Friday, May 30, 2008

Feel the Euro!

So we had a really silly icebreaker at work the other day where we went around the room and had to describe which car and fictional character best represents us. I wish I had the gall of my friend Eric who simply got up and walked out, but instead, I fumbled around for an answer. My answers were the typically lame answers that one would expect at an associate lunch at a law firm where everyone is simply trying to avoid saying anything memorable or interesting. I went with the Acura Integra that I drove for 11 years (because I'm sentimental and it was covered in Michigan stickers) and Jabba the Hutt (because I like to eat). In retrospect, I wish I simply would have said "Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs" and sat down to puzzled looks. I also wish I would have said that a Mazda Miata best represents me because it pretends to be European, but it really isn't. With that out of the way, a few random notes on the run-up to Euro '08:

1. England's hat-trick hero from the '66 World Cup Final Geoff Hurst is backing the Dutch. Nigel Powers would be most disappointed. Hurst's article is especially useful because the comments section contains a link to this outstanding piece by Simon Kuper about why he roots for the Dutch. It's hard to pick out one or two paragraphs that best convey the gist of the piece, so I implore you to read the whole thing, but here are a couple:

As a child I would arise each Saturday at 7am and race to the ground. The gates would still be locked, but my team-mates and I would rattle them until, at last, at about 8am, someone unlocked them. Then we would play on ASC's gravel pitch until our match kicked off. Afterwards we would hang around the ground hoping for a game with another team. Then we would go to someone's house to play football. When the football was rained off 'a time of bleak despair in the Kuper household' we would race to the ground anyway, where we would be taken to a hall to play indoors, or be shown videos of the 1974 and 1978 World Cups.

Almost all Dutch boys spent their youth much as I did. Of the 14 million people living in Holland in the Seventies, one million played football at clubs like ASC. No other country had a higher proportion of registered footballers. Franz Beckenbauer said he finally understood why Dutch players were so good when he flew over Holland in a helicopter and saw that it consisted chiefly of football grounds.

No wonder we all played. My parents paid ASC about £50 a year, and in return my brother and I were allowed virtually to live at the club. Twice a week we were trained by coaches who had completed long courses for the privilege. One had played professional football. We played on pitches obsessively watered and mowed by the local council. Dutch football, in fact, is a testament to Dutch social democracy...

Cruyff shaped all Dutch footballers: Gullit and Rijkaard who played with him, the Dutchmen who will appear at Euro 2000, and all of us at ASC. The main change he unwittingly effected in Leiden was to get us talking about football. Cruyff himself, when he later became a manager, was to complain: 'The moment you open your mouth to breathe, Dutch footballers say, `Yes, but... that was his own fault. Cruyff was the man who turned Dutch football into a sort of academic debating society. 'Football is a game you play with your head,' he once said. Other countries do not see it that way. I once asked Gullit to compare the English, the Italians and the Dutch. 'In a Dutch changing room,' he said, 'everyone thinks he knows best. In an Italian changing room everybody probably also thinks he knows best, but nobody dares to tell the manager. And in an English changing room, they just have a laugh.'

I have interviewed British chief executives, Argentine generals and Ukrainian mafiosi, but the most talkative people I know are Dutch footballers. You speak to them for an hour and a half, ask every question you can think of, and when you finally turn off the tape recorder they hold forth for another half hour. Sjaak Swart, who told me at the start of the interview that he had no time, said, when I finally managed to cut him short: 'Another cup of coffee, boy?' I will be rooting for the Dutch this month. And I know they are the most gifted team in the championship. But I expect them to lose. That is because the Dutch think that winning is beside the point...

To the Dutch, 'good football' is the passing, thinking, balletic game invented by Cruyff. The master himself has taken to saying that Holland 'really' won the World Cup of 1974, even though they lost in the final. How so? 'Well', says Cruyff, 'everyone still remembers the beautiful football Holland played, and that is a victory more enduring than mucky gauges like final scores.'

There is a famous quote by Edward Galeano to the effect of "show me how you play football and I'll tell you what that says about your nation." That couldn't be truer than it is with the Dutch. A small country in Northern Europe that both produced some of the greatest artists of the second millennium and a football culture that emphasizes playing well. A country that has to be obsessed with its use of space because of its population density (as well as the fact that the Netherlands are below sea level) produces a playing style that emphasizes the use of space on the pitch. I'm not sure that there are any US sports in which our playing style represents anything about our nation...other than the fact that we play our own games and that is emblematic of American exceptionalism. There is also nothing in the US that unifies us the way that playing football unifies the Dutch. The flip side of the coin would be that we are a heterodox culture where people can play whatever they want and find a thousand other people who made the same choices.

As pertaining to Euro '08, the irony is that the Dutch don't always play beautiful football anymore, which has led to sharp criticism in the Netherlands of national hero Marco van Basten. Van Basten is a Cruyff protege, so it's strange that he can't produce the same flowing style that Cruyff made famous. Part of me thinks that van Basten is limited by the fact that this generation of Dutch players just isn't as good as the three major generations that preceded it: the Cruyff-Neeskens-Krol-Rep generation, the Rijkaard-Guillit-van Basten-Koeman generation, and the Bergkamp-Stam-de Boer(s)-Davids generation. Dutch players aren't dominating the top European leagues the way they have in the past and the teams in the Eredivisie aren't making deep European runs. Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie are hurt all the time. Rafael van der Vaart is playing well, but he is doing so at Hamburg, a smaller club in the Bundesliga. No one on the backline can be described as a quality starter for a major club. The list of in-form Dutch stars for major clubs in the biggest European leagues is three names long: Edwin van der Sar, Ruud van Nistlerooy, and Wesley Sneijder.

Another part of me thinks that van Basten is to blame because he has betrayed the country's traditions. Dutch footballers are supposed to be interchangeable (or at least they were in the Clockwork Orange era). Van Basten's Dutch sides struggle to create goals against quality competition because there is no link between the midfield and the forward line. The team is too specialized. For the Dutch style to work, van Basten has to find midfielders to play box-to-box properly. In other words, he has to give Sneijder the right instructions and Sneijder has to play the month of his life for the Dutch to produce the great football for which they are famous. It's questionable whether van Basten even plays the Dutch style anymore, as he is apparently going to play a 4-2-3-1 as opposed to the 4-3-3. The new formation probably takes advantage of Sneijer and van der Vaart's talents better, but it might end up being too narrow.

2. Kudos to ESPN Classic for playing European Cup finals every night leading up to the tournament. I watched the '80 final on Wednesday night and the '84 Final last night. What strikes me watching these older games is that the players and the ball move much slower, but there is more space on the pitch for stars to operate. The '80 final was especially striking because West Germany and Belgium went back and forth at one another like a see saw. The game finished 2-1, but there were far more chances in that match than there are in a typical modern match, let alone a modern final. The last team to score two goals in regulation in a European Cup final was Denmark in 1992. Prior to 1996, every European Champion scored at least two regulation goals in the final (with the caveat that Italy won in 1968 after a 1-1 draw and then a 2-0 win in the replay). At present, the stakes are so high that managers emphasize minimizing risk above all other considerations.

3. Changing course from the Dutch love-in, I thought at the end of the 2006 World Cup that Germany would be the favorites in Euro '08 and I've seen nothing to change my mind. Michael Ballack rounding into form in the second half of the season is an ominous sign for Germany's rivals, especially with his history of producing for the national team. Mario Gomez was torrid for Stuttgart this year and given the Germans a second striker to play alongside Miroslav Klose (assuming that Gomez beats out the slumping Lucas Podolski for the spot). The Germans are not without questions. Jogi Low's system does push Ballack back a little bit too much. The German outside midfielders aren't especially imposing. Their keeper couldn't get off the bench ar Arsenal. Christoph Metzelder had an injury-plagued year at Real Madrid. Still, you'd have to think that a team that emphasizes fitness and a pressing style will have an advantage at altitude. The Germans also have an extremely easy group that will allow them to pace themselves at the start of the tournament.

4. I'll be very interested to see how Raymond Domenech picks France's team. France, more than any other team in the tournament, has a split between established veterans who are not in form (read: every French player at Barcelona) and young players who are in form, but aren't proven veterans at this level (Bafetimbi Gomis, Karim Benzema, and Samir Nasri). I'm hoping as a Dutch fan that France rolls out an homage to the 2000 European champions and flames out.

5. I'm also very interested to see how Cristiano Ronaldo plays when he is not surrounded by superior talent. Ronaldo had about as good a season as any club player in recent memory. Is he tired? Is he fat and happy? Is he supremely confident and ready to stamp himself as an international star as well as a club icon? Can he and Nani find proper hookers in Austria? Inquiring minds want to know.

6. If not for their history, Spain would be the favorites in this tournament. (When have we heard that before?) More than any other side, they have the greatest amount of in-form talent. Fernando Torres was arguably the best striker in Europe this season. Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas were monumental for Real. Cesc Fabregas had a great season at Arsenal. Xavi and Andres Iniesta were possibly the sole players at Barcelona to give good accounts this season. Spain also has a manageable group, although matches against teams coached by Guus Hiddink and Otto Rehhagel are dangerous because well-coached teams can frustrate the Spanish.


LD said...

In re: "I'm not sure that there are any US sports in which our playing style represents anything about our nation...other than the fact that we play our own games and that is emblematic of American exceptionalism.", I have a poorly formed thought...

I think basketball is actually emblematic of certain American qualities - specialization and bull-headed individualism. Foreign players (especially European players, but also the South Americans) diversify their skills - big men develop jump shots and ball-handling skills - while their American counterparts focus on performing their one role (specialized skills for a certain position). Maybe there's some connection to a Henry Ford manufacturing line for the American players. Or just that Americans do what is in front of them, while Europeans seek to do more? The other thing is bull-headed individualism. How many times have you seen an American basketball player clear out and try a one-on-one against a defender, with no real advantage, just because he wants to show off skills? How often have you seen the other 4 players on the team clearing out into space, hoping to get the ball to try the same thing? It's not team basketball, it rarely works as well as movement away from the ball and passing, but that demands cooperation and shared responsibility. Americans prefer "I did it my way" to "let's do this together", even when it's less successful.

Maybe I don't know what I'm talking about. But that's the sport I think best shows how an "American" style can develop.

Anonymous said...

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John said...

Id, way to generalize about ALL American basketball players. Nice comparison too. Do you not realize that the few Euros and South Americans that play in the NBA are the absolute creme de la creme of their leagues?

I'm sure your comparison has NOTHING to do with the fact that most American players are black and most Euros/South Americans are white.

chg said...

I too am sure the post has nothing to do with skin color, so I'm puzzled why you would interject it into the discussion.

I think ld's analysis is faulty, but international big men are certainly noted for better passing and shooting skills than their American counterparts.

chg said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
chg said...

Also, most American basketball players are white. Most professional American basketball players are black.

Note: Previous post deleted due to flipping black/white in the paragraph.

LD said...

John, I readily admit that it's not a fully-developed idea. And I'll also say that race may have something to do with it, but it's not that simple. There's a system in American basketball that doesn't exist in Europe and South America - AAU/Youth Development. Coaching in this system drives specialization, and "standing out", to garner more attention from scouts or shoe reps. It's not the same in Europe, where most young players sign with a team early on, and the team has different motivations and incentives at improving the player's skills and versatility.

Does race have something to do with it? I'm sure it does, but I don't know how it works. In fact, most of these (admittedly inchoate) thoughts I have came from reading Paul Shirley's book on being a pro basketball vagabond (playing in the NBA/ABA/CBA and several Eurpoean leagues). Read that and you might get more of what I'm trying to say.

Ryno said...

Is Arragones still managing the Spain?

I've not been impressed in their past performances on the international stage. 4-nil blowouts over overwhelmed African nations and failure to score against more disciplined sides.

Anonymous said...

The Dutch are back !

Holland - Italy 3 - 0

Holland - France 4 - 1

Hup Oranje Hup Oranje !