Fifty Shades of Piqué

Another tournament come and gone; with it, another photo of San Iker hoisting silverware in the air. In case you weren’t counting, in the past 6 years there have been 3 major international tournaments (no CONCACAF, you do not count), of those 3 tournaments, Spain has gone tres for tres. For someone who has only truly followed the world’s game for the past 10 some-odd years, that’s big chunk of my experiences. With a 4-0 win against Italy this previous Sunday, La Furia Roja have accomplished something that’s never been done before and poses the question on everyone’s mind; is this Spain the greatest football squad of all time?

Summer 2008 begins with myself sulking due to the fact that England failed to qualify for Austria-Switzerland’s big dance. Little did I know history was about unfold itself in the form of a few Iberians with a unique style of play and something to prove. While the golden boot went to David Villa, the likes of Xavi and Iniesta paved the way for a team who won every game they played. 9 out of the 23 players named to the UEFA Team of the Tournament wore the red and gold. (Russia was next with 4). So what if my precious three lions didn’t qualify for the Euro, there’s always the 2010 World Cup…right?

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So what its just the Euro…right?

Torn between rooting for my home country or one that made me love the game, 2010’s World Cup was a rough one. Donovan vs. Rooney? Howard vs. whoever England picked out of the hat that morning? The internal struggle was quelled pretty quickly. Both teams failed to make it out of the knockout stage first round.Spain meanwhile, after a shaky start and a first game loss to Switzerland, came out on top of their group and surged into the final in Johannesburg.Portugal, Uruguay, Germany, Netherlands all fell to the tiki-taka-ers. While the Golden Boot went to Thomas Muller, the Silver Boot landed on David Villa’s foot. (Both players had 5 goals a piece but Muller edged out on assists). 6 out of 11 players for Spain were named to all-star team, with coach of the tourney going to Spain as well. Dos for dos.

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World Cup Champs

Anywhere can be a football town if you want it to be. I spent the opening weekend of this year’s Euro in Philadelphia with ArizonaSecrets, something I looked forward to and feared for my life. On the one hand, I can enjoy the opening games with someone who follows and understands the sport to the same level as myself, on the other, he roots for Spain. The same Spain trying to three-peat, something I could not and would not stand for under any circumstances. As the first three days came and went (which included getting thrown out of one bar and my comrade being denied alcohol at another), the Spaniards tied Italy in their opening match. Then they became “Spain.” They flew through the rest of their group and enjoyed a laughable opening knockout match against the French. It was only then that they faced, in my mind, one of two teams that could possibly de-throne them; Portugal. Penalties decided it, and whether it was “injusticia” or not, it was on to Italy. 4-0, the biggest win in the history of the Euro. Did I mention David Villa wasn’t even there? 10 out of 30 Spaniards graced the UEFA Team of the Tournament (Italy was second with 5). Player of the Tournament went to Iniesta and Fernando Torres threw on the Golden Boot.Spain not only showed why they were the best in Europe but told the world they’re not going anywhere anytime soon.

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Three for Three

Some nations wait generations for a chance at a major title, for Spain the right generation is here now. Football is a team game, Spain takes it literally. Every player on the pitch is effortlessly comfortable with possession-there is no individualism. Built on short quick passes, they treat the ball like gold, keeping possession and pressing relentlessly to retrieve when it’s lost. This style of play depends on a midfield able to control it. The ‘barca carousel of Xavi and Iniesta forms the backbone of a team who’s built to last; they’re the best central midfield pairing in the world and might be the best ever.  Add Alonso, Silva and Fabregas to the quintet and you have the only team in the world with enough midfield depth to employ a 4-6-0 and get away it (7 of 12 goals came from Spain’s midfield). While the lack of a natural striker will only work for Spain, they can still play a center forward for only 189 minutes and have him win the Golden Boot. Add Iker Casillas, who’s only allowed one goal in the tournament, with a solid back line including Sergio Ramos and Pique, and it’s no wonder they were favorites.

Is this Spain the greatest football squad of all time? Who knows. What I do know is that for the past 6 years I’ve been watching history in the making; a dynasty built on teamwork in the truest sense of the word. I wish I could hate this team; say I’m sick of watching them and mean it, but I’d be kidding myself. You can’t not like them for what they are; and incredible generation of footballers whose accomplishments are only surpassed by the means they’ve accomplished them.

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Alexi Lalas: A coming of age tale. (sort of)

I’ve watched a lot of ESPN over the past two weeks and I’ve come away with some insights; first and foremost, as shocking as it is, Alexi Lalas isn’t that bad. Yes, he’s American and tries to work MLS organically into any conversation, yes he’s a pretentious ginger, yes he formed a rock band called the Gypsies and produced the “hit” single titled “Kicking Balls” for the movie “The Big Green”, but compared to anything else the U.S. has to offer…I’ll take it.

A face made for radio.

When the Euro kicked off roughly two weeks ago and I found myself sitting on the couch tuning into the pre-match analysis for the Greece-Poland match. I moaned and grumbled at the thought of putting up with Lalas for a whole 16 days; that was before I saw what else ESPN had to offer. Before I get into the plethora of analysts ESPN dug up from the bowels of hell I want to give out three gold stars.

Gold Star #1Alexi Lalas. Reason-You didn’t completely suck. Between the fact that he cut back on the MLS talk and his witty banter with Michael Ballack, Lalas didn’t necessarily impress but not once did I throw something at the TV. To be honest, the guy’s come a long way. He states his opinion and isn’t scared to be challenged by another analyst, he’s gotten off the England-bashing bandwagon and knows that Lionel Messi will not be playing in this tournament. (fast forward to 1:05)

Gold Star #2Michael Ballack. Reason-You didn’t kill another analyst. I thought for sure the our boy Michael here was either going to head-butt Alexi for a stupid comment/mention of Phillipp Lahm or storm off stage in a fit. The ex-captain of Deutschland didn’t disappoint; the witty repartee between him and Lalas was incredible. You could cut the tension between the two with a warm stick of butter. I for one hope they pair these two together again in Brazil.

Gold Star #3Roberto Martinez. Reason-You were just…great. We didn’t get enough of the Wigan manager this summer, especially seeing as though he made more insightful comments than anyone. His commentary in Poland/Ukraine has been top notch especially when he gives insight into the managerial decision making including the Spanish front/false line.

Three guys go home with gold stars, another three go home with F’s that need to be signed by their parents.

F #1Giuseppe Rossi. I’m not even going to get into the dual-nationality irony here. The guy looked like paranoid schizophrenic in a mental hospital. Did he not know where the cameras were? Did he not know where the analyst’s were?

F #2Tyler Twellman. Tyler who-now? (I know who he is, but for the purpose of this post who cares). He literally sat there and agreed with whichever analyst looked back at him the most when he spoke (90% Lalas).

F #3Casey Keller. C’mon. It’s Casey fucking Keller.

Group Play Best and Worst – Round 2

Group Play Best and Worst – Round 2

BEST: GOMEZ

WORST: RONALDO

BEST

Mario Gomez –  has three goals in two matches over the first two games this tournament. Two of those goals came against the second best team in the world.  In Germany’s qualifying campaign Gomez largely held the position of second choice striker giving him something to prove once the Euro began. And something to prove he has; both goals against the Dutch had great first touches and equally clinical finishes. With Klose on the bench, Gomez is going to be the focal point of this team’s attack and will be relied heavily on if they want to make a deep run this summer. If Gomez keeps this form up he might well find himself bringing home the cup to Deutschland and wearing a pair of golden boots to match.

Honorable Mention

Fernando Torres – El Niño was granted a starting spot for the Spaniards against Ireland this week and the red-turned-blue striker didn’t disappoint. After a forgettable performance against the Azzurri he silenced critics with two goals in his next match leaving Spain with the decision of false vs. true nine for the next game.

Bastian Schweinsteiger – Now while Gomez receives top honors for Matchday 2; none of it would possible without the midfield maestro. Both of Gomez’s goals were only made possible by the equally, if not more, brilliant passes from Schweinsteiger. The combination of Gomez’s ability to run into space and Bastian’s unbelievable eye for those spaces make this pairing lethal in games to come.

WORST

Cristiano Ronaldo – Now if you’re confused why I’m putting the worlds arguably second best player in this spot for round 2, I can see why you would be confused for one of two reasons.  A) Even if he hasn’t done anything it doesn’t make him the worst player or B) He’s been so non-existent that you didn’t realize he was even in the tournament at all. Portugal has a total of 3 points in the last two matches and need both a win vs. the Netherlands tomorrow and a German win/draw. If that is to happen this team needs their superstar to drastically change his mentality as well as his team’s. Ronaldo has been virtually a non-issue for defenses in the Euro; the Portuguese winger has a total of 10 shots and only 4 of them on target this summer. In the game against Denmark, the Danish fans were heard chanting “Messi, Messi, Messi” throughout the game, an obvious slight/reminder to Ronaldo that for all his accomplishments in club football he is still second fiddle to “la pulga”. Ronaldo in retaliation showed his maturity in an interview stating “You know where (Messi) was at this time (last year)? Do you know?” Ronaldo said. “He was being eliminated in the Copa America, in his own country? “I think that’s worse, no?

Honorable Mention

Robin Van Persie – The Dutch Striker falls in the same boat as Cristiano. Both players came into this tournament with the prospect of carrying their nation to the championship, except in all honesty, the Netherlands has a lot more talent which takes some of the pressure off RVP. In an epic showdown tomorrow it will be two of the best players in the world squaring off to try and lift their team into the knockout phase. In order for Netherlands to advance, they need a German win and to beat Portugal by 2 or more goals; lets hope Van Persie brings his game.

Group Play Best and Worst – Round 1

BEST PLAYER: INIESTA

WORST PLAYER: SZCZESNY

 

Somehow, someway, I still feel like he completed that pass.


INIESTA

No, the la masia grad did not score a goal in the opener of Group C against Italy. But if there is one thing I’ve learned from watching Barcelona over the past 6 some-odd years it’s that strikers can win you games but midfielders win you championships. The pairing of Xavi and Iniesta might be the greatest international and club central midfield duo of all time and certainly the best currently. #6 was just on another level. The problem that I have when trying to describe why he earns the spot this week is that there is no goal or particular play that earned it for him. He plays on a molecular level, each pass part of a bigger picture; it would be like trying to break down a picture into individual pixels. Picking an individual play would understate his brilliance; watch the match from 0 to 90 minutes and you’ll see what I mean.

Might want to keep that Champagne on ice….

SZCZENSY

While I don’t like blaming games solely on goalkeepers and Poland’s tie was not his fault entirely, Wojciech gets to shoulder most of the blame for a game where the host should have come out on top. Two crucial mistakes were made that kept Poland from taking three points and capitalizing on the Greeks. The second half-horror show began with the polish keeper coming out of way out of his box in attempt to get the ball and instead giving Salpingidis a wide open net to shoot on. Now if that was bad, it pales in comparison to the tackle on Salpingidis later on that resulted in a straight red bringing the poles to 10 men. Szczesny faced a 1 match ban against Russia today in whichPoland held them to a 1-1 draw.

John Terry is burning.

There are players I hate in football and then there’s John Terry. Sure he plays for Chelsea, one of Manchester’s bigger rivals but that has nothing to do with my displeasure with the Three Lions center back. On a national team level he doesn’t deserve to be on the squad let alone be in the starting 11.

Where to begin? Adultery or Racism? We’ll go alphabetical. In January 2010 Mr. Terry was revealed to having a four month long affair with another woman other than his wife. The woman in question was going out with/had a son with another football player. The other football player,WayneBridge, plays forEnglandalongside John Terry. Subsequently, after the story broke,WayneBridge“dropped off” theEnglandsquad shortly before the 2010 World Cup. Fabio Capello, rightly took away Terry’s captaincy and gave it to long time defenseman Rio Ferdinand. A year later, captaincy was given back to John Terry. I can only assume it was a reward for not sleeping outside of his marriage for a whole year, a lofty task by any means.

Fast forward to November 2011, Chelsea playing QPR. Terry decided to voice his opinion about Anton Ferdinand,Rio’s brother calling him a “f***ing black c***.” Rio in turn used to the media to voice his displeasure with Terry and his tasteful choice of vocabulary. In December Terry was charged with using racist language and was stripped of his captaincy forEnglandfor a second time. On top of that, instead of banning him for games in the spring/early summer (which would include EPL, Champions League and Euro matches), the FA decided to postpone the ban until after the Euro finishes. As the icing on the cake, Rio Ferdinand was dropped from the English national squad due to the riff that could be created. Defending your brother against racism is an obvious reason not to be allowed to represent your country.

As much of anEnglandfan as I am and as much as I admit that Terry certainly helps their cause in pursuit of a European championship, I’m seriously confused at the lack of principle that out friends in theUKare showing. Twice Terry screwed someone else over and twice the ‘screwee was further penalized because Terry was too important to be punished. Terry should have had his armband taken away for good two years ago, and after this latest row of racist remarks he should be dropped from the team. Sure we have a better chance with him on the back line but I’d rather the FA stand up for certain ideals than throw dignity to the wind for the chance at a piece of silverware.

While Terry continues to start for the Three Lions football must go on, regardless of my bitching. With Englandsettling for a tie against the coq gaulois and Ukraine beating Sweden, this group is still completely up for grabs and as my counterpart Arizonasecrets stated it’s going to get “bat shit crazy”.

Poland. Greece. Thoughts.

First off let me say I had Poland winning this. I felt pretty strong about my prediction and after seeing this game there are equally confirming and disproving parts.

The first 30 minutes Poland controlled the game. While their midfield defense looked lazy the back four were in control. Lewandowski’s goal was only as good as the cross by Błaszczykowski. The two yellows on Papastathopoulos were both pretty damn soft, a very undeserving red. Going into halftime I figured the host had three point.

I’m pretty sure I turned on a different channel in the second half. Salpingidis changed the game. He added pace and heart that they weren’t showing in the first half. Now while he gets credit for leveling the score, the goal was put on a silver platter by a terrible decision by Szczęsny. That was stupid play #1. Stupid play #2 came 17 minutes later, the ball is already past you…Salpingidis isn’t getting to it to put it on goal, why are you taking him down? Tyton comes on and saves a telegraphed penalty. For the last 23 some-odd minutes Greece had more energy, Poland looked tired and every touch was heavy and not controlled. For a 10 v 10 game I was surprised to see Greece looking at times like they were playing for a tie while Poland was trying to press up the pitch. Greeces keeper needs to calm down on corners, someone needs to tie him to the crossbar, he comes out on everything and its gonna bite him in the ass.

All in all, I think Poland lost two points.

The World Cup’s pretentious best friend.

For someone who follows European football almost exclusively, the Euro is more like pretentious-best-friend to the World Cup rather than its younger brother. Outside of a few non-European teams and players, this year’s tourney brings to the table on a national scale a showcase displaying probably 90% of the world’s best players. (Until the day Messi somehow attains Spanish citizenship sheerly by his accomplishments for the Blaugrana, we’re confined to watch this event without him.) Now call me biased, but 2008 was a shyte tournament. Could it have been because England didn’t qualify? Maybe. Could have been because Barcelo…I mean Spain dominated going undefeated? Perhaps. Could it be due to the fact that the theme song was sung by Enrique Iglesias? Absolutely.

Coming into UEFA’s quadrennial event I can only hope for a better outcome. Sure I could be bitter about Spain’s national and club dominance over the past 4 years and maybe even mention that the image of Xavi lifting any kind of shiny object into the air is growing rather tiresome, but I’m past that. In the past year I’ve dealt with some serious highs and lows as a football aficionado. I experienced the lowest moment in my life as a sports fan within 3 minutes of extra time and 2 goals. I watched the 3 lions from the background succeed when the expectations were non-existent. Bloody hell, an American made his way onto the top 5 top goal scorer list in the EPL. Now while a strange year in club football doesn’t guarantee similar outcomes on a national scale, I have an inkling this tournament won’t disappoint.

Poland and Ukraine? What do these places have other than pierogies and a currency called Hryvnia? After much investigation I came to grips with my previous qualms about the locale decision, for good reasons. Pizza in Poland does not contain tomato sauce. The waiters bring sauce to the table in a pitcher, and you pour it on top. Sometimes the sauce is just ketchup. In Europe, the police solve 30-40% of crimes, in Ukraine – 90%. This unnaturally good statistic is the result of the reluctance of the Ukrainian policemen to record “hopeless” cases (like thefts of mobile phones) and knock confessions out of suspects – in fact, the entire Ukrainian police force will be on hand for each and every Italy game to prevent match fixing as well hate crimes against Polish pizza vendors.

In the next 3 weeks, all of Europe’s eyes will be on Poland and Ukraine. While I admit I am biased towards England, I can’t wait to see what this month has in store. As for the fact I’m one of four people and two separate couples covering it, I think it’ll be interesting. Enjoy.