Sport, generally speaking, is so popular because it is a unique form of storytelling. It is an objective narrative that resolves itself for each viewer in an incredibly subjective way. There is a winner and a loser, but there is also backstory, history, performance, criticism, and there is the story sport tells us which is inherently terrifying. The is incredibly immersive; the team is “we” and “us”, or at least it feels that way, but “we” have no control over the outcome. The fan is a protagonist of the story, but the individual fan’s position in the narrative is unknowable, private, filled with inexpressible passions, memories, traditions, and mostly, fear. Fear that your hopes, your dreams, will somehow slip through your fingers. That disaster will strike. That your antagonists– your neighbors, your in-laws, your best friends from grade school—- will better you. The story only has one ideal ending, a championship, but only one set of fans get to experience it each year. And when the next year arrives, the narrative renews itself again, with another year of experience, of history, with new players in a new context, everything shifts again, and you’re terrified again. And there is always a next year.
College football is, for me, the American sport that best exemplifies this relentless narrative. It is the most unforgiving major sport. In the NFL, you can lose four or five games and be a great team and win the title. Baseball? If you lose 62 games, it was a great season. Basketball? Lose 20 of your games and you’re probably in the hunt. And all of them have multi-round playoffs that allow teams to grow into the season, get hot on a playoff run, and have a chance. College football? One loss and you’re probably on the outside looking in on the possibility of winning it all. Two losses? Forget it. And when you, like me, love a team like I love The University of Michigan football team, history and expectation and hope and terror all co-exist with a decade of massive underachievement that has seen our rivals simultaneously thrive with excellent year after excellent year, and you know the narrative: ultimately, the thing we want only happens for one team, and likely, that team is not us. Something will happen, something unexpected, something dreaded, and likely, it will happen to us. To Michigan football. To me.
The structure of this story, and my place as a fan inside of it, is the story of an endlessly renewable hope that is annually, suddenly, often unexpectedly, extinguished. Michigan’s only national championship of my entire life, cemented in the 1998 Rose Bowl, was one of the two best sports days of my life (the 2005 Champions League Final being the other). Otherwise, the question is usually not if disappointment will happen, but just how cruelly it will happen and when. I enrolled at Michigan in 1989. I watched the team for years before that, but let’s draw a line there (so that I don’t have to remember Michigan blowing a huge 4th Quarter lead against Miami at home). Expectations are high for Michigan football in 2016. Here is the story of how you properly temper those expectations.
1989. My first Michigan home game as a college student.
1990. Ranked #1. No pass interference call on a 2 point conversion against MSU to win.
2001. Ranked #6. “Clockgate” against MSU. Longest “one second” in history.
2006. #1 vs #2. It’s there for the taking. Helmet to helmet on Crable and we lose.
I’d like to draw a line here, because this is the beginning of a decade in the wilderness. This has been the worst decade of Michigan fandom I have ever experienced. These last ten years have re-calibrated my levels of suffering. Ohio State has stayed the course, Michigan State has risen, and Michigan spent a lost ten years unable to figure out who the hell they are supposed to be. It has been a disastrous decade.
2007. Appalachian State. A D-II school. This is the first game after the 2006 game vs Ohio State and a loss to USC in the Rose Bowl.
2008. Loss to Toledo. Toledo. A year after losing to Appalachian State. Rich Rod era. I can’t bear to look at any more than this.
2013. Clowney ends the Outback Bowl.
2014. Shane Morris Concussed and left in the game which, at the time of the injury, saw Michigan losing 30-7 to Minnesota. Minnesota. This is the death knell of the Hoke era which, again, I can’t bear to watch any more.
All of this takes its toll on your confidence, erases all certainty, puts you in everlasting fear of the worst thing happening which, as you can see, often does. Like last year.
I actually looked at my wife when we set up to punt and said “We’re going to lose this game.” That is what fandom does to you. You learn that if you expect the worst, and it happens, you can buffer things for a moment. But only a moment. It is still just pure brutality. You learn that 112,000 people all screaming in unison, trying to bend history to their will, cannot change anything.
If Michigan football were simply a legacy of pain, I couldn’t bear to watch any more. Certainly, there are huge swaths of great joy in this same timeframe, but the heartbreak sticks and, for me, it is how I frame my own expectations, where I place myself in the narrative. This is the “me” in Michigan football. No swagger, no arrogance, every single hope tempered by that needle in my spine reminding me of the hurt to come. There is a straw man that rival fans have built that they feel embodies Michigan fans- entitled, delusional, arrogant. The people who make that argument don’t have an inkling of who I am.
Every year, the pain comes to every team but one. Every year, a moment of madness becomes an irredeemable loss. This is why, when something like Charles Woodson in 1997 comes along, it seems like a mirage, an impossibility. Did it happen? Did I experience it? Did we win a National Championship? How?
In 2016, expectations are high for Michigan football. Lots of chatter. Talk on social media. Great coach with something to prove and no titles at any level. Love him or hate him. Hype. Possibility.
But I can’t help but look down the years, through my own experience, and I know what is more likely than not. And yet and still, I can’t wait for it all to start. I can’t wait to secretly, quietly, hope. To find myself in that hope even though the overwhelming odds are that disappointment is coming. There will be moments when I can’t look. Or maybe something magic happens. And, despite history, despite the odds, despite everything I know about Michigan football, despite myself, I can’t wait.
Let the recriminations begin; England are out of the Euros in the quarterfinals after losing in a penalty shootout. Let’s take a look back, shall we?
1990. World Cup. Semifinal. Germany.
1996. Euro. Quarterfinal. Spain.
1998. World Cup. Round Of 16. Argentina
2004. Euro. Quarterfinal. Portugal.
2006. World Cup. Quarterfinal. Portugal.
That is five losses on penalty shootouts at major international tournaments in 22 years. No wins. Was there ever any doubt?
Make it 6 in 22.
Even though this match went to penalties, Italy were clearly the top team on the pitch, absolutely battering the English. Italy put in 35 shots, England nine. Italy had 64% of possession to England’s 36%. Andrea Pirlo ran the show in a world class performance, England couldn’t muster an ounce of creativity. Absolutely dire stuff; the word of football has left the inventors of the game behind, and like the creaking old boys who sit in oak-paneled rooms and run the English FA as if it were a 19th century aristocratic social club, there are no indications that England are en route to the revolution they so desperately require. I mean, the hopes of the nation are riding on Jack Wilshire to overcome injury and disappointment and provide some sort of creative spark to get this team moving in the right direction. That cannot be good.
I believe the children are our future/ teach them well and — oh, be quiet already…
In my opinion, though, what they really need is an overhaul of the English youth system, which sees technically poor players with pace and power rise to prominence to suit the Premier League, a league whose top players are, for the most part, from other countries (Aguero, Silva, Van Persie, Modric, Bale, Drogba* all spring to mind from this past season). This team going out on penalties was both inevitable and flattering.
For all of England’s problems, hey, look at Italy! Pirlo is rivaling Iniesta for the player of the Tournament; he has taken this team on his aged shoulders and carried them to the semifinal. And while they struggled in front of goal in this match, their prowess in defense continues to grow and grow; they are going to be tough to break down now. I am not sure if I fancy them against Germany, but Germany are far from clinical and have been leaking shit goals, so I think they have a real fighting chance. My main worry for Italy in the semifinal is how they will stop Özil and Khedira, who have been fantastic so far. Still, with Gomez running hot and cold and with Balotelli and Cassano getting into dangerous positions, they could just do it. Maybe.
In the third absolutely dominant performance in the quarter-finals, Spain put a 2-0 beating on France, who suffered again from playing Karim Benzema too deep and not having a striker upon whom the game could focus.* I said it a million times, the strategy would bite France in the ass, and for the second game in a row, it did. France barely threatened in the run of play and, despite some dangerous set-pieces, were unable to play ball control against the stylish masters of tiki-taka.
Play deeper… Deeper….DEEPER!!
2-0 was generous to the French because, once again, Vicente Del Bosque went without a traditional striker, playing Cesc Fabregas as a “false nine**” and again, Spain did not put up big numbers on goal. It was, instead, the Xabi Alonso show.
The Alonso brace
My heart aches every time I see Xabi Alonso play; once my favorite player for my club team (Liverpool FC), Alonso moved away a few years ago to play at Real Madrid, where he has flourished. There is no other player like him in the world of football; his ability to spray passes with pinpoint accuracy while disrupting the opponent’s midfield is an absolutely unique combination of skills. Play him next to a ball winner like Sergio Busquets and just behind a field general like Xavi Hernandez and Alonso looks like an absolute wizard out there. His run to the far post for the opening goal (a header!!!) was spectacular and his penalty kick in the dying minutes of the game was placed perfectly. He is one of the best passers of the ball in the game, technically gifted and, on top of it, a world class human being. I really miss him. Always will.
France are gone, outclassed again. I hope Laurent Blanc takes a look at the Benzema situation and either starts him in partnership with Giroud or allows him to play a far more advanced role and lead the line in the future. Otherwise, France won’t advance as a team. They have a ton of potential, but they need the tactics to change and to get goals.
Spain? Well, I’m still not as convinced as I’d like to be. Their Quarter-final against Portugal should be a storming match; if they can get past Ronaldo, I’m not sure Germany will be able to beat them. Will be a real test.
Let the true tests begin…
*I am not going to bore you by putting this in the body of the text, but how in the world did Blanc start Florent Malouda ahead of Jeremy Menez? I encourage anyone who is bored enough to visit espnfc.com and watch all of France’s matches again and tell me: who is better player? Who helps the attack more? Who can play a pass ten feet without putting in on the boot of the opposition? Malouda was utterly dire in this Tournament and the decision to start him in this match was shocking.
**This trendy term is based on the idea that Lionel Messi is not a traditional Number 9 (a striker who plays up top in the attack) for Barcelona. Instead, the idea is to have a player like Messi who is fluent in the midfield build-up while simultaneously leading the line. This is basically the “false nine”– an attacker who springs forward from the midfield instead of leading the line on the shoulder of the central defenders.
The Euro Zone, har har, debt, har har, single currency, har har. The masters vs the servants, heh. Austerity vs punishing the banks, mmhmmm.
Now that all of the clichés about this match are out of the way, it can be said that Germany just absolutely owned Greece… on the pitch (oh.) The 4-2 scoreline flattered a Greek team who saw little of the ball in the first half and who literally scored with their first two touches in the German box. Down 4-1, a late penalty made the numbers look respectable, but the match was anything but.
Greece came out of the box and invited the Germans forward, hoping to press them into a mistake and launch a counter. The problem? Whenever the Greeks touched the ball, they immediately gave it back. The first 45 minutes were all Germany and it was completely tactical; unable to match the Germans in skill, the Greeks tried to lock the door with defense. It worked until it didn’t; when Philip Lahm got on the end of a cross field pass from Mesu Özil and lashed the ball into the Greek net in the 39th minute, things had to change.
And in the 55th minute, they did; a four pass move saw the Greeks break on a counter attack and score, a shocking moment that was a stark reminder of the cruelty of the game; you can run the show and still get caught out with lightning speed. When Giorgios Samaras tapped in a perfect cross with a slide into the mouth of the German goal, it was 1-1.
Hey, lookie there, it’s Samaras
It didn’t take long for Germany to respond; three quick goals from Sami Khedira (61st minute) and Miroslav Klose (68th minute) and Marco Reus (74th minute) put Germany up 4-1 as they ripped Greece apart. When Jerome Boateng completed the amazing task of jumping with his back to the ball and still intentionally (cough) handling it*, Dimitirs Salpingidis took a lovely penalty and made it 4-2 in the 89th minute, Too little, too late, Toodle-oo.
The goals? Nope. UEFA are locking down video highlights, because who wants to be able to review the game online? Who wants an official, linkable set of highlights to share around the world? How do you make money on that? Assholes.
* Try this, turn your back to your friend and have him kick soccer balls at you and see how many you can get a hand on. Ahem.
11 corners for Portugal v 6 for Czech Republic
56% of possession for Portugal Portugal 20 shots, 5 on goal v Czechs with 2 shots, 0 on goal
Portugal came out onto the pitch and absolutely owned Czech Republic, controlling the match from the first moments. And for all the credit due Cristiano Ronaldo for being a constant source of danger in the attack, there was one player who popped off the screen watching this game: Portugal’s midfield engine João Moutinho. As easy as it is to be drawn to the tricks and speed of Nani and Ronaldo on the wings, skimming past defenders, winning free kicks and corners, to my eyes, it was Moutinho who stole the show, not only assisting on the match winning goal, but (almost) more importantly taking the Czech midfield completely out of the match. His positional flexibility dragged the opposition all over the field and then he got the winner onto Ronaldo’s head…
That is some run onto the throw-in, one touch past the defender and a wicked cross that Ronaldo sprints toward and hammers into the ground and in. That’s how you do it. It’s not like Ronaldo was struggling; he put a wicked shot on frame that hammered off the post to end the first half. But having Moutinho in the team, allowing him to gather the ball deep, means that Nani, Postiga (now injured) and Ronaldo are able to sprint up and down the pitch putting pressure on defenses. Moutinho’s play has been a huge boon to Portugal; when you combine it with dangerous supporting runs from Pereira and Coentrão and outstanding defensive leadership from Pepe, it all seems to be coming together at the right time for Portugal. They look better with every game.
Portugal might be worried: Raul Meireles is not a ball winner and if Portugal are to win this championship, they are going to need to be more disruptive on defense, especially up the middle of the park. If there is one thing Nani and Ronaldo don’t care to do, it is get back and play solid defense. That is going to be okay in a Czech midfield that features Jiracek and Darida, but against Xavi/Busquets/Alonso/Iniesta? Not going to fly. Spain have been beaten on the counter before (see Italy), and it is not impossible that Ronaldo, Pepe and Coentrão, who see the Spanish players all of the time, will be able to lock them down with the great runs and fluent defense they use under their club manager José Mourinho at Real Madrid, but I’m getting ahead of myself*. Portugal have a lot to be proud of, but they also need to address how they will handle their next opponent.
For the Czechs? Petr Cech had a great match to keep them in it. Otherwise? They were overmatched and they knew it.
“It’s just that Ronaldo is better. He can play with his head, with both feet,” Czech Republic coach Michal Bilek said. “That decided the match. In the second half, we lost our strength and determination and they had one chance that decided the match.”
Have to agree with that. It’s on to the semi-finals for Portugal. Didn’t see it coming, but they look very good now. If Ronaldo can keep it going, look out world.
I’ll be honest. I was expecting to care about Group D a lot more than I ended up doing. With Sweden knocked out, Ukraine not ready for primetime (although they played pretty well), England driving me crazy and France driving the Group, I found Group D to be the most problematic. It was a Group of moments, Shevchenko’s brace being the highlight, one great match (England vs Sweden) and a lot of teams that frankly played like they were still figuring it out. Well, after France crawled into the knockout stages and England deservingly won a snoozefest against Ukraine, the Group D winners loo to be out of time. It’s now or never for these teams. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
France v Sweden
First off. Zlatan. 6 feet, 4 inches. This:
Goal of the Tournament
Amazing goal. So good, I’m not going to bother showing Seb Larsson’s roof job that made the game 2-0 in the dying minutes and gave Sweden a deserved victory against France, who advance from the Group with a loss here. This is how Sweden played the entire Tournament; how did Ukraine beat them?!? Just a tragedy that this team are out as Zlatan and the gang finally put it all together and beat the Group D leaders, sending them into second place and a date with Spain. A shame; Sweden played the most attractive football in the entire Group but could not keep it together at the back until this match and it cost them. Goodbye Zlatan; it was fun watching you frustrate and bewitch in equal measure.
But France…. France! Here is a bit of tactical advice for you; you are not Spain, Samir Nasri is not Xavi, Franck Ribery is a winger and is not Andres Iniesta, so why are you playing Karim Benzema ten miles deep in the hole with no striker? Why? As much as I complained about Fernando Torres not being the best option at striker for a team like Spain (he plays best with the ball at his feet, running at defenses), Karim Benzema playing a number 10 role for France might be okay if someone was playing the number 9 role, but sadly, they are not. Benzema is alone up top; so alone, in fact, that he seems to miss the company of his holding midfielders and runs ten miles deep to collect the ball, allowing the entire opposition to get behind the ball.
Yeah, me too.
Laurent Blanc, if you’re going to play a number 10 deep, how about Ben Arfa or Nasri in the role, with Benzema up top, hanging off the last defender and putting pressure on the defensive line? I just don’t understand the idea of trying to pass it on the ground, over and over, until you break a defense with a give-and-go pass and walk it in on goal. France were way too one dimensional, and with Sweden playing good defense and able to keep the ball themselves on the counter attack, the French ran out of ideas in about five minutes. Blanc had the right idea late on when he brought in Olivier Giroud and the striker found himself with a dangerous chance after about two minutes. That could have been the whole match. Instead, Sweden dominates and France now draw Spain in the quarterfinal; I expect them to be humbled by the masters.
England v Ukraine
1-0 England. Zzzzzzzz….*snore*
Great ball from Gerrard there; the Liverpool captain is playing excellent football. Perhaps he should be given a rest now so that he can come back and play well for Liverpool, too. Ahem.
I don’t have much to say; it breaks my heart that a team full of Liverpool talent play football this boring, but man; England are just a bore to watch. They are all discipline and no creativity. Their flat style is earning them results, though. They drew France and beat Sweden and Ukraine, won Group D, so WHO IS ANYONE TO COMPLAIN ABOUT ROY HODGSON? Football is about results and England are getting them, so I should probably just shut up and give them a chance and blah blah blah.
But let’s be honest; they look about 20 years behind the other quarterfinalists in terms of they way they play. It is not good for the future of the game in england to see such talented players with little technical ability. England are speed and power, but they can’t seem to string four passes together to save their lives; they might lose a possession battle against Xavi playing by himself*. The main problem is linking up play between Gerrard and the wide players. Wayne Rooney was supposed to instantly solve this problem by linking Gerrard to the attack from his position in the hole, but with Danny Welbeck “leading the line” (really?), England struggled to create danger in the final third. I am not sure how James Milner gets to wear an England shirt, but not only does he get one (to keep!), he starts on the right which, terrible. Ashley Young finally moved to the left wing and his influence on the game has waned to the point where my prediction that he was the man to watch in Group D no seems like a hostile provocation against the eyeballs of other viewers. It was not intended that way.
Stay down? Please?
Ukraine have some bright young players, but they too were a team in-between identities, with their legends and youth blending into something somewhat incoherent. Still, they should have drawn this match, if it weren’t for a good goal that was not given…
That was in. The scorer was offside, but we expect linesmen to blow offside calls (ok, we don’t, but still, it happens. A lot. But it happens); once the onside was (incorrectly given), that should have been a goal.
What can you say about UEFA and FIFA? The technology exists to eliminate human consideration from this issue because clearly, human consideration in the form of a 5th official on the goal line, next to the goal, staring directly at this ball did not generate the correct call. It may be the best thing for everyone that John Terry made that clearance; it means that England, the team Platini and Blatter love to hate, got a win when they should have had a draw. And now, suddenly, Blatter decides it is time to consider goal line technology taking to Twitter to say:
After last night’s match? Really? How about “since it was invented?” Anyway, yay England! They hate you so much they may cut off their nose to improve their face! It is so obvious that this is the right thing to do that it is beyond comprehension how dozens of UEFA and FIFA fat cats can’t look up from their piles of money long enough to fix the game. Outrageous, but hey what do we expect? This is a game without accountability, run by despots who do what they like with impunity. Why fix anything except tournament bids?
Quarterfinals here we come.
*Obviously not true; England would foul and injure him after a while.
**Please do yourself a favor and follow that link so you can read all of the amazing Tweets Sepp received in response. Worth a read and bring some popcorn…
More quality, more problems, more drama. The Group C finale left it late. Onward!
Italy v Republic Of Ireland
After a strong qualifying campaign full of tough, gutsy performances that saw them go 14 consecutive matches without a loss, I had high hopes for the Republic Of Ireland, but Group C showed just how far they have to go as they transition to a new generation of players. Italy proved no exception for Ireland, beating them handily 2-0 on strikes from Antonio Cassano..
… and a late wonder goal from Mario Balotelli….
2-0 to Mario. The super one.
Before and between the Italian goals, Ireland struggled to make an impression; even if they kept it tighter at the back (both goals came from set pieces), Ireland posed only a minor threat (*wink*) to the Italians, allowing Andrea Pirlo to stamp his authority on the match with his dominance in the attack. It’s a funny old game; while Pirlo might be a typically Serie A attacking midfielder, which means he doesn’t do too much on defense and his tackling is left wanting, Italy are structured to allow him to make plays by having forwards who play a high line and keep pressure on the back four. This allows Pirlo and Marchissio to get into space between the midfield and the defense when Italy win the ball back, which is always. In many ways, football is a game about space, about conceding and suddenly retaking space after your opponent has dragged himself out of position.
All-tournament: Andrea Pirlo
In this way, Italy play like boxers, guarding themselves while waiting for the right opening to throw their own knockout blow, usually when the opposition have committed just too much. Let me say; it works. If the first two matches saw Italy tire and let down their own guard, allowing their opponents to score after falling behind, this match saw Italy deliver their own late goal to seal a place in the knockout rounds. Italy look good, ready to make some noise in the Euro 2012. Ireland? Time to rethink the plan.
Spain v Croatia
Spain left it late to seal a 1-0 win and take the Group. In my Group C preview, I noted that Ireland had a chance if they could hold it down against Spain; they didn’t, losing 4-0, a total which meant that Spain could win the Group if… wait. What? UEFA’s tie-breaker system doesn’t prioritize goal differential? That’s right; heading into the 88th minute, Italy were looking to win the Group as Spain and Croatia battled to 0-0 because of their goals scored in a mini-league between the eligible teams, which means no Ireland goals counted which, what? Not a fan of the system, for sure. Andres Iniesta and Jesus Navas made it irrelevant in the 88th, on a beautiful move that finally broke down Croatia’s offside trap. Fabregas chipped to Iniesta, who played in Navas (behind the ball, onside) and he tapped in the win.
I might be able to score from there. might.
Spain win! Yes, but… yikes. They left it very late. Torres struggled in isolation up top; his game is best suited to making solo runs and punishing defenses that have pushed forward. No one does that against Spain; the team hold the ball like no team in history, win it back with lightning quickness and opposing sides are forced to put everyone behind the ball. Every once in a while, teams will counter and threaten Spain (see Italy), and Croatia did this to great effect, with Luka Modric putting an inch perfect ball to the far post, only to have this happen:
If that had gone in, Spain were about to be knocked out of the Tournament. That is worrying; with no coherent attack at this point, no focal point that can play in the sweeping, attacking style of the Spanish midfield, Spain walked a true tightrope in this match. That close to going home, but it is, as they say, a game of inches.
Croatia, well, it sucks that they are gone. They played attractive, smart, tactically astute football for the entire Tournament; you get the feeling they would have qualified in Group A or D. That’s the draw and those are the breaks. Still, you have to be impressed with Manduzukic and Modric, with the quality of the team and the manager Slavan Bilic, who has managed his last match for the team (he’s off to club football). Croatia stayed in it until very late, but didn’t have the one magic touch they needed to win the match. These are the breaks.