Monthly Archives: June 2012

Balotelli’s Talent Comes Good

Mario Balotelli stood shirtless, his intimidating muscles flexed, staring straight ahead. He refused to betray any emotion. Indeed, he refused to do anything other than stand and stare. But then his teammates engulfed him, and, through a crowd of sweating bodies, his face slowly softened into the faintest trace of a smile.

On Thursday night, Loew’s German players stopped being world beaters and instead became nearly-men. Italy progressed to the final, where they will serve as the last obstacle in Spain’s pursuit of a historic third consecutive tournament victory. Antonio Cassano, who suffered a stroke in October, elevated himself from endearing bad boy to national hero. Andrea Pirlo commanded midfield with his customary elegance and poise, but the contributions of others overshadowed him. Italy’s was the ultimate team performance. 

Continue reading

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Fabregas Fights For Starting Spot

The one thing missing from Cesc Fabregas’ catalogue of honors is a victory at a major club tournament. Fabregas has never won a league title or a Champions League. In terms of trophies – and, in the modern game, football success is almost always measured in trophies – Fabregas still lags behind his international colleagues.

His move to Barcelona was supposed to change all that, and, eventually, it may. Last season, however, Fabregas failed to justify the years of wrangling that preceded his transfer. Although he impressed for the first few months, injury halted his progress, and he never regained that early momentum. In the months between Barcelona’s trip to Espanyol in January and Spain’s opening game two weeks ago, he didn’t score a single goal. Fabregas’ barren run seems even worse compared with the recent successes of his Spain teammates.

Fabregas is part of a generation of Spanish footballers that will probably never be bettered. The Xavi-Iniesta-Busquets-Alonso midfield is peerless. The presence of those four footballers, as well as striker David Villa and defenders Gerard Pique and Carlos Puyol, in the same country at roughly the same time is a never-to-be-repeated phenomenon.

Continue reading

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Here We Go Again

And thus begins another two years of hurt for England. The only difference this time is that the inevitable penalty-shootout defeat was a deserved punishment, rather than a cruel trick of fate.

England’s tournament destiny was sealed the moment that injury ruled out Jack Wilshere. Wilshere isn’t the first, and certainly won’t be the last, player to be touted as the “future of English football,” but he would have added cohesiveness to an England midfield that was outnumbered and overrun in all four matches.

With Wilshere unavailable, Hodgson should have worked harder to recruit a player capable of dictating the tempo of a game. Gareth Barry was never going to be the answer. Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes are the only fully fit English players at all comparable to Italy’s Andrea Pirlo. But Carrick turned down a place in the squad when Hodgson refused to guarantee him a starting spot. And Scholes, frustrated by coaches who constantly played him out of position, had retired from internationals in the mid-2000s. He showed no interest in a return. Without a passer in midfield, England never had a prayer. Possession is the crux of international football, and it was England’s inability to maintain possession that ultimately cost them a place in the semifinals.

Continue reading

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Germany Smash Stereotypes

Look under the letter “G” in football’s coffee-stained, dog eared lexicon. Run your finger down the page, past “Garrincha,” past “Gascoigne.” Stop. Squint closely. Absorb the clichés, the fallacies, the half-truths, the stereotypes, and the crass World War II references. Shut the book. Burn it.

The Germany of the lexicon are efficient and pragmatic, the big bullies who nicked Johan Cruyff’s lunch money.  

For fans and the media this traditional picture of a German footballer – quiet, serious, stolid, ice-cold – is a comfortable, self-perpetuating myth. The more the public believes that all German footballers are cold-hearted killers, the more reality seems to conform to that belief, even if the belief is blatantly erroneous. Terms like “German efficiency” are standard football vernacular. But anyone with a background in German football history knows that the truth is more complicated. And anyone with eyes can see that Joachim Loew’s Germany are hardly an emotionless winning machine.

Continue reading

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

England Depend on Unreliable Rooney

Ten months have passed since Wayne Rooney aimed a kick at Miodrag Dzudovic’s leg. That moment of madness spawned a brief public hate campaign against Rooney, a frustratingly familiar routine that lost all momentum when England fans realized that the Manchester United striker represented their last, tenuous hope of tournament success.

Rooney, who has polarized opinion since his emergence on the international stage in 2004, is one of only two players to have been sent off more than once while playing for England. The other is David Beckham. You could hardly find a starker contrast. Beckham is suave, handsome and married to a pop star; rumor has it that his match-worn jerseys smell of something suspiciously like perfume.  Rooney is rough, ugly and married to his childhood sweetheart; in 2011, he swore loudly at a camera during an overly boisterous goal celebration.

What Beckham and Rooney have in common is an uncanny ability to frustrate and inspire in equal measure; especially when playing internationally.

Continue reading

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Nasri Seeks Redemption

On the face of it, Manchester City’s thrilling title success looks like Nasri’s plan come to fruition. Despite the claims of Gunners fans, he left Arsenal not for money, but for a shot at the trophies that have eluded Arsene Wenger for eight years. To Nasri, Manchester City, with their Arab riches, represented an enticing chance for sustained, silver-lined success.

Nasri had enjoyed a productive spell at Arsenal. He missed out on major honors, but his goals – especially a brace against Fulham – solidified his reputation as one of Europe’s most dangerous creative midfielders. Come summer 2011, he was a hot property. First Manchester United and then Chelsea chased his signature. Eastlands, though, was always his preferred destination: “That’s all I wanted since the start,” he said after sealing the move. “I’m happy to be there in this dressing room.”

Perhaps some of the success went to his head. In his first interview with Manchester City’s official television channel, Nasri claimed that Arsenal fans are “not that passionate”. The remarks quickly backfired.

Continue reading

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Death of the Striker?

There’s nothing better than an accomplished center forward. A selfish, two-footed goal-scoring machine; a Gerd Muller or a Marco van Basten. Strikers score goals and goals win games, or so the cliché goes. Of late, however, strikers have become expendable. Indeed, the position seems to be going out of fashion.

When David Villa broke his leg at the Club World Cup, Spain manager Vincente Del Bosque was left with a tactical conundrum. Should he take a risk on misfiring Chelsea striker Fernando Torres, or field fatiguing Athletic Bilbao front man Fernando Llorente instead? In the end, Del Bosque rejected both options. When Spain kicked off against Italy, they did so without a recognized striker. Flanked by David Silva and Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas started through the middle as a false nine – Lionel Messi’s position for Barcelona.

That approach proved unsuccessful: Italy’s back three coped easily with the toothless Spanish attack, and Torres returned to the starting line-up for the next game, versus the Republic of Ireland. But the willingness of the reigning European and World champions — football trendsetters for the last four years –to countenance a striker-less system raises important questions about the future of the position.

Continue reading

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Ronaldo Recovers His Swagger

Cristiano Ronaldo is supposed to have it easy. He dates beautiful women, collects an exorbitant salary and plays professional football for Real Madrid. No one complains anymore about his arrogance or his theatrics. After another immense season, he’s earned the right to say and do what he wants. Yet Ronaldo somehow seems unfulfilled. A lurking suspicion remains that the Portuguese international just isn’t as good as he seems to be. On Thursday, those doubts grew when Ronaldo missed a series of gilt-edged chances in Portgual’s 3-2 victory over Denmark. In the white of Madrid, critics said, he would have scored at least twice.

Maybe all this has something to do with Ronaldo’s rival and footballing antithesis, Lionel Messi. If not for Messi, Ronaldo would, indisputably, be accounted the world’s most accomplished footballer. Instead, he’s an awfully talented narcissist defined by the one player who is better than he is. Indeed, for a player of his stature, Ronaldo has won relatively little – especially compared to his sparkling contemporaries. Messi and Barcelona’s other insufferable perfectionists have twice denied Ronaldo the Champions League — once when Ronaldo played for Manchester United and once when he played for Real Madrid. Xavi and Iniesta, neither a member of the pantheon to which Messi and Ronaldo belong, have each won more silverware than the Portuguese has.

Continue reading

Tagged , , , , ,

Arshavin Shows Signs Of Life

After a year of mediocrity, Andrei Arshavin is approaching something close to top form.

In the fall of 2009, Andrei Arshavin had the world at his feet. His quadruple at Anfield, a goal-scoring feat that ultimately helped Manchester United more than it did Arsenal, was still recent history. He was quickly becoming one of the game’s most recognizable stars, just in time for the 2010 World Cup.

But Russia, coming off a hugely successful European Championships, didn’t qualify. They finished second in the same group as 2006 semi-finalists Germany, earning a straightforward-looking play-off against Slovenia. Russia won the home leg 2-1, but lost 1-0 in the return fixture; they were eliminated on away goals. Humiliatingly, they finished the second leg with only nine men.

In truth, Arshavin had begun to fade before that loss. “Maybe my game did not look so bad from the outside, but inside I felt that I was not a part of the team,” Arshavin said after the first leg in Moscow. Even then, he understood what failure to qualify would mean for himself and for his country: “To stay out means to be on the sidelines of football for a time”.

Continue reading

Tagged , , , , , , ,

The European Championships Mark A Football Crossroads

As those annoying Internet clocks countdown to opening day of the 2012 European Championships, we can’t seem to resist a slow, nostalgic stroll down memory lane. We indulge ourselves in Panenka penalties, Van Basten volleys and Schmeichel saves. We lament Southgate’s miss in 1996 and glory in the wonders of Turkey’s 2008 run.

The resonance of the European Championships is astounding. They have provided a canvas for some of the most entertaining international football of the last 20 years and, more recently, they have inaugurated massive tactical and stylistic changes. Short-termism is, perhaps, the defining characteristic of modern football. In the past, tactical trends lasted for decades. These days, they exist in four-year cycles. And, increasingly, those periods are bookended by the European Championships.

Continue reading

Tagged , , , , , ,
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 278 other followers