The 2012 UEFA European Football Championship, which got underway last week, has our football-obsessed staffers and friends excited for purely sporting reasons (check out our new blog, Goal Post, for ample evidence.) For rest of us, however, the continental soccer tournament is fascinating for the way it intersects with the world’s most important pending economic and political drama: the slow-motion collapse of the European Union. It got us thinking: What would the tournament bracket look like if, rather than facing each other on the pitch, these countries went toe to toe economically?
The late Carwyn James was the greatest rugby coach of his time. In 1971 he led the British Lions on tour to New Zealand, when they became the only Lions team ever to win a series against the mighty All Blacks (as the New Zealanders are known from their uniform). He also gave a phrase to the language. Expecting brutal play from the All Blacks, James told his players beforehand to “Get your retaliation in first.” For an England soccer fan, the great thing is to get your disappointment in first. That’s been true as long as I can remember, but never so true as this year.
I mentioned that Ireland’s fans are perhaps the best of those visiting Poland and the Ukraine this month. (Croatia’s might be second-best). But for truly magnificent daftness we tip our hats to the Poles and especially those that follow Lech Poznan. This is mental and magnificent and all kinds of other things. Worth three minutes of your time...
The fashion in which the Republic of Ireland were outclassed by Croatia confirmed that, perhaps uniquely in this tournament, they have already achieved their goal. Getting to Poland was enough and as much as anyone could sensibly hope. True, they enjoyed some good fortune on the way being drawn in a respectable but hardly life-threatening group (Russia, Slovakia, Macedonia, etc.) and then getting Estonia in the play-off.
Before the Spain-Italy match, I had this idea of writing about Spain’s midfield; I thought it would be amusing to bring up third-world countries where heedless millionaires shamelessly flaunt their diamonds and BMWs before their poor brethren—like in the United States, for example. With Xavi, Alonso, Busquets, Fabregas, Silva, Iniesta, I would have made jokes about increasing taxes, give the Italians Fabregas. Hell, Mata, who might not break into the lineup, could be the best midfielder on a number of other teams. Tax the rich. Socialism. It might have been funny; it might not.
June 26, 1996. England, Germany, Euro semi-finals. I’m at work. My “office” is a former supply closet, hemmed in by a men’s room, and a women’s room. But for this day only such a perch is good I’m cocooned (if by bathrooms). Safe—no one can get me. At home, the VCR is whirring peacefully; I even thought to set it to run long, just in case. I can do this; I know I can. I had been in the United States for 18 months and had become a black belt at avoiding soccer scores. You learn quickly, with so many big European games being played while America heedlessly goes about its workday.
Far be it for me to disagree with Ian Darke’s assessment of David Silva’s zippy flick to Cesc Fabregas as the best pass of the tournament. But I’d argue the fantastic ball to Di Natale from Andrea Pirlo was much more impressive—and here’s why, with some personal history to back it up. Now, I love a great goal; one of my four great regrets in life is that I was not a Southampton season ticket holder between 1986 and 2002 so I could have witnessed Matt Le Tissier. But most goals have an instantaneousness that makes them physically admirable but intellectually vacant.
Is there a more overrated player in the world than Mario Balotelli? He was awful today and constantly a liability. Could it be that I’ve missed all or any of the games when he was impressive or, at least, good? God knows that I form many of my football judgments by imagining: “What if I were on that team or in that situation? What would I do?” If I ever found myself on the same team with Balotelli, I would strive to injure him in training.
My nephew is obviously a football expert and I’m thinking he knows as much as anyone on ESPN. He should be hired even though he is in Beirut. I asked him whether Holland will win its first game, he said, “Robben is selfish.” I asked him whether Spain will win the tournament, he showed me his upper arm.
For his first trick, in only the 2nd minute of the game, Mr. Keith Andrews of Ireland watched Mandzukic the Croat make a flying header towards the Irish goal, but then performed an “arms flung out wide to tell everyone there’s no danger here” signal. In doing his “arms flung out wide to tell everyone there’s no danger here” signal, Andrews of Ireland crucially delayed the dive of his goalkeeper. All that was left was for Andrews of Ireland to raise his hands to his head when he realized the ball had actually skimmed past him, and the keeper, into the back of the net.