Your Euro 2008 Preview


We have lost Mr. Hirshey to the four-letter crew over in Bristol, but that doesn't mean we're gonna ignore soccer around here. Heck, that Euro 2008 business starts tomorrow — go England! Oh, wait — and we've got your back. Mike Cardillo of the great That's On Point will be with you throughout the tournament, and he previews the whole shindig for you today.

Good grief! What is an American sports fan to do these days?

The NBA finals could be decided by a bearded Spaniard and a tatted-up Frenchman.

The NHL has more unpronounceable last names than a Russian nuclear warhead disposal manual.

Baseball is getting taken over by the East and the Caribbean.

And let’s not even get started on the Olympics and our lack of medals in dressage and badminton.

At least Big Brown probably counts as an American (USA! USA!).

So let that be my preamble to why, as an American, you shouldn’t loathe yourself if you find yourself watching or at the very least intrigued by this month’s European soccer champions from Austria/Switzerland, hereafter Euro 2008. If you can allow yourself to watch the French Open (or the highlights) you can watch a little bit of the beautiful game. For what it lacks in sassy miniskirts, it certainly trumps in hair product and man-crying.

With the advent of satellite television, the Internets, etc., there’s no excuse for us Americans to continue to keep our heads buried in the sand on International sporting events. (Ok, you get a pass on the Afghani buzkashi classic.) The days of watching soccer and turning into a commie-pinko are long gone. This is an important sporting event, that, if we’re lucky, should be fun to watch.

In short, the Euro, ladies and gentleman, is the international sporting event to wrap up in this summer, compared to the festivities in Beijing come August. Less smog, less soft-focus NBC features and, most likely, less human rights violations — though Italian defender Marco Materazzi might have his say on that.

All the games are on, gasp, the Worldwide Leader in Sports. Unlike last time the four-letter word held the rights to a major soccer tournament (2006 World Cup), it seems the bosses in Bristol are treating this one seriously. Apparently they finally realized if they can let guys with British accents analyze golf and tennis, they can do it for what derisively known in some quarters as “Yankee Kickball.” And hey, if they continue to do a crap job, we can mock them behind their backs.

Now that’s the big picture.

At this point you’re probably still telling yourself, ‘Who is this guy?’ and ‘Soccer sucks.’

I’ve taken this much of your time, so let me introduce myself. I’m just a guy that for whatever the reason has allowed the soccer-bug to take over my life. I’ll never claim to be a “expert.” When I make a mistake, I admit it.

All I’m trying to do is offer an opinion on the games from an American perspective and hopefully make the tournament more enjoyable to those just discovering the game or even the so-called ‘soccer snobs.’ Admittedly, David Hirshey left a huge yarmulke for me to fill here at Deadspin — and I’m not even Jewish, though the do-it-yourself home circumcision kit is in the mail.

Again, if you’re not my father and made it this far reading, you’re likely still asking, “Why the hell should I watch a bunch of European Miss Nancies flopping all over the field in a game that could end in a tie!”

Since everyone loves lists, here’s a couple:

1. Cristiano Ronaldo. Forget that the Portuguese star wears my hair gel than the entire cast of ‘American Idol.’ Forget the fact that if you saw him in a bar, it would take every once of restraint to fight from socking him right in the chops.

Just know that despite his massive hype, he is almost guaranteed to pull off a move at the Euro that will make you shake your head in amazement and fist in anger — at the same time.

2. Poland striker Ebi Smolarek is nicknamed the ‘Hash Bomber’ after he failed a drug test while playing in Amsterdam. He claimed it was because he ate a ‘space cake.’ Hey, Josh Howard, don’t get any ideas.

3. Open play. If you’re only memory of major international soccer is the 2006 World Cup, throw it out. That tournament was pocked by cynical play, millions of tackles and few goals. Though the pressure will be almost as great at the Euro, coaches are probably more willing to let their stars free and play an attractive game — if only in the group stages.

Euro 2004 in Portugal was thrilling, well, except when eventual champions Greece played. If the action in Austria/Switzerland is half that, it should be pretty good. For what it’s worth, a 0-0 tie can still be fairly tense and exciting.

4. There will be blood. Despite what ESPN might lead you to believe in the Yankees/Red Sox rivalry, it’s not that crazy. Trust me. I live in Connecticut. Yeah, “Derek Jeter Sucks” t-shirts are really threatening. Meanwhile, it’s hard to find a game where an entire nation will be on edge when Poland plays Germany on Sunday. I think these two neighbors might have some history. Might. World War II or something? Not quite sure since Tom Hanks wasn’t there. (Don’t get fooled. With smaller stadiums and tickets at a premium, hooliganism will be a smaller, side issue.)

5. No England. Too many people that follow soccer in America are obsessed with all things England. Wonderful. It’s nice that the Three Lions missed out on qualifying on the last day, when they lost to Croatia. For one, it saves us the inevitable England loss in penalty kicks in the knockout rounds. And more importantly, it cuts down the ESPN David Beckham mentions from 4,801 to a more manageable 3,298. This means the cameras are free to pan over him at Lakers games in the NBA Finals.

6. Don’t worry about nationality. If you don’t have an ethnic rooting interest in the Euro, channel your inner Brasilian and sell your passion for the highest bidder. Turkey, Portugal, Spain and, yes, even Poland, all have naturalized Brasilians in their ranks.

A team worth getting behind: Romania, which still has villages much like the one Borat fictitiously came to American from. It would be a fantastic story if the Romanians emerged from the so-called, “Group of Death” featuring powers Italy, France and the Netherlands. Need another reason? Star striker Adrian Mutu once tested positive for coke, thus banning him from all EA Sports soccer games, turning his name in “Murgu.”

7. Ricola. You gotta love the Alps as hosting backdrop, if only for their giant antique fugal horns and inspiring the classic ‘Price is Right’ game ‘Cliff Hanger’.

8. All the games are in HD, meaning Poland coach Leo Beenhakker’s nicotine ravaged face will looked all the more craggly and withered.

9. France coach Raymond Domenech is on record for picking his starting XI via astrological charts, thus giving us another reason to mock the French. (Sadly, no mimes in the midfield.)

10. National pride. Despite the ease of switching nationalities, this is still a spectacle on the strength of national pride. A good percentage of all these players are already well-off, but they play for the hopes of a nation. And unlike, say, USA Basketball, it’s still a honor to put on your national team’s uniform for an event like this.

If all else fails, there should be some pretty hot chicks prancing around in next to nothing in the crowds.

Breaking down the field:

Der favorites: Germany
Serious contenders: Italy, France, Portugal, Spain
Darkhorses: Croatia, Greece, Netherlands, Czech Republic
Could surprise: Romania, Russia
Thanks for playing: Switzerland, Sweden, Poland, Turkey
Auf wiedersehen: Austria

Funny names:

Andreas Ivanschitz (Austria); Jerko Leko (Croatia); Bastian Schweinsteiger (Germany); Demy de Zeeuw (Netherlands); Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink (Netherlands); Cosmin Contra (Romania); Răzvan Raţ (Romania) and finally, Russia’s Yuri Zhirkov (say it aloud for full effect).

Weekend Games

Saturday — Group A:

Switzerland v. Czech Republic, St. Jakob Park, Basel (ESPN Classic, 11:30 a.m.) – The tournament opener and the Swiss probably have to win to have a realistic chance to advance. The Swiss might get a homefield lift, but could also be hard pressed to score for the entire tournament. The Czechs limp into without either of its well-known midfield virtuosos – Tomas Rosicky (injuried) or Pavel Naved (retired) – and are a massive X-factor. Czech fans own the most simplistic, yet terrifying chant in all of sport, as a red-clad block of menace simply chant, “Ches-ky.”
Player to watch — Marek Matejovsky, Czech, he plays at now relegated English Premier League team Reading will probably slot into the playmaker roll for the long-toothed Czech, which feature only three players under the age of 25.
Match guess — Switzerland 0, Czech Republic 1

Portugal v. Turkey, Stade de Geneve, Geneva (ESPN Classic, 2:30 p.m.) – Portugal kicks off what it hopes is its championship campaign against the Turks. Even though this game is in Geneva there is a chance it could turn violent and ugly, especially if the Portuguese embarrass the Turks too many times with step overs.
Player to watch — Since everyone’s looking at Ronaldo, watch for new Chelsea signing Jose Bosignwa to make some noise coming up from the right back position.
Match guess — Portugal 3, Turkey 1

Sunday — Group B

Austria v. Croatia, Ernst Happel Stadion, Vienna (ESPN2, 11:45 a.m.) — Everyone expects co-host Austria to roll up into a fetal position and plead for its life. This might not be the walk-over the Croats plan. Croatia gets a result, but it comes late. If Austrian coach Josef Hickerberg were a smart man, he’d plan a pregame pep talk from a certain Governor of California. (That plan might not be the greatest, because despite some uni-brows, Croatia won’t be psyched out as much as Lou Ferigno.)
Player to watch — Luka Modric, Croatia. Already signed to Premier League team Tottenham, this player could truly breakdown at this tournament.
Match guess — Austria 0, Croatia 1

Germany v. Poland, Worthersee Stadium, Klagenfurt, Austria (ESPN 2, 2:30 p.m.) — Gear up all your World War II references. This ought to be a battle.
Player to watch — Kevin Kuranyi, Germany. The Schalke 04 player probably has an chip on his shoulder after being left out of the squad for the 2006 World Cup.
Match guess — Germany 2, Poland 1

On record predictions:

Normally, I loathe predictions, but here are mine. Feel free to mock me when the Turks win the whole thing.

Group winners: Portugal, Germany, France, Spain
Group runner-ups: Czech Republic, Croatia, Italy, Greece

Quarterfinals: Portugal over Croatia; Germany over Czechs; France over Greece; Spain over Italy

Semifinals: Germany over Portugal; Spain over France

Finals: Germany over Spain

Golden boot: David Villa (Spain)

That should do it for one day. Let’s keep it clean and come out soccer-ing.