Euro 2012 | Racism Tracker

ED: Decided to use this post as a catch all for tracking racist incidents during the Euro 2012. Will update as I see reports…

Friday, June 15

You know who loves to review things then do very little about them? UEFA. here they are against, using their amazing powers of “review”! That’ll teach ’em!

UEFA Reviewing Racist Incidents

WARSAW, Poland — UEFA is looking into reports that Croatia fans threw a banana on the field and racially abused Italy striker Mario Balotelli during the match at the Euro 2012 tournament.

UEFA says it is seeking more information on the alleged fan behavior during the game Thursday in Poznan, Poland. An anti-discrimination group appointed by UEFA says it has “categorical” eyewitness accounts indicating nearly 300 people directed monkey chants at Balotelli, who is black. Piara Powar, of Football Against Racism in Europe, tells The Associated Press that the chants were “not a boo or something that could be misinterpreted.” Balotelli has been the target of alleged abuse at both Italy matches during the Euro 2012 tournament.
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And of course, in a related incident, the far-right have to get a word in as well… I’m sure this will be stopped by a thorough review and fine. *sigh*

Croatian fans burn Euro flag, carry Far-Right Banner

POZNAN, Poland — Croatian soccer fans burned a European Union flag and paraded around with posters of a convicted war criminal before their team faced Italy Thursday at the European Championship.

Several thousand Croatian supporters crowded into an area around Poznan’s main old town square, drinking and singing before the Group C game. Some men were bare-chested despite the chilly weather, displaying tattoos of nationalist symbols. There were also banners on display, some with designs evoking the fascist “Ustasa” movement, which governed Croatia as a Nazi protectorate from 1941 to 1944. Some people also carried pictures of Ante Gotovina, a former general convicted by the U.N. war crimes tribunal at The Hague. Gotovina is an icon of the far-right in Croatia. Police, some in riot gear, monitored the situation, but did not intervene.

Wednesday, June 13

From the training ground, to the matches now… wonder what Platini will do about it it. I just put $50 on fuck all. Full story at the link.

UEFA to Investigate Racist Chanting

Uefa is to investigate alleged racist chanting during the Euro 2012 matches between Spain and Italy and Russia v Czech Republic.

A Spanish fans’ group has said some of its supporters abused Manchester City and Italy striker Mario Balotelli. Czech Republic defender Theodor Gebre Selassie told reporters he “noticed” racist chants directed at him. Uefa said that no disciplinary proceedings had been started at this stage.

The Uefa statement added: “Following the provision of new independent information today, regarding the two cases of alleged racist chanting in the Spain-Italy and Russia-Czech Republic matches, Uefa is now conducting further investigations.” No official complaints have been made to Uefa by Italy or Czech Republic.
The admission by a Spanish fans’ group that some of their supporters racially abused Balotelli during Sunday’s game was sent to Uefa by an anti-racism network.

Tuesday, June 12

Some may think this doesn’t qualify as it is not about race, but Antonio Cassano’s bigoted comments about gay players certainly qualify for me as being part of the problem of “respect” that FIFA and UEFA purport to endorse. Cassano issued this apology, but I’ll leave it to others to gauge the validity of that apology.

Antonio Cassano ‘hopes’ there are no gay players in Italian squad

The Italy forward Antonio Cassano has caused controversy by saying he hopes there are no homosexual players on the team at Euro 2012, and he then used a derogatory term to describe gays.

When asked about media reports that there were two metrosexual players and two homosexual players in the Italy squad, the Milan forward said: “What’s a metrosexual?” before adding: “Queers in the national team? That’s their business. But I hope not.”

Cassano later issued an apology through the Italian state news agency ANSA. “I am sincerely sorry that my comments have caused controversy and protests among gay groups. Homophobia is not a point of view that I share. I didn’t want to offend anyone and I absolutely don’t want to put a person’s sexual freedom under discussion.

“I only said that it was a problem which was nothing to do with me and I don’t let myself express judgments on other people’s choices, which should all be respected.”

Saturday June 9

Euro 2012 anti-racism group reports abuse of black player, far-right flags at Russia match

WARSAW, Poland – Anti-racism experts say they identified racist abuse and far-right Russian flags at a European Championship match on Friday.
The Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE) network says Czech Republic defender Theodor Gebre Selassie, who is black, was racially abused during Russia’s 4-1 win in Wroclaw.
FARE director Piara Powar tells The Associated Press that imperial “Russian Empire” flags were displayed. UEFA asked FARE to help appoint expert spotters who will report offensive banners, chants and behaviour in stadiums. UEFA has pledged zero tolerance of discrimination at the three-week tournament in Poland and Ukraine. Film circulating online Saturday also appeared to show some Russia fans attacking stadium stewards in Wroclaw.

Thursday, June 7

According to The Guardian, it’s all kicking off. UEFA? Useless excuses, as usual…

Euro 2012: Holland players subjected to racist abuse at training session

Euro 2012 was plunged into its first racism controversy after the black players in the Holland squad were subjected to monkey chants during an open practice session in the same city where England will also invite the public to watch them train on Friday.

Several hundred people targeted players such as Nigel de Jong and Gregory van der Wiel when 25,000 spectators attended the Dutch practice session at the Stadion Miejski, the home of Wisla Krakow.

The players, on the instructions of the captain, Mark van Bommel, responded by moving their training drills to the other side of the ground. “It is a real disgrace especially after getting back from Auschwitz [the Dutch squad had visited the concentration camp on Wednesday] that you are confronted with this,” Van Bommel said. “We will take it up with Uefa and if it happens at a match we will talk to the referee and ask him to take us off the field.”

The problems occurred as the players began the session by jogging a lap of the pitch only to be greeted at one end of the stadium with monkey noises and loud jeers. On the second circuit, they were even louder and it was then the players decided not to go around again. “At least now we know what we can encounter,” the Holland coach, Bert van Marwijk, said with heavy cynicism. “Very atmospheric.”

Uefa subsequently tried to deny that it was racially motivated, saying they had checked with the Dutch squad and had been told it was not thought to be of that nature. Instead, the official line is that a small part of the crowd was protesting about the fact that Krakow had not been made one of the host cities. Another theory that has been put forward is that Wisla’s supporters did not want their stadium being used by anyone but their own club and were simply booing the Dutch players.

Van Bommel, however, responded angrily when it was put to him not everyone had heard monkey noises. “You need to open your ears,” he said. “If you did hear it, and don’t want to hear it, that is even worse.”

Read the full story here.

Euro 2012 | The Racist Problem

Let’s start with this.


FC Karpaty Lviv fans in Ukraine

and this…


BBC Report On Football Racism in Poland and Ukraine

Finally, give this a read.

Euro 2012: Racism In Ukraine

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When UEFA (The Union of European Football Associations, the governing body of the game in Europe) decided to host the 2012 European Football Championships in Poland and Ukraine, the thought of bringing Eastern Europe to the forefront seemed overdue; the 1976 tournament, which was hosted in the then-Yugoslavia, is the only time the Euros have been hosted outside of Western Europe. In an organization where the politics of self-righteousness trump common sense, an organization driven by the despotic, almost whimsical, decision-making of deeply flawed individuals, the shortsighted choice of Poland and Ukraine was never going to be addressed with any sense of realism. Just look at the horrible political situation in Ukraine; the jailing, beating and hunger strike of politician Yulia Tymoshenko, their horrible record on gay rights, and on and on. But politics and sport should never mix, amirite? Sure.

And so, with the Euros opening and reports circulating that a real fascist, racist threat exists in many of the host cities, UEFA are turning the tables on the concerns about racism, taking a philosophical approach to the issue it was so eager to make the centerpiece of its identity just a few short months ago.

UEFA President and former star for France, Michel Platini, in his own words: 



Platini dismissed suggestions his reputation would be tarnished if there is racial abuse at Euro 2012.

“Are you joking? You think I am responsible for the racists in the rest of Europe or in England or in France?” he said.

Platini said UEFA had done a lot to tackle racism, backing such initiatives as Never Again, but said he was “not responsible for society”.

He added: “Society is not so easy. You have some problems and we have to organize these Euros from the beginning with some problems because these two countries never welcome so big an event in the past.

“It was a big challenge for Poland, big challenge for Ukraine, a big challenge for UEFA, and we have done our best.

“It is not just a fact only in Poland and Ukraine. You can go in France, United States, in England and you will find the problem of racism.

Well, good enough then. It’s hard, it’s a big deal, everyone’s trying. Well done, Michel.

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There is racism everywhere, but it is rarely institutionalized within a sporting culture as it is within football, especially in a Europe that is facing radical demographic and political changes. One of the massive failures of UEFA and FIFA in addressing racism among the fans of its game is that they instead have focused attention on creating an illusion of racial harmony among the players, doing very little to change the attitudes in the stands. FIFA President Sepp Blatter, the leader of the organization that governs world football, has set an horrific example for the game through his own lighthearted statements about the problems of discrimination in the game. Let’s run his greatest hits, shall we?


In 2004, the FIFA president said women players should ‘wear tighter shorts and low cut shirts… to create a more female aesthetic.’

‘I would say they (gay fans) should refrain from any sexual activities’ – Blatter after being asked about the illegality of homosexuality in Qatar after they won the right to host the 2022 World Cup.

‘I think in football there’s too much modern slavery in transferring players or buying players here and there, and putting them somewhere.’ – Defending the ‘oppressed’ Cristiano Ronaldo after his £80m switch from Manchester United to Real Madrid.

In response to whether football had sexual inequality, he replied: ‘There are gay footballers, but they don’t declare it because it will not be accepted in these macho organizations. Look at women’s football – homosexuality is more popular there.’

‘I have never seen Italy, Germany, Brazil or Argentina with a coach from another country. In fact, most of the best teams have a coach from their own country.’ – Blatter’s response to Fabio Capello’s appointment as England boss.

Blatter’s advice for dealing with racist comments on the pitch?


Asked if he thought there was racism on the pitch, the FIFA president told CNN World Sport: “I would deny it. There is no racism, there is maybe one of the players towards another, he has a word or a gesture which is not the correct one, but also the one who is affected by that, he should say that this is a game. We are in a game, and at the end of the game, we shake hands, and this can happen, because we have worked so hard against racism and discrimination.”

When the deep denial of serious issues comes from the top, how can you expect the subordinates to be serious? Looking at Platini and UEFA, it’s clear you cannot. Faced with a threat of racist supporters at Euro 2012 matches, Italian striker Mario Balotelli stood up for himself and made sure everyone knew he would not stand by and allow fans to racially abuse him.

“If [racism] does happen I would leave the pitch and go home,” said Balotelli. “Racism is unacceptable to me, I cannot bear it. We are in 2012, it can’t happen. If someone throws a banana at me in the street, I will go to prison because I will kill him.”


Balotelli

Platini’s response? Any player who is being abused and leaves the pitch will receive…. a yellow card.

“Platini said: “It’s a yellow card. It’s not a player – Mr Balotelli – who’s in charge of refereeing.”

Platini insists officials will deal with any racist incidents that occur during the tournament, which begins on Friday.

“It’s the referee who takes these decisions. Referees can finish the game. They have this power in case of racism,” Platini told the BBC sports editor David Bond. “That is, I think, the best way to protect the game against racism. The referee has been given advice and he can stop the game if there are problems.”

Of course, Platini completely ignores the fact that just this past February, Balotelli’s club Manchester City filed a complaint with UEFA that the striker had been racially abused in Portugal in a match against Porto. Platini’s response to that incident was to fine Porto €20,000. There is no zero missing there.

You would laugh if you didn’t want to cry.

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Also, let me just say Platini has huge balls to criticize racism in the USA as if it were something akin to flying swastikas in Ukraine’s football grounds. Living in the US, it is easy to see the game through a much different lens than most; racism in most sports here was eliminated by watching great players break racial barriers over many decades. And while our churches and communities may still struggle with being fully integrated, our sporting events are clearly the one place where the concept of a meritocracy, vital to our self-conception as a people, is prized above everything else. If you can score touchdowns, it doesn’t matter your skin color. If you can hit home runs, it doesn’t matter from where you come. American fans look at the issues of racism (and its twin, hooliganism) in football and not only shake their heads, but turn off from the game, labeling the permissive, tolerant culture of law enforcement as completely unserious about protecting the rights of fans to enjoy safety at a sporting event.

That is perhaps the most important, unaddressed violation in the game; the culture of fandom in European football is too often completely conceded to a violent minority that bases its existence on its continued access to the game. By stubbornly refusing to take the game out of the hands of supporters who are violent and/or racist, FIFA, UEFA and the national football associations continue to shirk their responsibility to create an environment for all fans to have fun at a football match. Perhaps their is too much money to be made by turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to the problem.

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Football needs a long look in the mirror. I hope Balotelli doesn’t have to face any problems. I hope fans of various racial and national backgrounds can enjoy a safe, fun trip to Poland and the Ukraine to support their teams. But it shouldn’t be an issue, and the farcical attempts of the game’s governing bodies to superficially address the issue of racism while counting their Euros behind closed doors is something that shouldn’t be tolerated any more.

I am not sure how the game has come to this, but while FIFA faces down its own corruption scandals, both it and UEFA need to address their moral bankruptcy on the issue of discrimination. The idea that in 2012, a football supporter can walk into a football stadium and hoist a Nazi swastika is an outrage. The fact that fans can make monkey sounds at black players and throw bananas at them is an outrage. The fact that players will be punished if they remove themselves from that kind of an abuse is an outrage. The fact that, all over Europe, police and the game’s overlords cannot figure out a way to make a football stadia safe, fun places for supporters is an outrage. The fact that this has been going on for decades is an outrage.


Beautiful Game Turned Ugly: An ESPN report From 2006. Six Years Ago.

In the past, it has taken the literal death of supporters to force changes to the culture of the game. So, what grievous injury needs to happen now for football to take it’s racism problem seriously?

Euro 2012 | Preview: Group D

Euro 2012: GROUP D PREVIEW

Group D is home to one of the most competitive Groups in the tournament, with three teams just about equal in stature and ability playing alongside an emotional host nation who will likely struggle to advance. But if you’re as obsessed with drama in your football as I am, this Group also features three of the most problematic, anxiety ridden teams in the tournament.

First there is England, the “home” of football, the nation that seemingly cannot discern between reality and expectation. Let me say; I watch English football like it is my job, I follow Liverpool FC of the English Barclays Premiere League as a religion, I am smitten with the League, the way the game is played, the pace– the entire narrative of club football in England. I know a little bit about the players and the manager, to say the least. So, please believe me when I say, and many English supporters will say the same; there are few people on the planet more deluded than English fans. I’ll get to the why of it in my team preview below, but right now, England have possibly the worst manager in their entire existence, and the enter Euro 2012 a team bereft of chemistry and imagination with the weight of the world on their shoulders. They can compete, they have great players, but they cannot win it all. Will not happen.

Then there is France, the team that self-destructed at the 2010 World Cup. This was a team that won the 1998 World Cup, were finalists in 2006, but who suddenly held a locker room revolt against their own manager, becoming a group of players who were an absolute embarrassment to their nation, a team without an identity or a focus. Suddenly, under Manager Laurent Blanc, the French have reversed their fortunes and Voila!; the team that everyone loved to hate last time around have the look of contenders about them.

And take a look at Sweden, the team that is always just a hair away from greatness, the team that fights for respect despite playing attractive football, the team that is always flying just below the radar; they’re at it again. A string of attractive results prior to the tournament have raised a few eyebrows and have people thinking that they may be one of the real dark horses of the Euro 2012. It helps to have one of the most outstanding (and vain) players in world football leading the line (more on him later), but Sweden, for whatever reason, look primed to compete, cohesive where once only underachievement seemed likely.

And finally, the co-hosts Ukraine, who are an ok team, but who have the dreams of their nation on their back. I won’t lie; in my opinion, the country itself should not be hosting this tournament. Political repression, concerns about fan racism, homophobic laws being passed; right now, Ukraine seems like a regressive place to showcase European football. Of course, it’s not fair to pin any of that on the team, so I won’t do that, but I will be addressing my concerns about the tournament and Ukraine in particular soon. Needless to say, I think the team are in trouble in this Group, even as hosts.

Lots to discuss…

The Teams

England

Roy Hodgson. The name strikes fear in the hearts of, well, of supporters of the teams he manages. Tactically bereft, seemingly appointed to the England position out of sheer desperation, Hodgson has picked up where former England boss Fabio Capello left off; boring the life out of football fans. Watching England play under Hodgson, a 4-4-2 system with balls hoofing out of the back and no player being used to link the defense and attack, one might be lead to believe that this England team had no creative imagination at all. Which is an absolute shame.

The main issue is with the midfield pairing of England captain Steven Gerrard and defensive midfielder Scott Parker, who should allow Gerrard to press forward in the attack. Instead, because of the pure width of England’s wingers James Milner, Stewart Downing and Ashley Young (who has been playing as a second striker), Gerrard is being forced to play deep with Parker, the England center back pair generally uncomfortable playing the ball out of trouble into Parker and Gerrard. What this means is that teams set up with a single striker (France, for example) and a combative midfield will be able to overwhelm England in their attacking half, allowing for few opportunities to create offense. How do England respond to that numerical mismatch? Hoof. Counter attack. Hoof. Offside. Hoof.

Sometimes, it works. If England could play the ball fluently, on the ground, and allow their wingers and fullbacks to tuck in a little and help support a possession game, England would have a much more dynamic approach, allowing wide players to press forward, setting up overlapping runs for the excellent Ashley Cole and Glenn Johnson at the fullback position– all of it without sacrificing the shape of the team. But English players simply are not technically gifted enough to play this way. Instead, the lack of skill in moving the ball forward has forced Gerrard to play much deeper, leaving a giant hole in the attacking midfield and leaving the opposition room to press their own attack. It could have been so different, but this is England now; organized, defensive-minded and without a playmaker until the suspended Wayne Rooney, who can fill that hole in the midfield by playing off of another striker, makes his return in the final match of Group play. England have enough quality to make their way out of the Group– I have it at 50/50– but what do they do when they run into Germany? Spain? The Netherlands? Yikes. England are grueling to watch right now, but I have to watch anyway. It wouldn’t be England if you weren’t suffering.


Roy talks tactics. *sigh*

France

Right now, I have France winning this Group and earning a spot in the semi-finals of the Euros. I am loving how they are playing right now; Karim Benzema is dramatically improved as a striker, Samir Nasri is doing a great job of opening space with his passing, Franck Ribery is on fire attacking from the wing, they have one of the must-see rising stars of the Euros in Jérémy Ménez, and an experienced back line lead by Philippe Mexès. After the absolute train wreck that was the French team of just two years ago, Laurent Blanc has come in and righted the ship, getting this new generation of French players to attack with a fluid, beautiful style. It has paid off; France are lighting it up right now, winning recent matches against The USA, Germany (!!), Iceland (coming back from 2-0 down to win 3-2) and the always tough Serbia– France just look good and are controlling possession with attractive football. The other piece of good news from France is that the goals seem to be coming from the right places, with Ribery, Malouda and Benzema all in form right now. There is something about Les Bleus attitude and their tactics that have me believing in them. Can I get an Allez?

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You know what they say about books and covers? Meet Franck Ribéry

Sweden

Sweden are another team playing attractive football right now, but they are missing the balance and depth of a team like France. Instead, they rely on one of the geniuses of the game to make them dangerous; Zlatan Imbrahimović is an absolute nightmare for the opposition, a player of tremendous skill, technique and a fiery attitude that pulls the entire team forward. In eight qualifying games for Sweden, Imbrahimović scored 5 goals and had 3 assists, essentially responsible for a goal a game. That number should scare anyone. He’s 6’4” but can dribble the ball with the best in the world, and he is absolutely deadly in front of goal. The best part? He knows how good he is; there may not be a player more in love with his own abilities than Zlatan. But honestly? If I were him, I’d feel the same way. When Zlatan’s on the pitch, Sweden are always in the match; with a new generation of midfielders like Rasmus Elm and Seb Larsson and good chemistry with strike partner Ola Toivonen of PSV Eindhoven, Zlatan and Sweden could finally make some noise at the Euros.


I’d Probably Hate On Me Too: Zlatan

Ukraine

On paper, Ukraine look like a team of faded potential. With names that would make most people’s “he’s still playing?” list, names like 35 year old striker Andriy Shevchenko, 32 year old midfielder Serhiy Nazarenko and 32 year old Andriy Voronin on the roster, Ukraine will certainly not be lacking experience. They also feature a few names that pop off of the team sheet, none more so than Bayern Munich star Anatoliy Tymoshchuk (33 years old!), who is coming off of a heart breaking loss in the Champions League final. Still, it seems clear that hosting the tournament has stoked something nostalgic in Ukraine, allowing a swan song for its great generation of footballers. I expect it to be bittersweet; despite the power of playing home matches and the support of their nation, Ukraine don’t look likely to make it out of the Group. They have been disappointing in the run-up, losing their last two matches to Turkey and Austria; just can’t see them taking down the other three teams in Group D.


Hosting Is Fun!

Must See Match

I’m inclined to say France vs England (who am I kidding, of course I’ll be watching that one), but the game that I think will be the best game of Group D will be France vs Sweden on Tuesday, June 19th, the final match day of Group play. I think this match will decide the Group D winner and since England will be playing Ukraine at the exact same time (and with Wayne Rooney itching to get on the pitch), this one promises to be a scoreboard watching affair with two attractive teams gunning for the knock out stages.

Players To Watch

Group D is full of great players, especially the aforementioned Imbrahimović, Benzema and Ribery, but I think it’s going to come down to how productive Ashley Young can be in setting up goals and scoring them for England. Without the creative influence of Rooney until the final match, England are going to need Young to continue to be an attacking influence, mostly because Steven Gerrard will likely be sitting deeper than he otherwise would be (and thus, less effective than he otherwise would be.) Young is a streaky player who is in good form at the moment; if he can get the ball and link up with Andy Carroll up top, if Hodgson continues to play him as a second striker, he can make some noise for England and man, do they need some noise to be made…


One man, one match, one-nil: Ashley Young for England

Group Prediction

I have France as Group D winners, with Sweden surprising a disappointed England for second place and Ukraine breaking the hearts of the locals in fourth. I just have a feeling Sweden are ready to get over the hump against England. Just a hunch…

Previously
Group A Preview
Group B Preview
Group C Preview

Euro 2012 | Preview: Group C

Euro 2012: GROUP C PREVIEW

Your international footballing history fact of the day: no team has ever won a European Championship, a World Cup and another European Championship consecutively. In fact, no team has won back to back European Championships, never mind a World Cup in between. The only team to have come close to that feat was Germany; in 1972, Germany won the Euros, followed by a win in the 1974 World Cup, only to lose on penalties in the final of the 1976 Euros to Czechoslovakia (ouch).

But history may be in the cards for 2012; Spain stand poised to become the first European team ever to win three consecutive major international trophies. Hard to bet against them; once again, they look the favorites to win it all. I have my suspicions; having relied heavily on the goal scoring touch of the great (and now injured) David Villa and carrying a front line missing Villa’s clinical edge, Spain have some questions to answer. Questions like “where will the goals come from?” You know, important questions. And of course, there are fifteen other teams in the tournament looking to knock them out, and three members of their Group who would be thrilled to take points off of the defending champions. There is no easy path to the trophy, but still, Group C is likely to be a case of Spain and the also rans, a battle for second place among three interesting teams with a lot of history.

The Teams

Croatia

Personally speaking, Croatia are one of my favorite teams to watch, primarily because of their rock-and-roll manger Slaven Bilić. Bilić is the kind of man who seems to both love football and to not care at all about what the world thinks of him, his methods, his approach to living*. Despite not having a world beating side, his teams play attractive, attacking football, driven by their playmaking Mr. Everything Luka Modrić. Modrić plays simple, elegant must-see football, both for his home club of Tottenham Hotspur and with Croatia, and his fluent passing game creates openings for attack from players as diverse as Bayern Munich’s Ivica Olić (who is fearless and direct in attack) to the surprise of the professional season, Everton striker Nikica Jelavić (who has a brilliant eye for beautiful, timely goals). Add in a roster of veterans like Dario Srna ans Josip Šimunić and you should have a real contender. All of that said, Croatia have been underachieving of late, needing a qualifying playoff win against Turkey to make it to the tournament, while pre-tournament friendlies against Sweden (a 3-1 loss) and Norway (a 1-1 draw) have not provided any answers. Still, you can’t help but feel Bilić will keep the team loose and in the thick of Group C.


Croatia’s Manager Slaven Bilić enjoys some down time

Italy

Uh oh. The Italian national team is once again in… wait for it… crisis as a new generation of players look to make their mark on the Azzuri. Let’s flash back to 2006, when Italy was ensconced in a betting and match fixing scandal that ripped through their professional league. That controversy galvanized an uncertain Italian side and drove them to a gritty World Cup title. Well, here we are again; authorities have been making inquiries and arrests in yet another match fixing scandal in Italy**, the team have been shaky in recent months and all signs point to problems. Despite dominating in qualifying, it has been a bumpy road to the Euros for the perennial powerhouse, with three consecutive losses to Uruguay, The USA (hooray!) and a 3-0 pounding last week at the hands of Russia. The team that once boasted of its Catennaccio (which literally means “door-bolt”) is now young, hungry, full of inexperience and leaking goals. But don’t be fooled; Italy’s roster is deep with talent and besides, who cares about experimental friendlies? Basta! With antiquated veteran playmaker Andrea Pirlo pulling the strings, bulldog midfielder Daniele De Rossi providing the bite and talented attackers like Antonio Cassano and Mario Ballotelli (about whom more in a moment), there is plenty of fight left in the Italian side. Look for them to be competitive in every match, fighting for a place in the knock out rounds. Can they triumph over scandal again? This one will be very interesting…


The Catenaccio System: Italy Lock The Door To Win

Republic Of Ireland

Full disclosure: I will be supporting The Republic of Ireland during Euro 2012. With that out of the way, this is a team that has put together some nifty results in recent months; the team are on a fourteen match unbeaten streak (without a loss in 15 of their last 16) and are looking sharp heading into the tournament. They also hold a recent win over Italy (2-0 last June) and drew with fellow Euro teams Russia, Czech Republic and, interestingly, Croatia in the past few months. What does it mean for the tournament? Well, I’m hoping that Ireland can ride their luck (see what I did there?) and get some results, but I don’t have a great feeling. What worries me is that, while the defense has been solid, Ireland have not exactly been banging in the goals; looking at their results, there are a lot of 0-0 draws that might have gone either way. Plus, a strike force of Shane Long, Robbie Keane and Kevin Doyle aren’t exactly the types to put fear in the hearts of opposing defenses. In order to advance, Ireland are going to need to win one, draw one and keep the score down against Spain. It’s not exactly mission impossible, but if they can continue to stay in matches and nick results, they have a shot at surprising. But without goals? No chance.


Ireland 2-0 Italy: A Sign Of Things To Come?

Spain

The defending European and World Champions need no introduction, but I have to say something, so let me put aside a few things. First, the midfield of Xabi Alonso, Andrés Iniesta, Xavi Hernández, David Silva, Cesc Fabregas, Santio Cazorla, Juan Mata and Sergio Busquets is, quite literally, the epitome of vomit-inducing greatness. Most teams will not touch the ball against that group; small, simple, elegant passing, the ball pinging back and forth into space, will drive opposition players into tears of frustration and exhaustion. You cannot put that group into words. That collection of players is likely the best ever. Only 4-5 of them will start a game, though.

At the back, Iker Casillas is an all-universe goalie whose substitutes, Victor Valdes and Pepe Reina, are world class, each a guaranteed starter on almost any other team in the world. Defenders Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique and Alvaro Albiloa are outstanding in defense, converting defense into attack, and playing their part in ball possession. Who can stop Spain?

And yet… look toward the attacking end and you start to see some problems. Fernando Llorente, a classic center forward, plays a very specific type of game, one that demands aerial service and patience. Fernando Torres is coming off of the worst form of his life, his confidence seemingly destroyed by a string of injuries and a lengthy spell as a bit part player at Chelsea. Álvaro Negredo scores for Spain… when he gets on the field. And Pedro Rodriguez is a classic #2 man, mopping up with goals and assists when given the chance. What’s missing? David Villa. The Barcelona striker has been the model of consistency for Spain for the past four years, but a serious injury this season has ruled him out of the Euros. So, who will step up and replace Villa? Who among the strikers can claim the goals? With the rest of the team flying, will it matter?

The only chance opponents have against Spain is to press hard when you can, play organized lights out defense and counter attack with efficiency; if you concede the ball to them, sit back and try to defend, it’s game over and lights out. If you can squeak a goal and disrupt the Spanish strikers with tough, physical play, you may have a chance. You have to get them frustrated, press them, force a mistake and then you have to be clinical and punish it. Then? Maybe you have a chance. Maybe. Look for Spain to advance from Group C, but sit tight as they try to run the table and make history by repeating as Champions.


Spain: Once The Underachievers, Now The Dominant Force

Must See Match

While I am tempted to say that any encounter between powers Spain and Italy is must-see (and it is), I have to go with Croatia vs Italy on June 14th as the match I am looking forward to the most. It features two very different styles of play and a great midfield battle between Di Rossi/ Pirlo/ Marchisio against Modrić/ Srna/ Pranjić. Pulling for a draw in this one; if Ireland can hold it down against Spain and get a win and a draw from Italy and Croatia, I like their chances to advance.

Players To Watch

Spain is full of amazing players, Ireland grit and determination and Croatia attitude and dynamism, but there is only one player that is appointment viewing in my home and that is Italian genius Mario Balotelli. Words cannot express my appreciation for him, his joy for life and his utterly refreshing approach to the game. Football is full of cliches, players who make boring statements when they talk at all, media darlings who live in a bubble. It can create ultra talented kids who are arrogant, who become millionaires very young, who are told of their exceptionalism their entire lives. For me, Balotelli is a completely different individual, a mix of punk rock nihilism, talent and privilege that is unique in sport. If you can get past the media cliches, you begin to hint at the greatness of Balotelli. Let’s take a look at his greatest hits:

The Warm Up Bib

Magic In The Luxury Box

Why Always Me?

Press Conference Crasher

But in all honesty, the antics would be bullshit without the skills, and Balotelli is one of the best young footballers in the world. If he can keep his head about him, which he can’t, but if he can, he won’t, but if he can, he can be scary good. It’s the combination of talent and crazy that makes him one of my favorites. I’ll be watching every time he steps on the pitch.***


Balotelli: Real G’s Move In Silence Like Lasagne

Group Prediction

It has to be Spain, and as much as I hope for the Republic of Ireland to pull off the shocker, I think Italy will pull themselves into the knock out stages, with Ireland and Croatia battling them closely for the second spot. Second place is really up for grabs here and I wouldn’t be surprised to see anyone take it, but I have to go with Italy’s talent in the end.

*Group C seems to be the home of free spirits this time around.
** Another sign that FIFA and UEFA are a joke. How can this keep happening?
***Balotelli has also made some provocative statements about confronting racist fans at the Euros, about which, more in another post coming soon.

Previously
Group A Preview
Group B Preview

Euro 2012 | Preview: Group B

Euro 2012: GROUP B PREVIEW

In my Group A Preview, I described the concept of the GROUP OF DEATH as

“a gathering of four teams so alike in stature and potential that any one of them might go on to win the group or miss qualification for the knock out stages. These groups usually feature perennial powerhouses, each a favorite, each impossible to look beyond. The GROUP OF DEATH means thrills, uncertainty, triumph and heartbreak. You can’t look away, each match having the potential to be a classic.”

Well. Welcome to the Group of Death, Euro 2012 style.

Group B has all the makings of greatness, with two of the tournament favorites, Germany and The Netherlands, battling it out for supremacy alongside an historically strong but underachieving Portugal and 1992 surprise winners Denmark (who actually beat Portugal and won Group H in qualifying). This should be a lot of fun to watch, with two of the best teams, perhaps the in-form striker in the world right now and the best European player of the season all colliding in a single group. Let’s get to the previewing, shall we?

The Teams

Denmark

Denmark are a strange team. Yeah, I said it. On the one hand, they are organized, disiciplined and have some very good players; defender Daniel Agger (homer alert: he plays for my Liverpool side at club level) and the exciting young talent Christian Eriksen of Ajax are the types of player that can turn a match with a bombing run forward or a beautiful ball from nothing. On the other hand, you watch Denmark play and the game often falls to the team trying to get the ball to striker Nicklas Bendtner, who can score but who is often isolated in attack. The result? Inconsistency and a lack of fluid play in the midfield creates frustration, until a moment of brilliance, seemingly from nowhere, saves the day. Unfortunately for the Danes, Group B won’t allow any “get out of jail free” cards; too much quality in the Group sees Denmark struggle.


Denmark’s all-ink frontrunner Daniel Agger

Germany

Tipped by many as finalists at worst, winners at best, Joachim Low’s fluid, powerful German side have all the makings of a real contender. I am sure I could sit here and make jokes all day about how Germany are “mechanical” and “methodical” but the fact of the matter is, this is not your father’s Germany. Full of flair and chemistry, Low’s Germany team have many ways of beating you; in the air, on the ground, from crosses and through balls, set pieces and counter attacks. Just ask Group B rivals The Netherlands, who played a friendly with Germans back in November and took a 3-0 beating. One of the great things about watching the Germans play is the dedication of each player to his role in Low’s system; Lahm’s sweeping runs, Ozil’s patient and beautiful passing, Muller’s arrival at just the right moment, Schweinstiger’s control and disruption, Neuer’s distribution. Everyone on Germany plays just the right part, and I expect big things from them in this tournament. Of course, there is one major stumbling block on the way to glory, it’s probably…


Joachim Low keeps Germany ticking

The Netherlands

Nobody is scoring goals right now like Robin van Persie; a classic center forward in every sense of the word, the Arsenal man has been unstoppable leading the line for his club and country. When you add a playmaker like Inter Milan’s Wesley Sneijder and the pace and skill of Bayern Munich’s Arjen Robben into the mix, you have the makings of a deadly attack. Of course, that has never been a problem for the Dutch; it is the back line where the Oranje have had a few concerns. Yes, the team are filled with quality players at every position, but somehow, the Dutch always seem prone to the sucker punch; look at their recent 2-1 loss to Bulgaria for the most recent example of the counter attack causing this team agony. Of course, they can also play lights out, dominate the ball and they remain the best team never to have won the World Cup (losing the most recent 2010 final to Spain). Their match against Germany in the group stage will be the true test of the team; win that match, and suddenly, the Dutch will be looking like contenders to lift the trophy.


You down with RVP? Yeah, you know me…

Portugal

Portugal begin and end with one man, the most prolific European goal scoring machine of the past few years, Cristiano Ronaldo. When he is not battling Lionel Messi for the La Liga scoring title with Real Madrid, Ronaldo is turning in disappointing performances for his national team. For some reason, mental or tactical, I am just not sure, Ronaldo never turns it on for his country in the same way he does for his club. One factor is obviously that, at Madrid, he is surrounded by world class players in a league without much parity. When playing for Portugal, Ronaldo is surrounded by good players who just can’t seem to put it all together. This team are no exception; their form coming into the Euros is poor (0-0 with Poland and Macedonia, losing 3-1 to Turkey), their qualifying campaign was bizarre (a 4-4 draw with Cyprus, losses to Norway and Denmark) and they just don’t seem to gel as a team. Without a true #10 in the midfield to connect the play between the attack and defense (show pony Ricardo Quaresma wears the 10 for Portugal), they look lost. Unfortunately, Group B is not the place to go looking for an identity. Disappointment looms.


Ronaldo scores goals. Lots of goals.

Must See Match

Is this even a question? Irresistible force, meet immovable object. It has to be Germany vs The Netherlands on Wednesday June 13th. Few Group stage matches ever feature this level of excitement. These two teams will bring down the house– position by position, player by player, they are about as equally matched as any two teams in the Euros. Any other year, this might be the final. It still may…

Players To Watch

Group B features several all-universe players– Ronaldo, Van Persie, Sneijder, Robben, Ozil– but one man who will likely be the one to decide the fate of his team is Germany’s Mario Gomez. The Bayern Munich striker is the definition of the poacher, always seeming to pop-up in the right place at the right time to grab a vital goal. That said, he runs super hot and, suddenly, super cold; hardly the most technically gifted player, Gomez can switch from assassin to absolute donkey at the drop of a hat. He’ll have some of the most incredible misses you’ll ever see, only to follow them up with a 93rd minute tap in to win the match. If Germany can get Gomez going, watch out; if he struggles, there may be others to pick up the slack, but it will take some doing to go all the way without him at the top of his game.


Mario Gomez: He Scores When He Wants To

Group Prediction
I like Germany to win the Group, with The Netherlands right behind them into the knock-out stages, Denmark to nick third against a very disappointing Portugal.

Previously
Group A Preview

Euro 2012 | Preview: Group A

Euro 2012: GROUP A PREVIEW

Every international football tournament has its so-called GROUP OF DEATH, a gathering of four teams so alike in stature and potential that any one of them might go on to win the group or miss qualification for the knock out stages. These groups usually feature perennial powerhouses, each a favorite, each impossible to look beyond. The GROUP OF DEATH means thrills, uncertainty, triumph and heartbreak. You can’t look away, each match having the potential to be a classic.

At this year’s Euro 2012, Group A is not that group. On paper.

Instead, Group A features four teams of relatively equal quality but none of whom seem prepared to light it up. In fact, if anything, each of the teams, save one (Russia), are generally unsung, and none are tipped heavily to win it all. If you didn’t know any better, you might call Group A the GROUP OF MEH; looking up and down the group, looking at the player names and team expectations, you have all of the makings of a competitive group with none of the big time fireworks on the pitch.

It should be a different story in the stands, however. If you take geopolitical history into account, and it is hard not to with a tournament like Euros, you can expect the supporters to have another opinion altogether. Russia vs Poland? Russia vs Czech Republic? Russia vs Greece? Czech Republic vs Poland? Hello! Could you have drawn a group with more history? Add Poland’s hosting of the tournament (the atmosphere should be absolutely teeming with hostility during their matches) and suddenly, Group A becomes a must-see, even if the teams are not favorites.

That said, these are the Euros, the one tournament where underdogs have shown they can win it all. Think of Denmark in 1992 or Greece in 2004, teams that came from nowhere to put together a month of miracles and take home the most competitive trophy in international football*.

The Teams

Czech Republic

For me, Czech Republic are simply a high quality team without a focal point. Always organized and featuring recent Champions League Final hero Petr Cech in goal, the Czechs will always field a competitive team. But as the older generation of players (striker Milan Baroš, midfielders Jaroslav Plašil and Tomáš Rosický all in their 30’s) starts to make way, there is a sense that the side are missing a cutting edge creator. They will be bolstered by Rosický’s return to full fitness and left back Michal Kadlec is a star in the making**, but after squeaking their way into the Euros through a playoff with Montenegro, the Czechs are a team walking the line between surprise and disappointment. This Group helps them, no question; they will be looking at each match as one in which they can compete, but they are a longshot for me to make it out of the Group stage.


Envying goalie Petr Cech’s helmet, Czech defender Michal Kadlek gets fitted for a protective mask ahead of the Euro 2012

Greece

Greece won the 2004 Euros… let me type that again, because I still can’t believe it. Greece won the 2004 Euros with a style dependent on tough, organized defense and set piece driven, counter attacking football. They are the football equivalent of the rope-a-dope fighter, absorbing blow after blow, before delivering a knockout punch of their own. They are not pretty. They are not fun to watch (especially, I assume, if you are a Greek supporter), yet somehow, some way, they seem to grind out results. They won their qualifying Group with a series of gutsy performances, the most important of which was a 2-0 win over rival Croatia that featured fans throwing molotov cocktails, smoke bombs and flares at one another. Fun times. Their recent 1-0 win in a friendly against Armenia saw them miss two penalties; even when it should be easy, it’s not. Defender Kyriakos Papadopoulos has scored 3 goals in eight matches, with stalwarts Fanis Gekas, Giorgos Karagounis and Giorgos Samaras typically inconsistent in recent months. Expect grinding football. Rise and repeat.


Greek and Croatian supporters clash during Euro 2012 Qualifying

Poland

The hosts. Never discount the hosts. The hosts always do well, generally qualify for the knock out stages and, since every one of their matches is literally a home match, with swirling crowds and pure intimidation, they stand a better chance than most of qualifying from the Group. And yet… even without the automatic bid as hosts, Poland are a serious threat in the group. Most importantly, they feature of a trio of players who have worked wonders together at the club level; Robert Lewandowski, Jakub “Kuba” Blaszczykowski and Lukasz Piszczek all play together for German woinder club Borussia Dortmund, the back-to-back Bundesliga Champions and they, like their club, are having the time of their lives on the pitch. Lewandowski is on fire, scoring 22 for his club and banging them in for his country as well, with Blaszczykowski a constant threat in the midfield and Piszczek leading the defense. If the rest of the team can play at the level of Lewandowski and company, this seems to me to be Poland’s best chance to make a dent at the Euros in a long, long time and, with the support of the nation behind them, they have a real chance.


Lewandowski is on fire, but the soundtrack is not.

Russia

Russia are, for me, one of the dark horse teams of the tournament. They come into Euro 2012 looking sharp; having pounded Italy 3-0 in recent days and featuring a group of in-form players who are clicking under Dutch manager Dick Advocaat, Russia is certainly poised for a breakout. It may not be a surprise, since they were semi-finalists in Euro 2008, but there is something about them right now that has me thinking big. Still, if anything, the team are once again missing a dominant #10 as the disappointing Andrey Arshavin, whose performances at Arsenal have been lacking when they’ve happened at all, can often go missing; he scored no goals and only had two assists in qualifying. Still, football remains a team game and Advocaat has Russia ticking right now; if they can sustain their performance against Italy into the tournament, look for them to make some waves.


Russian manager Dick Advocaat. Clinical.

Must See Match
For me, it must be Russia vs Poland on Tuesday, June 12th. This match has all the making of a barnstormer, with lots of attacking play and plenty of historic vitriol to fuel the passions of supporters. It is, of all the games in the Group, the one match where I expect sparks to fly.

Players To Watch
Poland’s Robert Lewandowski is everything you want in an in-form striker; he has been scoring goals in bundles and with the chemistry he shares with his club mate “Kuba” Blaszczykowski, I am expecting him to lead the Group in goals. The other contender is Russian striker Aleksandr Kerzhakov who has followed a simple plan in the run-up to the Euros; when he’s on the pitch, he scores goals and sets them up. Simple as. The Zenit striker was not invited to Euro 2008, so my guess is that he is poised to do some damage this time around.


No shirt, but service: Russia’s Aleksandr Kerzhakov

Group Prediction
I like Russia to win the Group with Poland to qualify on a final day must-win against the Czechs.

*Sorry World Cup, but 32 teams makes for a diluted field. Team for team, group for group, the Euros are a tighter, tougher tournament.

** Kadlec likes to party; rival fans broke his nose in a nightclub last month. No, really.