Friday, June 27, 2008

"I've explained this several times. The shaking was part of the game. The telling was not."

Euro 2008 Recap: I'm ranking teams (I know: shocker) from worst performance to best performance, paying particular attention to expectations going in. For instance, it's perfectly acceptable for Croatia to advance through pool play and then lose in the quarters (though not in the manner they did--more on that in a bit); not so for, say, Italy.

Also, as you (being so freaking observant...I really must commend you on this) will no doubt note, this has been posted prior to the final being played. Two reasons: (1) I'm away in Muskoka until Tuesday (though I plan to be in a booth, dutifully overpaying for a pie at Boston Pizza on Sunday afternoon for the final), and (2) in terms of meeting/exceeding/falling short of projections, this tournament--regardless of how Sunday shakes down--is more or less over.

Now, since:

(a) I was an indifferent soccer player the one year I played (no joke: in 1985);
(b) As recently as the lead up to the '98 World Cup, I didn't understand how offsides worked (I thought it was like hockey); and
(c) despite countless hours spent playing Champ Manager '07, I'm still occasionally flummoxed by soccer formations (do you start from your own goalie and work outwards, or is it the opposite?)

please don't expect any trenchant observations about coaching gaffes and/or serious strategic questioning. (Shuk, help me out! You're a soccer writer, for Christ's sake!) This is about as superficial as it gets. That said, let's begin:

17. England:
OK, sorry. Cheap shot.

16. France:
Next to my pick #1, this was the easiest slot to fill in. To be sure, this has a bit to do with me picking them 7th in my Euro pool and them just not performing. And, yeah, as a fan of Les Bleus, you could make all sorts of valid (or semi-valid) arguments--they had to play Romania without an Henry (hurt), they caught the Dutch when they were white hot and more or less unstoppable, they were the victims of a too-harsh red card early against Italy--but all of that dances around the central issue that the French were listless from start to finish. Emblematic: trailing the Dutch by two early in the second half, Henry took a cross and, rather delightfully, tapped it in. Literally, one minute later, as the berets ("God, do I hate the beret")and baguettes of the French fans still hung in the air, Holland scored, putting the game out of reach. Done and done. So, to summarize: France's gut-check rally lasted all of 70 seconds.

15. Greece:
yes, but if you average their last two Euro Cups, it looks as though they won it 0.5 times this year.

14. Italy:
a little low? Perhaps. But we should never underestimate the incredibly high expectations of Italians, who have finished in the top three in 3 of the last 5 World Cups (their record over that same stretch in Euro Cups is considerably worse, but that's really neither here nor there). Seriously, my heart breaks for you, Italy, what with you never being ranked lower than 16th in the world in my lifetime (it was, like, a major story here when we cracked the Top 100 in the FIFA rankings) and your four World Cup titles. (Fun fact: did you realize that Canada is now ranked 60th in the world? Not bad, eh? What's that? Italy's #3? Oh. Well then.)

13. Portugal:
started strong (beating Turkey 2-0 and the Czech Republic 3-1), but faded late (getting worked over in a meaningless game with Switzerland and then basically not showing up for the first 45 minutes in a decidedly meaningful elimination game against Germany). Nor does this clip engender much goodwill:

(now I know that he actually eventually gets stepped on, but look at him writhe around before that. Lame.)

I'm also bumping Portugal down a spot because Jon's wife Alex, who is Portuguese, claimed--completely seriously in my view--that Germany cheated against Portugal, life imitating art (see Victory), if you will. Not cool, Alex. Not cool. (Also: John Huston directed Victory? WTF? I did not know that.)

(Also, how stupid does this sound? From

The original draft of the script was a serious drama, based on the true story of a group of allied POWs challenged to a football match by the Germans. The deal was that if the Germans won the match, the POWs would be set free in Switzerland. However if the POWs won, they would be shot. The POWs decided to go for 'victory', won the match and were consequently executed.
This makes the actual version seem like cinema verite in comparison...and I will remind you that the actual movie features Stallone as a world class goalie, so...yeah). more bit of Victory trivia (in my defense, when else will I ever have the chance to reference it? Exactly.):

Reportedly, Sylvester Stallone insisted that his character score the game-winning goal in the film, as he felt he was the biggest star in the film. The non-American crew was finally able to convince him of the absurdity of the goalkeeper scoring the winning goal, and the penalty shot was specifically written to placate his ego.
12. Austria: put it this way, when you've lost to the Faroe-fucking-Islands in something other than a "who has the most kings?" competition in the last twenty years, lost to Spain and Isreal by a combined 14-0 in the last ten, and when your country circulates a petition asking that the team remove itself from competition (even though you're a co-host and are obligated to play in said tournament), you've already done a pretty good job of managing expectations. Something truly horrific--like a player shitting his pants on the field or someone getting an own goal hat trick--would have to happen for Austria (ranked 90-somethingth in the world going in here and, the consensus seems to be, wouldn't have even sniffed at a spot were it not for the automatic spaces granted to the hosts) to fare worse than the pundits predicted. A point against a similarly overmatched Polish squad (thus avoiding the indignity of being totally shut out--I'm looking at you, Greece!)? Well done, lads. Well done.

11. Czech Republic: now that's a bad beat.

10. Switzerland:
poised as a sleeper, the Swiss only seemed to reach their potential against Portugal (and, even there, it needs to be mentioned that the game was meaningless for Portugal, so perhaps reading too much into it is inadvisable). I feel stupid because, instead of picking Turkey (who went 15th in our pool), I chose the Swiss with my 14th pick. Rats. Still, that's not as dumb as Misha picking Austria tenth (kindly see above), ahead of Croatia, Sweden, and Russia.

9. Croatia: Now, there are a few things to keep in mind about the Turkey game: I think the Croatians should have been granted the substitution that they were so clearly frantically trying to make; apparently the two minutes after you score a goal are the soccer equivalent of the break back in tennis; and adding extra extra time to extra time strikes me as not unlike taxing a mandatory 15% gratuity, or attempting to throw a service charge on corkage, which ALREADY COSTS $10 A BOTTLE, DAMMIT--sorry, I think I blacked out there for a second. All of that said: you cannot lose that game. You just can't. And, while I think everyone expected them to lose in a shootout, I'm guessing no one expected them to lose that spectacularly (going 1 for 4, including missing the net entirely twice--something I've never seen before).

8. Netherlands:
trying to think of a non-soccer equivalent of what the Dutch did this year. First, they dominate group play like Chappelle-as-Kobe (9 goals), then come out and shit the bed against an inferior Russian squad in the elimination round. Now, let's not go crazy and pretend this is on par with the Patriots coming into the Super Bowl 18-0 and bricking it against the Giants. It's not. But I do think this falls somewhere between the '07 Mavericks getting unceremoniously bumped by the eighth-seeded Warriors in the first round and the 116-win '01 Mariners flaming out in the ALCS springs to mind. In all three cases (and, while this may seem harsh, whatever the Dutch's soccer legacy is, winning it all really isn't part of it), you didn't really expect the favorite to win the whole thing, but you were still kinda shocked when they lost.

On the plus side, their coach [note: who stepped down after they were knocked out]--former AFC Ajax and AC Milan superstar Marco van Basten--would undoubtedly prevail in Euro coaches Royal Rumble (though the Croatian coach looks like an eye-gouger, and should be watched cautiously at all times in such a scenario.

T7. Poland and Sweden: Neither of these teams were pegged to advance, but if any one of them had gone on, it wouldn't have been totally shocking. And, since I have nothing else to add, it's list time:

Top Five Uniforms (sorry, had to be done):
5. Spain's Golds (busted out for their semi-final beatdown of Russia)
4. France's Blues
3. Holland's Orange (always and forever a classic)
2. Spain's Reds
1. Portugal's Whites: beautiful.

1. Turkey's White and Turqoise alternate kits (worn against Switzerland): The hell? Turqoise? It's not even on your flag! (I know, I know, there's no orange on the dutch flag, either--but at least orange is Holland's national color). I swear, the only thing I can come up with is that there's a Turk-Turq connection, which means it's a pun...which is....even worse.

Here seems like as good a place as any to ask: why doesn't Germany bust out black uniforms with the classic red and yellow stripes on the shoulder (a la the Icelandic villains in Mighty Ducks 2?). Those? Would be intimidating as hell. Moving on...

Top Five Games:
5. Spain-Italy, quarter-final.
4. Germany-Portugal, quarter-final.
3. Russia-Netherlands, quarter-final.
2. Czech Republic-Turkey, pool play.
1. Germany-Turkey, semi-final.

5. Romania: because, I'm sorry, who cares, really? Mired in the group of death, they were fingered as the whipping boys, likely to emerge without a single point. Well they got that single point, thank you very much! Bring on the ticker tape parade in Bucharest (or, in any event, whatever people in Romania do to celebrate. If my Onion Atlas is any indication, this may well involve huddling for warmth.)

4. Russia: this is awfully confusing, because I've watched them play four times now, and I swear they're no good. Against Spain, they looked downright terrible, though with Andrei Arshavin in the lineup (as he was from their third game onward), they're a different team. Their presence in the semis did lead to this exchange between myself and my grandfather, who is Ukrainian, and holds a well-documented (and entirely justified, frankly) grudge against the former Soviet Union:

[five minutes of absolute silence, then]

Me [as we're watching extra time between Spain and Italy]: you care who wins the tournament?
Grandpa: Not really. [Long pause] As long as it's not Russia.

3. Germany: gah...clearly trying their absolute hardest to be the only Euro team in history to win the tournament without playing a single decent game. True, they were lights out for that first half against Portugal, but they got sloppier as the game progressed. I'm a bit torn here, since Germany is about as close to a rooting interest as I have in this year's tournament (damn you, Ireland, I could've busted out any number of great T-shirts had you qualified--I'm wearing my Trinity College tee right now as a form of protest, though against what I can't be certain), yet I would have been fine with Turkey winning.

By the way, here are some snippets from the highly entertaining live commentary from ESPNsoccernet:

93': Ballack gives away a needless free-kick about 30 yards out, bang in the middle. Can Turkey pull off another amazing leveller?
94': Tumer Metin, who had sneaked on for Colin Kazim Richards, has blown his big moment by blazing his free kick over the bar. It HAD to be on target, seeing as how crap [German keeper Jens] Lehmann has been.
95': It's over! Germany are in the Euro 2008 final, with possibly one of the worst performances in the competitions history! Turkey have been robbed!
96': Well, what an unbelievably dramatic night that was! No-one had expected a five goal end-to-end thriller, or if they did they'd long been carted off to the nuthouse. The Turkish players are crushed, and they've every right to be. They've outplayed Germany, taken the game to them, and somehow, somehow, they're out. Astonishing.
97': I suppose the only consolation is that if Germany don't transform in the next few days, they'll get hammered by whoever wins tomorrow's semi-final between Russia and Spain. Join us for that. Until then...

So, yeah, it's a little tough to put them higher than #3. And yet they're 90 minutes away from their fourth Euro title, so it's hardly been a disappointing tournament...

2. Spain: pumping my fist, since the fact that they made the final guarantees me no worse than a tie in our Euro pool. Good times! Abject selfishness aside, I'm happy for the Spanish squad since, even if they don't win on Sunday (though, somewhat foolishly, I believe they will), I think they've gone a long way to ditch their reputations as underachievers. (And those uniforms! Oh, my!)

1. Turkey: and, really, it's not all that close.

Here's what I wrote just prior to kickoff in the Turkey-Germany game: "given that they've their Euro record prior to '08 consists of 10 "did not qualifies," 1 "failed to advance beyond pool play," and 1 QF appearance (in 2000); that they've led for all of nine minutes (out of 390 played--remarkable that) thus far in the tournament, and are responsible for two of the most exciting finishes in Euro history (Czech Republic, Croatia), I think it's safe to say that they've more than met expectations. Agreed? I'm guessing my buddy Caglar, who lives in Ankara, hasn't slept in over a week." (btw, does anyone remember Turkey finishing third--!--in the 2002 World Cup? No, me neither.)

After the game: Huh.



...that's a tough loss to stomach, no doubt. One can't help but wonder how Turkey would've fared had they had a goalie who wasn't actively throwing games. Seriously, that guy fucking murdered them (see: Croatia's goal...where he's wildly out of position and then leisurely strolls to get back into place as the ball flies by him and his mistimed pursuit of a cross versus Germany).


Mark P said...

You could've ranked Greece several places higher since I don't think they had any expectations going into the tournament. It would've been like Ben Curtis having high hopes going into the 2003 PGA. Seriously, Greece's win in Euro 2004 was one of the biggest flukes in the history of soccer, a sport that rarely has flukes.

Ole H said...

Hey Kyle, long time no see. Great blog btw. This is my first viewing of any blog EVER! In my defense, I just got rid of my rotary phone the other day.....

First off, great Ashley Harkleroad reference. The way you linked her getting spanked on the tennis court with her upcoming Playboy pictorial....pure G-E-N-I-U-S!!

Now if only you knew something about soccer. :) I know I know, you threw in more disclaimers about your lack of knowledge than Joachim Loew owns crisp white shirts (next blog we rank the attractiveness of the coaches) but come on, I still must take issue with some of your comments.

1. Italy at 14 is a bit low. While I'm no fan of their defensive style, they did manage to escape the group stage and stay even with a strong Spanish side until the penalty kicks. Once it goes to penalties its a virtual coin flip and anyone has a chance. Seen in retrospect, they may have ended up giving Spain their toughest test all tournament, so we shouldn't be too harsh. Plus, they deserve extra style points for being as glistening (cause calling them greasy would be offensive) coming onto the pitch before the game as they do leaving it afterwards (sometimes oddly even more so).

2. Romania at 5? They flat out stunk! First of all, I'm sick and tired of all of this Group of Death nonsense. If that was the Group of Death, then why did not a single team from that group make it to the semis? They were actually the only group NOT represented and therefore turned out to be the weakest Group in the tournament. By rights, the group with Spain AND Russia was the real Group of Death. Now, back to Romania. Because of the utter uselessness of the other teams in the group, they actually found themselves with a chance to advance to the quarters by winning their third game. What happens? No one bothers showing up and they make no attempts to move the ball forward all game! Are Romanian summers that much nicer than Swiss or Austrian ones? So long, Farewell, Auf Wiedershen, Goodbye! Lame. Lame. Lame.

3. Germany. To add my own disclaimer, the rumours that I may have a German relative or two buried in my closet somewhere in the distant past have apparently been proven true (which makes it strangely prophetic that when Rob and I played doubles together we called ourselves Team Germania.....hmmm.). Back to Germany. Over the past two weeks I've been taken aback at how negative much of the commentary has been about a team that plays positive attacking football and has played well enough to make it to the finals of probably the toughest tournament in the world to win. (Most analysts think its harder to win than the World Cup cause there are really no bad teams in even the 1st round while the World Cup needs to qualify countries from exceptionally weak football playing areas. That's right!......I'm thinking of you Equatorial Guinea and Congo-Brazzaville.)

Really?!? Germany didn't play a decent game? I've found this comment on a lot of web sites and sports shows and it doesn't really hold water. I think it's comparable to everyone bashing Federer and predicting his demise when he needs 4 sets to win a Grand Slam final. German football by reputation and historical accomplishment has set such a high standard of excellence that no ACTUAL German team can ever live up to it. For a team that didn't play a decent game, they managed to score 10 goals so far this tournament, just one less than Spain. They also never needed extra time let alone penalty kicks to decide an outcome, averaging 3! goals a game in the knock-out stages. They're also the least penalized team in the tournament. Sounds pretty dominant so far. They have ups and downs like any team, but what makes them better than most is that they find a way to win on an off day. Take the Turkey match. Everyone says they were lousy. Name another team that can score 3 goals from 3 different players on a bad day?

As for the commentators, I don't have to have watched their coverage to tell you that they're English. They only mention (and insult) the German players (Ballack and Lehman) that play in the Premier League. That's lazy anglo-centric journalism where if you don't play in the Premier League you don't matter. This anti-German bias that so many of the English have also seems to seep into their journalism. How was Turkey robbed? How did Turkey outplay Germany and take the game to them? How did Germany put in one of the worst performances in the tournaments history? Germany won the game! They scored 3 goals. They were behind for a total of 4 minutes all game. Ball possesion was evenly split 50-50. I don't get these commentators. When everything is said and done the only statistic that really matters is who has the most goals, and when other teams are playing it seems the commentators know this. When Germany plays, that logic flies out the window. If you want to change the rules and bring a panel of judges out onto the field like in figure skating and award games based on style points and disregard the score line then fine, but I don't think it would be an improvement. Germany would probably win less, and you might as well hand Portugal every trophy for the next 10 years because Ronaldo is pretty and very good at 'stepping over' the ball, (ooooh!) but until that happens, to commentate on a football game in such a manner is ludicrous. The team that scores the most goals deserves to win period! (shameless plug for Brad Gilberts' 'Winning Ugly' would go nicely here). And its not like they scored flukey/ugly goals either. The give and go to Podolski who then fed Schweinsteiger for Germanys' first goal against Portugal was arguably the goal of the tournament. Then they follow it up by putting on a clinic on how to head-in free kicks.

In short, pls take what English commentators say about German football with a grain of salt.

As for my pick for the finals? While Spain has been really dominant in all of their games so far, I believe one of the first fules of football is that you'll lose lots of money betting against Germany, and they've proven it time and again in just this tournament alone. Germany looks like they're good for 2-3 goals a game so Spain will have to outdo that to beat them. That'll be hard but not impossible. If it goes to penalty kicks, Germany almost never loses. Just ask the English. :)