Euro 2012 | Match Day 12

I’ll be honest. I was expecting to care about Group D a lot more than I ended up doing. With Sweden knocked out, Ukraine not ready for primetime (although they played pretty well), England driving me crazy and France driving the Group, I found Group D to be the most problematic. It was a Group of moments, Shevchenko’s brace being the highlight, one great match (England vs Sweden) and a lot of teams that frankly played like they were still figuring it out. Well, after France crawled into the knockout stages and England deservingly won a snoozefest against Ukraine, the Group D winners loo to be out of time. It’s now or never for these teams. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

France v Sweden

First off. Zlatan. 6 feet, 4 inches. This:


Goal of the Tournament

Amazing goal. So good, I’m not going to bother showing Seb Larsson’s roof job that made the game 2-0 in the dying minutes and gave Sweden a deserved victory against France, who advance from the Group with a loss here. This is how Sweden played the entire Tournament; how did Ukraine beat them?!? Just a tragedy that this team are out as Zlatan and the gang finally put it all together and beat the Group D leaders, sending them into second place and a date with Spain. A shame; Sweden played the most attractive football in the entire Group but could not keep it together at the back until this match and it cost them. Goodbye Zlatan; it was fun watching you frustrate and bewitch in equal measure.

But France…. France! Here is a bit of tactical advice for you; you are not Spain, Samir Nasri is not Xavi, Franck Ribery is a winger and is not Andres Iniesta, so why are you playing Karim Benzema ten miles deep in the hole with no striker? Why? As much as I complained about Fernando Torres not being the best option at striker for a team like Spain (he plays best with the ball at his feet, running at defenses), Karim Benzema playing a number 10 role for France might be okay if someone was playing the number 9 role, but sadly, they are not. Benzema is alone up top; so alone, in fact, that he seems to miss the company of his holding midfielders and runs ten miles deep to collect the ball, allowing the entire opposition to get behind the ball.


Yeah, me too.

Laurent Blanc, if you’re going to play a number 10 deep, how about Ben Arfa or Nasri in the role, with Benzema up top, hanging off the last defender and putting pressure on the defensive line? I just don’t understand the idea of trying to pass it on the ground, over and over, until you break a defense with a give-and-go pass and walk it in on goal. France were way too one dimensional, and with Sweden playing good defense and able to keep the ball themselves on the counter attack, the French ran out of ideas in about five minutes. Blanc had the right idea late on when he brought in Olivier Giroud and the striker found himself with a dangerous chance after about two minutes. That could have been the whole match. Instead, Sweden dominates and France now draw Spain in the quarterfinal; I expect them to be humbled by the masters.

England v Ukraine

1-0 England. Zzzzzzzz….*snore*


Roo-neigh! Roo-neigh!

Great ball from Gerrard there; the Liverpool captain is playing excellent football. Perhaps he should be given a rest now so that he can come back and play well for Liverpool, too. Ahem.

I don’t have much to say; it breaks my heart that a team full of Liverpool talent play football this boring, but man; England are just a bore to watch. They are all discipline and no creativity. Their flat style is earning them results, though. They drew France and beat Sweden and Ukraine, won Group D, so WHO IS ANYONE TO COMPLAIN ABOUT ROY HODGSON? Football is about results and England are getting them, so I should probably just shut up and give them a chance and blah blah blah.

But let’s be honest; they look about 20 years behind the other quarterfinalists in terms of they way they play. It is not good for the future of the game in england to see such talented players with little technical ability. England are speed and power, but they can’t seem to string four passes together to save their lives; they might lose a possession battle against Xavi playing by himself*. The main problem is linking up play between Gerrard and the wide players. Wayne Rooney was supposed to instantly solve this problem by linking Gerrard to the attack from his position in the hole, but with Danny Welbeck “leading the line” (really?), England struggled to create danger in the final third. I am not sure how James Milner gets to wear an England shirt, but not only does he get one (to keep!), he starts on the right which, terrible. Ashley Young finally moved to the left wing and his influence on the game has waned to the point where my prediction that he was the man to watch in Group D no seems like a hostile provocation against the eyeballs of other viewers. It was not intended that way.


Stay down? Please?

Ukraine have some bright young players, but they too were a team in-between identities, with their legends and youth blending into something somewhat incoherent. Still, they should have drawn this match, if it weren’t for a good goal that was not given…

That was in. The scorer was offside, but we expect linesmen to blow offside calls (ok, we don’t, but still, it happens. A lot. But it happens); once the onside was (incorrectly given), that should have been a goal.


Uh…

What can you say about UEFA and FIFA? The technology exists to eliminate human consideration from this issue because clearly, human consideration in the form of a 5th official on the goal line, next to the goal, staring directly at this ball did not generate the correct call. It may be the best thing for everyone that John Terry made that clearance; it means that England, the team Platini and Blatter love to hate, got a win when they should have had a draw. And now, suddenly, Blatter decides it is time to consider goal line technology taking to Twitter to say:

“After last night’s match ‪#GLT‬ is no longer an alternative but a necessity.”**

After last night’s match? Really? How about “since it was invented?” Anyway, yay England! They hate you so much they may cut off their nose to improve their face! It is so obvious that this is the right thing to do that it is beyond comprehension how dozens of UEFA and FIFA fat cats can’t look up from their piles of money long enough to fix the game. Outrageous, but hey what do we expect? This is a game without accountability, run by despots who do what they like with impunity. Why fix anything except tournament bids?

Quarterfinals here we come.

*Obviously not true; England would foul and injure him after a while.
**Please do yourself a favor and follow that link so you can read all of the amazing Tweets Sepp received in response. Worth a read and bring some popcorn…

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Euro 2012 | Match Day 8

Friday Group D took center stage and provided us with the France we expected and the thriller between England and Sweden that we had hoped for. Crazy weather, crazy turns of event, unlikely scorers, unlikely goals; Friday had it all. Rebecca Black would have been proud.

France vs Ukraine


Endure the ad. It’s worth it.

France v Ukraine got off to a stormy start, with rain dousing the pitch in absolute sheets, lightning ripping across the sky. The match was postponed after 4 minutes and both teams retreated to the shelter of the locker room to wait out the storm. When they finally resumed, France stepped to the fore, playing a fluid, attacking football that flowed through Samir Nasri, Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema, about whom, more in a minute. Ukraine struggled to get the ball to their young playmakers Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplianka, and the match saw the outsanding work rate of Andriy Shevchenko rewarded with a one true chance on goal, a one touch touch strike that was beaten away by French keeper Hugo Lloris.

France’s dominance came with some controversy, though; after a good offside call ruled out a Jeremy Menez strike, the player was booked and should have seen a second card just before the half for a violent foul in the ceneter cricle on Yevhen Selin. He escaped justice and frustration and it paid off; when Benzema slid him a pass in the box, he cut back and slotted home near post to put France up 1-0.


1-0.

His play completely justified Laurent Blanc’s decision to play him in lieu of Chelsea winger Flourent Malouda; Menez had several chances on goal and was dangerous (literally) all night. Just three minutes later, the deep lying Benzema collected the ball and slid an inch perfect 20 yard pass to Yohan Cabaye, who gathered the ball and scored. 2-0 and there was no way back for Ukraine as France maintained possession and kept pressing their technical advantage.


2-0.

In my post about the France v England match, I noted that Benzema seemed to be playing too deep to threaten the goal, and that was the case again against Ukraine, but this time, the decision paid off because of the runs of Ribery, Cabaye and Menez. It seems antithetical to have one of the best target strikers in the world playing in the hole behind, well, no one, but it’s a new day for strikers; slide back in the midfield and play deep, feeding the attack instead of leading it. In this case, it worked like a charm and Benzema was excellent in drawing defenders deep and beating them with quick, creative, precise passing. His play and movement have been phenomenal; it’s only a matter of time before he scores.


Benzema is excellent.

As for Ukraine, well, it is tough to watch the hosts struggle but the pace and technical ability of France were too much on the day. Watching Franck Ribery kick the ball down the line and sprint past Ukrainian wingers who were trying deperately to keep up, you knew that France were on another level as athletes. The best team won and there is no shame in that. With three points in hand and Wayne Rooney coming back for England with the anticipation of a tag team wrestler clearing the ring with violent abandon, it does not look good for Ukraine. Still, win and they are in. All to play for.

England v Sweden

Well that was fun. England beat Sweden 3-2 in a pulsating match that saw a Danny Welbeck falling backheel goal in the 78th minute claw England back from 2-1 down to win and eliminate Sweden (nooooo!) from the knockout stages. I think the goals tell the story of this match, so let’s watch it unfold… in Arabic, with amazing goal calls, which, always awesome.


Goal! 3-2.

I have been hard on Roy Hodgson on this blog, mostly because I think he stinks as a manager; I had to endure one of the worst six month stretches of my life as a football fan watching him sign shitty players and play atrocious football with my club team Liverpool. So, I am completely biased against him, can’t stand him, am amazed by fair-mined people who have given him a chance and the benefit of the doubt; are you crazy, folks? This is Roy Hodgson! And yet. Hodgson on the day did a great job of targeting Sweden’s weaknesses (aerial defense and speed) with his player selection and substitutions, and every move seemed to pay off. Starting Andy Carroll? A headed goal for 1-0. Bringing on Theo Walcott for the once again utterly crap James Milner? Goal and assist for the winner. Well done, Roy. You can’t argue with that at all. This was much better from England, who played against type and showed toughness and skill (take a bow, Danny Welbeck) in earning a win. Three goals and a come from behind win? Roy Hodgson, for this day, I eat my words. Well done.


Moment in the sun.

And yet… Sweden! Guh! Two goals from Olof Mellberg, which, amazing. But Sweden played like Bizarro England and this match ended up looking like an English club match, which played perfectly into England’s hands. England are always going to struggle against strong, technical teams who can keep the ball (see France), but Sweden could not play that way and instead made a huge sacrifice to their own quality. The issue was the positioning of Rasmus Elm and Kim Kallstrom, two decent players who were outclassed by their opposite numbers, and how they interchanged with the true genius on the pitch last night, Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Instead of pushing Zlatan to get up the field, near the goal, where he is briliant, Sweden played him in the hole and he played deep, putting ball after ball into Elm and Kallstrom in the attack, neither of whom, it should be noted, is Zlatan Ibrahimovic. WHo would you rather have bearing down on goal? The issue is that Elm and Kallstrom needed help against Gerrard and Scott Parker, and so Zlatan cam deep to help out and, more often than not, ended up a mile from goal.

The way Sweden deployed Zlatan reminded me of watching Lionel Messi in the 2010 World Cup, collecting the ball at the center circle and being urged to “make something happen”, then struggling to do so. Zlatan is not a natural #10, he has the skill and the drive, but he does not have the positional know how; he does not bomb forward in the attack, making plays near the box. But there he is, miles from goal, playing the ball wide to a winger and then walking up the pitch knowing the attack has passed him by and that, even if he hauled ass into the box, he would never get a return ball.


Agony.

I was literally going crazy watching him. Look at Zlatan’s return so far; a tap in from one yard in front of goal when he was pushed forward and an assist from a busted set piece to Olof Mellberg from the edge of the penalty area. You know where Zlatan is not making plays and scoring goals? From deep balls through the middle. The lack of a natural #10 in the CAM role, the role Steven Gerrard has been dominating for England, has cost Sweden the best use of its best player. Make no mistake, even at his languid, frustrating pace in this match, Ibrahimovic was one of the two best players on the pitch. Had he been able to lead the attack from an advanced position with a CAM behind him, it might have been so different for Sweden. But they didn’t, he wasn’t and now they are headed home in disappointment again. Is it a lack of players or does Zlatan prefer to walk back and forth, ten yards from either side of the center circle for the majority of the match? Not sure. Either way, Sweden are headed home. What might have been…

The final day of Group D should be a good one; everyone except Sweden will want to win and then, even they will want to go down in glory over France. This is the first time in history that every match in the final Group stage will have an impact on who goes through, which only underlines what a great Tournament this has been so far. Get your “picture in picture” ready on the TV; the simultaneous Group finales are pure excitement!

Euro 2012 | Match Day 4

Group D played their initial games today with one match an unexpected classic. To the reports!

England v France

The two frontrunners met in the first match of the day with Laurent Blanc’s high flying, pass-and-move France taking on Roy Hodgson’s negative, soul-sucking, defensive to the point of being offensive England. Football is not about being attractive, it is about results, and both teams earned a point in a 1-1 draw. It was a case of…of…of….zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz….


Jolen Lescott gets his giant, hideous head on the ball.

Ahem. Where was I? Oh, right. Soon after Jolen Lescott scored on one of ambitious England’s three attempts on goal, France came back down the field and, after a nifty interchange between Franck Ribery and Samir Nasri, scored the equalizer with a wicked shot to the near post that Joe Hart failed to stop.




Nasri gets one by his club mate.

Despite holding the ball for 65% of the match and having numerous opportunities to press their technical superiority, France were timid, with Karim Benzema playing way, way too deep (and often too wide) and the entire French attack posted outside the box. The result was a toothless attack with little bite, a perfect compliment to England’s flat 4-4-2 which saw James Milner easily play the role as “worst player on the pitch”, wasting what few chances England had.

This was England at its most dire, playing no ambition, “mission accomplished” football; again, Gerrard was playing way too deep to get in the space between the midfield and defense because Scott Parker can’t seem to pass the ball forward. If you are going to play two in the middle of the field, you have to get Gerrard some room to roam and be dangerous. His free kick assist aside, he was anonymous. What England should do (and won’t) is put Ashley Young out wide, Gerrard in the hole behind Wellbeck, sit Oxlade Chamberlain for Downing, play Parker and Henderson in the middle of the park and get going with a 4-4-1-1 until Rooney gets back and you can put Gerrard and Young on the wings and Rooney in the hole with Wellbeck. Can Roy change his sleep-inducing 4-4-2 in time? No. But stay tuned anyway and suffer like the rest of us…


The Owl and the Pussycats.

Sweden v Ukraine

Okay, time for me to eat my hat. Watching Andreiy Shevchenko bury two headers for Ukraine in their come from behind 2-1 win over my boy Zlatan Imbrahimovic and Sweden, I felt like I was being pulled by a time machine, back back back, to 2004, when the Ukrainian striker was in his prime and lighting up the Serie A. Seriously, almost 36 years old and playing his first ever Euro (Ukraine automatically qualified as hosts of the tournament), Shevchenko electrified the tournament like no one has yet, scoring two thumping, knockout goals in front of an incredible home support. This will be remembered in Kiev for generations, a sparkling display of class from an ageless wonder who beat all my expectations with his performance. Let’s see the goals…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A2kyV648s60
The goals.

Just look at Sheva’s match winner, an inch perfect header between the body of Swedish defender Mikael Lustig and the post, about 12 inches away. That is devastating precision and power, but Lustig has to take some blame for not standing on the post. Still, the win was deserved for the most part; with all of my complaints that Ukraine looked too old on paper to be relevant in this group, it was the young players Andriy Yarmolenko and Evhen Konoplyanka who took up the mantle and pressed Sweden hard all night long. Yarmolenko in particular had the better of Swedish left back Martin Olsson, who gave him the space to deliver the cross for the first goal. Konoplyanka also played a great match, but perhaps could learn a thing or two about clinical finishing and patience from his number 7.


1-1.

Still with Zlatan playing deep in the hole all night long, Sweden were crying out for better forward play ahead of him. A missed header at the end of the first half should have been buried, but he took his next chance well. At last, once Johan Elmander came on and Christian Wilhelmsson replaced Seb Larson in the final 20 minutes, Sweden found their groove, with Ibrahimovic lashing a venomous shot just a little too close to Ukrainian keeper Andriy Pyatov before flicking Elmander in on goal with a glorious lob pass that the striker, likely rusty after a long layoff, hammered over the bar when anywhere likely would have done. The misses can hurt you.


Just a bit outside…

I wasn’t the only one wondering where Sweden’s dangerous play had come from; after the match, manager Erik Hamren had some choice words for his team.

“We needed 11 players on top form together because we’re not that big a team, but only five or six showed the quality I want and that’s not enough…We didn’t reach our level until the last 20 minutes and it’s my responsibility as a coach. We didn’t show the courage and didn’t get as much from the players as I felt we should get. We were cowards in the first-half.”

Cowards? Wow. If that doesn’t get you ready for England, nothing will. Maybe Zlatan’s magic will be enough next time, but tonight is all about Shevchenko. My hat is off to you sir, primarily so I can eat it.


Sheva Delivers on the dreams of a nation

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 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