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Sports

Euro 2012 Analysis: Lessons Learned from England vs. France

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Do people still buy and watch DVDs anymore? Honest question.

About a decade ago, maybe because I was just getting out of college, I'd spend a decent amount of my new bi-weekly paycheck -- the fuck is FICA? -- on all sort of media, be it DVDs or this roundish discs that played music called CDs.

One of the appeals of purchasing a DVD were all the special features. Seriously, who wouldn't want to watch a 15 minute behind the scenes feature from "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me"?

In fact ... 

// Runs over to DVD player ... blows off dust ... yes, Heather Grahamn still has it.


Ok, I'm back. What was I talking about? DVDs?

Yeah, one actual useful feature of the stunningly out-dated media are the commentary tracks.

One of the better ones from this era was Dutch director Paul Verhoeven's chat during the run of "Starship Troopers." In part, it's fun to just listen to a guy drone on-and-on with a thick Dutch accent, of which my friend Mike does a pretty good impression. Moreso it's enjoyable because Verhoeven, like most European directors reared in the 20th Century and touched by the horrors of World War II, has a very matter of fact way of discussing everything.

Character dies on screen? Eh. No big deal. Giant fire-breathing alien insect melts off the arm of a hero? So what.

Here's how Verhoeven describes the inner turmoil of war hero Johnny Rico after he finally finds happiness with the tomboy love interest "Izzy" after he finally stopped pining for the uppity space pilot bitch played by Denise Richards.


"Johnny Rico couldn't have his cake and eat it too."

That quote, oft repeated and said by many throughout the years, was ringing in my head during the latter stages of England's 1-1 draw Monday in the first Group D game of Euro 2012 in Ukraine.

The game itself, if you've followed the recent career of England manager Roy Hodgson wasn't much of a surprise. England grabbed a 1-0 lead in the first half thanks to a nice free kick delivered by Steven Gerrard, which Jolean Lescott nodded -- or let it hit his head and deflect -- past France keeper Hugo Lloris.

England being England, couldn't see the lead to halftime and Samir Nasri ripped an equalizer to the near post of Joe Hart, as midfielders Gerrard and Scott Parker dropped deep into their own penalty area, allowing the Manchester City attacker plenty of time to settle and blast his wormburner into the net.

After that, considering it was the first group match neither team -- in the allegedly sweltering heat of Donetsk -- decided going out-and-out attack made much sense. France held the ball, passed around and Karim Benzema and Franck Ribery tried a few chances. England, sat back, gasped for its breath, and never even sprung a counter attack from its speedy players like Danny Welbeck or Ashley Young.

All-and-all, a job done for both teams with a point, which isn't a bad result for either in the opener of a tournament, especially with winnable matches with Sweden and Ukraine upcoming. 

Naturally, on Twitter, ESPN and pretty much the entire soccer planet, the debate raged from out-and-out mockery of Hodgson's stodgy defensive tactics to disgust that a team would try to play ugly in a major tournament. 

It was actually quite funny on ESPN when ESPN host Rebecca Lowe asked Michael Ballack what he thought of the performance by the Three Lions. Ballack(*), to that point, could barely stumble to say three words in a row without trailing off, basically ripped England for its lackluster, ugly, defensive play. In turn, Alexi Lalas being Alexi Lalas sprung to the defense of England, all but hailing it as a magnificent performance worthy of celebration.

Oy.

(*) The comedic ineptness from Ballack in front of the cameras in the studio Euro might be the best thing ESPN's ever done. The stammers. The blank stares. The one word answers. Brilliant! Granted, most European pros probably wouldn't even want to take a piss in Bristol, Conn., let alone spend a month there during their summer vacation, so fair play to Ballack, I guess. 


Let's take a quick jaunt back to South Africa in 2010 for the final between Spain and the Netherlands, won in extra time by the Spanish 1-0. At the time I wrote (not very well, mind you) how it was a debate between how we look at sports, comparing it to a math vs. art debate and why we get so crazed, at times, debating the merits of a soccer match using terms like "worthy" and "deserved."

It drive me crazy when often when we dismiss games or hard-fought 1-0 results if they don't include artistic mastery. This is sports, not Art History 101, isn't it?

Take Dutch legend Johann Cruyff, who famously dismissed his nation's tactics in the 2010 final -- Nigel de Jong's kung fu kick on Xabi Alonso as an example -- grumbling the Dutch had lost their identity. (Well, it actually just went to Spain since Cruyff himself imported the 1970s Rinus Michaels 'Total Football' philosphy to Barcelona, which in turn has been the underlying driving force behind Spain winning the 2008 Euro and 2010 World Cup.)

My question, and I hate to agree tangentially with Lalas(*), is what do we value as soccer fans? What do we really want?

(*) Slight update: If England, having seen the way Ukraine/Sweden have played on defense, go out and repeat what they did against France and Lalas praises it, well, then I just don't know anything anymore. Hodgson has to be more open vs. these two.

Do you want "champagne football" and mixed results or do you want to win? As we seen throughout the decades, very difficult to achieve both.

At the club level, wherever he goes Jose Mourinho wins trophies, yet his teams aren't hailed for their artistry instead, often derided for their end justifies the means approach. Do you think Inter Milan fans would have preferred the club lost beautifully in the second leg of their 2010 Champions League semifinal to Barcelona at the Camp Nou? Or do you think they'll fondly recall how the club were champions of Europe for the first time in over 50 years when they went on to beat Bayern in the final?

The window of opportunity and margin for error at major internationals is so small teams aren't afforded the chance to really drop the gloves and let it all fly. At the Euro you have three group games, which leave minimal margin for error -- look at the Irish after Sunday's thumping from Croatia, all but dead.

In the year 2012 everybody pretty much knows everybody, there are few -- if any surprises. So when these events roll around every four years, what do you want your favorite team or country to do? Lose valiantly or win ugly? More than that, especially at the Euro, all 16 teams are realistically what you'd call "good," so it's difficult to simply step onto the field and whip the opposition. There aren't any Wolverhamption Wanderers 3-point ATMs in Poland or Ukraine, though two started for Ireland, which probably should've been a red flag.

Crazy thing with soccer, there are a lot of Cruyffs out there who'd opt to take the pretty loss.

Maybe it's a European thing vs. an American thing. In my mind, the results are the results. Also in my mind, $1 t-shirts from Goodwill are the height of fashion, so make of it what you will.

In the club season, yes, you invest so much time over the course of 10 months ideally you're watching so many games you'd like your team to play an aesthetically pleasing brand of soccer, getting results in the process. That's what was so horrific about Hodgson's spell at Liverpool -- taking a legendary, famous club with world-class players across the pitch and managing them as if he was in charge of a minnow fighting for survival. The irony, here, was in the last Premier League season we saw newly promoted Norwich City and Swansea City each safely avoid relegation by playing an open, passing game, instead of the bunker, 10 men behind the ball mentality.

But again, that's part of what makes soccer fun. We have to have these debates over the artistry and merits of a club or national team since there are so few other comparables. We don't have catch-all stats like OPS or WAR like in baseball, nor is in a closed, smallish league like the NBA or NFL where its a little easier to debate greatness of teams throughout the years since the sample sizes are only 30 and 32 teams.

As Americans, though, it's only natural as soccer fans we're going to get a lot of our information and media from English-born and English-bred sources, so these kind of debates have seeped into our consciousness as well.

Take Friday night's U.S. 3-1, meh-inducing, win over Antigua and Barbuda in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. There were few, if any positives, in the way the U.S. played against a nation of 70,000 people. Small picture, yeah, massively worrying that Jurgen Klinsmann's allegedly new approach with new players could only produce a goal off a set piece from a defender, a penalty kick and a really sloppy poacher's goal by Herculez Gomez, aided by the fact the opponent's goalie was only 5-foot-10.

Peel away the onion and instead of gnashing our teeth about the listless showing in rainy Tampa or the rapidly decomposing corpse of Oguchi Onyewu, look what it meant -- three points in the bag and onto the next one. Basically a small, forgettable, blip on the radar.

Realistically, yes, it would be terrific if in the leadup to the World Cup the U.S. could string together some eye-catching performances, beyond the final scoreline. Then again, it's not like the U.S. has a player as glittering as a Lionel Messi who can single-handily turn a game into a world class piece of sporting art.

In the end, as an American through-and-through despite my lack of knowledge of this whole "Call Me Maybe" crazy sweeping the land, what I'd like to see is wins. Results. Progress in the the World Cup. 

You can leave the beautiful losers thing to a bygone era or shaggy hair and tight shorts.

Shame though, in a match today featuring Ribery, England and France decided to take the playing ugly thing so literally.

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