Euro 2012 soccer championship: Ten Days Out

June 18, 2012

Michael Madero

Editor’s Note: Madero is assistant coach for the University of Chicago's men's soccer team and Worldview’s soccer co-contributor. He’s been blogging for us during the 2012 Euro Cup.

In case you missed it, Euro 2012 has been serving up great games and tense finishes. With the end of the group phase fast approaching, every match plays a significant role in who advances to the quarterfinals.

The Russians march

At least 15 fans were badly injured and 183 spectators were arrested in Warsaw last Tuesday when fighting broke out before the Russia-Poland game. Five-thousand Russians marched through Warsaw to the stadium that day to mark the day Russia declared itself free of the Soviet Union — on the same day of their match against Poland. 

Let’s get this out of the way: Injuries to fans and bystanders were deplorable. It reminded us of violent scenes from decades ago. But how much of this was football-related? One does not need to know much about sports or history to understand that emotions will get out of control or that a small number of Russian and Polish hooligans would use this as an excuse to vent their egos and agendas.

Surely, had this happened any other time outside of Euro 2012, it would have been more of a disaster than it threatened to be. Yes, there were skirmishes, fists, kicks, arrests and lots of nastiness. The Polish did not take kindly to Russian nationalists, reminders both of their sporting rival that day and their big brother, de-facto Communist colonizer from the past.

Were the world not watching, and had authorities not been out in full force — containing and eventually shutting down) the march — resentful Poles might have directly and violently confronted this show of Russian nationalism. Things could have been much, much worse. It was a bad day for the UEFA family and the image of the event, but one that cannot be easily described as “football violence.”

For sure, democratic and post-Soviet freedoms do not easily co-exist with lingering convulsions of nativism and nationalism.

King Sheva and the fall of Poland and Russia

If there was a crowning moment for Poland, though, it was immediately after Kuba’s brilliant equalizer against the Russians. A grinning Lech Walesa, wrapped in a red and white Poland Scarf, was the perfect counterweight to the scenes outside the stadium.

Unfortunately, the Poles leave the tournament after their loss to the Czechs. When it counted most, they just weren’t good enough. At least the Poles can take comfort knowing that Russia folded, sending its team and fans home. They were so promising in 2008 and in their first match here, but in the end, Arshavin, Shirokov, Kerzhakov and company caved in to frustration and lost sight of their target. For many on the Russian squad, this may spell the end to a generation that promised much, but delivered too little.

Ukraine received much attention in the build-up to Euro 2012 regarding its readiness as co-host nation. Unfortunately their footballing qualities seemed a minor detail. Well, it didn’t take long for nearly forgotten man Andrij Shevchenko, 2004 European player of the year and the winner of domestic titles in Ukraine, Italy and England, to score two of the most important goals of his career. It’s amazing to think that his first goal for Ukraine was back in 1996.

By defeating Sweden and vainglorious striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Ukraine set itself up for an exciting group final against England with a spot in the quarterfinals hanging in the balance. Joyous images of Ukrainians in the stadium and in the fan parks are the first reminders of how football can take over the hearts and minds of an entire nation.

Greece survives

Greece brought down the Russians and now, almost inevitably, the team squares off against the Germans in the quarterfinals. In an era of such exhaustive preparation and high stakes football, it’s widely thought we may never again see a “minor” team like the Greeks (2004) or the Danes (1992) win the title. But then again, this is partly the reason we all tune in, is it not?

Spain and Germany

If you haven’t seen them yet, these two teams have been rather awesome. In beating Ireland 4-0, Spain attempted 860 passes! 860 passes in a 90-minute game is outrageous. Xavi completed 127 out of 136 himself. Undoubtedly, this is the king and his court. Can Spain retain their crown?

The answer is no, if the Germans have their say. A goal-scoring Gomez and midfield orchestrators Ozil and Schweinsteiger demolished the hapless Dutch and cruised against the Danes. The Germans don’t look likely to lose any time soon.

Germany will place Greece in the quarterfinals, in a match hyped for its political overtones more than the football on display. Will German Chancellor Angela Merkel have a quiet word with the boys in the locker room asking them to ease up on the gas pedal and take it easy on their opponents? If the Greeks mythically repeat their form of 2004 and win, it would be the greatest collective relief from impending austerity!

Perhaps what sets Spain and Germany apart from the rest in this championship is their depth of talent. There are so many stars on the field and on the bench, that any injury or loss of form to a key player is easily supplemented by the strength of their respective squads. These teams will have many more tales to tell before it’s over.

The Dutch go home

Finalists in South Africa two years ago and fielding more or less the same team, how is the Netherlands winless after three games? As strong as they are individually, the likes of Robben, Sneijder, Van Persie, Huntelaar and Van der Vaart don’t seem to mesh as a group. The Dutch are more a collection of egos than a team. The results were woeful and their performances uninspired.

The only person I feel bad for in this fiasco is Andrea van Bommel. Her husband, Mark, the team captain, was benched for the last game by her father, coach Bert van Marwijk. Van Marwijk will most likely lose his job. Ouch!

Italy and England?

A week ago, at the onset of the tournament, few if any, would have suggested that the Italians and English would have entertaining first round games. Indeed, England's formed a rear guard and battled the French to a dour draw in their first match — satisfying only themselves and those curious individuals the world over who might have played centerback their whole life. More like manager Roy Hodgson’s West Brom than the mighty nation of England.

But what a match against Sweden! Down 2-1 in the second half, the English rallied to win 3-2. The goals were scored by Carroll, Wolcott and Welbeck (none of whom is older than 23). Now Wayne Rooney, suspension served, will be unleashed against Ukraine.

And bravo Cesare Prandelli! For all us jaded fans who gave up on Italy because they never seem to shake the tradition of the “iron rope” — the dogged defensive system of “catenaccio” — you have finally turned our heads. Italy improvised their tactics and played attacking football with only three defenders in their first two games.

And Shevchenko is not the only Milan alumnus to demand a curtain call. The evergreen Andrea Pirlo scored a wondrous goal and created another that put the Italians in a good position to qualify for the next round.  If they win, only a deadlock between Spain and Croatia (producing a 2-2 result) would see them not go through.

The Italians, naturally, are pulling their hair out in anxiety over this happening. The irony, of course, is that Italy is waist deep in its own investigation of match fixing back home.

Thank you, Ireland; fare thee well, Sweden

No, not for your soccer, for your supporters! For anyone who’s ever traveled to a World Cup or European Championship, these two nations always seem to smuggle out half the country to get behind their teams.

Yes, the promise of cheap beer, vodka and beautiful Eastern Europeans played its role this time around, but unwavering support of their nation was impressive regardless. The tens of thousands of Swedes that come decked out as Vikings (primordial ancestors of the Green Bay Packers cheeseheads) outnumbered the English four-to-one at their match.

Better yet, by all reports, the Irish sang “The Fields of Athenry” repeatedly for 90 minutes while getting crushed by Spain. They illustrate how not all demonstrations of patriotism around football end in violence.

Compelled by their emotion and sensing a moment in history, from their press boxes, a number of foreign journalists recorded the Irish in full song at the end of the match and posted on YouTube. And if the following is the worse that happens for the rest of the tournament, then Euro 2012 may not be in bad shape. This is courtesy of the Kyiv Post:

Some Swedish fans...ended up (in hospital) with alcohol poisoning or injuries caused by falls while drunk. . . A further 100 people received medical help without hospitalization.

Indeed, Popular Swedish rock musician Mats Ronander, who used to be one of Swedish pop group ABBA’s guitarists. . . , had to cancel his new band’s gig at Camp Sweden on Kyiv’s Trukhaniv Island on Tuesday after he was taken to intensive care with a head injury. . . Ronander says he lost his footing in the street and fell after Ukraine-Sweden match.

Well too bad for those at Camp Sweden. You’ll be missed when you’re gone. But there are some great upcoming matches that should more than capture our attention.