Euro 2008: The Energy and the Agony

  • Share
  • Read Later

Greek defender Sotirios Kyrgiakis and Spanish midfielder Ruben de La Red jump for the ball.

"Expect Emotions" goes the slogan to Euro 2008. We've certainly experienced some. First there was the realization that having ourselves arrived in Europe on Friday, our tickets for a Sunday match would be delivered promptly the following Tuesday. A visceral, sinking feeling, that — something Sweden must have endured in the waning seconds of its last gasp loss to Spain. Then we nearly got trampled by Russian fans swarming on to a stadium shuttle bus-a frightening feeling. That could well describe Italy's experience when the Dutch ran riot over them in their opening match, 3-0. We also got hauled off the road in Salzburg by a motorcycle cop who insisted, in German, that our license plate was illegal. We nervously nodded and nodded in English and waited and waited until, just like the Greek team, he gave up and went home.

What no one expected was that Turkey would deliver the biggest emotional wallops in the first round. First, the Turks punctured the hopes of co-host Switzerland with Arda Turan's injury time dagger during a cloudburst in Basel. Then, in an epic 15 minutes against the Czech Republic, Turkey mounted a comeback that will talked about from Akhiser to Van for as long as a football is being kicked there. Three goals, including another injury-time stunner, this one from the brilliant Nihat Kahveci, absolutely gutted the Czechs. Turkey's suburb central midfielder Tuncay Sanli did it all that night. When not sending passes that freed his wingers to hurl themselves at the Czech goal, he was busy retrieving loose balls for restarts, rushing over with a replacement for a linesman's broken flag, and then, when goalie Volkan Demirel foolishly got dismissed for shoving Jan Koller, Tuncay manned the goal, since the subs had all been used. He probably drove the team bus back to the hotel, too. For the Czechs, it was as difficult a loss as any team could withstand, one made all that harder by goalie Peter Czech's uncharacteristic, and catastrophic, error that led to Turkey's second goal. Czech captain Tomás Ujfalusi called it "a cruel way to end our participation in this tournament."

For France, dismissal wasn't particularly unjust, just brutal. In its third game, against Italy on June 17, France lost its talisman Franck Ribéry to injury barely 10 minutes in, then lost defender Eric Abidal to a red card 15 minutes later for hacking Luca Toni in the box. Andrea Pirlo's subsequent penalty put Italy ahead and then Thierry Henry capped France's night by deflecting Daniele De Rossi's free kick into the net in the second half. This is a sorry end to a generation of greatness. But all was not lost. After the game, French coach Raymond Domenech, who should be out of a job soon, proposed to his long-time girlfriend during a television interview. And good luck to you, Mrs. Consolation Prize. The Romanians, too, lost badly. They had Italy on the ropes but failed to seal the deal when Adrian Mutu's penalty was saved by Gianluigi Buffon. The Poles never had a chance. Nor did the Austrians, although you'd never know it from the support the team got. Now, the cafes of Vienna have been drained by the dismissal of the Austrian side, and none of the natives seem inclined to switch allegiance to Turkey, despite the many thousands of Turks living here.

As Euro 2008 headed into the knockout phase, the biggest question is whether anyone, least of all Russia, could stop Holland? Marco van Basten's team has swept passed Italy, France and Romania without stopping, which is pretty much the way its midfield plays. Van Basten has a red-hot Wesley Sneijder leading the attack, and the prospect of Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie coming off the bench has to frighten any opposing defenders. And Ruud van Nistelrooy at his goal poaching best. That may be too much for its next foe, Russia. The Russians were another one of the surprise packages of the first round, outlasting Greece 1-0 and subduing Sweden with two nearly perfect goals, the second a five-pass combination that Andrei Arshavin finished to give the throng of supporters shouting "Roos-y-a" the feeling that the Mighty Bear, which won the first Euro in 1960 as the CCCP, was back. Yet coach Guus Hiddink has already warned his team not to be naïve. The Russians couldn't handle Spain's Fernando Torres and David Villa, and the Dutch are yet to peak.

The Germans, on the other hand, are searching for the team that ran Poland off the pitch in the opening match. The one that lost 2-1 to Croatia and got by Austria 1-0 thanks to a Michael Ballack free kick blast doesn't appear to pose much of a threat to Portugal. And the Germans will be without their coach, Joachim Löw, who is serving a one-game suspension for getting dismissed during the Austria match. Although a second choice Portugal side lost to Switzerland — which salved some wounds for the co-hosts — tonight there will be Christiano Ronaldo and Deco to deal with, and as they showed against the Czechs, that's a handful. "You can never stop him for 90 minutes," German team manager Oliver Bierhoff said of Ronaldo. But you can run him over, and the Germans will use their size as much as possible to separate the Portuguese from the ball. The Germans need to limit the damage Ronaldo can do, and hope that their striker Mario Gomez can relocate his goal scoring touch.

The play from the opening round suggests the semis could be Holland against Spain, Portugal against Turkey. It's tough to bet against a team riding its momentum like Turkey is at the moment. And counting Germany out is always a bad idea. But Holland against Spain — you can imagine a 5-3 final score — could be the game of the tournament, assuming the Spaniards can manage a way through a depleted Italy. And why not? Spain has two superb finishers in Torres and Villa and an equally lethal midfield. The Italians, who turned their first round into a three-part opera — tragedy (vs. Holland), desperation (vs. Romania) and redemption (vs. France)— are going to need some new actors. Italy's maestro Andrea Pirlo is suspended, as is their Rottweiler defensive midfielder Gennaro Gattuso. On the plus side, striker Luca Toni has to find the net sooner or later, and bad boy forward Antonio Cassano has put real menace in Italy's attack. But if this is indeed a newly mature Spanish side, as coach Luis Aragonés says, "The only thing we need now is a positive attitude. We have to forget it is Italy or whoever and think about winning — that's it." In the knockout phase, what other choice is there?