Even if this is a so-called "Hater's Guide," this group is going to provide some potentially sparkling summer soccer.
Mark your calendars, prepare to call out sick, do whatever you have to do to ensure you're in front of a television on June 13 for the Netherlands vs. Germany, which is the second group game for both teams, meaning everything will be there to play for. Must-see stuff.
This is the part here, where I'm required by law to declare this the "Group of Death."
Hard to believe some indie band from Scotland hasn't co-opted that into a band name by now, isn't it?
I love 'em:
It's definitely been "cool" thing to do, support the Netherlands at international tournaments for decades in part because, ahem, weed is legal in Amsterdam, did you know that? ... "Holland, 1945." ... Arjen Robben, when he wants, can be the most exciting player in the world to watch not named Messi. ... Dutch names are the best. The best, Jerry! ... Robin van Persie tore up the EPL this season and would have scored the goal of the season with his volley vs. Everton, if not for Papiss Cisse. ...David Winner's "Brilliant Orange" is probably the best soccer book I've ever read. ... According to someone who would know, Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk is so chill, he was boozing until the wee hours at the team hotel on the eve of the 2010 World Cup final vs. Spain. ... As dope as it would be to own -- and wear -- the 1988 Dutch jersey, remember the only people that are going to appreciate it in public is a toolbox like me, certainly not the fairer sex. And even if I saw you wearing it, instead of giving you dap, I'd just sneer my disgust at you. ... Nigh on impossible to hate the goofy grin of Dirk Kuyt.
I hate 'em:
In a twist, essentially every good thing about the Netherlands is a negative, too, because in actuality there's nothing really that "alt" about rooting for the Dutch considering it's not 1972 anymore. Throw in brutal midfield play of the Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel partnership and, well, this ain't the Dutch teams of the swinging 1970s.
What to make of this Dutch team, which enters as a favorite next to Spain and Germany? Few teams can boost a roster with four players -- van Persie, Dirk Kuyt, Wesley Sneijder and Bundesliga top-scorer Klaas-Jan Huntelaar -- with over 20 international goals, although some of those have come against the likes of San Marino in qualification, and as we know San Marino's team is essentially 11 guys who have full-time jobs as mozzarella makers and get called in to play every couple weeks.
The pressure here on the Dutch is to win the group, thus getting the runner up of Group A and (likely) avoiding Russia -- which beat in the Euro 2008 quarterfinals -- as well as Spain until the final.
We pretty much know what we're getting from the Netherlands, too. Bert van Marwijk will throw out his glittery attackers (assuming their glass bones don't break before the tournament) and hope his defensive hatchet men can hold down the fort. Truly, the less said about the Dutch defenders, the best since (somehow) Khalid Boulahrouz is still in the mix and amazingly only 30 years old! Suffice to say, Jaap Stam isn't walking through that door, while Joris Mathijsen -- the alleged best of a bad bunch -- is likely to miss the tournament. In recent friendlies van Marwijk has tried to find a way to get van Persie and Huntelaar onto the field at the same time, which isn't necessarily the worst idea because do you really need Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart on the field at the same time? Guess it's a good problem to have, like trying to find a compliment on the left to the majesty of Robben on the right.
Keep an eye if van Marwijk is willing to bench Martin Stekelenburg in favorite of Tim Krul, who was excellent for Newcastle United this campaign, while the assumed No. 1 got hurt early in his first season at Roma with a concussion and was just okay the rest of the way.
For all the red flags in the defense, the Netherlands have to be considered the pre-tournament favorite next to Spain. Perhaps they finish the job and win a trophy for the first time since 1988.
I love 'em:
"Valhalla Rising" is definitely among the pantheon of Netflix instant movies. Viva One Eye! ...Nicklas Bendtner won me and my friends John and Suppe a couple hundred bucks at the 2010 World Cup from Quebec's "Mis-O-Jeu." ... Behold Daniel Agger's back tattoo in all it's glory. ... "We're Red, We're White, We're Danish Dynomite." ...This Lego. ... The Danish SuperLiga has always offered a welcoming arm to middling American internationals to make a few more bucks and experience the legendary European "atmosphere."
I hate 'em:
Bendtner must have the biggest ego among marginally talented soccer players in the world, which is an accomplishment all things considered. ...Come on Danes, let Greenland have its independence already! ... Meh, it's Denmark. Hard to inspire feelings one way or another, unless you want to go into that whole cartoon images of Mohamed thing, which I certainly don't.
Outside of 20-year-old Christian Eriksen -- who'll likely be a multi-million dollar sale from Ajax after the tournament and yet another player every "expert" is touting (to sound smart) before kickoff -- there's not a lot to get excited about about this Danish side. There organized, strong play would work in any other group, but lumped in with three heavyweights, there's not enough firepower to keep the pace. Anything other than a three-loss showing from this group would actually be an accomplishment for Morten Olson's group, especially after losing No. 1 keeper Tomas Sorensen before the tournament to injury.
I love 'em:
Assuming you can get past World War I (and II) animosities, the current German team might be the most likable in the world. Exciting, young, home-grown players with an attack-minded flair -- a team with a true ethos, which isn't the angry mountain gorilla-like barking of former skipper Oliver Kahn. ... No more Michael Ballack (who'll be in an in-studio ESPN analyst) is addition by subtraction for Germany, from a likeability standpoint. ... This has zero.point.zero to do with soccer, but Werner Herzog is one of the best human beings of the 20th and 21st century, so just watch this clip. ... Mesut Ozil has a chance to be the most enjoyable player to watch at the tournament. ... The green Germany away shirts are pretty slick, so slick I own one but probably will never wear it again because it will only bring me painful memories (wait did I type that?). ... As an American you probably have to love the Bundesliga, no not for the atompshere and high-scoring soccer, but it's home to all the American internationals of the future, dummy! ... Marco Reus was secretly one of the best guys in "FIFA 12."
I hate 'em:
For understandable reasons, a lot of people are never going to get past World War II. ... Mario Gomez scores a lot. He also misses a lot. He also looks like he should be wearing skinny jeans and playing bass in some terrible pop-punk band. ... Rudi Voeller, even two plus decades later, is a perm-wearing asshole. ... A lot of us Americans are still a little bitter of a certain non-called Torsten Frings handball. ... Even Tom Brady laughs at this picture of Mats Hummels.
Pundits, oddsmakers, idiots with a soccer blog, have tabbed big things for Germany this summer. Consider this, on the roster only two players are over the age of 30, including the ever-reliable Miroslav Klose. With so many young -- similar -- offensive players like Marco Reus, Mario Gotze, Mesut Ozil, Toni Kroos etc. there's always the chance the locker room isn't very harmonious. Still, there's room for three attacking midfielders to play in the system, it's just a matter of finding the right combination.
The leadership of the Bayern duo -- Philip Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger -- now veterans is going to be utterly important. The less Germany has to rely on the erratic, Arsenal-bound Lukas Podolski, the better.
If fashionista coach Joachim Loew is smart, he'll give the keys to the Mercedes to Ozil, let him pull the strings and have everything else fall in behind him. Let this be Ozil's tournament and Germany should make a deep run.
One major worry for Germany, if they play their standard 4-2-3-1 and leave the striking duties to Gomez it's a recipe fraught with disaster. Sure 22 goals in 52 internationals isn't terrible, but when you think of a player flubbing a sitter in front of the net, it's Gomez. Klose might be 33, unfancied and awkward, but he scores pretty much every other game he wears a German shirt.
And before we engrave the trophy with Germany's name on it, its defense isn't that much better than the Netherlands (see a trend here). Unlike the Dutch, players like Hummels, Holger Badstuber and Jerome Boateng aren't exactly overflowing with high-end international experience. Hummels, a stalwart in the back for Borussia Dortmund's back-to-back Bundesliga wins, has to be very good leading the defensive line, or else. The alternative is Per Mertesacker, who's coming off a season-ending injury at Arsenal.
I love 'em:
I'll say this: Where I live people of Portuguese heritage are very passionate about soccer. ... At least Ricardo Carvalho is no longer in the mix. ... Uncapped Braga midfielder Custodio is definitely an excellent name for a soccer player. ... Raul Meireles has relevant tattoos.
I hate 'em:
At the international level, especially, nigh impossible to root for Cristiano Ronaldo. Sure he's talented as anyone, but in the words of Lane Pryce, he seems like a "grimey pimp." ... Pepe -- 'nuff said. ... Portugal is always massively overrated, in my mind. ... Just let your soul, glow! ... Denied a potentially frisky Bosnia team a chance to make it's major tournament debut, knocking them out in the playoff round. ... Again, unless you're Portuguese, how can you openly root for a team with Ronaldo and Pepe in the mix? ... By the same token, is openly rooting against Pepe growing tiresome -- wait -- he just stomped on somebody's calf. Nevermind.
Somewhat strange situation with Portugal. The Portuguese Liga is now rated the fourth-best in UEFA, yet it's two powerhouse teams -- FC Porto (basically printing cash after selling Falcao and Hulk in successive summers) and Benifica -- only contributed five combined players to the Portugal Euro team.
As usual, without a especially standout pure forward, the fate of Portugal likely comes down to Ronaldo. If he's a match winner (showing off his thighs), they'll have a chance to get past the Dutch and Germans. If not, thanks for playing. Even with a troublesome qualifying campaign, Portugal does find a way to get out of the groups at major tournaments -- a loss Saturday to Turkey, 3-1, is worrying however.
With apologies to Italy and England, for the purposes of this "guide" Portugal might be the easiest team to root against if only for the presence of the sneering Ronaldo and the prison shank hidden in Pepe's waistband.
Group winners: Germany
Runners up: Netherlands