Monday, June 30, 2008

"This Was No Boat Accident..."

Well, there is not much more that needs to be said about last night that hasn't already been said, particularly by this man. While Spain were no Brazil 1970, their positive play, technical ability and creative attacking play were symbolic of the overall approach to the game exhibited by the more successful teams at Euro 2008. The very fact that Spain won, Spain of the beautiful football and the dearth of results, is symbolic in that free-flowing, attacking play may soon be considered as acceptable a tactical approach as eleven-behind-the-ball, play-for-pens football had been in the lead up to this tournament.

In the spirit of letting you enjoy the afterglow from the past three amazing weeks, I'll only mention two things:

The first: for all the knowing punditry on the topic of the 'poor' defending at this tournament, there were 77 goals scored at Euro 2008, exactly the same number of goals scored in 2004 after Greece defeated Portugal one-nil. It seems for some buzz-kills that the more exciting the goals, and the more creative the build-up play, the worse the defending. Poor.

The second: last night's game in exceeded my expectations in capping off the tournament. Germany floundered not simply because Lahm failed to hang on to Torres at the key moment, and not simply because Lehmann came out early with his hands at Torres' feet with whistle ready at the lips of Roberto Rosetti, but because outside of the first ten minutes or so, they could not form a coherent plan of attack. A goal from Spain was always in the offing; they had too much going forward with Xavi, Fabregas, and most of all, Senna, to be denied at least something out of the ninety minutes.

Much was said about Torsten Frings role as enforcer, about Germany's 6 foot 5 physical 'presence' and about their experience grinding out results against favoured opponents. In another tournament, maybe. But this is 2008, the year of the shark; as Spain exemplified, you have to keep moving forward or you will drown. And if we're lucky, club managers from Madrid to Manchester, having watched Euro 2008 unfold, will be exclaiming in union, "we're gonna need a bigger boat."

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Catharsis Tourists of the World Unite!

You have nothing to lose but self-respect and credibility. And the soul-crushing, worldly-wise irony that some people mistake for intelligence.

During my daily read through the latest news on a certain Manchester-based rag's revamped sport website, I came across this quote from someone named Dustymcnoodles, which, judged by the tone of the statement, may be his or her nom de guerre and not a real name.

"People (press and fans) being overly-keen to draw straight lines from too few dots and the vicarious emotion-hopping of ostensibly independent fans ('catharsis tourism') are things which thoroughly deserve all the criticism they get..."

To be fair, it was splendidly written, and cut right to the heart of what some bleeding-heart babies have been writing/saying/believing/hoping about Euro 2008 ever since Holland overturned the world champions so many moons ago. It especially hurt in its use of the connect-the-dot metaphor, an image which brought back memories of the days when my primary school teachers would criticize me for creating inter-stellar galaxy formations out what were intended to be airplanes or dinosaurs.

"See how the dots are numbered?" my teacher would explain, "See how it's all preset?"

My close-minded child-minder would have found comfort among some of the wet-gummed statisticians who populate bars and pubs across the planet, ready with reasons why a game as exciting as Turkey v. Czech Republic was 'not one for the purists' and why every goal scored is in fact, a mistake, ergo this tournament was a comedy of errors rather than the thrilling embodiment of Danny Blanchflower's notion that football isn't about winning, but about glory. (There I go again!)

More depressing than the comment itself was the back-slapping approval of others on the blog, the knowing-contempt for those who had fallen under the spell of Arshavin, or Schneijder, or Semih, or any player or team with the audacity to push forward when the number crunchers would have said 'park the bus.'

"Turkey played a bit well at the end of some games," says the astute cynic at the bar stool, Racing News in hand, "but Germany are the team that wins tournaments. There is a reason why one went through and the other didn't. Football is about winning."

Well, perhaps these are the souls who took comfort that the Battle of Berne was fought only for Germany to win the final against an injured Puskas in 1954 under the most dubious of circumstances; were happy to see a naively confident Holland go down to Germany in 1974 as Johann Cruyff walked about the pitch with his head held high telling the press 'it meant nothing to him' in a way that you knew he meant it; who scoffed at Tele Santana's Futebol del Arte that earned Brazil nothing more than a thrilling quarter-final defeat at the feet of Paolo Rossi.

The sports cliche goes that 'history remembers the winners.' But football doesn't work this way. Arshavin's brilliance against Holland still stands, even as Spain's incredible display against the Russians should be remembered even if the result goes against them today. This may all be 'catharsis tourism,' but in an age of increasing provincialism, cynical close-mindedness, and a football ideology that Eduardo Galleano once described as being suitable for robots, it's nice to get out more, to see that there is more to life than watching sixteen multinational corporations send out their millionaires to battle every Wednesday.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Sketchy-ness of Spain

And before you all snicker and point out how utterly wrong I was, what a twatty bandwagon-hopper, a naive fawn-eyed romantic, a spur of the moment sucker without objectivity or common sense, I would like to say for the record, I stand by my remarks. As a countertenor, I know what it's like to receive praise and admiration from colleagues and onlookers only to step out and crack like a knee-knocking twelve year old on the wrong side of puberty. Arshavin will be back, perhaps to haunt the bench of a La Liga mid-tabler for a while, but he'll be back.

So, help me Spain, you're my only hope. You should know I still don't like you. Yeah sure, demolish Russia twice like it ain't no thang, murder Sweden cruelly at the end and make Greece look like a parody of their defensive selves four years ago, but when you meet big bad Italy, well then, pass it around and pray for pens. That said, I would take a self-satisfied David Villa over a glib, grinning Schweinsteiger any day of the week.

I can't help but think the final will be a repeat of the Italian job. There is about these Spanish players, like they're not sure if they're a national team yet. Watch Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Italy, hell, even the Faroe know even after a hopeless defeat against an inferior nation (Guam?), these are still real live national teams.

Even when Spain plays well as they did today, they don't convince. It's as if General Franco's ghost will pop around the corner just as Puyol cracks open "For Whom the Bell Tolls," and everyone will begin pummeling each other while Aragones murmurs racial epithets to himself. Ramos looks uncomfortable passing to Fabregas, who looks uncomfortable playing next to Villa, who looks like he's on his own football-shaped planet altogether. They don't seem to believe they're worthy, either as a team or a nation. And Germany will smell this fear, and destroy them.

This tournament has been a relay race of attacking football. Holland to Russia, Russia to Spain. Ideally, the romantic outcome on the 29th would be a Spanish masterclass of attacking football and the complete overturning of a systematic and ruthless German squad.

But what if the baton passes from Spain to Germany? If the Germans have to win, perhaps they could do it in a style that will fulfill the promise made way back on June 9 2006, when 4 German goals were enough to douse Costa Rica's 2 and the whole of Germany seemed to be turning over a new leaf until normal service resumed and the old German gears started grinding again, only to be superseded in cynicism by Italy.

It's not too late for a miracle. Goodness knows we've seen enough of those already.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

An Ode to Arshavin

Ha! So there, naysayers. The semi-final is always the canary in the mine for these international gatherings, and you know that when UEFA or whomever on the web with a rudimentary knowledge of iMovie eulogizes this glorious tournament in the form of second rate, poorly edited remembrance vids to be downloaded, stolen, and uploaded in grainy, Japanese-subtitled representations on Youtube and the rest, they will include Turkey over the course of their group, quarter and semi-final games in a quick-edited package featuring the dulcet tones of Orff, or at least, half-insultingly, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

Turkey lost but should have won or at least dragged the thing to pens, and now the icing on the cake will hopefully be a rampant Arshavin proving himself the real deal, or at least the Rocky of the tourney by honourably losing to Germany in the final. Sorry Spain, but Villa lost me when he insulted us by fearing the sorriest Italian side in recent memory.

Some words on the forward-pushing Bare-Behind of the Russian squad: I posed the question to a certain Manchester-based newspaper podcast featuring a tall teetotaling Irish bloke and his balding, Italianate sidekick on whether Arshavin should be considered a genius after only two amazing performances and a well-won Cup against a coma-inducing Glaswegian ensemble earlier this year.

They answered, 'probably', and I'm inclined to agree. I like the kid (I'm 27 too, and I really am a kid, it's sad), and while we tend to think that major European clubs have a CIA like grip on the goings on in every school ground and backyard from Manitoba through to Mongolia, chances are the scouts simply saw him for yet another interesting, hard-playing but anonymous foreigner with a degree in fashion design.

Why? Perhaps because of the Russian emphasis on the team effort, Zenit St. Petersburg's Favourite Son took backstage to his glorious comrades in, er, feet. But this is only a poor stereotype, like most of what I throw up on this electronic dartboard.

Let's face it: this is football. I've seen Pele after Pele dance their way through a summer afternoon on parks and pitches across this country, unrecognized and un-in love with ambition and the infamous fame that tricks even 'the best' starting eleven into thinking their chance to play for pay had to do with fate and not folly.

Arshavin may be twenty-seven, he may be playing in a less than stellar league in a less than stellar footballing nation, but he is a kid in the sense that he plays to win, yet untouched by wags, whingeing, and wages. A stint at Tottenham will change all that to be sure, but we can be safe in the knowledge that his exploits, now freshly-witnessed, will still be out there for years to come, grainy and poorly edited, to be replayed and favourited by his undiscovered brethren still playing only for the good of the game.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Is Euro 2008 Boring Yet?

I have to say I was flattered at the optimistic response to my hastily-written and therefore mistake-ridden posting last week ("the agonizing moaning...have gone silent" etc etc.). Written on the back end of Turkey's movie-perfect comeback against the Czechs, it expressed what I had hoped the tournament would mean for attacking football in Europe. Perhaps counter intuitively given yesterday's sonambulent passing contest between Italy and Spain, I think it's safe to say the results over the quarter-finals since then still give much hope.

Let me explain.

I spent this past week vacationing in New York City with the missus which provided a great chance to view a few of the the quarter-finals away from the partisan madness of Toronto, a frenzy of noise that can shamefully skew my perspective on the games especially when it interrupts my tippy-tapping on the old blog. It was therefore in honour of my civic heritage when, at the bar of a near-empty Irish pub near Union Square, I heartily cheered Schweinsteiger's opening goal against Portugal (those damned Dundas-clogging horn-honkers!).

However, as the strike managed to produce only the faint murmurings of a few slurred-speeched barflies over near the back, the football half of my brain took over and Portugal's imminent demise suddenly seemed like a huge loss for the tournament and a blight on my 'attacking football' argument that I worked, that I had written. How could it be good for goals goals goals football when boring, predictable Germany is allowed to progress and Portugal is not?

Well, it can because it is. Let's look at the results.

Turkey, who someone pointed out earlier have only been in the lead for one millisecond since the Precambrian period, went through not for stalwart defending, but for two insane, last-minute, mad-dash attacks of the sort pooh-poohed by those who think '2-nil at half time' is football wrapped in a bow. You tell me how your Italian lock-box would have dealt with the sheer reactionary fear of a team with the passion of Turkey on the brink of elimination?

Then we have Holland versus Russia. On the page this looks like a disaster for the tournament, but as the on-line football brain trust has already pointed out, Russia is the true inheritor of Total Football in Europe. They went to some length to prove it too against the dismal Dutch who, in the attack department, could only manage losing the ball repeatedly to the focused Russian defenders who passed it to their entertaining Russian midfielders, who, well, gave it to Arshavin who scored/set-up goals that were marvelous to watch and near-impossible to defend.

And what can you say about Italy Spain? Italy threw cross after cross to a hapless Luca Toni; Spain passed it about but could not make a convincing foray into space. Two defending teams defending each other into dust. All's I know is, if Russia plays like Russia can play and Spain plays like they did against Italy, Dasvidanya, Reino de EspaƱa.

Obviously, we could still be in line for a turd of a final, which would be a shame and wouldn't reflect the general spirit of what we've witnessed in Switzerland and Austria these past few weeks. But even if the final was a boring nil-nil affair, it wouldn't matter. Look at the teams which have left Euro 2008: France, Holland, Portugal. The difference between these powerful footballing nations and those who remain, Turkey, Russia, Spain, is that the former lost when they pulled back, when they didn't push, when they sat back and waited until it was too late, while those of the latter attacked like, and when, it truly counted.

Good-bye Greece; hello Russia.

Monday, June 16, 2008

A More Splendid Life Will be Back After These Quarter-Finals

First, a round of applause for my stellar post-rate this past week. It's been an emotional roller-coaster of feelings.

That said, circumstances somewhat in my control mean I won't be posting again until Monday June 23.

Until then, here's what you'd be experiencing right about this time had England qualified.

Good night, and good luck, Holland.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Euro 2008 Could Help Regenerate the European Game

I was thinking of continuing my Guardian Reports from the Alternative Universe with 100% more EnglandTM, but the success of Euro 2008 in recent days has taken all the fun away. Based on what we've seen in the past week, why bother even cheekily mourning England's absence?

England has had enough reminding why they weren't good enough for this tournament. Take your pick: the Clockwork Oranje dusting off the Rinus Michels era playbook against those two tiny footballing nations, France and Italy; Turkey's majestic fightback today against the complacent Czechs, a thrilling return from the dead that, in this author's opinion, started with Tuncay hastily running off the pitch to help give the linesman a fresh offside flag; David Villa's one-man wrecking show for Spain; Germany's implosion at the hands of the plucky Croats; Buffon on Mutu, Robben on Coupet, it goes on and on.

The agonizing moaning from pundits who usually howl at the sight of these 'boring' internationals have gone silent. Perhaps they realize that, had only the Grand Slam affair that was Chelsea v. Manchester United or Liverpool v. Arsenal yielded even one tenth of the excitement of Holland v. France, or Romania v. Italy for that matter, Sky Sports would have seen Richard Keys' head explode all over the screen.

True, some onlookers have snippily pointed out that the reason for all this excitement might simply be bad defending, but you tell me what sort of tightly-formed backline would have stopped David Villa's last minute goal against Sweden? Or Arjen Robben's tight-angled strike to put Holland 3-1 up on France? Are we so jaded that we've forgotten about the now-heretical notion of 'attacking football'?

Among the proponents of the club-over-country crowd, those very words conjure up images of a weeping Kevin Keegan circa 1996. It is a concept synonymous with naivety, the sort of football beloved of country-bumpkins and eighties' style hooligans and rightly scoffed-at by the elite of the game, namely, the Prince of Boredom himself, Jose Mourinho.

Not so for the international coaches it seems: I have yet to see one game outside of the Romania-Italy debacle that did not see both teams attack with bravado, and yes, that includes games featuring Austria and Switzerland. Look at the Czech Republic today: they gave up the goods when they stopped pushing forward. Italy and France have been punished in this tournament because they have not been adventurous enough in front of goal. It's like football is waking up, walking around, making some coffee, contemplating taking a walk around the block and buying a bagel.

Perhaps it's too early to be this excited at the prospect of a return to goals goals goals football in Europe. The World Cup in 2006 teased us with exciting group stages matches even as it lulled us back to sleep when the football started to count. But I have a feeling that the remaining teams will realize that a well-organized defense will not be good enough to hoist the trophy on June 29th. And much like the numbing effect Greece's victory in 2004 had on the European footballing ideology, this year's tournament could have a ripple effect on the club football played during the rest of the year. Attacking football may be gearing up for a return after Euro 2008's reunion tour.

We often look at goal-fests cynically, dutifully following the 'Long-Ball' philosophy that describes goals as accidents, freaks challenging the perfect equilibrium of Nil-Nil. Attacking football just seems so damn simple, almost too good to be true. Had Johan Cruiff overheard your protests, he would calm you down and explain: "Simple football is the most beautiful. But playing simple football is the hardest thing."

Thursday, June 12, 2008

McClaren's England Strategy Won't Cut Through the Greece

By Barney Ronay
(not actually by Barney Ronay -AMSL Legal dept)

Never one not to take a half-baked joke too far, A More Splendid Life has received this alt-universe Guardian blog discussing Steve McClaren's press conference held the day after England's embarrassing opening loss to Spain. Enjoy!

Steve McClaren, haggard but still invincibly upbeat during his post-training press conference today outside of Salzburg, likely missed the irony of his wishing Luiz Felipe Scolari well at his new post in charge at Chelsea.

The outspoken one-time England managerial hopeful and current Portugal manager took the job at Stamford Bridge after Roman Abromavich's brief flirtation with Carlo Ancelotti and Guus Hiddink. It is a reflection of the state of things in England right now that
McClaren wasn't ever seriously considered for the position, an Englishman currently in charge of his national team who has expressed a desire to go back to club management after the tournament. Instead, the bookies had markedly better odds on a non-English speaking Brazilian and the coach of a squad that failed to qualify for Euro 2008. A few minutes into Steve McClaren's pep talk and the reason why became apparent. This was a public school boy explaining why he didn't hand in his homework.

"We've got to show Greece and the rest of the teams here at the Euros that England is here to play. I spoke to Becks and Wayne and Steven at training today and they all admit they didn't have the best performance against Spain. But if you look at the match on Tuesday, you'd see that it was poor defending on the last set-piece that got us, that and bad finishing."

This tactical analysis from the man who picked a team that managed only four shots on the Spanish goal in the entire second half. There is often disagreement between the manager and the press over the essential narrative of the match, but this was the kind of cognitive dissonance expressed by someone suffering a stroke. It's one thing to say the problem with England was 'bad finishing'; to say England defended well save in the final set-piece would be tell an outright lie of the sort propagated more by the Erich Honeckers of this world than the George Bushes. The flim-flam show then went on into murkier depths.

"And we know, some Spanish players, they like to nestle-up to the ref. Ramos had his arm, his hand on the ball, we didn't get the call. Terry's challenge was harsh and deserved the yellow, but Pujol almost clipped Owen in half in before the second half and the ref said play on. But we've got to be better than this. Greece is going to be an even more difficult challenge, and we might not get the chances we'd like. They lost to Sweden so they'll be hungry for the win so we've got to show the better spirit."

Shocking accusations aside, Steve McClaren's press conferences usually involve these Tony Robbins-esque platitudes, but today was an epic embarrassment; he may as well have pulled out crystals and tarot cards to help explain himself. As for tactics, McClaren admitted the Barry/Gerrard partnership, while probably favoured by Rafa Benitez who would like to see the two practice together in England shirts before Barry makes Merseyside his home, has been a disappointment, but he dithered about any possible solution.

"I know Lamps would like to come back, to have his place in the first team, and in the training today he's showed that in his character, in the way he's kept training hard and kept his head up. Will he start against Greece on Saturday? That's up to him."

What is certain at this point is that England will have to fight for their lives to even get out of the group. Greece may have lost to an unfavoured Sweden but the European Championship holders will prove a tough challenge for an England side that has no coherence going forward. Rumours have already been circulating around Fleet Street concerning England's successor and the Gazetta Dello Sport reported today that former Real Madrid coach Fabio Capello would take the job if it was offered to him. Some are already calling for an overhaul of the FA in light of an expected group stage exit. The vultures are circling now; how much longer England will flop around before the birds can settle for a meal is anyone's guess.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

England 1 - Spain 2

A More Splendid Life continues with the Guardian's coverage of Alternate Universe Euro 2008 now with 100% More England. The Match Report follows:

Group D

England 1 Cole 4'
Spain 2
Villa 53' 90'

Kevin McCarra at the Tivoli Neu Stadium
The Guardian, Wednesday June 11 2008

Steve McClaren's bemused smirk as David Villa's magically-worked strike from the edge of the penalty area flew past a forlorn David James in the second minute of extra time expressed the sentiment of a man who knew he'd been the subject of a prank. England's relatively bright start, which continued for a solid half hour following Joe Cole's volley in the fifth minute, amused a giddy McClaren with the hilarious prospect of a stolen victory from the heavily-favoured Spanish side, but it seemed at the last the punchline was still ahead of him.

All in all this was an odd match. Spain almost scored the fastest goal in European Championship history when Sergio Ramos cheekily struck for goal straight after kick-off as David James inexplicably ran toward the centre circle in the opening seconds. The first three minutes saw a cluster of chances for a very sleek and streamlined Spanish side, with David Villa hitting the bar after a wonderful set-up from an unselfish Fernando Torres who found himself one-on-one with James at the far edge of the box at the second minute. England as usual looked indecisive in the back third of the pitch, with an animated Ferdinand screaming almost on behalf of James who looked like he'd rather be with the WAGs in the executive suite.

Then in the fourth minute, Beckham found himself in good space at the right, crossing in to a Steven Gerrard who managed to head it back across the penalty area to a Jole Cole winding up for the volley. Cole, not one for sophisticated celebrations, crouched down with a look of complete amazement more than emotion: nothing is written it seems.

Until ten minutes before the end of the first period England could safely be described as the better team; Spain struggled to get a hold of the midfield as Carrick looked more than solid in the holding role, setting up three different chances, two for Rooney who almost managed to split the defense in the twenty-third minute as Pujol struggled to match the Manchester United striker for pace.

However, Spain started to press toward the end of the second half as Xavi and Silva managed to find their legs, the former drawing a commendable save from a sharp angled free-kick in the fortieth minute. When Villa equalized from an incredible chip over both Ashley Cole and David James in the 53rd, Spain's superior technical ability over all save Joe Cole was brutally apparent.

England were reduced to some scrappy tackling on the edge of the penalty area and Terry looked certain for a red after a horrific lunge on Cesc Fabregas a mere thirty seconds after the Arsenal player came on. All England seemed to manage was a Gerrard free-kick forcing a low save from Casillas and a half-baked penalty shout when the ball seemed to strike Ramos' forearm in the sixty-sixth minute over which Gareth Barry of all people, dreadfully anonymous for most of the match, argued himself in to the book.

Spain seemed to move about the last third of the pitch with great ease, passing around the England midfield like it wasn't there, Torres denied three headers at close range, Fabregas denied a low side-footed shot off from a marvelous low-cross from Xavi, David Villa managing to hit the bar in the seventieth minute after a lovely one-two with Torres through the centre of the English defense.

Aragones' side for all their beauty were on the verge of a draw until England's inevitable poorly cleared corner in extra time when the ball ended up at the feet of a scandalously unmarked Villa who managed to dance through three defenders only to lift the ball past James. McClaren at the last now seemed to get the joke: that a national team that plays this poorly at a major tournament will not get out of the group. Surely he knows unless a performance manages to materialize against the defense-minded Greeks this Saturday, his FA bosses will get the last laugh.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

England vs. Spain: Match Preview

Attention England fans! Do we have a treat for you. Through the power of science, A More Splendid Life has managed to access the Guardian Football website from an alternate universe exactly the same as our own, save for the fact that Petric's shot went over the bar in the 77th minute at Wembley meaning England qualified (barely) for Euro 2008 after a hard-fought 2-2 draw in November.

It took me a long time to find; along the way I discovered some pretty weird alternate universes including one that seemed fairly utopic until I found out Barry Goldwater won in '64 and Russia was "a place people don't talk about much anymore," but I finally found the right one, even though in it I'm still a wannabe journo working a soul-destroying desk job.

Some notes: Steve McClaren kept his job, but England have not played well up in the preceding friendlies against Belarus and Norway earning draws in both. Sean Ingle reports on the pre-match build-up. A post-game report will follow later this evening.

(AU) Sean Ingle The Guardian, Tuesday June 10 2008
Here we go again.

Eighty thousand England fans have descended on Innsbruck in full St. George regalia and, outside of a few minor skirmishes with police last night, they have been largely peaceful. Optimists will point to good organization and an overall change in attitude among England fans who may have heeded the terse warnings from UEFA officials last week about zero tolerance for fan violence, but the reality is that England supporters are likely subdued ahead of what could be an embarrassing match against a vibrant Spanish side.

It is now widely-accepted in the European press that this is one of the least impressive England squads ever to show up at a major tournament. Yesterday McClaren tried to brighten the mood by offering his now all-too familiar folksy plea to an increasingly vicious English media, referring to the confidence of "Lamps, Stevie G, Ashley." McClaren went on:

"They're going to play with the sort of pride that England fans have rightly expected up until now. The results in the past few weeks have been unnacceptable. I know it, the players know, but look, this is Euro 2008, it's England, we're here to play and to play well."

While he refused to answer questions about Peter Crouch's remarks reported earlier in the Daily Star that England likely to have trouble getting out of the group, McClaren agreed that confidence was not exactly running high in the England camp.

"I know it's been hard. But we've been here before. We did great in the qualifiers before '88 and look what happened then. Denmark didn't even qualify for '92 and they won it. So, you know, anything could happen."

The mood among attendant England supporters was not so positive. Many are still bitter at the FA for keeping McClaren after the decidedly lack-lustre qualifiers and England's dismal performance in the run-up. Some drunken fans were heard in the townsquare last night chanting "Raul for England!", and several Scottish fans in Spanish shirts were reportedly detained after unfurling a giant banner that read "Congratulations Agent McClaren: Mission (Almost) Accomplished" outside of the Vienna hotel where the England players are staying.

Spain are maintaining publicly at least that England will not be such a pushover. Aragones warned of the "sleeping lion" and Fabregas spoke of the individual quality of the English players, but these remarks can only be viewed as an attempt to downplay Spain's status as favourites. Whatever the result, the best that England fans may be able to hope for in these Euros is a dignified end to the McClaren era and a bright new start for South Africa 2010.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Why is the MLS so Damn Dirty?

Fellow North Americans! (Europeans, feel free to read on and laugh as I'm sure you already have been up to this point.) Take a moment if you can to walk away from Euro 2008 with its picturesque landscapes, hordes of Croatian supporters, and attractive football pitches actually designed for football, and step back into the hell that is the MLS.

Now MLS, I don't like you and you don't like me, but since my hometown has a professional club inside of you I have to learn to accept you for who you really are. I'm willing to take the substandard quality of play, the empty stadiums, the 'football pitches' that are either faded gridirons or shag carpets manufactured in a lab. But why, why so many dirty tackles, challenges and fouls? If you wait long enough in this league, the opposing player will find a way to give you the ball without you having to lift a finger (don't because that's hand ball), so why can't you learn to be a little more patient?

I don't even know where to begin. I'm sure I could troll through Youtube and find some compilation videos to prove my point, but I'm bigger than that. I would be better off directing you to the Official MLS website so you can watch the highlights yourselves. I guarantee there will be on average one wince-inducing challenge per highlight reel. Does this 'style' of 'play' reflect the sort of crowd the MLS hopes to pull in? If it is, it's not working, unless those empty seats are filled with ghosts or beings made of pure energy who enjoy a few career-threatening tackles now and again.

I can guarantee the person who forked over half of his or her savings to watch the Ultimate Fighting Championship is not going to want to come and watch a sport beloved by Europeans for its subtlety, physical expressiveness, and deftness of touch, so why market to that guy? Everyone in my country knows that bone-crunching hits and bloody brawling play no part in hockey's popularity *ahem*, so why can't the USA learn to be a-okay with the thrills of fair play?

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Help Fight the Scourge of GPGA

Although my electronic ramblings don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy mixed-up world, I will try to invoke the power of the interweb in helping to stop one of the worst trends in football journalism: the goals-per-game average. Let me explain.

Modern football is awash in analysis, coverage, angles and interviews, in short, representation, and as such there is an erosion of what Walter Benjamin might call the 'aura' of the event itself, the football match. Watching those grainy old films of Cruiff's first-touches, Garrincha's dancing feet, and Best's paper legs, you might get the sense that football was better back in the day before it got so 'corporate' with all those multi-angle replays of scrappy touchline fouls.

Then you go pick up a copy of Eduardo Galleano's Soccer in Sun and Shadow and start telling your friends that, "football is dead man; it sold out," ignorant all the while that football has had its fair share of turgid shank-and-hoof affairs in the age of Pele and Beckenbauer. Perhaps it's easy to forget because games like Austria v. West Germany World Cup 1982 don't usually end up on ESPN Classic Games.

I find one or two of these "football was better in the seventies" types always make their appearance at the start of a major international tournament like Euro 2008. I usually end up asking them what is the one objectively quantifiable aspect of a cracking football match that will show a sloping downward curve from 1900 to 2008? Switzerland v. Czech Republic for example was a turd of of match, but Portugal v. Turkey was pretty good. Why? Because the passes were better? The ball didn't go out in to touch as often? The play was speedy? There was a lot of individual skill and team fluidity?

Football is beautiful in part because it's low-scoring, fluid, generally impressionistic rather than epistemic. However it does leave a slight vapour trail in the form of the goals-per-game average, the laziest of statistical modes of analysis and the least revealing. And since there is nothing else to grab onto, is tends to be most commonly invoked by the "football is drowning in its own putrid greed" brigade to demonstrate how old-fashioned goalsgoalsgoals soccer is dead.

So here is my plea at the start of Euro 2008: please, PLEASE do not use this statistic. Do not record it, calculate it, or refer to in any way. If any of your friends or loved ones use this statistic, please politely tell them to stop. Nil-nil draws have an honoured place in the game. Together, we can get a hold of ourselves and give modern football a chance.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Shaggy's Euro 2008 Anthem: A Brief Critical Analysis

In light of the antagonism already brewing among some the participating countries in this year's European Championships, it is a relief we can turn to the dulcet thumpings of the Euro 2008 Anthem for guidance in what may be a long and often tense tournament. Shaggy's previous sport-related anthem for the ICC Cricket World Cup in 2007, titled "The Game of Love and Unity," quietly helped mend the wounds left from that incredibly controversial event.

This year may be no different. Shaggy's "Like a Superstar" touches on themes of unity in sport and overcoming ethnic/cultural differences through the power of football. UEFA's smartly produced accompanying video (the music and images cannot be separated whilst we disrupt the gesamtkunstwerk) features the delightful antics of of Trix and Flix, two Austrian brothers who overcame the ravaging effects of giganticism to pursue a life of freelance football-themed breakdancing.

The video starts quietly enough with a picturesque Austrian villa high up in the alps. Trix and Flix emerge from the window (looking to the dawn of a new day in Europe?) looking much the same in appearance with subtle differences in colour. What they are in fact is an expression of the postmodern concept of 'sameness'. As Peter Burger, professor at the University of Bremen, points out in his seminal 1987 essay, "Der Alltag, Der Allegorie und die Avantgarde"

"Universalizing of the citation, allegory without referent, emancipation of the signifier, art merging with a wholly aestheticized everyday experience—all these attempts at defining postmodernism have on thing in common: they assert the leveling of opposites. (196)"

Trix and Flix are a symbol of this postmodern leveling of opposites. Shaggy's chorus enforces this theme, which repeats almost ad nauseum the words, "sounds like you're a superstar, it don't matter who ya are," a radical overthrowing of the previous hegemonic order where stardom in football was enslaved to overbearing concepts like skill, talent, goalscoring etc. As Darrent Bent, Euro 2004 and the entire starting eleven for the Swiss national team illustrate, football is no longer a showcase of skill but rather a monochrome, room temperature exposition of a middle-of-the-road kick-about, as it should be.

The lack of development, variation, theme and tone colour of the accompanying music also reinforce the hope that, one day, "winning," much like musical expressiveness, will be a curious by-product of a woebegone past. Virtuosic musicianship, much like individual style in football, will be ridiculed for its roots in phallic-aggressive warfare. The song is a mouth-watering sign of wonderful things to come. Thank you Shaggy and thank you Flix and Trix. Here's hoping your enlarged polyester dopplegangers will frighten small children and dogs for the duration of the tournament as they mope around stadia across Austria and Switzerland.

Neva Say Neva Again!

There are some real 'marquee match-ups' to be had in the group stages of Euro 2008, but, ladies and gentlemen, I would implore you for one moment to turn your eyes to the fixture list for Wednesday, June 18 2008. Try to ignore Greece v. Spain for now and take a look at Russia v. Sweden.

It should be known that I've been waiting for this match-up for a long time, ever since paying my six bucks to see a dusted off version of Sergei Eisenstein's 'Alexander Nevsky.' It is a sad fact of history that these two teams have only met each other 23 times since their first meeting in 1913, a humiliating 4-1 loss for the Russians.

Russia wasn't used to this sort of drubbing at the hands of the Swedes: just ask the army of Novgorod in the year 1240 (be patient, their Russian is probably a little more arcane from that which you'd hear in the region today). Led by saint and all-around celeb Alex Nevsky, they managed to trash some jerk-off Swedish invaders on a hot July day by the banks of the River Neva. Scratch one for Mother Russia!

Hopefully things will be put right after so long. Normally I'd have been satisfied with Sweden's 7-0 loss to the Soviet Union on September 8 1954, but the Soviet Union included Georgia and Belarus and that's not how Nevsky and his fellow Novgorodians would have wanted it.

To be honest, I'd just like to see Sweden knocked out because of my anger issues with Olof Mellberg leaving Aston Villa and I think Russia will have the best chance of finishing the job. But don't let that niggling fact put a damper on things! For excitement's sake I highly recommend cranking Prokofiev's "Alexander Nevsky Suite" during the match to help get in the mood. I'd lend you my copy but I think I lost it.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Ronaldo Reagan

I read today in the Toronto Star that Ronaldo was named after Ronald Reagan,
not so much for the late ex president's strange blend of down-home populism and ruthless neoconservatism, but more for his old terrible cowboy movies.

But in light of the tomfoolery going on between Madrid and Manchester, let's take a look at our crisco-haired friend for a second
and compare him to that old forgetful geezer who brought us Morning in America.

Ronaldo: scored 42 goals in 2007-2008.

Reagan: public support dipped to 42% in 1987, his lowest approval rating while in office.

Ronaldo: his delightfully devilish moves helped United to win the European Cup.

Reagan: his delightfully devilish Machiavellian maneuvers helped set up a scheme wherein in Israel would supply arms to a moderate group of Iranians opposed to Ayatollah Khomeni.

What does this tell us? That Ronaldo will struggle to gain a foothold at Madrid in his starting season but will eventually lead them to a European Cup final playing, oh, let's say, Jozy Altidore's Villareal.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Euro 2008: 'In terms of the Richter scale this is a force 8 gale.'

I read a blog headline urging me on to read about who will possibly be THE goal-keeper of the tournament. I don't even know half these players names. I will not even be able to watch most of the group stage matches. There's France and Italy, right? I listened to the Guardian Euro 2008 Preview Podcast Special which left me confused and fearful. Beware Poland. Mighty Poland.

Of course, one can keep out of all this if they like, right? That's the luxury of living in North America. That and our abundant freshwater and wide roads and relatively cheap gasoline. I don't have my driver's license yet but you get how this all works. I mean, if I want, I could watch baseball for the next month and then stumble in on the final on June 29th, amazed to see Romania in a penalty kick thriller against an eight-man Austria (two red cards and a death because of a melee at the seventy-second minute). My eyes would well up from the regret of it all. Not a soul would have blabbed the results, even if they'd happen to glance at them over the course of a twentieth of a second as they passed the backside of a weekday sports section hanging out of recycling bin. In Toronto, our biggest newspaper sends out the TV guy to cover major international tournaments. A real cosmopolitan city.

But watch I will. Internationals. The colours. So many colours. I listened to a radio show that said that in almost every country in the world, blue-coloured sleeping pills are the most effective, except with Italian men. Scientists theorized it had to do with the Azzuri. One could imagine the nightmares, having to live through Italy's first missed penalty against Germany in 1982. An old timer at Clinton and College told me he saw a man stretchered out of the bar from the stress of it all. Then the humiliation of 1990. And 2000, and the insane euphoria of a lack-lustre defensive final after cheating out Australia in Germany...I wouldn't sleep well at night either.

That said I will be supporting Holland. No one likes the Dutch much, such a cold team with Van Basten scaring everyone home with all of his...rules. And Dirk Kuyt. Every time I see him, I think of Wolf Parade: "You are a runner." But not a scorer of goals, along with his Dutch brethren it would seem. And their defense is a mite shit as well we've been told. But apparently they will put five up in an attempt to score, and I bet you won't see the Russians doing that anytime soon.

At the end of the day, it's all about which European country is superior. Always a captivating formula for success. Won't you join me?

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Canadian Football: Brennan, Benchmarks and Brazil

According to the CBC, yesterday was "Soccer Day in Canada." Hope you enjoyed it as much as a I did. Sort of. You will have likely already read about Toronto FC's victory over the hapless LA Galaxy whose coach Ruud Gullit, like countless others before him, blamed the artificial turf for the loss. But there was a less flashy and perhaps more significant milestone to point out, one that you may have missed with all the feel-good soccer-is-fun-for-the-whole-family pablum on offer courtesy of CBC Sports before yesterday's kick-off.

Jim Brennan, Toronto FC's diehard Canuck captain, declined an invitation to play with the Canadian men's national team against Brazil in Seattle, opting to stay with his club rather than trot out like cannon-fodder in front of an American audience eager to see a Brazil-led romp. Not to say Canada's men did not play valiantly well against a Brazil which sent out a stronger first team than usual for this sort of fixture, more on that here. And not to say that playing for one's country shouldn't be the height of a player's career. But who could have predicted five years ago that a Canadian player would turn down an opportunity to play for the national team and be applauded for his loyalty to his professional club in Toronto?

For a long time, Canada was counted among the nations with a national team but no indigenous club culture, despite the recurring attempts over the years by various entrepreneurs to create a national league, the latest a tamer, semi-professional set-up. While we had our share of one-off players who made good overseas, the national team was for a long time the only collective means Canadian football had to make its mark on the world. Most of the time, it received as much press attention as our national cricket team. Even when we qualified to play in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, the Canadian team held a victory parade in Vancouver and no one showed up.

Today, as we know, everything is different. As I've written on this blog before, Toronto FC's massive popularity is a product of a generation of twenty and thirty-somethings brought up watching European football on basic cable. Moreover, the MLS is the best option for league football in North America at the moment, and as usual in Canadian club sports, a popular following can only come with the prospect of playing Americans on a regular basis. Other cities are getting in on the act, with the Impact and Whitecaps seeing increased popularity, the former having recently built a new stadium in Montreal, which for those who know about stadiums in Montreal is not usually seen as such a happy event. The very fact that "Soccer Day in Canada" was centered around Toronto FC and not Canada vs. Brazil (although Beckham's possible inclusion was partly behind the decision) is indication that club football may slowly be on the rise. Toronto FCs recent defeat of the Montreal Impact may have been our first true local derby. Club football may be finally emerging as a popular mainstream interest in this country, and as we know from the history of the NHL its health is vital for our success at the national level.

That's why Jim Brennan's decision to stay home and help a Toronto FC team missing a large portion of its brand new midfield is so significant. The utter mess that is the CSA right now should take note of this snub. The patronizing attitude they took to the introduction of Toronto FC as a mere means of developing talent for the sake of the national team will have to be re-examined. If as more local teams develop and more skilled young players emerge as popular heroes in our own backyard, the CSA will have to offer these players something more, more money, more time, more expertise, more respect. Goodness knows the future Jim Brennan's of this world will deserve it.

Photo Credit: Gbalogh on Flickr