Category archives: Euro 2008

The Final Days: Sturm und Drang

Aragones

Given that all of its inaugural members are on the ‘wrong’ side of 30, it probably wasn’t overly surprising to see the Super Euro Soccer Party team run out of puff as the tournament’s tail end came into view. While we did try and freshen things up by introducing the young legs of “breathnk” – a maverick, unpredictable talent – he was rarely seen outside the confines of his local bookmaker’s (where he busied himself dejectedly tearing up betting slips).

And so it was (as we lay groaning on the treatment tables) that the last three matches of an exhilarating tournament went uncommented on. Football, as the fella might have said, is no country for old (wo)men. Unless, that is, you’re the 104-year-old Luis “The Troll” Aragones – he who finally delivered what younger men had previously only promised: a big, shiny trophy to take back to Iberia. An old dog for a hard road littered with broken dreams.

What amazed me most about Spain this year was not merely that they eventually lived up to their consistently high billing, but (more importantly) that they triumphed in a manner rarely matched in major tournament history. From the first whistle (against Russia) to the final act (last Sunday) they showed unflinching determination to both completely dominate their opponents and play free from the crippling fear that has so often paralysed them.

For 15 or 20 minutes of the first half against Germany, as they briefly threatened to let their bottler’s instinct reassert itself, the sound of journalistic knives sharpening well-worn clichés could be heard. Spanish teams of old would, in such circumstances and against such opposition, have quickly gone wide-eyed and slump-shouldered – but not the class of 2008. Once they regained the initiative (and their composure) they seized the game by the scruff of the neck and never again let go. History may end up judging the final a tight affair (due to the scoreline), but in its own way this was a victory every bit as emphatic as their demolition of a previously irresistible Russia in the last four.

While most of Europe was happy to slap Spanish backs and proclaim the win a triumph for football, the German part in the tale tended to get dismissed. Eamonn Dunphy (in typical style) wrote them off them as “useless” and lucky to have progressed so far. Similar criticisms have dogged them since (at least) their defeat of the Czechs in the 96 final and have, by now, become widely accepted as fact. The Germans, the story goes, always land on their feet. Lady luck smiles upon them. They always get more than they deserve.

Like a lot of popular sporting “truisms” this is probably a load of old bollocks. “Lucky” teams (however apparently limited) are always doing something right – something that means they maximise their chances of standing victorious when the dust settles. Liam Brady (the pragmatic and balanced presence sitting at Dunphy’s right hand) offered just such a defence. Germany, so Chippy told us, have a winning “mentality” – and it is to this (and not good fortune) that they owe their successes. It should be noted here that Brady has a way of mangling the word “mentality” to make it sound like a word of about 23 syllables. Combine this drawling style with a face that looks like a lump of half-baked dough (with two small currants for eyes) and you have an improbable comedy hit.

Well folks, that’s about the size, shape and density of it. A magical 3 weeks has come to an end and with it a return to the quotidian demands of real life.

Goodnight Euro 2008 – you magnificent bastard.

Roll on South Africa…

Germany 3 – 2 Turkey

Spain 3 – 0 Russia

Spain 1 – 0 Germany

Euroballs and (not so) Super Strikers

Euro 2008 has been the 600th consecutive major football tournament where we’ve heard expert voices condemning the official ball as both a) too light, and, b) too inclined to swerve unpredictably in the air. According to this theory of ball evolution, the progressive “lightening” and “swervening” of footballs should, by now, have given rise to something only marginally heavier than a balloon, and only marginally less swervy than a banjaxed boomerang. In other words, this path should have led to the “Super Striker”.

Plastic Ball

Ok, admittedly that isn’t actually a bona fide “Super Striker” (if there even is such a thing), but it’s cut from the very same cloth (or hewn from the very same plastic). For those lucky enough never to have played with one, the “Super Striker” is the only football one can (or, at least, could) ever find in garages or small shops in sea-side towns. As the above image proves, the “Super Striker” (like the Devil himself) has many names and guises – but behind the superficial differences lie universal properties.

Though the SS manages to be marginally heavier than air and (just about) capable of clinging to the earth’s surface, its many deficiencies become readily apparent when one steps up and kicks it. Imagine, if you will, a childhood game of (“last man back”) 5-a-side beach football. You dispossess your opponents’ “last man” 10 feet from their goal and nothing now stands between you and glory. The crudely-constructed goalmouth yawns open as you take aim and hit the “Super Striker” (for it is no other) as hard and as true as you possibly can.

At first all seems well. A dull “thunk” is heard and the plastic sphere begins its journey straight toward the target. But then, just as you prepare to wheel away in delight, disaster strikes. A barely perceptible breeze drifts across the playing area. The “Super Striker” decelerates rapidly, veers wildly off course, and finally floats gently to rest…in the sea. No goal. Game abandoned. Let’s all go home…

Though we haven’t (surprise, surprise) witnessed the wildly dipping and bending shots from distance that critics of the “Europass” (Adidas’s official ball for 2008) forewarned us of, there’s no doubt that it has more than a touch of the “Super Striker” about it:

Europass

This similarity owes something to both its shiny (dare I say, “plasticky”?) finish, as well as its backward nod in the direction of the iconic “Telstar” – the ball that Bucky built.

Telstar

For some reason the overlords who ran the “Super Striker” assembly lines never allowed their workers to churn out anything but fantastically cheap replicas of the “Telstar” – this despite the fact that the ball hadn’t been used in a World Cup since 1974. The design that dominated the 80s and 90s – the beloved “Tango” – has never had itself bootlegged to anywhere near the same extent. There are, I’m sure, obscure & esoteric reasons for this – reasons that would drive a man mad to think upon them even for an instant. Or else, y’know, it’s something to do with pentagons being easier to paint…

Direct (and indirect) nods to the legit (and bootlegged) past earn the “Europass” reasonably high marks. It’s certainly a vast improvement on the abomination we had to endure four years ago. Ladies and gentlemen, the Adidas “Roteiro” – by far the mankiest ball ever kicked in anger at a European Championship:

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Held together by lashings of black duct tape (and universally loathed by right-thinking people everywhere) it “graced” European football’s showcase like a big stinky turd on the centre circle. Given the opportunity, I’d happily boot a “Super Striker” (hard) at the head of the UEFA half-wit who gave it the green light. Only trouble is, it’d never reach its target…

Days 15 & 16: Once Upon a Time…

Arshavin

Last Saturday, I described Luka Modrić (that marvellous orchestrator and string-puller) as “the chief sprite in [Croatia's] bewitching ballet of nimbleness”. Less than a week later, however, and the fat ladies of Turkey had sung their funereal dirge. The Croat ballet was ended and the chief sprite was dead. Who would answer the call and flutter in to replace him?

Well, the even more sprightly and pixie-like Andrei Arshavin – that’s who. If Prince Harry, a winged ethereal humanoid, and Garrincha were to combine their essences to produce an offspring, it’s a safe bet that the result would bear more than a passing resemblance to the man who emphatically shaved Dutch arses on Saturday night.

Realising that his team had been on the receiving end of a convincing (and thrilling) rump kicking, Marco Van Basten was sensible (and gallant) enough not to try and spin this obvious narrative into a Dutch hard luck story:

“I can live with the indisputable fact that they were better than us.”

Amen to that, brother. It was very nearly a far less happy end for two of the tournament’s other magical mini men. With 59 minutes gone in Spain’s fruitless search for a goal against the dark lords of Italy (Buckram described the contest as “reminiscent of a young Jimmy White paying Cliff Thorburn”), Aragonés (bafflingly) decided to haul off both Xavi and Andrés Iniesta.Dunphy suggested, post-match, that he might “not be the full shilling”. The Spanish manager’s resemblance to an ogre must surely have been commented on before (possibly by Archie MacPherson, who once memorably called Mario Zagallo “a little troll-like creature”Archie’s one to talk.), and he was certainly a cruel enemy to the footballing pixies tonight.

Archie MacPherson

Happily, after 120 gruelling minutes, the villainous, neg-headed Azzuri were vanquished and the Iberian imps were free to jig and frolic merrily on the green, green grass. And they all lived happily ever after (or at least till next Thursday).

Russia 3 -1 Holland

Spain 0 – 0 Italy (4 – 2 on penalties)

Spain: The Shabby Case – the Shabbier the better?

Alonso

There is a word in Spanish used to describe someone or something that is unbearable, something up with which one will not put. The word is insoportable. I used to find the national sporting press in Spain to be insoportable when any football tournament got under way, much as I have already detailed in a previous post. By extension, I would also find the Spanish national team to be unbearable and, in fact, unsupportable.

Something in the bold red print of the sports pages managed to filter into the national psyche and to manifest itself in the national squad in the form of arrogant, stuff-strutting attempts to walk the ball into the net. It was underlined by the attitude that Spain did not have to modify their game for anyone and that they would win doing things the way they had always done them. They never seemed to make the connection between their immutable and predictable style of play and the single trophy it had yielded in over a century of effort. It should be noted that this trophy was gleaned from a four-team tournament in Spain (under Franco’s rule) against the USSR in what was viewed, at the time, as the triumph of the right over the left – a victory that never escaped the murky, shadowy influence of the (rather surprisingly) round-chinned Generalísimo.

This evening, as Spain face Italy in the quarter finals, images of Luis Enrique’s broken nose (courtesy of Tasotti’s elbow) are all over the Spanish press. The appetite for revenge is immense.

Luis Enrique

I fear for Spain. I fear that they will try to short-pass their way through the game, past (or passed) the Italian defence, past Buffon and into the net. If they choose to play that way then they will lose because Italy will sit back, let Spain play in front of them and catch them on the break or from a set piece. It will be effective too because Sweden nearly stifled Spain using just that tactic and Italy are much, much better than Sweden. It was interesting that Spain scored their goals against Sweden through an unconventional (quite superb) finish from Torres and, what was effectively, a long ball up from defence to Villa. If Spain are not willing to vary their game then they are in serious danger of doing what they always do, i.e. exiting the tournament in the last eight.

18/06/08 saw Spain play an apparently meaningless game against Greece (with a line-up replete with many players unlikely to be first team selections). The most interesting thing about it was that they beat the tournament’s most negative team (a team that took the lead through a set-piece and readied itself to defend) with their ‘B’ team – but with Xabi Alonso at its heart. He was a colossus – shooting and nearly scoring from the halfway-line, shooting again off the inside of the post from well outside the box, passing the ball superbly (metronomically when he had to yet willing to vary short and long passes, get the ball behind defenders and around them etc).

Despite a relatively quiet season at Anfield (due to injury and consequent loss of form) he was full of energy, invention and creativity. He brings vision and variety to the team and a nuanced approach that mixes patience and urgency in appropriate measures. I don’t know who to sacrifice from the star line up to make space for him, but I do know that the Italians will not be able to read him as easily as some of ‘first’ team selection.

Xabi, then, could be the difference between exit this evening or a berth in the semi-finals – the difference between a supportable and an unsupportable Spain.

Of Probability

Rustu

That the sun will not rise tomorrow is no less intelligible a proposition, and implies no more contradiction, than the affirmation, that it will rise.

I felt lucky. Really lucky. Friday had fallen, and with it fell sunshine and, into my pocket, the weekly wage. I stopped outside the bookmaker’s and, as my friend was about to depart from my company, I floated a kite, as one does on such glorious summer days: should I not just put my whole wage on some absolute certainty? I knew, and know, very little about either side. But sure, some thing are so simple, so certain, that they transcend the specifics. Something, then, like there being more than 0.5 goals in 90 minutes at 2/7. Football is football is football.

My friend, invoking his grandmother directly and David Hume indirectly, reminded me that nothing-in-this-life-is-certain. I kept most of my money in my pocket. I put a fiver on 2-1 Turkey, instead, and another fiver on Turkey to go through in extra-time, both bets at 14/1. Neither were realised, you’ll be aware, the Turkish goalkeeper preferring, first, to show off his at once villainous and heroic mettle which so becomes his piratical countenance.

But, more importantly, ninety minutes finished without a goal, and I still have the bulk of my wages. As I said, the sun was out and I felt lucky.

Last night’s bets: Arshavin to score first, at 10/1; Russia ahead at Half-Time, Holland at Full-Time, at 22/1. It’s raining heavily.

Putting the ‘art’ in RTÉ

Dunphy

Here in Ireland the fear was voiced, in some quarters, that this tournament would be somehow devalued by Ireland’s failure to qualify. Similarly, across the pond, the failure of England (and indeed any of the ‘home nations’) to make it was almost heralded as an opportunity to shelve football until the premiership dusted itself off in August. There was a general pre-tournament air that Euro 2008 would pass off without incident of any note and normal business could resume once the players ‘we know’ returned to our screens.

In order to maintain some level of interest many of the pre-game build ups were to focus their attentions on those players who play in the Premiership – often unmindful of the fact that quite a proportion of the bigger names have been relatively quiet this tournament (are you listening Cristiano?). We’re so used to games being hyped up, to Super Sundays and ‘top four’ clashes, that this has been something of a hard-sell for some broadcasters. Indeed, the BBC’s Gary Lineker introduced the Switzerland versus Turkey match as “the one we’ve all been waiting for” in the most ironic tones. That it turned out to finish in the most dramatic fashion and launch Turkey on a path to semi-finals (at the time of writing) underlines the fundamental dearth of respect that (the rather likeable) Mr. Lineker has for other nations and their ability to play the English game.

And so, I have watched most of Euro 2008 on RTÉ 2 and I have been most impressed. Despite the fact that their pundits are all former footballers who played in England, the great thing about RTÉ’s broadcasting of the tournament is that it has been delightfully unblinkered by the narrow focus of the Premiership or any single league for that matter. RTÉ have managed to bridge the gap (where possible) between the Premiership and the European footballing world at large. Giles is there with his honesty and wisdom, Dunphy is still stirring it up and Brady’s knowledge and appreciation of what is often called ‘continental football’ keeps a nice balance.

Giles

Then there is Souness who would appear to have finally understood that he can almost say anything that he wants to say and Whelan who is growing into the role. It was Whelan, in particular, who alerted everyone to the prospect of watching the Russian Andrei Arshavin in action (pronounced Ar-shaa-veen, Shearer on the BBC managed to make it sound like ‘arse-shaven’): it is refreshing, as always to hear a player’s virtues being extolled who has yet to grace (or be graced by) the Premiership. Souness has managed to display a knowledge of Turkish football too which has become (unpredictably) appropriate and pertinent. Billo has been the magnificent anchor as ever.

On another front, the commentators have surpassed themselves (with the possible exception of Darragh Maloney who always sounds like he wishes it was GAA). Both Hamilton and a rejuvenated Magee have allowed themselves to enjoy the matches and actually get excited in games that don’t involve countries we’re supposed to love or hate. The latter is back to his eighties best, wrapping his choppers around names such as Pavluchenko. In fairness, neither Hamilton nor Magee has ever shied away from the prospect of a multi-syllabic Slavic moniker or even the odd potential minefield: Austrian Ivanschitz comes to mind. Co-commentators Houghton, Kinsella and Cunningham will appeal or not to different people and have their faults but, like so many other former Irish players, they have shown themselves to be capable talkers when the talking is about football.

Some people seem astonished that the tournament is so much fun despite the absence of a team from these islands but I am inclined to think that it is because of this factor that the tournament is so much more enjoyable. We no longer have to endure conversations about one team, how any given team would fare against them, how their training sessions are going or how their wives and/or girlfriends are generally being crass. No, in this tournament we get to enjoy football for its own sake – last minute equalisers and winners from Turkey (Fergal’s Opera) or old nags resuscitating themselves (Gobsheen’s Italy). We’re even getting to see some cliché’s fulfill themselves in Germany’s relentless progress. I’m watching this one through the prism of RTÉ but I’m really enjoying something that happens all too infrequently for my liking – a great football tournament for football fans where the star is football.

Super Euro Soccer Party? Most definitely!

Warming Up

The team Fústar rounded-up for this, the blogosphere’s most entertaining kick-about, has played nothing short of a blinder. Reportage, meditations and nostalgia; oh, this lot have every position covered, and they write like Real Naturals to boot. But it’s late in the day now, and though they may not be showing it yet, they might well appreciate a pair of young, fresh legs. And that’s, er, that’s where I come in.

Last month, during the Snooker, I developed a fondness for the interiors of the nation’s betting offices. Dens of dejection they are, playing host, in equal measure, to manifestations of despair, resignation and pathos. Resignation, in the collective crunch of defeat that follows the end of every horse race, trailed closely by the glance of each patron at his (always his) nearest bin, and, after brief deliberation, attempts to launch the balled-up betting slips into said bin. Never successful, these attempts. Despair, in the man who picks these slips up and brings them to the bookmaker to inspect, just in case. Pathos, in the face of the man who, having no more litter to leaf through, leaves the room, knowing (full well) that tomorrow will (not) be better.

A digression from football, this post, I grant you, but I’m still only getting a feel for the ball and for the (newly laid?) surface here. It’s all by way of saying, really, that I’ve been betting on Euro 2008, almost every day, almost 100% unsuccessfully, and that I’m going to be telling you all about it.

Tomorrow will be better.

Days 12 – 14: A Night At The Opera

I was born like this. I had no choice.
I was born with the gift of a golden voice

Rustu

I have been silent for too long here at SESP, and for that I apologise to you all, and most cravenly to Fústar, who has been left carrying so much of the workload a-keepin’ this blog ticking over. While my Orange boys were out doing wonderful things against France the other weekend, I was drinking beer and eating pie in Kilmainham, watching Leonard Cohen being spellbinding. On Sunday, as the Turks and Czechs battled each other, I was in Vicar Street, caught up in the whirlwind of fierce beauty that is the live Bonnie “Prince” Billy experience. Such was the degree to which I refreshed myself at those cultural events that it’s only now that I’ve returned to peak blogging condition.

During my absence from the first team, I noticed an interesting piece in the Guardian where they sent their arts critics to sporting events and their sports writers to arts events. With a few exceptions, the critics didn’t get the sport; with a few exceptions, the sportswriters were pleased with the culture. What does this prove? That Art is better than Sport? Maybe. That the Guardian’s jocks are more rounded writers than its nerds? Definitely.

Thomas Castaignède, rugby correspondent, loved the opera, and even went so far as to do a post-match interview with one of the tenors, an innovation which could add a fascinating new dimension to arts coverage, though I suspect that most actors, at least, are as boring and banal in the locker room as are footballers, though they probably don’t say “all credit to the lads” as much. Now M. Castaignède is French, which may explain his conception of Sport as analogous to Opera in the intensity of its high drama. Nonetheless, I am as one with him when he says “I just love to watch people giving it everything – in any walk of life”. And it is true that that the football of the past week has been good enough to provide me with moments of pleasure (though perhaps not as many) at least the equal of anything given by Messrs. Cohen and Oldham. And that’s without even mentioning tonight.

Surely I was not the only one out of my seat and pacing the floors this evening, as the Croatia-Turkey tie came to its spectacular, cruel, spell-binding climax? Both teams were so likable, and so passionately supported that it seemed a shame to send either of them home. By extra time, I thought that whichever team could manage a goal from play would be the deserving victor.

Then Rustu made an insane decision to chase a ball way out of his area of responsibility. Failing to capture it, he was sent racing back to his line after a ball that sailed inevitably netward. Croatia it was then. But with ordinary time done, and the single minute of injury time completed, the amusingly named (to Irish ears at least) Semih sent a rasper into the corner of the Croatian net. It was struck more or less on the stroke of full time, and sent us into the fascinating and sadistic ritual of a penalty shoot-out.

I hate to see games decided by shoot-outs; they are a blunt instrument, their only virtue being that they at least put an end to what otherwise might go on all night. They are cruel, and cannot even begin to determine who the best team is. Still, they do provide a certain insight into the character of teams and, especially individual players. Weak teams will invariably crack in a shoot-out. My Dad suggested to me last night that nothing sums up Christiano Ronaldo’s weaknesses like his too-clever-by-half and ultimately bottled penalty in the Champions League Final.

Thus, it was the Croatians, understandably shattered by the last-second equaliser, who were found psychologically lacking. The Turks, all steely determination and never-say-die attitude, slotted their kicks home like men of the fine old school. Then, at last, the final kick of the game, and Rustu, the 117-times capped veteran, redeemed himself in the eyes of his nation, and the Turkish fans went every bit as mental as they deserved. The Croatians, a team of such great charm and passion, go home. It’s fascinating, exhilarating and dramatic; it’s also arbitrary, crude and cruel. But then, as they never say at Covent Garden, that’s football.

Russia 2-0 Sweden

Spain 2 – 1 Greece

Portugal 2 – 3 Germany

Turkey 1 – 1 Croatia (3-1 on penalties)

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