Euro 2012 | Match Day 9

Knockout time, and who expected this? Russia, the Group leaders who pounded the Czech Republic 4-1 on opening day? Out. Poland, the hosts, looking bright in their 1-1 draw against frontrunners Russia? Do widzenia. Group A turned my expectations upside down.

Poland v Czech Republic

Sorry, but when you can’t play through the middle of the park and your attack is as one sided and one dimensional as Poland’s, you have to expect trouble. And when the Czechs counter attacked right up the middle of the park in the 72nd minute as Poland went looking for a winner, Petr Jiracek stepped up and put the team on top of Group A. For good.


Group winner.

It was a deserved victory for a team that had been battered 4-1 on the opening day of the tournament, a team holding out hope that they could sneak into the knockout stages in second place. Poland, on the other hand, needed a win and played with increasing desperation, which only made them more predictable and open to the counter attack. Still, they had the chance to grab a draw and knock the Czechs out of the tournament in the dying moments which Michael Kadlec made an incredible clearance off the line to preserve the victory.




All hustle.

It was a strange tournament for Poland, who battled hard and played attractive football but who simply could not diversify their attack enough to unleash Lewandowski on opposing defenses. At Borussia Dortmund, Lewandowski received attacking support all over the pitch; Kagawa, Blaszczykowski, Göetze, etc. For Poland, he was completely isolated up top with Blaszczykowski and Piscek combining on the right to provide the main support. With Polanski and others finding no joy in the attack, the Euros ended early for Poland, who leave without a win as hosts. A shame.

Still, you have to look at the Czechs and marvel at their heart, coming back from massive disappointment to win the group. It gets much more difficult from here (more on that in my next post), but their defense has become more and more solid as the tournament has worn on, so you never know. No really, you NEVER KNOW. Just look at…

Greece v Russia

What. The. Fuck?


Shock the world.

Yes, Greece, who were bottom of the group heading into the final day of Group A, beat high-flying Russia 1-0 on a smash-and-grab goal in the dying moments of the first half to ruin my fantasy team win the match and advance into the knockout stages based on the first tie-breaker in the Euro Groups; head-to-head. Even though Greece had a 0 goal differential and Russia were +2 and both had 4 point sin the Group, Greece beat Russia, so on they go. Greece did a brilliant job in this match of watching Russia blow their chances playing group defense, echoing their incredible Euro 2004 win with full commitment to playing shut down, counter-attacking football. Well done to the Greeks, who continue to surprise as the world (myself included) continues to underestimate their football. The real shame is that captain Giorgos Karagounis was tripped in the box and picked up a yellow for “diving” instead of earning a legit penalty (UEFA should look at the tape and rescind the card), and now misses the quarterfinal. He was not happy.


No justice.

Meanwhile, Russia. What can you say? Theirs was a tournament cut in half; the first 135 minutes, when they scored five goals and conceded one, and the second 135 minutes, when Andrei Arshavin ran out of gas, Yuri Zhirkov forgot how to cross the ball, Roman Pavyluchenko and Aleksandr Kerzhakov couldn’t score in a brothel, and Russia ran out of ideas, conceding two goals and scoring NONE. If anyone would have told me heading into the Poland and Greece matches that Russia would score one goal and concede two in their final two games, I would have laughed in their face. And yet, out they go, the second biggest disappointment in the tournament.

What a huge opportunity lost, not just for the team and their supporters, but for the rest of us, who were really enjoying Russia’s positive approach to the game. But they, like so many other teams, suffered from fatigue and a lack of a plan when plan number one (in this case, Andrei Arshavin) didn’t work out. For all of their positivity, Russia were too dependent on Kerzhakov and Arshavin to create when, in fact, both players seemed to fade into poor form as the tournament wore on. Tapping the ball around outside of the box as the other team throws ten men behind the ball is not going to win matches; you have to invite them onto you a little bit, have some steel in the middle of the park and get some sort of advantage heading toward goal. The extreme example of this idea is Greece, who retreated so deep that Russia couldn’t help but come forward, only to exploit a opening on the counter for the win. Russia could not find the right mix, and when the Greeks and Poles camped out in their own ends and sucker punched them on the counter, they had no answer, no way to find a telling ball. It almost happened for Russia, when Arshavin looped a telling cross onto the head of the excellent Alan Dzagoev, but the youngster pushed the ball inches wide of the Greek post.

After that, a quick ball and a smart run, the clock ran down and Russia were gone. Shame, but it is the price you pay for tactical monotony. Should have known better. до свидания


Thrill of, agony of, etc.

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Euro 2012 | Match Day 5

Group A came back with a bang today; early goals and gutsy performances, huge gaffes and tactical gamesmanship, this was a great day for football. It was a poor day for supporters though, with reports of Russian fans marching en masse for Russia Day through the streets of Warsaw which, in the spectrum of bad ideas, ranks at the top of the heap.

The aftermath? Not good, according to the BBC…

“Clashes between rival Russian and Polish football fans in the Polish capital Warsaw have marred a Euro 2012 tie between the two teams. A march ahead of the match by thousands of Russian fans to mark their national day had to be halted and some missiles were thrown. Police say they arrested at least 120 people and that 10 people were injured. About 6,000 police were on duty to keep the rival fans apart. Beforehand, some Polish fans on a bridge on the march route had tried to attack the Russian fans and had been involved in scuffles. Tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon were used to disperse fans at the end of the march, according to Poland’s state news agency.”

I won’t post video of idiots sucker punching one another, but they are generally available online and extremely disappointing. You can’t help but link history and sport, especially in the Euros, and with Russian history in Poland, (which includes a 100 year reign after annexation in the 19th century and Soviet domination after World War II), I’m going to go on a limb and say that the Russian fans who decided to parade through the streets of Warsaw were almost as disrespectful as UEFA itself, which allowed this banner to be unfurled in the Polish national stadium:


This is a bad idea.

Hopefully this is the end of it, but the Russian FA might want to re-think their instructions to the traveling support. Interesting to see what UEFA has to say about that banner (hint: Nothing).

Czech Republic vs Greece

The Czechs walked out 2-0 winners after two early Greek turnovers in the midfield lead to two great Czech goals only a minute or so apart. Here they are:


Jiracek 1-0


Pilar 2-0

After all that, it was only the 6th minute, which meant there was a full game to play. The Greeks did very little to address the problems they were having in midfield, but again, Greek manager Fernando Santos did the right thing, recognizing that his only path forward was to keep the faith in three attacking players, and his patience (and better midfield play) paid off when Petr Cech spilled a simple ball into the path of Fanis Gekas who pushed it into an empty net. In the catalogue of howlers, you’ll find this one under “goalies who had their skulls bashed in who are now afraid of contact”:


Cech please.

Czech Republic didn’t have much to do to maintain their lead, and after midfielder Tomas Rosicky went off in the 2nd half with an achilles injury, the plan seemed to be to hold on, press the ball constantly and let the Czech speed advantage on the wings keep the Greeks honest. It worked. With 3 points in the bag, the Czechs have a chance to advance if they can get a result against Poland this weekend. And the Greeks have Russia, who need a result, so um. Yeah.

Poland vs Russia

Previewing Group A, I predicted this was the must see match and well, great match. What can you say? The Poles came out on fire but wasted several chances, with Russian keeper Vyacheslav Malafeev making a save (he never even saw it) with his shin tops on Poland’s most dangerous attack. And, as it has been going in the tournament, after dominating most of the half, Poland gave up the first goal with Alan “Universal Transfer Target” Dzagoev flicking in Andrei Arshavin’s free kick to give Russia the 1-0 lead.


Kid can ball.

At this point Poland, took the reigns back in hand and pressed again, with the middle of the Russian midfield struggling to create an advantage and Aleksandr Kerzhakov failing to find the net again while leading the line brilliantly (I have not given up on him! He is class at playing his part if not at finishing! Where are the Pavlyuchenko lovers now?!). As it was for the Greeks, a costly turnover in the midfield turned into pain for Russia when Andrei Arshavin decided to keep dribbling when he should have been passing (how many times has this particular mistake been punished this tournament? PASS. THE. BALL!), and Polish captain Jakub Blaszczykowski got the ball and crushed the goal of the tournament (sorry Sheva)


Blaszczykowski. Bang!

The match was marred by poor officiating; there were several fouls that went without a call that really impacted the flow of the game. I understand the need to let things go sometimes, but this match saw some brutal no calls and even more problemtic fouls given the wrong way; Dzagoev in particular got on the wrong end of about four bad calls that finally boiled over into a yellow card for dissent. The kid doesn’t strike me as a dirty player or one to complain too much, but I think he had a point. That said, let your captain do the griping…


Booked

Anyway, the game ended 1-1, so I guess both sets of idiotic hooligan fans were right in the end; their team was on top! Yay you! Everyone’s a winner!

But seriously, the Group is set up perfectly for drama on the final day; Russia need a draw or better to advance, the Poles will want to win against the Czech Republic, The Czechs will want to draw or win against Poland, and the Greeks need a win. All to play for, then. My call, as I said in the preview:

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

I’ll stand by that.

Euro 2012 | Match Day 1

As they say in Brooklyn, not for nothing*, but this blog made a couple of rather tame predictions prior to Group A getting underway; one was that Robert Lewandowski and his Borussia Dortmund teammates would be the driving force for Poland and another was that Russia were the team to beat in the Group and that Aleksandr Kerzhakov was truly the player to watch in Group A. As far as I am concerned, both predictions came true, but not in the way I expected.

Poland vs Greece

A story of two halves, each alike in insanity, divided against themselves. Ha.

Poland came out flying, Greece looking like the underachievers I had expected them to be. The right hand flank of Greece’s defense was battered by the overlapping runs of Lukasz Piszczek and Kuba Blaszczykowski, who pwned the right wing and battered the Greeks with crosses and runs for most of the first half. It all came good when Blaszczykowski whipped in a cross for Lewandowski, unmarked on the far post, to hammer down into the ground, and bounce into the net. 1-0 to Poland and they were flying.


Keep Your Head Down and Keep Reaching For The Stars: Lewandowski Scores

Soon, Spainsh referee Carlos Velasco Carballo decided to try and ruin the game by handing out consecutive yellow cards to Greek defender Sokratis Papastathopoulos on two calls that were not only never yellow cards, but likely were not even fouls. Off he went on a red card, the Greeks reduced to 10 men. A note here about the refs; I am going to do my best not to complain too much, but these men are under too much scrutiny from UEFA. They need to let the refs manage the game and not set down such rigid guidelines. Watching the loathsome Manchester United 12th man English ref Howard Webb do a great job in the Russia v Czech Republic, it is clearly impossible to set a single standard. So, Spanish refs and others like them, lighten up. The game is not about you.

Poland went on to miss several chances, with defender Damien Perquis missing a couple of sitters from close range. But Poland left the pitch at halftime looking good; up a man and a goal at home. Game over.

Hellas has no fury like a team scorned; down to 10 men, the Greek team galvanized into a far more cohesive unit escially after Carballo turned down a penalty shout for handball in the Polish box. After the half, Greek manager Fernando Santos took the team by the neck and turned the entire game with a couple of brilliant tactical choices for which Poland could not find an answer. The first was bringing on the talismanic Dimitris Salpingidis for an underachieving Sotiris Ninis. Salpingidis paid almost immediate dividends in turning the tide of the game.

How many Poles does it take to blow a one man, one goal advantage at home? One. Wojciech Szczesny.

When Vassilis Torossidis swung a ball into the Polish box, the Arsenal keeper Szczesny dove into the feet of his own defender (who had the cross covered) spilling the ball free and to the onrushing Salpingidis, who buried the ball in the net to make it 1-1.

Santos’ other great move was to push his defensive resources to the left, pinching his midfield into cutting off the supply line of Piszczek and Blaszczykowski, and forcing Poland into playing the ball through the middle, where the Greeks mopped up.

When Salpingidis made a brilliant run onto a looping ball into an empty Polish penalty area, Sczcesny ran onto him and stuck a leg in, tripping the Greek attacker, giving away a penlty and earning himself a red card.


Stop Tripppin’: Salpingidis wins the Greeks a penalty

It was the Poles worst nightmare, their goal and man advantage suddenly gone, back up keeper Przemyslaw Tyton brought on to defend the penalty. No keeper in Euro history had ever come on and saved a penalty before, but Tyton dove to his left and pushed away Karagounis’s effort, preserving the draw and adding incredible drama to the opening match. In the end, 1-1 was, shockingly, harsh to the Greeks, who showed an iron will and a real tactical nous in their ability to adapt to this match; they played better with 10 men than with 11. Their upcoming game against the Czech Republic is going to have a major impact on Poland’s chances; they have to hope the Czechs can earn a draw now.

Russia vs Czech Republic

Let’s get the match report out of the way quickly:

a) Russia absolutely battered the Czechs 4-1
b) Alan Dzagoev is a star in the making after two clincial finishes against Chelsea keeper Petr Cech
c) Roman Pavyluchenko scored a goal and set one up in about 8 minutes of time on the pitch
d) Andrei Arshavin was boss, playing fluid, attacking football the likes of which you rarely ever saw him play at Arsenal (his 4 goal performance against my Liverpool side being a rare exception)


Highlights… in Russian. To the winner, the spoils!

But the big debate coming out of the Russian camp will be about the play of Alexsandr Kerzhakov, the striker I targeted as theplayer to watch in this Group. To the naked, uniformed eye, Kerzhakov was an absolute waster, missing chance after chance in front of the goal; only his header off the post, which bounced to Dzagoev for his opening goal, could be seen as bad luck. Everything else in front of goal? Shocking. With Pavyluchenko coming on and bagging a goal and an assist in under ten minutes, surely he must be the choice for Russia, right?


Oops. Missed Again: Kerzhakov Can’t Score

No way.

Kerzhakov was outstanding in linking up play, coming deep and picking up the ball, holding it up and bringing the Russian attack together. His lack of a scoring touch doesn’t erase his qualities in leading the attack and serving as the glue for his entire team. If he had buried his chances, Kerzhakov would have had one of the all-time great matches in Euro history. Instead, his lack of scoring has some supporters calling for Pavyluchenko to get the start against Poland in the next match. Thankfully, Dick Advocaat knows what he has; look for Kerzhakov to shine again on Tuesday.

*I have lived here for 15 years and still have no idea what it means…

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.
*******

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

*****

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.

*****

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.

*****

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.

******

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 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.