Mike Cardillo of the great That's On Point will be with you for a daily Euro 08 closer throughout the tournament.
There’s truly nothing like the experience of 70,000 sweaty people heading for the exit of Giants Stadium as a lightning storm and sudden downpour all start happening at once. That’s what happened in the closing minutes of the United States 0-0 draw with FIFA’s No. 1 ranked team Argentina Sunday night.
Racing toward the tunnel in the construction-ravaged Meadowlands complex — yes, they are building an indoor ski run in Dirty Jersey — that lead to my parked car, I encountered a sole man amongst the madness wearing a Polska jersey. Heading into the match a few hours earlier I’d see a bunch of Polish fans, but didn’t want to get a drunken beatdown by asking them about the team’s 2-0 loss to hated rival Germany. This time I figured enough time had passed and offered a little consolation with a shrug and half-smile.
“We had 12 shots. They had four. What can you do?” the guy said.
He’s right on a lot of fronts. Soccer, especially at the international level is a cruel game. There is no room for mistakes. Factor in that major tournaments only occur every four years and if you screw up, no one in your country is going to forget. (Kasey Keller, Oguchi Onyewu, I’m looking in your direction.)
Poland, Austria and the Swiss all found this out the hard way this weekend.
Perhaps the Poles shouldn’t have tempted fate when a Polish tabloid printed the photoshopped dandy of coach Leo Beennhakker with the severed heads of German captain Michael Ballack and coach Joachim Loew.
Hasn’t history taught us enough not to rile up the Germans? What’s truly scary is that the Germans — the pre-Euro favorites — probably impressed the most of the eight teams this weekend with an efficient performance against the underdog Poles. The Germans are maybe the only team you expect will find a way to score every match. With their half of the draw decidedly weaker than Groups C and D, the Germans only threat for a date on the June 29 final is Portugal.
The opening weekend yielded two trends worth noting. None of the four games ended in a draw and the favorites won them all. Things should change starting today, but for the first two days, form held.
Eating my words?: For all the talk of why to watch the Euro, if you tuned in for the opening game and more specifically the opening ceremonies you probably saw something which you can never un-watch. My goodness, where does one get their start in stadium ceremony design? Where do you find yourself thinking, I want 200 people prancing around under giant cubes?
It was truly awful. A nightmare of Tetris crossed with Missy Elliot videos and their baggy outfits with a mix of ceramic alpine skiers and cows dashed in. Trust me, it was worse than it sounded. (Apparently ‘Hooray for Everything’ was booked.)
The game wasn’t much better.
Saturday’s heroes: Czech defensive midfielder Tomas Galasek and Portugal defender Pepe. Galasek gets many points for his gravity-defying, audacious header from near the halfway line that sprung the only goal in the Czech menace’s victory over the Swiss. Pepe, gets dap for a couple actions. First, despite being Brasilian by birth, he sang along to the Portuguese national anthem. Second, he came forward from a defensive spot and scored the first goal for Portugal on a one-two pass. Solid day.
Sunday’s hero: Lucas Podolski, German attacker. “Poldi” didn’t play a ton for club team Bayern Munich this season, with just 10 goals in 40 appearances. Consider him the anti-Rooney, as in, he’s okay for club and amazing for country. He added to his amazing haul in a German shirt, netting twice for der Manschifft Sunday against Poland. That brings his account to 27 in 49 international games.
Oh right, he’s also the son of Polish parents.
Pass the Leroux Blackberry brandy.
Pass the haggis, too: As you once said yourself in pre-recorded dialogue for a “FIFA” game, “Take a bow, son.” Andy Gray you’ve already elevated yourself to the status of best ESPN soccer analyst … ever. Granted, you weren’t exactly matched up against the 1927 Yankees of commentators, but still, quality stuff on the first weekend for the former Everton hero.
You’ve forever indebted to me for putting Tommy Smyth in his place debating German strikers. Using the ESPN ‘Axis’ to show how the Croats cheated about 10 yards forever to set the play that resulted in a penalty, brilliant.
Zero sum soccer: Let’s be honest. If Switzerland didn’t host the tournament, there’s little chance the Swiss qualify for the Euro. Other than the fans with five o’clock shadows ripping cigs and dressed as the traditional “Swiss Miss,” there’s no compelling reason to keep the home of untraceable international financing in the tournament. (What happened Hollywood, why did the Cayman Islands replace the Swiss for shady banking dealings?) Think of the Swiss as the San Diego Padres of the tournament. They want to use their homefield advantage and do as little as possible to score and still try to win. With all-time leading scorer Alexander Frei out of the tournament, maybe they can come up with a work exchange and lease Adrian Gonzalez to play center forward for a couple weeks.
A path to madness: Call me crazy, but Saturday night I found myself pondering what exactly the players from the Czech Republic found themselves doing after the 1-0 victory over the Swiss? It’s hard to imagine they went out boozing, what with a bunch of games left to play. Still, it’s beyond my comprehension they went back to the hotel and grabbed a bucket of KFC and poped in the DVD of “Rush Hour 3.”
It’s a safe bet crafty silverfox coach Karel Bruckner sat back with a gass of vino and played some cards. The rest of the team? Video chat with their adult film star girlfriends? A trip to the tattoo parlor? Headband shopping?
Starting to figure it out?: Kudos to ESPN for decreasing the massively intrusive and massively annoying scoreboard it has deployed in previous soccer matches. Gone is the horizontal bar that takes up the entire top sixth of your picture. Replaced is a small bar listing team and score … as it should be. My guess is this is due to UEFA restrictions on to what can be on the screen beside the game, otherwise unscrupulous telecom provides could Spam the set with gambling ads and the like.
The fact that commentators are working from a broom closet in Bristol is a minor quibble – except when the audio from the stadium cuts out. It would be nice if Derek Rae ever finished his thoughts. Saturday he mentioned Swiss striker Marco Streller was booed by the home crowd in a recent game, but never explained why.
Sunday, he mentioned Croatia coach Slaven Bilic is a part-time metal musician. We need to know the name of the band, which probably explains the out-of-place earring. (For the record thanks to the Inter-nets, the band is called Rawbau and they wrote the official Croat anthem for the tournament — Vatreno Ludilo (Flaming Madness). Klaus Meine and the rest of Scorpions don’t need to watch their backs.)
Too bad the “B” team of Gray and Adrian Healey can’t supplant the established Rae and Smyth. It’s possible they’ll set a new record for jokes told during a sportscast.
8-bit wonders: I know for a fact I’m not the only one who thought the Puma-made jerseys worn by Austria and Switzerland had the numbers printed on the back that looked like something from an NES game, or maybe even ‘Mario Paint.’
Another drinking game: In Europe, the forearm tattoo is the NBA equivalent of a neck tat. Every time you see a guy with ink on the forearm, take a drink. Double it when it goes across the entire bicep like the Czech’s Zdenek Grygera.
Yet another reason not to smuggle hash: Oliver Stone might have been right with ‘Midnight Express’ — don’t try to smuggle hash out of Turkey. You might end up with a guy like Turk defender Servet Cetin as a cellmate. He’s only called “Ayibogan,” which translate into ‘man who could choke a bear.’ To his credit he did give Ronaldo a burly shove within 30 seconds of the match.
Good start: Though their shins were likely sore, Portgual did enough to get a 2-0 result over Turkey and start their campaign on the right track. Big Phil has plenty of horses to work with, which is a scary thought. Neat and tidy.
Poor Austria: Within two minutes the co-hosts were given a dubious penalty decision against Croatia. The Austrian fans already showed they were much more krieg than their Swiss counterparts, but had their party ruined before it even started.
Austria wasn’t that bad, except for Emmanuel Pogatetz butchery. Austria played with passion, the skill was simply lacking. The home fans who wanted to petition UEFA to boot them from the tournament hopefully had a change of heart.
Croatia, meanwhile, got the gift penalty decision and didn’t do much of anything but still got the three points. That’s how it goes sometimes. At least their uniforms looked nice.
Romania v. France, Pro Letzigrund, Geneva (11:45-ish ESPN 2) —‘We all went down to Montreaux, by the Lake Geneva shoreline. Sorry, there’s a 99.9 percent this match will not cause any smoke on the water. Fire in the sky? That’s another story.
This match is a true curio. Is Romania to be taken seriously? Does France have the guts to get all three-points here? It could be a match where Romania lays it on the line for 85 minutes and then loses it on a moment of individual brilliance from a French player.
Player to watch: Lilliam Thuram, France – Does the 36-year-old defender have anything left to guard the Romanian attack spearheaded by Adrian Mutu? Thuram is well-liked and well-respected in the game, but is he so much so that nobody wanted to tell him to pass the torch a long time ago?
Score guess: Romania 1, France 1
Netherlands v. Italy, Wankdorf Stadium, Berne (2:30, ESPN2) — Must not make a wanker joke. Must not make a wanker joke.
Sooooooo, this is another as the Brits say, ‘cracker’ of a match. Unlike every unlike tournament of the last 30 years, the Dutch enter with little — if any — expectations. Meanwhile, Italy is the holder of the World Cup and returns a lot of the same faces from that squad. The question here, will one of the teams play not to lose, or with it be a cagey draw?
Player to watch: Rafael van der Vaart, Netherlands. This is a guy that’s talked up to be a huge player, so this is really put up or shut up time against the rugged Italian defense of Gino Gattuso and Daniele De Rossi. Either way, the cameras better find his wife Sylvie in the crowd.
Score guess: Netherlands 0, Italy 1