Group stage therapy
For the past two weeks, my life has followed a familiar trajectory -- two-hour lunches followed by two hours of rigorous "physical therapy" for my slipped Euro disk. These are the necessities when one of the world's two great soccer tournaments is being televised smack in the middle of a work day.
I am a Founding Father of The Hooky-Playing, Pub-Hopping, Euro-Watching Brigade, a merry band of hopelessly addicted soccer fans who pack the bars near our offices. Four hours a day of mainlining Stella may not be my doctor's idea of a healthy diet, but it helped me cope with the stress of Robin van Persie's humanizing failure. I think I speak for my fellow Euro snobs when I say that it takes a special tournament to be worth all the effort of convincing your boss that the rotator cuff you tore 10 years ago has flared up and needs urgent attention.
And on the field, at least, the 2012 Euros have been the sprightliest of tournaments, devoid of goal-less draws (none in 24 games, a record for a 16-team field), flopping players, time-wasting shenanigans, and refereeing turpitude -- all the bugaboos that soccer-phobes like to point to when they explain why the game will never catch on in The Land of the Free and the Home of Jim Rome.
Euro 2012 is still awaiting its game for the ages, like the Czech Republic's fearless fight back from 2-0 down against the Netherlands to win 3-2 in 2004, but there has been no shortage of drama (Greece's heroic win over Russia, Portugal’s seesaw thriller with Denmark, all things Dutch!), controversy (The Ukraine Goal That Wasn't, Nicklas Bendtner's unauthorized underwear, Sweden's seat-of-the-pants target practice on a reserve goalkeeper who wasn't wearing any) and memorable goals. Danny Welbeck's audacious game-winning back-heel flick was the most creative effort to come out of England since the tea strainer while Zlatan Ibrahimovic's gloriously acrobatic side volley should go straight into Euro folklore.
All told, it's been a superb swan song for a 16-team Euro Championship before UEFA takes a page out of the Sepp Blatter Book of Excess to expand to 24 in 2016. I mean, making it out of the group stage proved almost as difficult as understanding the mathematical permutations of where the teams would finish (unless, of course, you were Ireland and then you knew you were in it for the air miles).
Other than group-phase string theory, here are a few other things I've learned so far…
England is just a big tease
Take a mustachioed sage’s advice: Nothing lasts forever. Eventually, even Justin Bieber will seek out Wayne Rooney’s advice on hair loss.
Yes, everything was stacked against England going into the Euros. It had less than a month to prepare under a new manager, had lost three potential starters to injury and Rooney, its best player, to suspension. The Three Lions’ on-off-on-off-again captain, John Terry, is facing criminal charges for racism when he returns home. All that was missing from the England camp was hail, locusts, and an asteroid hurtling toward London.
Even the perennially soft-headed English fans stayed away from Euro 2012, with a mere 3,000 showing up for the Sweden game and another 4,000 for the decider against Ukraine. A nation that’s been drunk on victory since 1966 finally understood its limitations. Sanity had prevailed.
And yet, somehow, England contrived to go unbeaten in five games under Roy Hodgson while winning its group with seven points from its three group games, the most of any team not named Germany. And you can just see it happening, the rise of jingoistic fervor. The Fleet Street hacks are ratcheting up the hype and pubs are filled with talk of Chelsea-esque possibilities on a national level. But I’m still not buying it.
The big tease is there for all to see. Captain Steven Gerrard has absolutely killed it so far, his overambitious 60-yard cross-field balls and hopeless off-target shooting replaced by both a passing and positional discipline that Hodgson wishes he’d had at his disposal while trolling the sideline at Anfield. Joe Hart has avoided the big pratfall (so far), Ashley Cole has been steady and even the madcap Glen Johnson has been caught out of position fewer than a dozen times per game. Say what you want about Terry -- God knows, I have -- his leaping, hooked clearance against the Ukraine was downright heroic, even if the ball was already in. At least this time (ex-)Captain Braveheart crossed the line in a good way.
Now comes Italy, a team mired in scandal that struggled just to put two past a woeful Irish side. The way the Azzurri have been flagging late in the second half means that the most English of qualities -- blood and guts -- could carry a 1-0 day.
But as all good ministers are known to say, “here endeth the lesson” because after Germany is done shellacking Greece back to the drachma, the least storied of rivalries takes center stage again with an outcome as predictable as an “I Love Lucy” episode.
Trust me. Pick another team to support. You’ll suffer less and thank me later.
Total Football = Total Flameout
I have long admitted to having a man-crush on Dennis Bergkamp, but what was I thinking when I picked The Oranje to go deep into Euro 2012?
Just because the Dutch were World Cup finalists two summers ago and boasted five of the most battle-hardened and dangerous attackers in Europe -- Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder, Rafael Van Der Vaart, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and my beloved RVP -- who, by all rights, should have been reaching their peak this summer, why would I ever think the Oranje could avoid the self-destruct button in consecutive tournaments? Silly, silly me.
If there's one thing I should have known from admiring them since the fabled 1974 World Cup final, it's that the Dutch are about as stable and consistent as the European economy. Sure enough, the Netherlands sank to the occasion with all of the charm and spirit of France's 2010 World Cup version of Les Miserables. The only advantage displayed by Bert van Marwijk over his former French counterpart, Raymond Domenech, was BvM's abjuring of astrological charts in the team's selection even though even a semi-amazing Kreskin could have told you that this rabble would play together as harmoniously as Chris Brown and Drake.
To paraphrase Sir Winston Churchill, seldom in the history of international soccer has so much talent done so little for so much money. This was a comprehensive collapse; soccer's version of Enron. When Johan Cruyff pointed out after the brutish 2010 World Cup final display that the Dutch players had undone four decades of good work, he could not have imagined this nightmare. No defense, no midfield, and for the first time in the proud tournament history of Team Holland, no points.
After losing to Germany, Sneijder maintained that there were too many “pathetic egos” within the squad unwilling to sacrifice personal glory for the sake of the collective good. That's a bit rich coming from a guy who anointed himself the conscience of L'oranje while shooting from 40 yards with teammates open in front of the goal. Doesn’t he know that such arrogant self-belief is the exclusive purview of Cristiano Ronaldo?
This Ronaldo kid can play
For all of his many gifts -- warp speed, two-footed athleticism and eight more ab muscles than the average human -- I have never been able to warm to Ronaldo. But these past 10 days, I have realized that you don't have to like the Portuguese preener to admire his genius.
Against the Netherlands, CR7 was a creature of contrasts, trading in his almost gel-free rough-hewn look at intermission for a ‘do slicked back to perfection. What Beckham was to the tonsure of the 1990s, Ronaldo has claimed for his own and raised the future Sir David with a truly dominant major tournament performance.
Lest we forget -- no easy feat given the frequency of the tedious Messi vs. Ronaldo comparisons -- Portugal’s striker had never left a positive imprint on either the Euros or the World Cup. In South Africa, he cut a frustrated figure as his country tried to bore opponents into submission instead of unleashing the devastating counter-attack that makes Ronaldo such a terrifying sight to defenders in the open field. When Ronaldo is in the mood, as he was all season for Real Madrid, he's simply unplayable, but until Sunday, he wasn’t able to replicate even a shadow of his lethal club form. He sulked as a desultory Portugal dropped its opener to Germany, then missed two gilt-edged chances in the win over Denmark. Danish fans, taking their pleasure where they could, serenaded him with chants of “Messi, Messi, Messi.”
It turns out they Messi-ed with the wrong man.
Even little Lionel (who has rarely dazzled for his country, either) would have been hard-pressed to match the C-Ron show against the Dutch. Though he scored two goals and hit the post twice, my favorite moment had nothing to do with how he influenced the game. Instead it was an audacious piece of skill near the end of the first half that left me slack-jawed. As a long aerial pass dropped over Ronaldo's right shoulder, he caught the ball on his foot as if it were an egg and, in one seamless motion, slid it by the Dutch right back Gregory Van der Wiel, before searing away into the area. In terms of control, touch, and vision, it was no less preposterously brilliant than the legendary Bergkamp masterpiece against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup.
With a gutty but overmatched Czech side waiting in the quarterfinal wings, Petr Cech et al. might want to purchase tickets now to watch Ronaldo blazing down the left flank in the semis.
When did the Germans get so … fun?
Here's the thing about the Germans. Not only are they the youngest, most athletic, and most wonderfully balanced side in the competition, they are also -- and I know that my dad is going hate me for this -- strangely likeable.
In the second half of the 20th century, Die Mannschaft was a team of ruthless efficiency, devoid of flair and imagination. In other words, they were boring and though they won -- three World Cups and three Euros -- they boasted a side that only a German mother could love. The collapse of the Berlin Wall has given rise to a new Germany on the field, one filled with an almost carefree attacking spirit that made it, along with Spain, the pre-tournament favorites.
In retrospect, my opinion began to change with Die Mannschaft's joyful display at the 2006 World Cup, where a laid-back Californian transplant and former Tottenham diver named Jurgen Klinsmann made Germany fun to watch by injecting youth and speed into the team. My respect has only grown as Klinsi's stylish successor, Joachim Low, has sustained this relentlessly attacking philosophy. Ironically, it is this very commitment to full-throttle soccer that makes the Germans vulnerable.
They were fortunate to outlast a Portugal side that waited until the final 20 minutes to explode into life, creating more chances than Germany did the entire match. Then came the hated Dutch who made it easy by giving Bastian Schweinsteiger so much time and space in the midfield that he could have staged Wagner’s “Ring Cycle” before setting up Mario Gomez for his two goals.
But it was the surprising Danes who gave the Germans the most problems. In fact, there was a tipping point between the 75th and 80th minutes. With the game knotted at 1-1, Germany easily could have been knocked out of the tournament had the referee chosen to award Bendtner a penalty after Holger Badstuber nearly ripped the Dane's shirt off his back -- I wonder what was advertised on that.
Though Germany ultimately escaped, the Danes succeeded in providing a blueprint of how to derail the Germans' lightning-quick and precise counters -- namely, neutralize Mesut Ozil and stay compact in the back -- in much the same way that Chelsea gave the world a lesson on how to not let Spanish teams pass you to death.
I can’t honestly say I’m rooting for Germany to go all the way -- how in the name of Heidi Klum could anyone expect that of me? -- but I certainly won’t mind if they made it to the final. And then lost to Spain.