Austria Gets Its Rocco Mediate On

“You got no fear of the underdog/that’s why you will not survive!” – Spoon, ‘The Underdog’

Monday afternoon around 4 p.m.-ish (Eastern), 6,000 miles away, on two separate continents, a pair of underdogs tried their darnedest to make history. In Vienna, the Austria national team tried to stun Germany at Euro 2008, while in San Diego palooka golfer Rocco Mediate tried to out-nerve possible-cyborg Tiger Woods in a U.S. Open playoff.

The similarities are too many to ignore.

Mediate and Austria are nobodies — journeymen needed to fill out the tournament — with a shared loved of schnitzel and garish pins. (Ok, a bit of a reach; the schnitzel at least.)

Tiger and the Germans? Another story. Both are cold, ruthlessly efficient winning machines.

Mediate’s task was to dethrone the world’s best golfer in a head-to-head 18-hole showdown, whilst Austria had to topple their one-time rulers and a team they hadn’t beaten since 1978. And for a good while Monday afternoon, both heavy underdogs looked up to the task. Mediate hung with Woods, while the Austrians frustrated the Germans, earning the love of the home fans at the Ernst Happel Stadion.

Like a lot of times in these situations, it’s more of a moment of brilliance from the stars than a collapse by the underdogs. Woods birdied the 18th hole and won on the next hole. Meanwhile, Germany spared itself the blushes, at least until Tom Cruise’s ‘Valkyrie’ is released, when Michael Ballack blasted a V2 rocket off his right foot from 25 yards off a free kick in the 49th minute. These two things happened within roughly 15 minutes of each other.

The underdogs on both continents gave their best efforts, but in the end their attempt to crash the history books fell short and the cruel reality is that their performances on Monday will be lost to the sands of time.

Since this is a supposed to be a soccer thing, let’s focus on Austria. The Euro 2008 co-host was lampooned from everyone aside from Jay Leno; at one point, embarrassed home fans staged a petition to have Austria removed from the tournament. This was a country nestled between powerhouses Mozambique and Thailand for No. 92 in the FIFA world rankings. Austria simply hasn’t had much to get excited about since the fall of the Habsburg dynasty, and that malaise seemingly manifested itself on the national team.

Against the odds, the Austrians channeled their inner Schwarzenegger and knocked Gray Davis out of office, err, managed a respectable account, finishing ahead of last-place Poland in Group B via goal difference.

Look, finishing third in an event that doesn’t hand out bronze medals isn’t exactly the American way (actually, maybe for soccer, it is), but this is Austria — or the much cooler sounding Österreich. Outside of downhill skiing and Sigmund Freud Appreciation Day what else do they have to look forward to? The 2009 release of Sasha Baron Cohen’s, “Bruno: Delicious Journeys Through America for the Purpose of Making Heterosexual Males Visibly Uncomfortable in the Presence of a Gay Foreigner in a Mesh T-Shirt”? (Yeah, that’ll boost Austria’s worldwide Q-rating.)

That’s more than enough on Austria avoiding humiliation.

Germany’s win, as unimpressive as it might have been, set up a cracking Thursday quarterfinal against Portugal in Basel. And more important, (cue the Ted DiBiase evil laugh) Germany was my pre-tournament pick, so wallet trumps heart when rooting with your heart involves a land-locked central European nation you have absolutely no connection with.

Monday’s hero: We’ll put the sarcasm on hold for a second to give some dap to Croatia striker Ivan Klasnić scoring against Poland. Early in 2007 he received a kidney transplant from his mother, but his body rejected the organ forcing him into another operation. He has to wear a special shield to cover his kidney from direct kicks.

Me me me!: Spanish ref Manuel Mejuto González channeled his inner Placido Domingo and wanted to hog the spotlight for Monday’s Germany/Austria game, as ejecting both coaches from the touchline for what was deemed, “Constant bickering.” Jeez, who knew Joachim Löw and Josef Hickersberger were a married couple of 30 years? At least Löw got a halftime braut out of the deal.

Best name ever: Jürgen Macho, Austria. Translates to George Macho. Sounds like the protagonist of a CBS procedural drama.

Dunder Mifflin Munich: Maybe it’s just me, but German’s pint-sized back Philip Lahm has a dash of the ‘Nard Dog’ Andy Bernard in him.

Foux do fa fa: What is the deal with the German fans and their love affair with fake ‘faux hawks’? I saw this become all the rage at the last World Cup and noticed the trend is still around two years later.

Worst, miss, ever.: Mario Gomez, don’t take a bow. Maybe a curtsey would be more fitting. Inside the first five minutes against Austria, Miroslav Klose shaked and baked through the defense and put the ball at Gomez’s toe on a wide-open goal. Gomez roofed it, but still had a chance to try to head it (weird physics, I know) but didn’t even bother. If he starts Thursday vs. Portugal, Löw needs his head examined.

Adios, Polska: Thanks for playing, Poland. For finishing fourth in Group B we have some lovely Casio keyboards and BK Knight sneakers as parting gifts. Guess losing 3-0 to the United States on home soil in March wasn’t a good omen for the Poles.

Crossing fingers: ESPN moved the Adrian Healey/Andy Gray team to the top game today. Wonder if they’ll continue with them in the knockouts when there is only one match per day, or will it be split between the Derek Rae/Tommy Smyth tandem? If ESPN is smart they’ll get their money’s worth from Gray and keep him in the broadcast broom closet.

Today’s Games (Group C)

Two teams from the ‘Group of Death’ (ugh) gets their last rites today (double-ugh). The Netherlands is through as group winners. Dark horse Romania gets through no matter what with a win and could get by with a draw, assuming France and Italy also draw. It’s a real life version of Hank Scorpio asking Homer which his least favorite country (nobody ever picks Italy), but instead of being scorched by a giant laser, the loser here gets an early vacation. Joking aside, this is the only group stage finale that picture-in-picture is a must.

France v. Italy, Letizgrund, Zurich, Switzerland (2:30 p.m., ESPN): Here’s the set-up. We have the 2006 World Cup finalists in a do-or-die match, and even then they both need outside help. We also have two teams that are quite familiar, since they came out of the same qualifying group. For the record, France won 3-1 way back in 2006 thanks to a brace from Sidney Govou. They drew the other match 0-0. Considering the stakes neither side can come out for the dreaded scoreless result. So far these two world titans have matched results, chumpatization by the Dutch and draws with a cagey Romanian side. At least Italy showed a little life vs. Romania and might be inspired by keeper Gianluigi Buffon’s heroic penalty stop. France hasn’t shown anything and coach Raymond Domenech probably equates it to the phases of the moon or some astrological bullshit. If he doesn’t field an attack-minded XI to challenge the shaky Italian backline his miserable tournament will be over. The French really haven’t shown any kind of resolve and seem to be waiting for Zinadine Zidane to walk out and save their bacon. Unless he decides to headbutt the entire Italian team in the dressing room, Les Blues will have to do it on their own. France has better individuals from a skill standpoint, but Italy seems to be clicking a little more as a team, which might prove the difference.
Player to watch: Luca Toni, Italy. To this point the only image of Toni is with his hands out and his eye-bulging in exasperation due to numerous missed chances. If Italy has any shot the big No. 9 has to find the net against a suspect French defense.
Score guess: Italy 2, France 1

Netherlands v. Romania, Stade de Suisse Wankdorf, Berne, Switzerland (2:30, ESPN Classic): As soon as they qualified Romania was the team most likely to take the mantle from Greece as defensive-minded outsiders. When Romania was lumped in this group, my early darkhorses pick lost a lot of credence. Still, in two games they’ve played defensive anti-soccer to a ‘T’ thanks to a solid backline headed by Christian Chivu and Gabriel Tamas. That defense, though, takes a hit with center back Dorin Goian out due to yellow card suspension and midfielder Mirel Rădoi out due to a facial fracture. The question here, is what does Dutch coach Marco Van Basten do with his lineup? Does he pull back the oars or keep the momentum of the Oranje machine rolling? It would probably benefit the Dutch to take it easy because most of their players bones appear to be made from glass. If France or Italy sneak by, they could see them again in the semifinals and their 3-0 and 4-1 tricks might not play as well the second time. Either way, Romania has to come out and attack for the first time so it will be interesting to see if the Dutch defense can hold up in a mildly pressurized spot.
Player to watch: Bănel Nicoliţă, Romania. The 23-year-old was billed as a possible break-out player and hasn’t done much in two games. Perhaps Romania coach Victor Piţurcă loosens the strings and allows Nicoliţă to do something. He is from the ‘Roma’ community, which is by my estimation the PC-term for gypsies. (Insert joke here.)
Score guess: Netherlands 1, Romania 1

Apologies: Superman had kryptonite, I have proofreading. Yesterday there were a couple mistakes in the post, so yeah, I know there isn’t a classic arcade game ‘Missile Captain’ it’s ‘Missile Command’. Don’t send Roy Shildt after me.