The American’s Guide to Adopting a (European) Football Team: Euro 2012 Edition (Part 3)

Alrighty sports fans, this is the final installment of my Euro 2012 primer for Americans who don't know shit about football.  The games get under way in just under 12 hours, and I am freakin stoked. Cheers!

For the final part of this guide, I've broken the remaining 8 teams out by group.  I've also posted this image I snagged from soccernet.com, because it is absolutely mental.  While Schweinsteiger and Xavi guard the flanks, Balotelli uses the Force to levitate one ball while Ronaldo fires another out of his cyborg cannon leg. 

Oh, and Robin van Persie?  Well, he's got a jetpack.  

Best. Graphic. Ever.

Group A:

Poland: One of the host countries for this year’s tournament, the Poles have every chance of riding their home field advantage into the knockout rounds.  Watch out for Robert Lewandowski in attack, the Manchester United target scored 22 times for his club team Borussia Dortmund in the German league this year.  Another one to watch is Łukasz Piszczek, who also plays for Borussia Dortmund, and is arguably the best right back in the Bundesliga.  The final key cog is goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny of English team Arsenal, who is the subject of a humorous .GIF I have displayed below.

Having home field advantage for three games in an international tournament will provide Poland with a huge lift, so despite having the weakest squad in the group on paper, don’t be surprised if they make it out alive.

Unless you’re Polish, enjoy being the butt of jokes that aren’t funny, or are the contrarian class clown, you’ll probably cheer for someone else.

Czech Republic: The Czech team is coming down from the rarefied heights of a legitimate Golden Generation to a more sober existence in the middle of the pack in Europe.  Players to watch are Milan Baros, who is a top shelf striker when he’s healthy and playing well (neither of which seems to be true of him at the moment), Tomas Rosicky, who had a good year in midfield for his club team Arsenal, and goalkeeper Petr Cech, who has been in the conversation about the best goalie in the world for the last several years.

At the last several major tournaments the Czechs have made an impression, and have a history of going deep into the knockout stages.  Unfortunately, they lack players with that experience as well as legitimate go-to threats to score.  It’ll be a big ask for this rebuilding team to make it out of the round.

The Czech team has a fine pedigree, so despite its steep decline into irrelevance, wannabe aristocrats and royalists should find themselves with a good team to root for.

Greece: The Greeks are derided for their defensive counterattacking style, but it won them the Euros in 2004, so they seem to know what they’re doing.  They are an older team, and will rely heavily on striker Giorgios Samaras to poach goals whenever possible.  Kyriakos Papadopoulos is one of the young guns in the side and will be looking to make an impact in defense.  Veteran midfielder Giorgos Karagounis has loads of experience and the Greeks will need every inch of it.

The Greeks...man they are really boring to watch.  Giorgios Samaras does look a bit like Jesus though, so if you're into that sort of thing, or cheering for guys who like like they should be schlepping falafel instead of playing footy, I guess this is your team.  Who knew?

Group B

Denmark: Poor Denmark.  Despite having a strong squad anchored by top talent like Christian Poulsen, Dennis Rommedahl, and Daniel Agger (oh FINE and Nicklas Bendtner), the Danes have found themselves smack dab in the middle of the Group of Death.  Games against Holland, Portugal, and Germany will all be brutal tests, with the likelihood being a group stage exit.

This is a quality side, and I will definitely be cheering for them within the group after their first game against the Dutch.  It’s only a bold man or a Dane who would claim them as their first choice to support, however.

Group C

Croatia: Head coach who smokes, red and white-checkered jerseys, and Luka Modric are three reasons that Croatia are the hipster pick of this tournament.  Full of quality but less attractive than their Group C rivals Spain and Italy, Croatia are the edgy pick to the sure things and the sentimental default (Ireland).  The Croats are fairly well loaded with experienced talent: Darijo Srna, the captain, has vast international and top club level experience and will be the pillar that holds it all up.  Luka Modrić, one of the most gifted playmakers in the game, will play just in front of him with Brazilian transplant Eduardo and Nikica Jelavić try to find the goals. 

Croatia are a good side, and they are completely capable of seizing one of the two qualifying spots for the knockout stage should the Italian malaise continue or the wheels fall off for Spain. 

The cultured choice in this group of easy fan favorites, Croatia are the perfect team for people who are fans of terrible bands that haven’t released an album yet (because they're terrible), and also pay money for vintage clothes.  Do you know what vintage means you hipster spaz?  It means old.  Which generally means used.  You’re wearing old used clothes.  You’re so fucking cool.


Ireland: The Irish are going to have a rough time in this group.  They might be able to get one good result, but it seems unlikely that they’re going to make it to the later rounds.  They do have some talent: Shane Long had a breakout season for his club team in England, West Brom, but he is the lone young gun surrounded by a cadre of aging stars like Shay Given, Richard Dunne, John O’Shea, Damien Duff, and Robbie Keane. 

While it’s fair to wonder if they’ve got enough left in the tank after a long season, this is Ireland’s first major tournament since 2002, so you can be sure that the old dogs will give everything they have for both their team and their countrymen.  The fans will also be a force, with an estimated 30,000 Irish travelling with their team.   

Ireland are a sentimental favorite of public inebriants the world over, and this tournament will be no different, but if you’re in it for the footy, and Ireland do pull off a couple miracles, it will be a magical time to be a fan.  As they say in England, emotional scenes.

Group D

Sweden: The Swedes have a wealth of attacking talent but are a little short on the defensive side of the ball in this tournament.  Luckily, with the exception of the French, neither England nor Ukraine look likely to score many goals, so for Sweden the best defense may be a potent offense.  Sebastian Larsson, Johan Elmander, Ola Toivonen, and rising star Rasmus Elm will need to provide some of that offense, but when it comes right down to it, right down to the bare bones, to the nitty gritty, you really only need to know one glorious word: Zlatan (if you’re a stickler for convention, his full name is Zlatan Ibrahimovic). 

This team will live and die by the performances of their captain, which is a double-edged sword: it is good, because Zlatan can do things on the field that maybe only one or two other people on the planet can do.  It is bad, because he never seems to do these things in big games.   

Sweden are a perfect team for those seeking to worship a cult of personality: you do not cheer for Sweden, only Zlatan.                 

Ukraine: Bringing up the rear, the Ukrainians are led out by 35 year old Andriy Shevchenko, who in his prime was one of the best strikers on the planet for a series of very good AC Milan teams.  Now, he is well past it, as they say in England, and the fact that he is in the starting lineup is an indication of the difficulty the second host nation is going to endure.  The other star forward for the Ukrainians is Andriy Voronin, who played well enough in Ukraine to earn a move to Liverpool in England, where he failed spectacularly.  His career has recovered somewhat at Mainz in the German league, but he, like Shevchenkco, is also not in the same class as most of the other attackers in the tournament.

So…reasons to cheer for Ukraine…reasons to cheer for Ukraine…reasons…You know what, the Ukraine have had it pretty rough the past century, what with the Russian Empire and then the Soviets, so let’s just give them a break, huh?  Come on.  You guys are dicks.

Whew!  Well I'd love to thank someone for helping me out with these posts, but I can't, because I did all that shit myself.  For real though, this tournament is one of the world's great sports spectacles, and it makes it way more fun when you have a team to support and make you feel part of it all.  

Enjoy your football America!

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.


The American’s Guide to Adopting a (European) Football Team: Euro 2012 Edition (Part 1)

The quadrennial UEFA European Championship Finals kick off this Friday in what is the culmination of the largest international soccer tournament outside of the FIFA World Cup.  Sixteen out of UEFA's fifty-three member associations have qualified for Euro 2012, which is being hosted jointly by Poland and the Ukraine.

Over the next few days, Newrosis will provide you with an overview of each team, their chances, and whether you should support them over the course of the tournament.  From hipster picks like Croatia to the long-shot Scandinavian sides and the Iberian dandies, we'll give you all the dirt you need to make an informed decision.

Before we get into the teams, a quick word about the format: the sixteen nations are divided into groups A, B, C, and D.  Each team in the group plays the others once.  The top two teams from each group advance to the knockout rounds, which are exactly what they sound like.  In addition to the championship game, the losing semifinalists play for 3rd place.  Game on.

Part 1: The Front-Runners

Spain: The reigning champions of not only the Euros, but also the World Cup, the Spanish could establish themselves as a legitimate dynasty by defending their crown: no team in history has won three major international tournaments in a row, including the mighty Brazilians.  Led by the likes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta, and Iker Casillas, there will be no chance that this vastly experienced and tight-knit squad will be overawed by the occasion.

Spain are the bookies’ favorites to retain their title, and while they face decent opposition in Group C from Croatia, Ireland, and especially Italy, they will likely advance as group winners.  Their quarterfinal knockout game should also be relatively straightforward, meaning their first real test may not come until the semifinals.  If they make it that far with no disciplinary suspensions or injuries to their key players, they will likely go on to win the tournament.

On the negative side, Spain will be without striker David Villa and central defender Carles Puyol, who both miss out due to injury.  In addition, they have a tendency (shared by their fellow Iberians, the Portuguese) to play a game-within-a-game that involves things like flopping to the ground as though they’ve been shot in the leg when grazed by an opponent’s boots, and subsequently surrounding the referee to demand justice for their fallen comrade. “Distasteful” is a nice way to describe this behavior, “unsportsmanlike” is another word that I’ve heard bandied about, and “bush league douchebaggery” is what it most closely resembles in my opinion.

Despite their penchant for the dramatic, if their key players (namely Fabregas, Xavi, and Iniesta) can stave off injury, Spain are certainly going to go deep into the tournament and could prove to be a juggernaut if they find themselves on a roll.  Recommended for people who cheer for the Yankees, supporters of the theatre, and lovers of great soccer.

Germany: While sometimes accused by football purists as being workmanlike to the point of tedium, no one can deny that Ze Germans have been lethally effective in major tournaments, and boast a world-class lineup to boot.  Built around a formidable spine of Bayern Munich players like ‘keeper Manuel Neuer, captain Phillip Lahm, midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger, and striker Mario Gomez, the three-time European champions (twice as West Germany) are sure to be a force into the later stages of the tournament.

Along with the eight player Bayern contingent (8 players!), Die Mannschaft also boast attacking talent in the form of record goalscorer Miroslav Klose, Real Madrid duo Sami Khedira and Mesut Özil, and future stars like Mario Götze, Tony Kroos, and  Andre Schürrle.  The talent level is almost on par with Spain, and the strength in depth means that the Germans may be better equipped to deal with injuries to their key players. 

The greatest obstacle for Germany will be a relatively grueling route to glory.  While they have to be favorites to emerge from Group B, it will not be easy: the “Group of Death” also includes bitter rivals Holland as well as the flashy Portuguese and 1992 champions Denmark.  If they finish on top of the group, they’re likely to go all the way to the final.  If they qualify second, a tough match against Spain looms in the semifinals.

With an experienced coach in Joachim Löw and the cohesion that the side has displayed in major tournaments, the Germans are a good bet to make the final.  In fact, Germany historically are one of the best teams in the world at qualifying and placing in major tournaments.  They have qualified for every World Cup for which they’ve been eligible (along with Japan they were banned from the 1950 tournament) and all but one European Championship, amassing 3 trophies from each competition.  Recommended for watchmakers, mathematicians, and fans of dominant college sports programs. 

Netherlands: Despite a lineage that includes some of the most influential names in the history of football, the Dutch have won just one major tournament: the Euros in 1988.  They play an aesthetically pleasing style that is made all the more entertaining by the ridiculous offensive talent they have at their disposal.  Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder, and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar are all threats to finish as top scorers over the course of the tournament.

The Dutch have a group of players, including those mentioned above, who are in their absolute prime, and the 2010 World Cup runners-up are surely feeling the pressure to fulfill their potential at this tournament.  In addition to all the attacking talent, the defensive core (two central defenders and two holding midfielders) is made up of some tough customers: Johnny Heitinga, Ron Vlaar, Mark van Bommel, and Nigel de Jong will not win any awards for sportsmanship, but they will certainly do a job in front of ‘keeper Maarten Stekelenberg.

The most troubling historical weakness of the Dutch has been the egomaniacal tendencies that the best players in the squad always seem to possess.  From Cruyff to Davids and Kluivert to Robben, they seem more prone to self-destructive team behavior than any other country.  Even the great sides of the 1970s, who introduced Total Football to the world, were populated with eccentrics and egos that in the end failed to co-exist long enough to win a major tournament (they finished as runners-up in 1974 and 1978 at the World Cup and third in the '76 Euros).  

In addition to off-field issues, Holland has also been known to lose its collective cool on the pitch: you need look no further than the 2010 final in South Africa, where the Oranje should have been down to ten men within minutes of kick-off after Nigel de Jong’s boot to the chest of Xabi Alonso.  English referee Howard Webb was forced to employ possibly the most flexible interpretation of the laws of the game in history in order to keep the Dutch at eleven men until the 109th minute when Johnny Heitinga finally left him no choice but to issue him a second caution and a trip to the showers.  In all, the Dutch amassed nine yellows while committing 28 fouls, and Andres Iniesta's goal in extra time saw the Spanish emerge victorious anyway.  Such thuggery is not likely to work this time around either. 

If the Dutch are to win just their second major tournament, they need to maintain their focus on and off the field.  Holland are in Group B, the "Group of Death," along with the Germans, Portuguese, and Danish, and they need to start strong and avoid disciplinary lapses.  They won’t have any easy games, but they certainly have the talent to go all the way, and no one has ever accused the Oranje of being boring: they are guaranteed to entertain.  Recommended for those who like a little more chaos than order in their lives, and also for fans of Slap Shot, Caddyshack, and Major League.  HUP, HOLLAND, HUP!*

That's your look at the three favorites and their chances.  Tomorrow, Newrosis looks at some other Euro powers who ride the fence; will they contend or just pretend?  France, Italy, Portugal, Russia, and England will all be laid bare, so stay tuned.

*I hereby admit to bias in favor of the Dutch.