So today starts the Euro championships in soccer, which is the toughest national-level trophy on earth to win in terms of sheer quality of opponents.
…Possibly the craziest, least pleasant but wildest of wildcards to keep an eye out for is Racism. Racism is a very big deal in "World Football" (as they call it), which is to say, the sport is in a multi-year, institutional, top to bottom fight against it. In the way the NFL used to hype the United Way (and now, arguably, does breast cancer), soccer has Racism, but much much more so. In the World Cup, in every game, teams came onto the field and posed around big signs that said “stop racism” or something before playing. I have no clue if individual players care at all about racism, anymore than NFL players care about breast cancer, but it’s a trophy topic.
You’d think this would be a) a big deal in the by-definition diverse World Cup but b) less so in the “Euros”. But apparently, its usually euro fans who end up being the most racist, so the drumbeat is on (the tourney is in Poland and Ukraine, both apparently well known for racist tendencies – several squads have made well-publicized trips to Auschwitz).
But along with endless lip service and photo ops, players have been suspended for 10 games or more in the past year for saying racist things to other players on the field, and refs are being told in the tourney to STOP MATCHES if racism is present at games, from players or fans. Black/Italian/ Insane forward Mario Balotteli has announced he is going to wear a jersey with both his Italian and African family names (not sure how or why he has an African family name that he currently doesn’t go by). He has said he is doing so to PROVOKE racists, and everyone seems to think this is a good idea.
And, right on cue, yesterday the Dutch team, which has black players, were taunted with monkey-noise chants during PRACTICE.
Off and running!
…As always in soccer, the tourney is divided into groups – 4 groups of 4, in this case - which round-robin play down to 2 winners, who then advance to a playoff stage (“knockout round!”). And, as ALWAYS, one group has been declared the Group of Death. But this year’s version is apparently the strongest Group of Death, by international rankings, in the history of Deathly Groupings. It is so bad-ass, I’m shocked that the opposite bracket doesn’t have Duke. No. 2 Germany, No. 4 Holland, No. 5 Portugal, No. 9 Finland. Only 3 other teams in the whole tourney are in the top 10 – so this one group has more top 10 teams than the other 3 groups combined (and one of the others top 10 teams is England, who routinely plays small at big tourneys (though to be fair, the same is true of Portugal)).
btw, this completes the Toughest Trophy argument: Europe’s 16th-best team - ie, the Last One In - is ranked 27th in the World, so a hypothetical Champion of the World-ex-Europe would have beaten a slightly easier field than whoever wins this tourney. The 17-32nd teams in Europe – ie, the 16 ‘Euro bubble’ teams that, either directly or indirectly, the 16 Euro Field Teams beat out to qualify – are ranked no lower than 62nd in the world, again implying that Europe’s Bubble is better than the rest of the world’s bubble combined.
...unlike the World Cup, the Euros have a pretty decent record of having shocking winners (which is what happens, I guess, when everyone is really good). In the last 5 Euros, 2 of the winners were astounding underdogs, Greece and Denmark.Greece won in 2004, a team that had only qualified for one World Cup and one previous Euro tourney ever, and had exited both those tournaments without a single win. The team got its first-ever win in the least likely spot in 2004, against the host team, Portugal, in the tournament’s first game (a shocking loss for the host), and then repeated it by beating the Portugese in front of their fans in the Final. The Greek called their team the Pirate Ship as it ‘sailed’through the tourney, after a Portugese-themed ship-float in the opening ceremonies.
…Three Euro nations/teams (not in the tourney, but still) I bet you could not name if I gave you all day: Faroe Islands, Andorra, San Marino.
…The favorites are Spain and Germany, with Holland third and from there anyone’s guess.
Spain won Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup, which would make this a third straight major national tourney win, which no nation has ever done. Also, Spain is coming off an horrific two months, not even counting their financial system.
Two months ago, Spain’s twin towers of Kick Ass, Barcelona and Real Madrid, were in the semifinals of the Champions League (the “club” version of this Euro tournament), about to have an All Spanish final, that would cap and confirm a Spain Rules The World-Era of soccer, dating to that 2008 win.Then, incredibly, they both lost – to Bayern Munich (ie, about half of the German National Team), and London’s Chelsea, which was just weird. Those losses were so shocking because in both cases it looked like the opposing coaches had finally solved the previously impenetrable “Spanish Style” of playing (VERY briefly: Spain simply makes small, tight passes – hundreds of them – until you fall over from exhaustion chasing them and they tap it in the goal. Chelsea and Munich just stopped chasing the ball, waited for Spain to get frustrated and then threw Hail Marys over their shorter Spanish heads). So the Era, if not over, is now under heavy threat.
...Denmark won in 1992 after not even qualifying for the field and being added at the last minute when Yugoslavia had to drop out due to war.
Also, Barcelona and Bilboa just wrapped up their last club game of the year recently, too, (a post-season tourney of sorts, gloriously called the Copa Del Rey) and they collectively account for something like 9 Spanish starters. So they are completely exhausted, and nobody in Spain, between recent soccer and economic news, is in much of a mood to get on with things. So, despite being ranked #1 and being the defending champs of, well, everything, they may be headed for trouble.
…Even if I gave you the three unknown Euro "nations" above, I’d bet you’d still have a blank spot on your “Nations of European Soccer” line-up that you couldn’t think of in a day. Answer below.
...and the final Sign Of Spain's Impending Demise: last season, Real Madrid - the Yankees of Europe, roughly - lost at home for the first time in, like, 3 years. To lightly-regarded and eventually-relagated Racing (or possibly Sporting - I get them confused). The coach who led that team, despite winning in Madrid, got fired but was hired this week at Villareal, a popular if middling team.
And on his first day, before even being introduced, he died.
…Germany, on the other hand, should win. They were awesome at the World Cup uin 2010 ntil losing to Spain and they have 3 or 4 of the best players on earth. But… national-team-proxy Munich DID lose to Chelsea last month IN MUNICH. Going back to 2008, this generation of Germans have been, maybe, the most talented class on earth, but hasn’t actually won anything.
One twist is that right after the Munich-Chelsea game, the German team-minus-Munich players, lost to the Swiss, 5-3, in a warm-up game. Switzerland did not even qualify for this Euros, so this is about the same in scope and likelihood to the US losing 100-65 to Canada in basketball.
So now rather than being the sorry bunch of Munich underachievers who can’t win The Big One, the Munich players have rejoined the national team with a distinct “thank God You’re here!”-vibe. We’ll see if that pans out.