The American’s Guide to Adopting a (European) Football Team: Euro 2012 Edition (Part 2)

This is part 2 of a 3 part series that is intended as a primer for the Euro 2012 soccer tournament.  Yesterday we looked at the front-runners.  Today, we'll tackle some teams that may surprise, but are unlikely to raise the trophy in Poland and Ukraine.

P.S., these wispy-haired troll-inspired mascots are creepy.

Fashionable but Flawed

France: After a shambolic World Cup in 2010, Les Bleus have lately shown improvement under manager and former star Laurent Blanc.  While there is undeniable talent in the likes of Karim Benzema, Samir Nasri, Hatem ben Arfa, and Gael Clichy, France are still prone to the Dutch habit of destroying themselves from within.

Players like Franck Ribery and Patrice Evra, who led the revolt against former coach Raymond Domenech in South Africa, could potentially once again prove a catalyst for locker room unrest and on-field mediocrity.  

On the other hand, France does have the talent and depth to make a run should they get themselves into a groove in the group stage: England, Sweden, and hosts Ukraine are their opponents.  In addition to their relatively kind group draw, they’ve had a good build-up to the tournament in that they’ve improved each game, culminating with a comprehensive 4-0 thrashing of Estonia. 

Good performances breed good team spirit, so while you never really know what you’re going to get with the French, don’t sleep on them.  Recommended for malcontents, romantics, and other emotional decision makers.

Italy: The Azzurri have had a rough half decade of decline.  After winning the World Cup in 2006, the Italians were bounced from the 2008 Euros in the quarterfinals by eventual champions Spain.  In South Africa, they failed to get out of the group stage, finishing last in Group F and producing the shock result of the round: a 1-1 draw with New Zealand, a team featuring players who needed to take time off from work to attend the tournament. 

While one can’t ignore the pedigree (four times world champions) and the talent, there are a few too many question marks surrounding their aging squad to call them true contenders.  In their final warm-up match before the Euros, the Italians were soundly thumped 3-0 by the Russians.  Given that the Italians are known for their defense, the loss was a worrying one.  As if fitness and performance weren’t big enough issues, an added distraction in the form of a match-fixing scandal has broken recently and caused the withdrawal of one of their starting defenders. 

The good news: the last time match-fixing was brought to light in the Italian league was 2006, shortly before they lifted the World Cup.  Recommended for lovers of pitchers’ duels, 6-0 American football scores, and other “purists.”

Portugal: “All flash and no substance” is probably a bit of an overused cliché, and in the case of the Portuguese not necessarily a fair one, the nation having qualified for every major tournament since 2000 and having made it beyond the group stages in each of those except the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea (where they finished third behind the hosts and the United States of Awesome). 

Boasting three time Second Best Player in the World (and one time Balon d’ Or and FIFA World Player of the Year winner) Cristiano Ronaldo as well as stars like Nani, Raul Meireles, Pepe, and Fabio Coentrao, there is plenty of flair in the team.  Unfortunately, the Portuguese are also the main perpetrators of that element of the beautiful game which Americans find most detestable: they dive. 

They also play the Iberian game-within-a-game of whining to the officials and baiting the other team into cheap fouls, at which point they will dive again.  Their football is glorious, but the other stuff is too disgusting to ignore.  Recommended for fans of Rucker Park-style basketball and admirers of preposterous hair.

England: England's entire squad, all 23 players, play for domestic teams (the only team in the tournament for which this is true).  22 out of 23 play in the English Premier League.  Whether or not you subscribe to the belief that it is the best league in the world, it is without a doubt the most popular.  I know this because I have watched the famous Manchester United in bars on beaches in far distant lands where the next most popular sport was a form of bamboo stick fighting that always seemed to end in blood and tears...but I digress: the EPL is huge, and so are the players.

At this point, I think it's necessary for me to advance the following: I know more about this league, and consequentially the English national side, than I do about even the United States’ squad.  Since my knowledge in this particular area far exceeds that of any of the other participants in the tournament, I could, in fact, write an extremely long post about England and their chances and all the trials and tribulations they have endured in the build-up to the Euros.  I am not going to do that.  The sources for such insight are legion. 

Instead, here is my summary (please follow the links if you wish to know more) of why the Three Lions will not win: England’s players enjoy an extremely high profile due to the domestic league; they are coddled, self-important,and treacherous; the media pressure on the coaching staff is absurd and so unbelievably influential that it beggars belief; due to injuries, age, and politics, England will not have their best 23 players representing them at this tournament; even if they had their best 23 players, they would still be the second best team in their group and probably the sixth or seventh best in the tournament.  Because of all this, England will not win.

Now, having said all of that, there is reason to support them anyway: they will be the best-documented team at the tournament (in the English language, anyway).  There will be easy-to-follow coverage of their endeavors from multiple sources in the mainstream media, the blogosphere, and beyond.  In short, this is the team that, in a few short weeks, you will find it the easiest to get to know.  A little insight makes a big difference when you’re looking for someone to cheer for, especially if it’s an unfamiliar sport. 

One final thought before I cut off this overly-long blurb: at Euro 2004, Greece were 150:1 underdogs to lift the trophy.  They played the ugliest, most aesthetically brutal soccer ever seen at a major tournament.  They made it out of their group on a tiebreak.  They won their quarterfinal 1-0.  They won their semifinal 1-0.  They beat the hosts Portugal 1-0 in the final to win that tournament.  I’m just saying, England…crazier things have happened.  Recommended for news junkies, those who hold on to hope while masquerading as hard-hearted cynics, and lovers of 1-0 scorelines.*

Russia: The Russians will be favorites to emerge from Group A, which has been dubbed by some as the “Group of Life,” since all four teams could potentially progress—there are no giants, in other words; only mid-level teams.  Be that as it may, I would personally be surprised if the Russians failed to move on into the quarterfinals.  Virtually all of their players ply their trade in the domestic Russian league, but many have extensive European tournament experience at the club level via the Champions' and Europa leagues.    

In addition to that club experience, the Russians still have a core of players who took them to the semifinals of the 2008 Euros in Austria and Switzerland: captain Andrei Arshavin, ‘keeper Igor Akinfeev, and striker Roman Pavlyuchenko, to name three of the more well-known, but all of them are aging and some of their bigger names have not impressed with their clubs this season. 

The Russians may try to use their relative anonymity to their advantage in the group stage as they recently did against Italy, defeating the Azzurri 3-0 in their final warm-up match.  If they put in three solid performances like that they'll be into the knockout stages.  They may be the darkest of dark horses, but if they top their group they have a sliver of a chance.   Recommended for NCAA college basketball Cinderella lovers, Soviet apologists, and lovers of the Slavic tongue.

That's it for those teams I rate as outside favorites down to dark horses.  Tomorrow, it's everyone else, hopefully before kick off!

*this negative review of their chances is due to the fact that I really want England to do well, but am afraid to say so.

1 comment: