Euro 2008: the Hosts' Fates Diverge

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Who knew that Switzerland had a monsoon season? Weather has not been kind to Euro2008, and Wednesday it washed away Switzerland's chances of advancing, following a 2-1 defeat to Turkey in a match played in man-the-lifeboats conditions in St. Jakob-Park in Basel. It was a cruel fate for the co-hosts, who put out maximum effort in both of its matches and got nothing to show for it. And the wash-out was just the beginning for Swiss fans: by the end of the week all their ethnic cousins in Europe's soccer heartland were faring far worse than predicted after Germany lost to the Croats, Italy squeaked through with a draw against Romania, and the French team was handed an ignoble 4-1 defeat by the Dutch.

The unrelenting downpour in Basel gradually reduced Wednesday's game to a cross between football and water polo. Along the sidelines the ball stopped bouncing and rolling — conditions under which a match could be abandoned. But once Hakan Yakan converted a pass from Gelson Fernandes that nearly stopped dead in the goalmouth, in the 31st minute, there was no way the game was going to be stopped. Both teams had to settle for knocking long balls in the air like any other pub team and hoping for the best. The best turned out to be Turkey — Semih Sentürk to be more precise, who slipped between defenders to head a long cross from Nihat Kahveci into the net in the fifty-seventh minute. In injury time, Turkey's Arda Turan collected a terrific pass from Tuncay Sanli, cut inside, let loose a shot that deflected off a defender's foot and sank into the net, along with the entire Swiss nation. "It's a very, very big disappointment. The whole country is probably as disappointed as the team," said Swiss coach Koebi Kuhn. They sure were in Zurich.

England didn't make it to this Euro, since its team is so awful. That didn't prevent the English from sending an awful referee, so here was Howard Webb handing Austria an unwarranted lifeline via a ridiculous penalty call deep into injury time in its game against Poland. Webb whistled Mariusz Lewandowski for a shirt pull in the box as players jostled each other before a free kick, and Ivica Vastic dispatched the spot kick to make it 1-1. Lewandowski was doing what he and every other defender had been doing their whole professional lives. "I don't know why the referee saw what nobody else saw," said Poland coach Leo Beenhakker. "Maybe he just wanted to show he was a big boy." And a small man.

The Italians looked far better against Romania than France did against the Netherlands. That wasn't difficult, and their urgency was apparent. "Presto, presto, ragazzi," pleaded one fan behind me. Playing Luca Toni and Alessandro Del Piero up front in their more traditional 4-4-2, the Azzurri pressed the attack with direct balls and along the wings in the first half, but the Romanians never panicked, maintaining their compact, fallback defense. Against the run of play Romania went ahead when Adrian Mutu anticipated Gianluca Zambrotta's back pass and blew a shot past Gianluigi Buffon in the 55th minute. Then Romania made the basic mistake of relaxing after scoring a goal. A minute later, Christian Panucci converted a corner kick at the far post to knot the score. Mutu could have won the game when the Romanians were awarded a penalty kick, but Buffon made a fabulous hand-to-foot save that preserved the point for the Italians.

Meanwhile in Berne, French coach Raymond Domenech spent more time sparring with the media than focusing on his team's big choc with the Netherlands. His vegetative side simply had no strategy to take down the strong Dutch team, and it showed. After some polite and tense foreplay, the Netherlands exploded in a sparkling offensive action on a corner kick that ended with Liverpool striker Dirk Kuyt scoring nine minutes in. The French struggled to survive the half, then came out after the interval ready for payback. Les Bleus pushed, shoved, sprinted, and fought to stay alive, but the Dutch would have none of it. Substitute Robin van Persie wound up on the winning end of a series of fast-break passes, the last from fellow sub Arjen Robben, to put Holland in command in the 59th minute. The third goal came in the 72nd minute — just a minute after Thierry Henry had pulled a goal back for France. From there it was classic: France struggling to get into scoring range, then paying dearly with a furious Dutch counter-offensive that could have shot the final score up a couple of notches.

The French capitulation and Italy's draw sets up a do or die repeat of the 2006 World Cup final between them next Tuesday — certainly without Zinedine Zindane and likely without his foil Marco Materazzi — while the Romanians take on the Dutch, who are through to the next round. A couple of draws and Romania advances.

Co-host Austria, hanging by a thread, will have to overcome Germany to reach the knockout phase. The Austrians might take notes on how the Croats fashioned their decisive win over the favored Germans: by completely clogging the gears of the German passing machine. Germany center midfielder Michael Ballack spent the day spewing misdirected passes all over the pitch, never quite finding Mario Gomez or Miroslav Klose. Croatia's leprechaun middleman Luka Modric, in the meantime, was dancing around the pitch with the ball, often picking out Ivica Olic, who scored the second goal when a deflected shot from the right went past German keeper Jens Lehmann, hit the post and fell perfectly to the Croatian forward. No one seemed to enjoy the game more than Croatia's antic coach, Slaven Bilic. Diamond in his ear, good luck charm in his pocket, Bilic patrols the sideline like an overactive golden retriever. "It's always a lot more difficult in the dugout than on the pitch," Bilic said afterward.

The German loss sets up an epic clash between Germany and Austria in Vienna next week, the host nation against one of its all-time rivals. The Austrians, of whom so little was expected in this tournament, now have a chance to do something historic. Let's hope the Swiss monsoon doesn't move east.
With Reporting by Bruce Crumley/Paris