Friday, June 8, 2012

Euro 2012 - the preview

Euro 2012.  Another big football [some call it soccer] tournament.  Another opportunity for players to showcase their skills on the highest stage.  For agents to hope for bargaining power.  For owners to whip out the checkbook and splash excessive “moola” on the latest talent.  For journalists and pundits to fill the papers and the cyberspace with their banter.  For bloggers to pretend anyone cares about what they have to say … ;-)…  And for us to waste countless hours in front of the tube (ok, the flat-panel-thing, rather) and online afterwards, sifting through all that jazz…

Oh, I left out the main reason: “bin’ness”, of course.  Money from sponsors, TV rights, advertising, merchandise, tickets, tourism… all that… which ensures that UEFA makes a pretty penny and the hosts recoup their investments.

And then there’s the whole European unity-fraternity thing that Platini keeps talking about.  Translation: “I need all these Eastern European votes in order to get reelected”.  Case in point: Bucharest hosted the UEFA Europa League final this spring.  Rhetorically, who do you think M. Sandu [Romanian federation president] will vote for in the next election?  ‘Zactly my point!    

So in my pragmatic opinion, it’s about money, politics and ultimately football.  Yep.  In that order!  For money and politics go hand-in-hand; always the leech-and-fungus combination that kills the sport…

Why else you’d “award” the honor to host such a prestigious event to a couple of countries where [typical to any eastern bloc entity] corruption, organized crime, prostitution, and racism run rampart.  If you don’t believe me, check out the recent BBC documentary “Stadiums of Hate”1 (hard to find on youtube, and not available on their site, but I’ve attached a couple links at the very end…)

While we’re on this kind of “dirt”, who doesn’t love a good story??  You’re aware of Ukrainian girls’ reputation when it comes to beauty, right?  Apparently, prostitution is also gaining notoriety in that corner of the world… Imagine that!  Recently there’ve been rumors of legalizing it… So a local feminist group (Femen) is protesting the tournament (against the potential “prostitution-related activity”) by…… get this…….. going naked: and even dressing up as a penis (

And while we’re on the feminist angle [before I dig myself that grave, those who know me realize I’m not anti-feminist; on the contrary, love ‘em!…  and I hope you take most of my “out-there” messages on the topic with a grain or two of salt… but I digress…]  so, then, while on this feminist angle, did you check out the logos and all the marketing pizazz for the tournament?  So many colors and pastels, you’d think this was a womens’ tournament.  I guess they’re trying to compensate for some of the Eastern Bloc “realities” I mentioned above…

Enough of all that nonsense.  Little of it will matter once the kick-off whistle is blown…

So let’s talk football.

Personally, I don’t have “skin in the game”, as they say.  Yeah, I like Spain, because I hope the winner (literally and figuratively) is beautiful football, but I’m in it purely for the entertainment factor.  Now, like anyone who’s been around the game for… ever, I think I’m qualified to give it a go and try to “play out” the tournament, if you will… Two years ago for the world cup ( I think I did pretty good… all the way to picking the champions ;-)… so let’s try that again:

Group A: The Eastern-Europeans

Czech Republic.  They came out 2nd from their group [Spain 1st] but beat Montenegro on both play-off legs to qualify.  They had a third place finish in Portugal 2004, [I recall Nedved leaving the pitch in tears against Greece… had he played that whole game, we may have had a different European Champion that summer] but they’ve disappointed 4 years later when they lost to Turkey [3-2 after 0-2, with the last 2 Turkish goals scored by Nihat in the last 3 minutes.  Remember that?].  Today, they have little talent.  Sure, Petr Čech is still on a high after winning the Champions League, and Rosický, Hübschman and Plašil can form a solid midfield, but I don’t see much in terms of experience in front of Čech.  Milan Baroš is their one “name” up front, yet he’s never returned to his Liverpool form (although I hear he’s doing well for Galatasaray [latest report talks about a slight injury, also]).  Leading up to the tourney they’re not too hot (loss to Hungary, tie with Irelnd), so I really see them struggling to get out of this group…

Greece.  Won the tournament 8 years ago.  Finished dead-last 4 years ago.  Pretty sad display 2 years ago in South Africa also… Ultra-defensive.  They barely average a goal per game.  Yet, they topped their qualifying group ahead of Croatia.  Personally, nothing against the Greek, just don’t like how they play football.  Simple as that.  They “park the bus” [in front of goal], and hope to get lucky on a counter or a set-piece.  That style pays off now and then… It worked for them 8 years ago.  For Inter in the Barca champions League final couple of years ago, and more recently, for Chelsea, against both Barca and Bayern.  I just hope it won’t happen here… Prediction: not getting out of this group.  Maybe steal a point in the process…

Poland.  They’re claiming the best side they had in a while… No Lato or Boniek in their ranks, but a young team that will be carried by the home crowd.  Szczęsny  impressed with Arsenal this season.  So did the Dortmund trio [Lewandowski, Błaszczykowski and Piszczek] that helped win the bundesliga… They might edge the Czechs out of the group, but won’t go beyond that.

Russia.  They should top the group.  They’re hungry, with a lot to prove.  No World Cup appearance since 2002, and on the European stage they made it to the semifinals last time around (lost to Spain, the eventual winners).  They haven’t lost a game in more than a year, and just recently destroyed Italy [3-0] in a recent friendly.  Dick Advocaat knows how to get the best out of his players, and there are plenty in the squad that have played together for a while.  Let’s just hope they don’t flop [like they did in the playoff for South Africa against Slovenia].  They’ll lose to Germany or Holland after the group stage.

Group B: The tough one.

Denmark.  The tournament 4 years ago is the only Euro they missed in recent history.  Yet, this time around, although they topped a group that included Portugal and Norway, they seem “light” overall.  The Laudrup days are gone.  The likes of Bendtner, Poulsen and Agger are simply not good enough to make it out of the group. 

Germany.  The pedigree is there.  Third place at the last 2 World Cups.  Finalists in the last Euros.  Germany will be there again.  Only this time inconsistency casts some doubts over that statement.  Perfect record through the qualifiers, but losses in recent friendlies [France, Switzerland] may have killed their confidence a bit; or maybe brought a dose of reality…  Value is there, although defense is not as strong as it once been… it’s a matter of having the Bayern players refocus after they literally gifted the CL trophy to Chelsea.  I see them losing the semifinal, either to France or Spain (depending on whether they top the group or come in second).

Netherlands.  Always the bridesmaid, never the bride.  Always on the top stage, but the only trophy to show for it – the Euros back in ’88 [Van Basten, Rijkaard, Gullit & Co].  Strange, paradoxical almost, that the country that invented total football doesn’t really play much like a team, these days.  They have plenty of talent, especially in the top third of the pitch, but can they figure out a way to play together?  They’ll likely meet Spain again [if they top this group – which they should – in the final, otherwise in the semis] which should make for a mouth-watering replay of the last WC final!  

Portugal.  They don’t miss these things, although this time they qualified over playoffs against Bosnia and Herzegovina.  But they have not shown much since their final loss on home soil in 2004.  Cr. Ronaldo has been red-hot this season, but he never duplicates his club form playing for the national team.  They have some talent, but again, another case where they don’t really gel as a team.  They’re not going to make it out of this group… the Germans and the Dutch will prove too tough!

Group C:  Spain + the surprise!

Croatia.  Strangely enough, they came in second in their group [Greece first] but killed Turkey in the play-offs [3-0].  Strong, but inconsistent.  And with Olić out of the tournament, Eduardo really has to step up.  I think they’ll fight Ireland for the second spot in the group

Italy.  The Azzurri topped the easiest group of the qualifiers.  That may have given them a false sense of security, for they lost their last 3 friendlies [Uruguay, USA and Russia].  I’m wondering how much the recent Calcio scandals had to do with that… Last Calciopoli scandal [2006] guided them to a WC win… since then, however, they managed to exit the last WC in the groups stage.  Not much better in the Euros either.  The current team is built around a few Juve players, but – just as I noted in the write-up for the 2010 WC – there’s still no depth or value.  And I haven’t seen any real superstars coming through, lately… They might prove me wrong, but I don’t see them out of the group stage.  I see Ireland the surprise here…

Republic of Ireland.  Yep.  I see them placing second.  Trapattoni has put together a strong squad and they haven’t lost a game in over a year [3-2 friendly loss to Uruguay].  I think they’re going to be the surprise story in the group stage, and although I’d love to see them beat France in the first round, for some poetic justice [remember Henri’s blatant hand ball goal that denied them a trip to the WC 2 years ago?] that’s not likely to happen…

Spain.  Perfect record in the qualifiers, holders of both WC and Euro titles, and overall an amazing team to watch.  They will miss David Villa, but if Torres “shows up” and the defense synchs up, another trophy should be a breeze.  Otherwise, they’ll still win it, but the hard way.  I’m looking forward to a proper beating of Holland this time, so there won’t be any doubts… [Did I mention I was impartial?  Sure I did…]  

Group D:  Predictable…

England.  Oh, England.  They did not qualify for the last Euros, but topped an easy group for this one.  I see a bunch of tired players, total lack of creativity in the midfield and no bite up front (especially with Rooney missing the first two group games).  I think they’ll squeeze in second behind France, but only because the other two are even weaker… There are some promising young players, but I don’t see ‘em getting past Spain once the group stage is done.

France.  All or nothing.  Either win it all (WC ’98, Euro 2000) or don’t make it out of the group stage (last two major tournaments).  That’s France.  But after the disaster from the last WC, Blanc cracked the whip and put together a pretty decent team.  Not always consistent, but lots of young players; looks promising.  I’m going back to Sept 10 to find a loss [surprise 0-1 at home to Belarus] … then a string of 20 undefeated matches, with victories over Brazil, England and Germany.  They have some reconciling to do, so I think they’ll “show up”.  They might even make it to the final, if they can get past the Dutch.

Sweden.  Qualified as “best-record” second place team but I really don’t see them getting past the group stage.  Zlatan might work miracles on a good day, but he’ll be isolated, get frustrated, and we all know the results when that happens…

Ukraine.  If the other hosts have a decent chance to get past the group stage, Ukraine doesn’t.  With most players from Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar [14 of 23] unity should not be an issue, but at this stage it won’t be enough… especially with a bunch of players [Shevchenko, Tymoshchuck, Voronin] past their prime.

Once the group stage is over, Russia loses to Germany (or Holland), England to Spain, Poland to Holland (or Germany) and Ireland to France.  As you see, still not sure about who will top group B, although I’m leaning towards the Dutch.  Then it’s Germany-Spain and Holland-France… with the final being that WC replay I mentioned above.  Although France may edge them here… in which case we’ll be in for an all-Latin final.  And a revenge opportunity for that 1984 final… [France won 2-0].

There you have it.  The last 16-team tournament “as I see it”.  Come 2016 [France] we’ll have 24 teams.  That’s pretty much all of Europe… So if you think there are some poor teams showing up this time, add 8 more for the next tournament.  But again, money talks… I’m sure when they did the math it was an easy decision to make.  Quantity vs. quality, in the end…

And since I mentioned quality, I hope I’m not alone in noticing that there are less truly consistent good players in the game today.  Some of it may have to do with the number of games played, which takes a toll on players (and increase the chances of injury); other, with the fact that most of the money in the game is provided by the clubs… Why would a player risk it for the country, when his livelihood is provided by the club?  Sure, there’s national pride and all, but look no further than Germany, with players of Spanish, Turkish, Polish, Tunisian, and Ghanaian descent/heritage.  How much “national pride” could be there?  They’ll care first for their club (their paycheck, actually), then, their country.

Regardless, I think we’ll see some sub-par performances [tired players] but also lots of young guys trying to break through.  I’m hoping for lots of the latter.  I’m also hoping for some cracking good games after the first two rounds of group games.       

Personally, I hope I can catch as many live matches as possible.  Work does get in the way of these things, you know…

Enjoy, and watch for an update after the first round of matches.

Stadiums of Hate documentary links: 

More from the WC2010 predictions (and the validation afterwards):

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