Celebrating club football and shining the light on incompetent and biased journos indulging in stereotyping and negativity.
Despite appearances to the contrary, having a family and a social agenda means that important milestones will sometimes be missed, so hopefully all 3 of my blog readers will forgive me for not posting anything on the last 4 games. I promise to catch it up over the next two game days. However, AJB is back tonight for a riveting Ukraine-Sweden game that is promising to be a firecracker!!! Sorry, forgot to turn off the Sky Sports / BBC hype pump, that wasn’t me talking.
It is interesting to observe how far the co-opting, and at the same time, the sanitisation and the numbing of fans’ passion has gone, and that corporations now feel quite unabashed in offering up their definition of what being a fan is about in full public view. Gone are the classic images of footballers fooling around with the ball in airports or just kicking it around in the stadium. The central theme running through one of the tournament’s main sponsors campaign (a company known for its various electronic products) is that what constitutes “the most dedicated fan” seems mainly linked to ability to dress silly and heavily going in for face painting. Never mind keeping up a positive attitude when things are not going well, or attending far away games in Eastern Europe surrounded by unfriendly cops. But commitments of that type do not make for media-friendly images that can be used to create that diffuse but sufficiently bland warm feeling that gives sponsors the sense of purpose in funding such nonsense.
Ukraine-Sweden, 11 June 2012, 20h45 kick-off: 2:1
Hollywood factor: Andriy Voronin’s signature pony tail offers a number of options: ideally that of a Eastern European baddie in straight-to-DVD spy thrillers, but failing that there might just be space in porn. What? He’s cut it off (the pony tail)? That’s what happens when you join Liverpool, all your self-confidence goes down the drain (exhibit B: Fernando Torres).
Old/mean man kudos: At 35, Andriy Shevchenko is Ukraine’s most senior and undoubtedly most illustrious player, having starred at AC Milan and then, erm, Chelsea. Notwithstanding that, despite looking as if he has just managed to grow his first beard, Bayern’s Anatoliy Tymoshchuk is another credible contender at 33. Otherwise, all of Ukraine’s players are really nice guys in touch with their sensitive side.
French connection: This is another stretch: former Lyon defender Pape Diakhaté, currently with Spanish club Grenada FC, officially spent 4 seasons at Dynamo Kiev from 2007 to 2011 (although he was loaned out for 2 of them). That should be amply sufficient to get him invited to the late evening piss-up on M6 that passes for a football discussion show, to offer his views on “what it’s like over there”. There might be a last dash attempt for pre-retirement heroics for Sheva, especially after that lovely flying header and if the new owners at PSG fail to land a current big name like Ibrahimovic or Tevez.
New hype kid most touted to join the English Premier League: 22-year old Andrei Yarmolenko is not exactly a household name just yet (as such transfer targets quickly become), but has managed to get himself noticed during Kiev’s recent Champions League outings. With a total of 12 goals (to 28 appearances) for club last season, and another 4 (out of 7) for country, he could be the new big thing for the right club. With Bili the Kid at Everton, blue would perhaps be a good destination for him, unless Arsène decides he can’t afford Dzagoev but wants to add to list of his alternative signings from Eastern Europea. Otherwise, on the left wing, Yevhen Konoplyanka was equally if not more impressive throughout the evening, showing lots of technical skills and courage to take on opponents directly.
Hollywood factor: Am I the only one to have noticed the striking resemblance between Sunderland’s Sebastien Larsson and comedy stand up “executive drag” star Eddie Izzard? I wonder who’s better at the other one’s skills – Larsson with the jokes, or Izzard with the ball?
Old/mean man kudos: In addition to Sweden, 34-year old Olof Mellberg has played in Spain, England, Italy and now Greece, for the last 3 years (at Olympiakos)! If that isn’t proof of a big heart, I don’t know what is.
French connection: Unlike for the Ukranians and many other nations covered so far, the Swedes seem to quite like playing in France. Goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson spent two years at Rennes from 2004 to 2006, Kim Källström has been at Lyon forever, while Johan Elmander got Europe to take notice while at Toulouse, from 2006 to 2008; a bit sadly for him, only Bolton was watching.
New hype kid most touted to join the English Premier League: at lot has been said of midfielder Rasmus Elm, currently serving at AZ Alkmaar and with 10 goals to his name this season. At 24, he might be a ripe for a new challenge.
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Historic moment of the match: The dramatic and emotionally loaded hug between Andriy Shevchenko and the grumpy old Oleg Blokhin following the former’s 2nd goal – they indulged in another one at the end of the game.
Hero of the game: Shevchenko, for that beautiful 1st headed goal, created from nearly nothing, and for confounding his critics (including this scribe) by deciding the game with the 2nd (and getting one over Ibrahimovic in the process).
There is a change of media base for this one as we mosey on over to BBC1 to watch the game with Jonathan Pearce and that brightest of consultant commodities, Martin Keown. In the jingle just before the teams’ exit onto the pitch, the Dutch and the Danish teams are represented by pictures of windmills and Danish swirls, respectively. Presumably these symbols have been statistically verified to be the ones that the majority of British people most immediately associate with the two countries. I suppose they could have done worse with some Gouda cheese (or worse even, tulips) and a great Dane. Something has gone terribly wrong with British media this year – is it the Murdoch scandal, the lowest expectations of the national squad ever, or the depressing reality of the jubilee? The in-studio consultant panel – a star studded affair with uncle Arry and the token Dutch star Seedorf – is also oddly dressed, as if Diddy was hired as the wardrobe consultant and is preparing to whisk them all of to the grand re-opening of Studio 54.
Netherlands – Denmark, 9 June 2012, 18h kick-off;
Hollywood factor: Nigel de Jong’s world cup kung fu kick in the final has already landed him offers to take over from Jackie Chan once the latter reaches 80, or co-star alongside Jason Streatham as a crazy side kick in Crank 4.
Old/mean man kudos: Without any doubt it has to be Mark Van Bommel, possibly Europe’s most detested leg-breaking midfielder.
French connection: The Dutch and the French don’t mix. Not in the same animated, confrontational manner as the Dutch and ze Germans, but the fact is that you will be hard pressed to find Dutch internationals in Ligue 1. Most of them come from either Ajax or PSV and when they are ready to move on to bigger and better things, tend to favor the EPL. I mean, even Khalid Boulahrouz managed to get hired by Chelsea – not one of José’s best picks. Must have been a tip from Frank Arnsesen. I have located the trace of one Rajiv van La Parra, who played for two seasons at Caen (2008-2011, the first season being in L1), but he came from Feyenoord Rotterdam – told ya! Before him, there was Boudewijn Zenden at Marseille (2007-2009), and an unremarkable last season for Patrick Kluivert at Lille in 2007-2008.
New hype kid most touted to join the English Premier League: There’s not that many in this team, apart from Willems (18) and Gregory Van der Wiel (23); the others are all over 25, including Affelay, who is fairly well tied to Barça and 26. Most already play in the EPL. Speculation will probably be rife for a Sneijder move to either City or United (Manchester), but hopefully it will all be wishful thinking. Someone may be tempted to come and fetch Maarten Stekelenburg from Rome, hoping he will be able to emulate the inspirational Dutch goalkeeper magic demonstrated by Tim Krul (for Newcastle) and Michael Vorm (for Swansea) this season. Oops, well, not after letting that one through his legs.
Hollywood factor: Simon Kjaer’s true blond locks and looks constitute significant credentials for featuring in all sorts of surfer or skater movies.
Old/mean man kudos: More old than mean, but at 33, Dennis Romedahl is definitely the senior fella in this squad. Apparently he has stated that he feels he can continue for another 8 or 9.
French connection: After frantically transferring around Europe for a number of years like a crazed US college kid on a Euro-rail back-pack holiday with a countdown, Christian Poulsen officiated in midfield for the newly promoted Evian Thonon Gaillard last season – and somehow they managed to stay up. They’re sponsored by a yogurt, you know.
New hype kid most touted to join the English Premier League: He’s Danish, but he’s at Ajax, which is probably what has got Christian Ericksen noticed by a number of observers. It wasn’t really a great evening for him – according to Seedorf at half-time, the Danes were locked in a style of play that does not help to bring out the best of his skills.
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Historic moment of the match: The completely against the run of play first Danish goal by the fabulously named Michael Krohn-Dehli, whose picture on UEFA’s Matchcentre is reminiscent of a really haggard Richie Cunningham.
Hero of the game: probably Krohn-Delhi, if the Danes manage to hold on to the score (I am publishing this on the 92nd minute of the game).
Russia – Czech Republic, June 8, 2012 – 20h45 kick off; 4-1
After this convincing display, albeit against an opposition that is more intimidating in terms historical achievements than present might on the pitch, Russia will certainly climb up in most specialists’ and especially tourists’ rankings as potential favorites. It’s always so with wins with significant goal margins. But to be fair, they did show good command of the ball and potency in attack, so it is actually not unfair for them to inherit the status of favorites to qualify from this group. A quick review of their essential features as per this tournament’s key assessment criteria.
Hollywood factor: Igor Denisov would be a great Russian baddie sidekick in a James Bond flick, but the problem is that the Russians have slipped down the bad guys’ pecking order.
Old/mean man kudos: With the singular exception of the youthful Dzagoev, the average age of the starting 11 is probably somewhere around 29 if not even 30, so there are many contenders for this role. Defender Aleksandr Anyukov looks the meanest though (see photo below).
French connection: There have not been many Russian players in Ligue 1. This is kind of surprising given the many lavish and luxurious facets of life in France. The low appeal of the hexagon may have to do with the high taxes, the absence of Russian owners, or simply the general lack of all round bling-bling status, though that may be changing rapidly as PSG prepares for another big splash this summer. But honestly, I don’t even feel like googling the players’ names, I am that unconvinced of finding anything (help is welcome as always).
New hype kid most touted to join the English Premier League: Alan Dzagoev – the very prospect of being able to lean on the simplicity of his first name for buddy-buddy post match interviews (for UK journos) places him above many on the shopping list for an early summer deal, not to mention his two great goals of the evening. If Roman doesn’t bite, don’t put it past Wenger to break the piggy bank (and try to definitely dispose of Arshavin in the process) for another promising quick-footed midfielder.
Hollywood factor: Although already 31, Arsenal’s own Tomáš Rosický conserves a youthful insouciance that is quite endearing (for example his haircut suggests he is no more than 15 years old). If Arnold Schwarzenegger is ever tempted for a reprise in his classic role, for example in Terminator 5, I would recommend Rosický to play alongside the former guvna as an older version of John Connor (that other kid in Terminator 3 was completely out of his depth). But really, let’s face it, it’s all gone terribly wrong since Jan Koller retired from national service. (copyrighted pun by prince O of Subfoot.com fame)
Old/mean man kudos: High of his Champions League performance, it should be Cech but that soft fuzzy helmet is suggestive of a lingering fragility not suited to the big boots that come with this responsibility. Though not exactly old at 26, Petr Jiráček’s has a potential bad boy/rock star look that put him in contention for this role (as well as a move to AS Roma). However, overall the boys in white are light on this key factor especially prized by Roy Keane, so they won’t be his favorites to make it through the next round.
French connection: Bordeaux’s own Jaroslav “mini-Nedved” Plasil, the talented but typically underachieving midfielder (as per the now established tradition of post 1990’s initially promising Czech talent). Seriously, it’s all gone terribly wrong since Jan Koller left Monaco.
New hype kid most touted to join the English Premier League: On a serious note, the young 23-year old Václav Pilař, who impressed with Viktoria Plzen in this year’s Champions League group stages, and elegantly converted the only Czech goal of the evening, could be a good buy for someone with a slightly longer term vision then the average EPL chairman. I bet David Moyes could make him fit in well at Everton.
– – – –
Historic moment of the match: The very smooth 2nd goal chip by Roman Shirokov.
Hero of the game: Alan Dzagoev, and notably for his convincing 2nd goal and passionate but classic celebration.
Harry Redknapp’s quip of the game: He’s good that Roman Pavlyuchenko guy, we should try to buy him for next season.
So the European national football championship is finally off to a great start, and I am not talking about the ceremony, which is scrupulously avoided by monitoring the Djokovic-Federer game that was on at the same time. No, the appraisal refers to the opening game opposing 1/2 hosts Poland to Europe’s boo boys, Greece. Although it ended 1-1 after Greek captain Karagounis failed to take the advantage for his side from a penalty kick, it was a most entertaining and fairly dramatic affair, with Borussia Dortmund’s in form hot commodity striker Lewandowski confirming his potential by grabbing his first of the tournament. The two red cards, one for each side, also raised the intensity. Though Greece will rue the missed penalty that could have brought them precious 3 points, they can probably be quite satisfied to grab one point from this first and always delicate fixture against the hosts where they were clearly not the favorites.
What follows is less match commentary than a team review, the format of which I will try to build on during the following games – enjoy, comments welcome.
Poland-Greece, Friday June 8, 2012 – 18h kick-off
Greece Team Profile
Hollywood factor: This one has to go to Giorgos Samaras as young Evan Almighy, although defender’s Holebas haircut and vociferous complaining to the ref (after claims for a penalty for a handball by Polish defender Perquis fell on deaf ears) could easily have him landing a minor role in Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto.
Old/mean man kudos: Either captain Karagounis, for sheer experience, or Dimitris Salpingidis the goalscorer, for his greater “300” hard man coefficient (respectable beard helping).
French connection (1): A lonely Giorgos Tzavellas (on the bench, unsubstituted) featured in this year’s resurgent Monaco side. Otherwise it is difficult challenge to make the connection, as Greek players resolutely prefer the German Bundesliga as their main export destination. Who says Greeks and Germans can’t get along? Or that the Greeks don’t fancy the Euro?
New hype kid most touted to join the English Premier League: I could see Roberto Martinez fancying the deft footwork of young Ninis to rejuvenate his Wigan side. Otherwise, Sam Allardyce may already be on the phone for hard man Salpingidis.
Poland Team Profile
Hollywood factor: In the tradition of the inimitable Ralph Macchio, we could easily see the hosts’ goalkeeper, Szczesny, adopt the funky “Z-man” moniker (on the strength of the two Z’s in his name) and develop a great career playing nerdy kids up until the age of 40.
Old/mean man kudos: none whatsoever – this is clearly a bunch of young boys with plenty of acne to boot, à la Gunners quoi. The only alternative may be coach Smuda, but only if eligibility guidelines are relaxed.
French connection (1): Ludovic Obraniak, the “outsider” to this team who has shown his talent at Bordeaux this season after leaving Lille following their title win in 2011. Too bad he couldn’t demonstrate more of that on the few opportunities he had to make the difference this evening.
New hype kid most touted to join the English Premier League: Though his complex name may considerably reduce journo enthusiasm, Błaszczykowski’s carefully crafted metro-sexual (Beckham-approved) hairstyle, as well as regular forays into the final 3rd of the opposition’s half, and the superb cross for the first goal, will surely suffice to make him a UK tabloid darling for a reasonably priced move to the EPL – at the very least at QPR, maybe even for Liverpool (if Benitez was still there). Alternatively, Newcastle United might be tempted to increase their francophone credentials with Obraniak. Failing all that, Lewandowski might also find his way there, perhaps at Arsenal with his buddy Szczesny (especially if RVP moves on).
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Historic moment of the match: in a heavily symbolic moment that will have the rest of Europe cheering in approval, the unfortunately (Tintin baddie-like) named Greek defender Papastathopoulos sees the first red of the tournament, as Greece is reduced to 10 men. Cue riots in Athens.
Hero of the game: it’s a close call between super subs Dimitris Salpingidis (goal + won penalty for the Greeks) and Przemyslaw Tyton, the sub goalie whose first intervention consisted in saving the penalty shot from Karagounis.
(1) According to the official French media essential elements guide by the excellent Subfoot.com (read article), there has to be one.
As most of Europe, as well as (hopefully) a good part of the rest of the world, attempts to forget its present economic concerns by indulging in all sorts of football related debauchery (score guessing, animated arguing with family and random strangers, hair pulling, beer drinking and other less edifying activities such as flag waving, face painting, and the Mexican wave), it seems a good moment to share (edited sections of) the following piece by Mark Eltringham, published in Stephen Foster’s excellent “The Book Of Football”.
Far from me to give prominence to a competition involving national teams, but somehow the mounting sense of excitement at the prospect of a gourmet diet of two games per day, following a fairly dull period of three weeks after the end of the club seasons, deserves recognition and some reverence. The occasion may not be a perfect one, but this is about a bigger issue – the general role and place of football in modern society. Therefore while this piece should certainly rub true fans’ sensibilities the right way like Johnny Gill, it is also and maybe especially aimed at rugby, basketball, cricket and other minor sports followers and non-believers, certain FB smart alecks who like to pretend like they are above it all, and tourist fans compelled to tune in because of a sense of obligation to the rising nationalist fervor (1) and the fear of being unable to participate in office and pub conversations. A message for you suckers: if you don’t get it even after this, stay off our jocks for the next month or so.
The fact is that there is undoubtedly something about football that speaks to people in a universal language. No other sport, with the possible exception of boxing, has more to say about what makes us human. I know that followers of rugby and cricket like to think that they occupy the intellectual high ground, but that is mainly a class thing. The fact is that the only decent quotation about rugby is a comparison with football (2), as you’d expect from a sport burdened with the inferiority complex of an overshadowed little brother. And cricket appears to have inspired very little in the way of original thought…
The working man’s ballet can even claim the moral high ground, because it is (or was) the sport and cultural focus of the working class. And, as John Rose demonstrates in his book The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, the working autodidact is a much more attractive figure than his or her advantaged and educated middle-class contemporary. Self-taught or otherwise, rough, straight-talking and passionate about their football, this was the crowd depicted by LS Lowry in Going to the Match, his famous painting that fetched £2m at an auction in 2000. These people formed the bulk of the crowd when I first started going to games, in what we now think of as a Golden Age, in the mid-70’s. This was the England and the game I knew, a million miles from the cosy, mythical Darling Buds England of John Major, yet no less poetic for that. Sure, it was a dark poetry most of the time and you had to tolerate unromantic things like toilets that swam with piss (ndrl. that reminds me of les Charmilles), but it was magical nonetheless. Something was lost to the game at the same time they sorted out the toilets and Man United started winning things again (3).
So profound is football’s fascination for intellectuals, that individuals positions have their own canon. Inevitably the goalkeeper has attracted most interest. Albert Camus was himself a goalkeeper before taking the tiny step to become an existentialist. Nabokov spoke poetically about the goalie’s unique role in the game (4). Wim Wenders went one step further by making a whole film about the existential angst that grips the custodian, The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty Kick.
…. football’s place as a source of inspiration for observers of the human condition is assured. Now that the working man is an endangered species, its role as the working man’s ballet may be past, but it will continue to be the thinking man’s ballet.
(1) Though I am delighted that the so called nationalist fervor has been largely absent this time around, notably due to subdued expectations in both England and France, two very dominant media BS generators, as well as merciful absence of Switzerland this time around (I know I will get heat for that, but I stand by it).
(2) Rugby is a beastly game played by gentlemen; soccer is a gentleman’s game played by beasts. Henry Blaha, rugby player, 1972.
(3) This section is very UK-centric, but easily adapted to any other setting. For example, the very fact that most Americans (but not all – more of them are getting wiser with each Clint Dempsey goal) don’t even get what the fuss is about even when the World Cup is on, says it all.
(4) The goalkeeper is the lone eagle, the man of mystery, the last defender. Less the keeper of a goal than the keeper of a dream. Vladimir Nabokov, autobiography, Speak, Memory, 1951.
(5) In a sublime yet totally unconscious (true dat) effort to sidestep any hint of Euro-centrism, the photos of two Latin American greats grace this extract. However, feel free to suggest other European greats that have been just as inspirational (except Cruyff please: not tolerated in these pages, in line with KGB Mou strict code of ethics).
Ah, what a relaxing feeling, a lightness of the mind and the heart. For once this international week-end has come with almost perfect timing for some much deserved rest for the nerves, as long as there are no injuries to important players. Any surprises? Well, let’s see:
Israel got the 3 points by beating Latvia 2-1.