Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Euro2008: A Breath of Fresh Air - A Spanish Jinx Finally Broken

Finally, the perenial under-achievers realized how good they are and achieved what they fully deserved for ages. No more quarter final defeats after dominating the group stage, no more shoot-out losses on June 22nd and no more slipping when it matters most. There could not have been a more worthy winner that Spain this summer at the Euro in Austria and Switzerland.
Apart from the winner, the tournament was a breath of fresh air and saw the beatuful game at its best. For far too many tournaments we have been seen teams which are flamboyant initially winning the group stages and then giving it all away in the knock-out stage to a strong defensive team. Right from the 'Magical Magyars' of 1954 (Hungary) to the 'Clockwork Orange' of 1974 (Holland), the Brazillians of 1982 and most recently the Argentines of 2006 all have displayed flamboyant, attacking, entertaining displays only to meet their end in the most unforseeable manner. (Ironically 3 of the 4 teams mentioned fell prey to German resilience).
Most of the winners of the recent past in Euro and the WC have been teams which have strong defences with some even having a non-existant attacking line prompting fans and critics to suggest that the beatuful game has given away to a physical battle. Euro2008 changed the pattern. The team which won was an all round team which probably had no weakness. A great goalie, a strong defence and superb in attack. And not for once did they change their style of play (the curse of June 22nd notwithstanding) regardless of opposition or occassion. One look at all the recent winners will tell you why this Euro was different.
Italy, never having at attacking game, in 2006 depended largely on their last lines of defense in Cannavaro and Buffon with Pirlo and Toni launching the counter attacks.
Greece in 2004 - the less said the better. Three consecutive headed 1-0 wins tell you the story. No one needs to discuss as to how entertaining or flamboyant they had been on course to a championship win.
France in 1998 lacked a quality striker in the finals. Henry and Trezeguet were young and inexperienced and whatever they had was certainly not good enough to give world class defenders some anxious moments. On the other hand their defence led by the resilient Liliam Thuram was rock solid (Not a single goal was scored by their strikers in the last 4 knockout matches).
While the French team in Euro 2000 was more complete, it was less flamboyant to the dutch and the Portuguese teams of the same tournament. Needless to say they had to scrape through each one of the knock-out matches with loads of good fortune.
(Brazil of 2002 could be the only exception as they won all their matches without the slightest hick-ups in spite of being tested by England and Belgium.)
There would be no such thing in this Euro (though the Dutch partly maintained this tradition by losing it completely in the quarters after mersmerizing displays in the group stages). Justice was finally done and the best team won. The flamboyance, attackling instincts, flair, passing and teamwork was finally rewarded. And all along the defence led by Casillas and Puyol complementing wonderfully (Otherwise stopping the wounded Germans would have been impossible). The Spaniards displayed a combination of European resilience and Latin American flair which was on display right from the first match against Russia till the final whistle against Germany. Some EPL/La Liga fans call it the Barca-Arsenal effect which took over.

As far as I can recall, all of Spain's goals have been well worked out field goals as a result of brilliant passing and teamwork. No curling free-kicks, and no headed corner conversions. This makes the performance all the more creditable. The reasons for this are of course there. Some newspapers reported that the Europass ball did not curl or bend enough and hence we had only 2 free-kick goals, one of which deflected off the wall (Henry). However, the way the Spanish played I dont think it would have made any difference to them. The main reason for the free-flowing soccer was the fair-play from the teams and the referring. Cards were not shown for the slightest off offenses and the whistle was used less frequently allowing the game to flow. As a result we some great display of soccer from Portugal, Germany, Russia (the biggest surpise of the lot), Holland and of course Spain. Two successive 3-2 scorelines in the KO stages and withing 90 minutes for Germany indicates just that.

Finally, a word for the Russians - a team that I supported whole-heartedly and who did not let me down. Its unbelievable how Gus Hiddink proves his midas touch time and again. The signs were there for a Russian encore not only for the presense of the man but also for Zenit St Petersburg's UEFA Cup win a month earlier. The club has a sizable representation in the Russian squad including the star mid-fielder Andrey Ashravin who has now become a household name and is in a position to choose which club he wants to play for.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Italy bury the shoot-out ghost - Finally

What a great leveller sport is? Ask David Trezeguet. It seems just yesterday when it was another Italy Vs France Finale in Euro 2000 and Trezeguet fired in a 'golden goal' to sink many an Italian heart by stealing the European Championship from right under their nose in a classic final. Six years gone by and Trezeguet again turned out to be the decisive factor in another cup final contested between these two nations - this time even bigger, the world cup final. As a commentator remarked when Trezeguet's penalty kick hit the cross-bar and just fell an inch ahead of the goal line "That will be the longest inch in French football". That was the inch that stood between France and a second world title. Yet in sport there can be only one winner who takes it all - and this time it was Italy who after 24 years and countless penalty shoot-out heartbreaks finally conquered the top step of the podium.
With the Zidane incident making all the headlines, there is hardly anyone talking about Trezeguet's heart-breaking miss. To the French and their countless supporters, the cup was over and lost a good 20 mins before that fatal Trezeguet shot when the greatest of them all decided to use his head on the wrong object - an opponents chest. The head which, 5 minutes back had almost given France the winning goal only to be denied by a stunning save (should I say a world cup winning save) from Buffon.
There is no use talking about it again and again. Every news channel, every website and every mail that I receive talks about the same thing. But let us not hold Zizou responsible for France losing the cup. Maybe he would have been instrumental in getting that winning goal - 12 minutes is a long time in football. But for 109 minutes it did not happen. Trezeguet would have anyways taken one of the kicks. That was destiny.
Whatever said and done what Zizou did was out of instinct. Most geniuses are hot headed - McEnroe, Maradona, Senna were some of them. The sport needs people like this. If the sport is filled with only perfectionists like Federer and Alonso then where will the fun element come from? It is this flow of adrenaline which makes a sport like football the egde-of-the-seat-stuff that it is. France has forgiven Zizou and so have I as a fan of the last great creative play-maker. I am sure this incident will just appear as a footnote when we remember this great player who has given so much to the sport.

I would not like to say anything else on Zizou as enough has been spoken already but I would like to share the thoughts of my friend Santanu Sen Gupta who had to say this:
"All news channels are saying the same thing. Whatever Zidane has done in the last match of his career is a red card offense. And there is no doubt the referee has done a proper job after taking expected care in handling the situation. Doesn't matter whether being informed by the 4th referee or video footage. It is also a sad incidence that Football's last emperor (read magician) has had to conclude his last international match with such a sad note. Being his ardent supporters half of the world is also feeling sad.

But we should be proud of Zidane for his act. At least I am feeling proud for my hero that he kept his head high despite of a known punishment for this act. Zidane can not be blamed for France loosing out in the Final. He made his side World Champion in 1998 (comparable only with Diego Maradona). He made his country European Champions in 2000. He was selected World's Footballer of the year for three times. He bought back the golden era of Real Madrid. He pulled France from garbage bin during the pre world cup qualifiers this time and it is for Zidane the French had come to play the finals as group champions. He inspired France to reach the Final. And of course it is a fact that the most talked about (read hyped) "World Footballers of the Years" have been seriously fallen short of his caliber twice in the "World's most coveted venue", the World cup (1998 and 2006). France would have any way lost in this final. A team which could not score from 5 clear chances in the World Cup final just because of positioning of the players should not win. This shows lack of motivation and judgment in the team. And David Trezeguet would have any way missed the penalty even if Zidane went on taking the second shot. This was destiny.

It has also been reported by a lot of news channels that along with Materazzi, Buffon also was abusing Zidane whenever possible. This was very loud and clear especially after he saved Zidane's header. Tactics of sledging has been predominant in Cricket because it is a game of politeness in disguise. Such act of sledging was never heard in Football since verbal abuse is not required when there are enough opportunities of physical abuse (like De Rossi's great elbow) since being a body contact game. Few Italians did adapted a very nasty technique to block Zidane which is a hateful act. And the more I am reading about the incidence on Sunday evening I am loosing my respect for those who were involved in such mean act and their coach who, instead of showing them the right direction, rather encouraged it. This behaviour of Italians and their roughness were demonstrated during US and Australian matches. Italians saved these two matches only by hitting the players without ball and by act of sledging. Luca Tony is another champion of this act while he does this with the opponent's goal keeper and backs.

The entire Cricket world feels proud of our Sunny Gavaskar who raised an active protest against Australian sledging by calling of his team from the field. In Cricket sledging is a highly punishable act if proven and this may cause the players involved a long term ban from the game. But Football does not have such rules since being principally the game of poors and lower class people, whereas cricket is considered as a game of rich and elite class people (while this is not the fact).

If we feel proud for Sunny Gavaskar for his protest, we should be proud of Zidane also who protested such nasty act appropriately".
That was a passionate write-up by Santa and as I sign-off, I would like to congratulate the Italian team for winning the world cup and bringing so much happiness to a soccer-crazy nation. They thoroughly deserved this cup inspired by brilliant performances by Cannavaro and Buffon.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

GROSSO Magic!!!! German Heartbreak!!! The Game Wins

As the world cup progressed into the knock-out stages I just prayed that it is not a repeat of 2002 where Senagal and South Korea spoilt everything and denied us the pleasure to watch classics displayed by the super-powers in the climax to the once-in-four-years show. My prayers were answered and we had a dream QF line-up which ensured dream semis and a finale. And yet as I sat watching the tense, hard-fought Italy-Germany battle, I just realized that we had watched 339 minutes of soccer (injury time excluded) with teams like England, Portugal, Brazil, France Italy and Germany fielding the biggest names in the game and yet we had only one Thierry Henry goal to really write home about. This was when all these teams mentioned were going all out to win.
Just when yet another 90 minutes of play ended at 0-0 last night, I somehow hoped that we get an extra time much like that great semi-final in 1970 contested by these 2 teams. My hopes were suddenly illuminated as Italy twice hit the cross-bar in the first 2 minutes and then Buffon pulled off a stunning save to thwart a Podolski thunderbolt. But still the goal would not come. I was slowly beginning to lose faith in the game. How can we have a stalemate all the time? Why cant the game produce a winner? I thought all the time. As the clock ticked by I was more and more sure that the Germans would reach the final on penalties.
Reaching a world cup final without winning either the Quarter Final or the Semis against some top contenders - that is not what the game wanted.
But 2 minutes was all that was left and one final corner for Italy. Almost all of previous Italy's previous corners resulted in catching practice for Jans Lehmann and I most certainly thought this one would be too. But my faith in the game was to be restored. The game finally won and Grosso (the man who broke the Aussie heart) performed magic which ensured that we will have a winner. Italy deserved it. Such a hard-fought game where neither side ever stopped attacking deserved it. And of course, the fans deserved it too. The Gilardino-Del Piero 1-2 on the counter immediately was just the icing on the cake. To be fair to the brave Germans who fought every inch, I must say even if they had scored the winner and won they would havebeen worthy winners as well inspite of the fact that Italy was marginally a better side on the day.
So, now we can be proud that we watched a semi-final to cherish where Italian magic prevailed at the end against a partisan German crowd and a very resilient and fighting German team who can hold their heads high.
Now, the situation again reminds us of a bit of history though not related to the world cup. Italy in the final beating the hosts, France Vs Portugal in the 2nd semi-final. The situation is a carbon-copy of Euro2000 - one of the best tournaments in recent times.
As for my comment earlier with respect to the dearth of goals, I would say when you have defenders like Cannavaro and goal-keepers like Buffon and Lehmann, this will be the lasting trend. I guess these people will not even let a tennis ball go through them.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Magnificent France turn the clock back as Spain choke yet again

Just when I was about to lose faith in the world cup and start wondering whether the greatest show on earth is really so, my faith is restored by a side which had forgotten to win, forgotten to score and as termed by mosy represented an "old age" home. Spain vs France was all what we want in a world cup match and was without doubt the best match of round 2. After four successive matches ending with 1-0, 1-0, 1-0 and a forgettable 0-0, Monday provided the much needed boost.
It started off with Ronaldo's record breaking 15th goal which was a typical Brazil-special and continued with countless Ghana attacks, a busy day for Dida, smart moves from Brazil, controversial goals, no off-side call when there should have been and hold on.... Just ONE red card.
If Brazil and Ghana set the tempo for the day, Spain and France raised it to the highest levels. This was undoubtedly billed as the match of round 2 along with the Portugal-Holland match but unlike the latter this was a proper hard-fought football match (and not a boxing match or a card game). As the game kicked off, it was youth Vs experiece at its best. The young Spanish legs were fast, held possession for most of the time, attacked non-stop but never looked like finding the back of the net. The French used all the experience, played to their strength and tactically out-smarted their opponents. The Ribery-equalizer was ample proof of that. At 1-1 it was absolutely even-stevens in teh 2nd half but only one side looked likely to score. With all their talent and pace, the inexperinced Spanish could not match up to their experienced rivals. The battle-hardened French could find just that extra bit in a big match like this. As for the Spanish, their inability to lift their game in a big match once again showed and the under-achiever tag remains for another 2 years till Euro2008.
Now, with the French resurgence, we have a QF line-up which has loads of history attached. Brazil Vs France - Could you ask for anything better? Two legends, being great pals at Real Madrid, facing off against each other for one last time. One trying to leave on a high and the other trying to bury that ghost of the 1998 final forever. The stage is again set, actors are the same, just that 8 years have passed by.
And, if there is any team in the world Brazil in jinxed with, its none other than France. In the last 20 years France has managed to knock Brazil out of the world cup twice (1986 - refer to my previous artciel and 1998). I dont think any team has managed to do that ever.
As for the other QF, right now Germany Vs Argentina is the match to watch - undoubtedly two most impresive teams of the competition. Fond memories of that great 1986 final come back again and again.
And lastly, England Vs Portugal brings Skolari and Eriksson against each other for the third time in a row in a Quarter Final - Skolari leading 2-0.
Last time (and only) time England met Portugal in a World Cup KO phase, was when they won the tournament way back in 1966 - with a brace from Bobby Charlton against the brilliance of Eusebio.

So hold your breath. History will have no significance as far as the outcome of these matches is concerned but it will surely make it more special especially with old scores to settle.

Friday, June 23, 2006

At last its Samba Time!!! - The REAL thing starts

As the group phase is about to conclude (with the last 2 groups being decided today) here are some pieces of trivea and comments from the group phase:
  • Remember the famous 1998 final - What was so significant about it? Well, it was the last time Brazil lost a world cup match and the last time France won a world cup match (Hope this trivea holds good only till the time France meet Togo tonight)
  • Coach Luis Fellipe Scolari has now won 10 consecutive world cup final matches - 7 for Brazil in 2002 and 3 for Portugal in 2006. Hope he extends his run but by just one more match. Portugal beat Holland in a nail-biter and then lose to England in another would be just what I want.
  • Ronaldo finally moved and got boot (and head) to ball as he scored twice and created history. He is now at par with Gerd Muller with the most no. of goals in world cup finals (14). Will the magic 15th come against Ghana?
  • Brazil finally displayed the 'beautiful game' that they are known for and what the fans expect. Was it the result of being 0-1 down? I guess so. As a soccer fan thus, I pray that Ghana take a 1-0 lead withing the first 10 minutes. I am sure we will then get the best 80 mins of the world cup. Who can forget Brazil's display when they were 0-1 down the last time after Michael Owen scored in the 2002 QF? Like last night, that day too the equalizer came in 1st half injury time - an amazing Ronaldinho-Rivaldo combo.
  • Australia held Croatia in a tough, hard-fought match full of drama and is bound to give the Azzuri a hard time in their 2nd round clash. Dont be surprised if its a 1-1 and then penalties. And we all know how good the Azurris are when it comes to penalties.
  • Italy put the final nail into the Czech coffin making it a sad exit for Nedved and co. A journey which showed so much promise after the convincing 3-0 win against the US came to a abrupt end. Al least one upset is due in any world cup final - this time it fell on the Czechs. It was all too emotional to watch Buffon hugging Nedved at the end of the match. This is what makes the beautiful game even more beautiful.
  • As of now, Portugal V Holland looks to be the match of Round II in a re-match of their semi-final clash in Euro 2004. Portugal won convincingly then but its going to be far from easy this time around. France V Spain is another possibility unless the French cross all limits and fail to beat Togo. Fireworks can be expected in Germany's and Argentina's matches too against Sweden and Mexico.
  • All in all if things go right, we are in for some mouth watering Quarter Finals, the most awaited ones being Germany V Argentina and Brazil V Spain.

Lets hope and pray that the big guns dont disappoint. The REAL world cup starts now.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

24 passes - 1 GOAL!!!..... and Ghana's 'Czech'mate

Well the title sums up the second phase of group matches in Germany 2006. Ghana's upset and US's subsequent holiding of Italy may have thrown group E wide open but phase II of the group matches was all about Argentina V Serbia-Montenegro. As the 'expert' in ESPN clearly put it - "That goal will send shivers down anybody's spine". It was not Cambiaso's goal. That goal belonged to Argentina. That goal summed up soccer and the great team game that it is. And what was most important is that it did not come against minnows (well in the finals of the world cup, no one is one). It came against a defense which conceded next to nothing in the qualifiers and just one against the dutch boys in their opener (a team having Robben and Nistelrooy). Argentina's performance has already made this world cup a special one irrespective of whatever happens from now on. Most fans will be unanimous in their verdict as to who would win if Argentina were to play Brazil in the final tomorrow. Yes, the stakes have shifted a bit.

Here are some of they other key points from the 2nd phase of group matches

  • France finally scored and Henry proved he can score for France too. But scoring only once, dominating the match and missing umpteen chances did not help as they still haven't won in the world cup since the 1998 final. And worse still, Zizou picked a 2nd yellow card and is out of the do-or-die match against Togo. The end is near - for France and it could well be the end already for the once great Zizou
  • Spain was awesome but its too early to talk about them. They start every world cup like this and then bite the dust in the quarters. We'll pass any judgement on them only after the quarters.
  • Brazil and England both came through with 2-0 wins but were scrappy. Nothing to worry as of now but they need to lift their game by a notch as the knock-out phase starts. Ronaldo needs a break and Rooney needs a break-through.
  • Holland battled off a fighting Ivory Coast - a very exciting team which deserved better but what could you do if you are pooled in with Argentina and Holland. Ghana might have caused the upset but I would still say that the Ivorians are the best from Africa.
  • Italy again failed to finish off even after having a one-man advantage (dunno whether it was the referree or the one extra player in the team).
  • Ukraine redeemed itself and with France hopelessly out of sorts could face an easy opponent in the 2nd round and sneak in to the quarters.

Today is the day when we get to know the first of the 2nd round face-offs and there is (yes there is) a huge possibilty that we'll get England V Germany as early in Round II. I just pray its not (By the time this article is published the result will be well and truly known).

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

And the show begins....

First and foremost what a start!!!! Bang! Bang! Bang! 17 minutes and its three goals in. If you were late in coming home with your packet of Lays and Coke, you would have been too late. Old-timers in the world cup who are so used a 1-0 scoreline in the opening match were in for a German treat as one spectacular goal was followed by another. Breathtaking long-rangers
from Lahm and Frings and brilliant positioning/poaching from Klose gave us a feast, not to forget the hollow defence which allowed Costa Rica to get a couple back. A young attacking German side, a 4-2 scoreline - just the start required. So did a shift in tradition do the trick for FIFA? Traditionally, the defending champions kicked off the tournament but from this year onwards the hosts did so. The opening match proved to be a curse for most champions. Ask Argentina (1990) and France (2002) who bit the dust in the hands of Cameroon and Senegal respectively. Some of the champions scraped through with 1-0 and 2-1 scorelines while others managed a few 1-1s. The Germans had no excess baggage like the "favorites" tag and went for the kill right from the beginning.
Now as we round up the first leg of group matches and having seen all the big guns in action, here are my views:

  • No major upsets which shows that the big guns did not suffer from the any 'first match blues' (I dont care much about the Swedish)
  • England and Portugal were disappointing in their 1-0 wins. It was most ridiculous to hear Sven Goran Erikkson blaming the heat for the disappointing show. Mr Erikkson, this is not Mexico City. Wonder what would the English do if the world cup were to be held in Mexico (Most infamous for 12 noon kick-offs). Portugal made a brilliant start but ended up being booed by their own supporters
  • Most big guns are firing right from the word go and taking a 1-0 lead asap. Some like England and Portugal preferred to sit on it. They could afford to as their opposition were not dangerous. The Dutch tried hard but could not get more. The Czechs demolished the opposition after a 4 min lead.
  • Italy was the major surprise. I was prepared for the same defensive game being satisfied with a 1-0. But it turned out to be cracker. Non-stop back and forth and a very worthy 2-0 scoreline.
  • The Argentina - Ivory Coast match was the most fought. One more Drogba and Ivorians could have well snatched a point. The Argentines did not give an inch, did the simple things right and were home. Most importantly Crespo and Saviola were at the right place at the right time.
  • The 'socceroos' from down under showed their true Aussie spirit and gave the indication that it wont be long that they reach the top in this game too. Watch out Croatia!! (Too early to say watch out Brazil!!!). Has it got to do with the man with the 'midas' touch? Yes, I am talking about coach Guus Hiddink.
  • Brazil were good but the chinks in the defense was obvious. Had the Croat strikers shot the ball a yard or two on either side of Dida, the strory could have well been different. Instead each time they shot straight to Dida's hands.
  • The long-rangers that are being fired time and again - Frings, Lahm, Rosicky, Kaka it would be good idea to send some strikers back home. At least it applies to two of the best - Ronaldo and Henry. Only in the 2nd half did I realize that Ronaldo was playing in the game.
  • The best from Africa: Ivory Coast
  • The best goal: Frings (Germany V Costa Rica)
  • Most entaining of the big-guns: Germany
  • And lastly, the most disappointing big gun award undoubtedly goes to the French. Henry once again realized France was no Arsenal. One of the shots he took at the goal almost looked like a back-pass to his own goalie. Such was the lack of power is the foot of the French. Now France has gone 4 world cup matches without scoring a single goal, ever since Emmanuel Petit scored that 3rd goal in the 1998 final. Looking at the forward line, this goal-less streak is likely to continue.

So after the first set of matches, what I am looking forward to most is Group E, the key to which belongs the Italy-Czech republic showdown on the 22nd. Firstly, because of the great show by both these teams and secondly and most importantly, whoever loses this match or are runners-up in Group E faces Brazil in round 2. I cant wait for that mouth watering encounter.
Something just tells me its going to be Italy. And the memories of '82 come back.

P.S. This article was posted before Spain has kicked off their World Cup campaign.