“I don’t believe … what I just saw.” – Jack Buck, 1988 World Series Game 1, after Kirk Gibson’s walk off home run off Dennis Eckersley.
As I write this, it’s approximately 48 hours since Turkey pulled off perhaps the most stunning finish in the history of international soccer with it’ win in penalty kicks in the Euro 2008 quarterfinal against Croatia. Nearly two days have transpired, and I still don’t know what to make of it. All I can say for certain is that the economy of Croatia took a massive hit. How on earth will the people of Croatia get through the coming months?
It’s impossible to even rate this victory in the context of all other sports. Making it all the more amazing is the Turks pulled off an equally epic comeback just to get to the game four days earlier against the Czech Republic. Never say never, but Friday’s win by Fatih Terim’s Turkish side isn’t getting repeated any time soon.
Croatia was in the clear, scoring in the 119th and waiting for the official to blow his whistle. Yet the Fiery (Madness) were undone in stoppage time by a super-long freekick that got between Vedran Corluka and Robert Kovac, dropping serendipitously for Semih Şentürk, who hit it absolutely perfect with his left foot into the top corner, leveling the game. Think how many times guys have missed simple sitters in front of the goal. We could replay the situation a thousand, a million, a billion times, and that scenario isn’t playing out again. Maybe not even in a video game.
There must be Turkish media reports labeling it something akin to a ‘divine strike.’ Who am I to argue? Either way it prompted Turks to dance the Soulja Boy in the streets of the London according to my friend working over there.
And it’s hard not to pity Croatia, which went from a dogpile celebration led by coach Slaven Bilic to catatonic within the span of 15 minutes. You wait four long years and seem on the brink of playing for a birth in the final … and then get knocked out like this? If there is a worse way to lose, please let me know.
What is forgotten now: For 118 minutes this game was crap and instantly forgettable. Surprisingly for two teams that showed so much initiative in the group stages, both Croatia and Turkey played the game not to lose. I was watching this at my friend’s house and we all were nearly asleep, with my buddy Doyle more interested in tracking down a mid-90s Newcastle United jersey than the game itself.
Also lost in the shuffle was that Croatia’s goal by Ivan Klasnic was more the result of Turkey keeper Rüştü Reçber’s gaffe chasing a ball off his line than a moment of brilliance. In essence each team caught a lucky break; only Turkey’s stunned Croatia to the point it never had a chance in ensuing the shootout. The Croatian players would have been hard-pressed to tie their shoes, let alone take penalties.
Now, on the other hand, the weekend’s other match that ended in penalties was instantly forgettable, unless you’re a Spaniard. Spain’s win in penalty kicks over Italy after 120 minutes of play produced a 0-0 score line typified every stereotype to why Americans hate soccer.
1. No goals and few clear chances.
2. Excessive flopping by perceived European Miss Nancies.
3. Suspect officiating.
4. An end of penalty kicks.
Bleech, the only thing missing were the French.
That’s knockout soccer though, and it was Italy’s prerogative to play tactical, anti-soccer against the powerful Spanish attack – just don’t moan when you lose in kicks. If watching seven guys in white shirts swarm around one guy in red, this was your match. For the other six billion people on planet Earth, it tested every impulse of your body to change the channel. Italy is notorious for its ‘catenaccio’ style, where defense rules at all costs. Fittingly, the World Cup holders were bounced in a stadium named after one of the godfathers that that technique, Ernst Happel.
But Saturday’s rousing game between Russia and the Netherlands was Exhibit A why soccer can be such a thrilling sport to follow. Russia’s 3-1 win in extra time is a match you savor, a match that gives you a jump in your step the rest of the day. A match you remember in spite of all the 0-0 slogs.
The credit goes to Russia and coach Guus Hiddink. Matched up against the oddsmakers’ new favorite to win the tournament and a Dutch team that won three group games ( scoring nine goals in the process), Hiddink could have pulled back the oars and played a cagey, tactical match. That’s the conservative, standard approach. Yet since the Russians were so young, Hiddink threw caution into the wind and attacked, attacked and attacked from the opening whistle – leaving the Dutch on their back heels, not the other way around.
Even when Ruud van Nistelrooy scored with five minutes left in regulation, Russia didn’t shell up and get scared. The Russians kept pressing in extra time and broke through twice, mainly thanks to the world’s newest star man Andrei Arshavin.
It’s why you wish more teams would gamble if only a little bit. Say Edwin van der Saar saves those Russian goals in extra time, or the shots go wide and the Dutch eventually win in penalties. At least in that scenario, unlike Italy, the losing team made a valiant effort to actually win the game, instead of playing not to lose.
And in closing, that’s one thing I try to tell people that are leery of soccer. If all you watch is the World Cup every four years or something like the Euro, you’re going to see the game for all its warts because with so much riding on the line. Too often coaches are more afraid to try to win than they are to go to penalty kicks. It’s infuriating because when a team loses in penalties, the coach can shrug at the Russian Roulette aspect of kicks and deflect a lot of the blame. The players and fans? Another story.
It still pisses me off that soccer is basically the only sport where you can advance in a tournament without really trying to win. It might be a strategy, but it goes against most sporting principles in my book.
Weekend heroes: Arshavin, Russia. Chaaaaaaaaaaaaching. It’s not that his club (Zenit St. Petersburg) needs the money, but after his blistering show vs. the Netherlands of Saturday Arshavin is probably the top transfer target of almost all big European clubs and he’ll be able to pick where he washes ashore. (If Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger doesn’t put in a bid he’ll come to regret it.) It’s hard to imagine an attacking player putting forth a better 120 minutes than the pint-sized Russian dynamo did Saturday. Dutch defender Andre Oojer will have nightmares of the Euro punk-pop frontman lookalike for months. Arshavin is the revelation of the tournament to this point. The Spain defense, which didn’t see Arshavin in the group stage, better be ready for some high-speed chases all evening.
Iker Casillas, Spain. Guess they don’t call him Saint Iker for nothing. The two penalty saves were good enough, but he made the save of the tournament denying Mauro Camoranesi by instinctively kicking out his left leg to turn away Italy’s best chance in the 61st minute.
Traitor?: Question: did Hiddink enjoy the Russian victory Saturday, as it put his home nation the Netherlands out? Sure, Roman Abramovich is paying lots of money to coach the Russians, but Hiddink doesn’t bleed green, does he? Then again, he doesn’t bleed Oranje either. If guys from Brasil can turn out for Poland, Spain and Portugal, guess we shouldn’t worry too much about national pride. Maybe the better question is if Hiddink can empathize with his despondent countrymen. (It was reported nearly have of the Netherlands 14 million citizens watched the game Saturday.)
Early bird special: Was Spain coach Luis Aragones up past his bedtime? Did someone mess with his oatmeal? How many other people that follow world soccer are going to sub off Torres for Dani Güiza near the end of regular time? Güiza might have led La Liga in goals, but he was out of his element vs. Italy. As soon as he attempted to come down with a cross by cupping it with both hands and later on missed his penalty. Most of Spain will likely light candles and pray Torres plays 90 (or more) against Russia Thursday.
Second guesses: Would Croatia coach Slaven Bilic have been better served to let someone other than Luca Modric take the first penalty vs. Turkey? Yes, Modric scored from the spot vs. Austria, but didn’t he have any older, more experienced heads available? Same thing for Italian coach Roberto Donadoni Sunday. Alessandro Del Piero has to at least get a kick ahead of Antonio Di Natale.
Wash your face: Perhaps inspired by New York Yankees first baseman Jason Giambi, Italy striker Luca Toni sported some rather unflattering lip fuzz Sunday. The dirt didn’t help him break his scoreless drought and might have even made him play worse. He might have even botched his team’s best chance when he decided to try an over head kick, when Grosso was rushing to the far post unmarked. Toni was Chuck Barkley turrible at the Euro.
Come back to us: Probably inspired by Adrian Healey’s quickfire one-liners with the Netherlands, ESPN lead announcer Derek Rae took his shot and fell completely flat after Russia’s first goal Saturday saying, “Those wearing orange were peeled like oranges.” Ugh.
Also, since the game was on ABC, Rae decided to arbitrarily stress the second syllable of Russia’s Yuri Zhirkov after the bluer version was used in the previous three matches. At least the Scot labeled Hiddink a, “serial achiever.” As we know, Hiddink abides.
Look ma, I’m on TV: Certainly my personal favorite development of the Euro is when the camera catches someone in the stands, only for said person to realize they’re on the jumbro-tron (and worldwide televisions) a second or two too late, or at least not quick enough to put out their cigarette. Oddly enough, the saucy female fans the perv camera operators fixate upon never seem to notice.
None scheduled for the first time in 16 days. Play resumes Wednesday with Germany and Turkey contesting the first semifinal (an underrated rivalry game). I’m taking a day to collect my thoughts and will be back Wednesday morning with a preview of that match. Try your darnedest to hold out that long.