Rough Day For The French And The ItaliansS


In the year 2008 there a few things an American sports fan takes for granted. Games on the television. Beer advertisements portraying males aged 21-35 willing to run through brick walls and or set themselves on fire in order to procure a lite beer, which could be procured at any gas station. A couch.

For me, scratch that last one.

Over the first three days of Euro 2008 I was couch-less, for reasons best not shared. (Look, we don’t know each other that well yet.)

You really tend to forget how important the role your couch plays whilst watching sports. It’s always there for you. It never complains. It might not get All-Star votes, but it’s definitely one of those intangible “glue guys” that ties everything together.

Finally, when Italy and Holland kicked off around 3 p.m. I had a couch. As I write this, I’m working on my new “ass groove.”

Life is good.

Rough Day For The French And The Italians

It’s not exactly so great for France coach Raymond Domenech. Already an eccentric and loathed by the international press, the would-be thespian prickly relationship ought to only get further strained after his bizarre lineup selection that played a role in a snore inducing 0-0 draw with Romania Monday afternoon in Zurich that with only further the ‘soccer = boring’ argument for Americans.

Remember, Domenech has said that he’s chosen players based on their astrological sign. This nugget gets recycled a lot, but it seems fairly far-fetched. It’s more likely a way to deal with the press without actually answering the question. Maybe Bill Belichick ought to try it.

Then again, the way the French played today it looked like they were auditioning for roles in a play. Not a lot of killer spirit.

Though the French didn’t lose, getting only one point against Romania -– the perceived weak sister of the ‘Group of Death’ -– won’t sit too well with Les Blues. Specifically, playing two holding midfielders in Claude Makalele and Jeremy Toulalan against a weaker team then dropping 20-year-old phenom Karim Benzema into a deep-lying role will have Domenech skewered, not that he probably minds what the ink strained wretches think.

France, a tournament favorite, did play without two of its all-time greats, Thierry Henry and Patrick Viera. Still, these guys aren’t spring chickens and were components in the country’s World Cup win, which was 10 years ago.

Again, it’s hard to pity the French, especially at soccer. Though, during the game I began to wonder why it’s so patently American to bash the French. Yeah, they’re snooty to our socks & sandals tourists. And of course, they never can quite live down their Vichy France days.

Yet, we Americans tend to forget that contributions of General Lafayette in the Revoluntionary War against the British. What about the Statue of Liberty? That came from France.

In recent times the French have yielded Daft Punk, model Laetitia Casta and that episode of ‘The Sopranos’ where Carmella thought she saw a dead Adriana in Paris.

Meh.

Those aren’t enough to make up for Monday’s listless effort against the game Romanians, but Domenech will probably be envied by Italian coach Roberto Donadoni who is going to be raked over the coals from Milan to Sicily after his team’s stunning 3-0 defeat at the hands of the Dutch. The big talking point will be a toothless Azzuri lineup that only featured one player under 30 and plenty of out-of-form AC Milan players.

Honestly, did Italy play with any shape today? Did Donadoni even show film? He got thoroughly bested by Marco van Basten, and that’s pretty hard to accomplish.

This is as stunning a loss as France dropping the 2002 World Cup opener to Senegal 1-0, after winning the previous World Cup and Euro. Italy now has a Mike Francesa caliber yuge hole to dig itself out from if it hope to complete such a double after a blinding performance by the Dutch.

There are two ways to look at this, the stunning loss by Italy or the great display by the Netherlands. Let’s just say Monday, Euro 2008 finally arrived as the ‘Brilliant Oranje’ put together a display in Berne that will remembered from Eindhoven to Gronigen for years to come.

Look at the postgame quotes. Van Basten couldn’t find one poor performance from his XI, while Italian keeper Gianluigi Buffon was left to apologize to the nation for his team’s showing. Frankly, when that happens, you know it’s a true stinker since athletes always deflect blame.

In short, Italy got chumpatized.

Typically the Dutch are everyone’s second-favorite team in these tournaments due to their attractive play. Against type they entered this tournament with a huge cloud of uncertainty and people like me didn’t pay them much never mind. The absolutely pure joy the players felt as they celebrated with the fans, showed how much the players wanted to win this one for themselves and for the nation.

A couple years ago I read a book called “Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football” by British writer David Winner. The book details how around 1960 the Dutch came from nowhere and began to produce players the likes of which the world had never seen before, namely Johann Cruyff. There’s a lot of weird stuff in there about artists painting around lines and stuff that made my eyes glaze over. Yet it dealt with a lot of the Dutch insecurities about a lot of things in life, basically down to how their country could be flooded at any moment by Mother Nature or its neighboring countries, namely Germany – which as West Germany bested the Dutch masters in the 1974 World Cup final.

The basic theme of the book, I suppose, is that the nation produced beautiful, attractive teams, but something in their inner psyche held them back until Marco Van Basten led the Oranje to the Euro 1988 triumph. Of course since that day, the Dutch have always been a threat to win a tournament, but haven’t gotten past the semifinals.

And on the eve of this tournament most lamented the death of Cruyff’s ‘Total Football’ and how the team could barely win ugly against teams like Albania.

Perhaps a stunner like today is the jolt in the national psyche that will finally propel the Dutch back to the top. This was a class showing from soup to nuts. You can never discount negativity as a reverse motivating factor in sports. All month the Dutch heard how they were crap and not expected to do anything, meanwhile the Italians were lavished as title contenders.

The Dutch in one fell swoop -– well two beautiful counter-attacking brushstrokes –- let out all the frustration to the elation of the lowlands. They were, on this day in Bern, brilliant once more.

All you need to know is that after the first matchday, Group C is flipped on its head. Friday’s second round of matches are now 100 percent must-watch with co-favorites Italy and France fighting for their lives.

Monday’s heroes: Mirel Radoi, Romania. The entire Romanian team did a good job befuddling the French attack. Radoi was right in the middle of most of it, plus he completed 87 percent of his passes. You could say Romania played the ‘cynical’ game, what with no putting a shot on French keeper Gregory Coupet. Instead, they deserve some praise for a resolute, tactical game that got them off on the right foot. The Romania defense featuring guys like Gabriel Tamas and Christian Chivu knows how to smartly take a punch.

Gio van Bronckhorst/Dirk Kuty, the Netherlands. The tireless running of these two on the counter attack resulted in two goals and got the Dutch dreaming of the magic of ‘Total Football’ again as both attacks were triggered from saves at the other end of the field.

Goal of the tournament (so far): The Dutch’s second goal vs. Italy Monday was something even the now-grim Johan Cruyff would applaud. It came via a lickedy-split counter attack on about four touches. Rafael van dar Vaart sailed a long pass to van Bronckhorst, who’d cleared the ball off his goalline, he then crossed from left midfield to Dirk Kuyt racing up the right sideline. The Liverpool-man nodded it down and Wesley Sneijder jumped into the air and channeled his inner Daniel Larusso and thumped it past Italian keeper Gianluigi Buffon.

Brilliant movement for the Brilliant Oranje Monday. Sneijder must have been inspired by that excellent Nike first-person ad directed by Guy Ritchie, which has been toned down for America.

The case against HD: Rasheed Wallace’s mystery spot has company, in the form of France’s Franck Ribery. To his credit, after a brutal car wreck, he declined plastic surgery which would have concealed his facial scars, but yikes. Take me back to 480i when he’s playing.

Oh, those wacky Dutch: Native American feathered headdresses. (See photo up top.) Orange lion tails and horns. Oversized milk maid pigtails. Cowboy hats. Essentially anything goes for being a Dutch international traveling fan as long as you wear your ‘Oranje.’ They’re like Oakland Raider fans, only slightly less into slasher movies.

The best thing about the Dutch is they are so good-natured -– and that’s not just because a certain botanical item is legal in Amsterdam.

At the 2006 World Cup I was camping outside Frankfurt, just as it was beginning to get swarmed by the Dutch ahead of their match against Argentina. The Dutch wear prepared. This middle aged guy had what had to be a custom-made hammer (for driving tent stakes) with a bottle opener on the other end.

All this makes me feel all sorts of rotten insider for giving the Dutch minimal chance ahead of the tournament.

Hup Holland, Hup!

Group of Death: Can we jointly start a search for a term to replace “Group of Death?” It’s a tad morbid, eh? Moreso, it’s tired and played out. It’s lifespan is kaput. Suggestions are welcome.

The odd couple, Italian style: Could there be two more different players than Marco Materazzi and Andrea Pirlo? One is covered in tattoos, was famously the butt of Zidane’s head in the last World Cup final and plays as closely as a prison inmate as you can. The other almost certainly carries a European man purse and is described in words like ‘graceful’.

Justice, Italian style: There is no doubt in the world that Ruud van Nistelrooy was a good three yards offside on the first Netherlands goal vs. Italy. You know what? After the 2006 World Cup there’s no sympathy for the Italians. Hell, he might not have made much of an impact internationally, but AC Milan striker Pippo Inzaghi made his name living on the offside line. (There was an Italian off the pitch at the time, which might have technically kept van Nistelrooy onside. Either way, it’s time the Italians didn’t catch a break.)

Underrated: One thing that deserves to be noted was the strong, workman performances from Dutch central midfielder Orlando Engelaar, who plays for TC Twente. Pretty sure Donadoni didn’t have him targeted in the gameplan. He was tall, which was an asset and technical enough not to make many mistakes. A recently promoted (English) Premier League team would do well to make him an offer before it’s too late.

Today’s games (Group D):

Spain v. Russia, Tivoli Neu Stadium, Innsbruck, Austria (11:50 a.m., ESPN2): This game is either going to be very close to the vest and cagey or a total Spanish rout. Croatia appeared a little overrated due to beating out England in qualifying, that could count double for the Ruskies. The only thing that might hold Spain back in this match is the massive pressure heaped upon them, otherwise it’s Red (Jersey) Dawn.
Player to watch: Fernando Torres, Spain. Sunday, Germany’s Lucas Podolski made his mark with two goals. The tournament is still waiting for someone to step up and claim it as his own. Torres has as much a chance as anyone and could poach a couple against an out-of-it-depth Russian defense. He’d be best advised against watching any Pau Gasol mix-tapes ahead of this match.
Score guess: Spain 3, Russia 0

Greece v. Sweden, Wals Siezenheim Stadium, Salzburg, Austria (2:45 p.m, ESPN2): No one expected Greece to win four years ago. No one even knows they qualified this time around. If it’s possible, Greece could once again surprise and might even play a more attractive game this time around. Sweden for the last decade has managed to qualify for the last five major internationals, but are one of those teams that seem to take up space. Somehow the Swedes get the benefit of the doubt most of the time, but this team is ready to underachieve.
Player to watch: Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sweden. The Inter Milan striker gets a lot of juice from the Nike PR reps, but seems to shrink on the big stage. He did score a ridicously cheeky goal against Italy at Euro 2004, but since then hasn’t done much since. He didn’t score at the 2006 World Cup nor the Euro qualifying campaign and had a falling out with coach Lars Lagerback and sat out a few matches. The big Bosniak could be the world’s best, if he ever stops believing his own hype.
Score guess: Greece 1, Sweden 0