for TV. Because of this, millions of people around the world know instantly that a goal is good––including some half-wit drunkard watching in a pub in a Genovian town of 150––but stunningly, the refs don’t?
In this day and age, when every sport I can think of has embraced instant replay as an extra, uncompromising pair of eyes, why can’t soccer do the same? Because the arrogant White European Males in charge of the game blunder on, defending their now increasingly-ludicrous stance that such technology would soil the integrity of the game. In reality, their stubborn, Luddite fear of technology is making a farce of soccer. Instant replay, fellas: it’s not that intrusive and there is no subjectivity in a camera lens.
A Personal Note: Spain v France, Quarterfinal
If I may add a personal note here, about my most enjoyable experience watching a match. Most of the games, out of necessity (kids gotta eat, etc.), I watched at work. I’m not complaining, mind, I’m fortunate enough to have a small, cable-loaded TV at my desk, and a job where it’s totally fine to tune said TV to a sporting event. Still, watching in an office, with the mute-button on, you don’t quite get the full effect. I missed the audio, especially since ESPNs crack A-team of Ian Darke and Steve McManaman covered a lot of the games.
So, it was good to have a far different experience last Saturday, at my house in Northeast Pennsylvania. I live in Brooklyn/work in Manhattan, but escape on weekends to what I winkingly refer to as the country estate, a small house on a dirt road in the so-called Upper Delaware River Valley region. Last Saturday was the quintessential bright summer afternoon, the kind that poets are always going on about: blue sky, wispy clouds, 81-degrees, a cooling breeze.
My wife and two girls were at a nearby lake, but I opted to stay home––sit in my front yard at a red picnic table, woods all around, cooler at my elbow, leaves stirring––and watch the Spain v France quarterfinal match live on my iPad. I drank an ice-cold Tecate for each team, and one during halftime, while marveling at the fact that I was sitting out in the middle of the woods, watching a live soccer match being played way across the pond and halfway across the continent, hosted by the country that just happened to be the ancestral home of my wife (Ukraine).
For some reason, it all worked together in perfect synchronicity: the beer, the breeze, The Beautiful Game, the ancient woods and the modern convenience of an ESPN iPad app, all mushed together to form an odd little wonderful and somehow-significant moment in my life. And if that sounds pathetic, then I’m just not describing it quite right.
So, who will win Sunday’s final? Well, I was wrong about so much in this tournament (Germany v Netherlands final, anyone?), I’ll take one last shot at being wrong. I like Italy. Simply put, this Italian team is more exciting than this Spain team. I never thought in a thousand years I’d say this, but not only do I think Italy will win, I sort of want them to win.
All dynasties end, and perhaps we are seeing the beginning of the end of the dominance of this La Roja incarnation. Much has been written about how Spain is deadly dull, they pass and pass in order to maintain possession in a style referred to as tiki taka; but in the end, they don’t really penetrate enough to threaten to score against good defensive teams. (Italy is a good defensive team). I agree with that assessment. A team that deployed four defenders, six midfielders and no forwards in some of their Euro 2012 games deserves some criticism.
I thought Germany would briskly handle Italy in the semifinal, so I don’t want to make that mistake again, and write off Italy’s chances. I’m looking for a 2-0 Italy win, and maybe this time Balotelli, after scoring the winning goal, will 1) keep his shirt on, and 2) crack a smile.
‘Spain Reign in Ukraine. Again.’
So said Ian Darke, ESPN’s play-by-play man at the conclusion of Spain’s 4-0 thrashing of an eventual 10-man Italy. History was made today: no team has ever even won two consecutive European championships, let alone with a World Cup notch in their belt in between. Spain also broke the record for least goals conceded in a Euro competition, giving up only one goal, that in their first group game against their group and eventual Final opponent, Italy. The previous fewest goals let in was three.
Spain’s two first-half goals were very atypical for them. Goal number one was a bang-bang pass from the touchline by Cesc Fabregas to a flying David Silva, who headed the ball in. (Silva is well under 6-feet and not known for scoring headers). The second goal, as Steve McManaman––Ian Darke’s color-commentator partner––pointed out, was straight out of the Barcelona playbook. Left back Jordi Alba passed to the great Xavi and continued his run on a dead sprint. At the last possible second before he would have been offsides, Xavi threaded a pass back to Jordi Alba, now behind the Italian defense, who took one touch and coolly slotted the ball left-footed past a helpless Gianluigi Buffon, Italy’s keeper.
The game was night-and-day from Spain’s snoozer of a 0-0, semifinal PK-win against their Iberian cousins. Maybe Spain was offended by all the criticism heaped on them for playing what many considered to be tedious, ‘death by a thousand passes’ soccer. As McManaman described it: “Spain are really at it tonight.” By, ‘at it’ he meant they were playing an attractive style of attacking soccer, even with the 2-0 lead they carried into the second half. The ESPN duo compared this final positively to the World Cup final of 2010, where Spain beat a Netherlands in a turgid, clunky and at-times dirty affair. This was a far more exciting match, and worthy of the ‘Final’ moniker.
Italy’s plight wasn’t helped by the fact that their half-time substitute, Thiago Motto, pulled a hamstring early in the second half. Because he was the third and final sub for Italy, rules dictated that the Azzurri play the rest of the game with 10 men. A shame really, because even though down 2-0 at half, you felt watching that Italy was still threatening and still had a shot to tie the match. As soon as Thiago went down, it became a matter of how high Spain might run the score. The commentator duo speculated that Spain read the criticism of their ‘dull’ style and reacted against it by coming out a team afire.
Spain’s two late goals were scored then set up, respectively, by ‘Golden Boot’ winner Fernando Torres. As a huge Torres fan, I was happy to see him perhaps light a fire under his own stalled career. Three years ago he was on top of his game with Liverpool, but after a much-publicized and expensive move to London side Chelsea, the wheels seemed to come off. He’s still relatively young, and hopefully he’ll take the momentum from this tournament, and turn his career around.
As for Spain, next stop is the World Cup, where the Greatness Watch will continue: can they win two consecutive World Cups? If they play like they did today, and this tournament, that’s a resounding yes.