Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Earning the (re)cap: Raining on Spain's parade

Photo: Fernando Torres sneaks by Philipp Lahm en route to scoring the only goal of the Germany-Spain final Sunday (Photo from BBC Sport).

Breaking down the European Championship final...

Spain 1, Germany 0

Well, that was a bit of a lackluster final compared to some of the tournament's other games. There was still some good soccer on display, but not a ton of great offensive chances or climatic moments, in my mind at least. Also, the Spanish team fell left, right and centre whenever a slight breeze came up: it worked, but they really didn't need to spoil a good game with a diving exhibition. Spain certainly deserved the win on the basis of their play yesterday, and they probably should have had at least two goals. Perhaps I'm just a grumpy German, but I don't think their win somehow prevents them from criticism, though, and I certainly haven't been drinking the same Guinness as those pundits who are heralding them as the greatest side in the world.

The praise that bugs me the most is from those who talk about how Spain's "beautiful soccer" is an example for everyone else to follow, reading from the script laid down by the ancient manager Luis Aragones in his post-match press conference. Yes, Spain has scored some beautiful goals in this tournament (particularly in their two thrashings of Russia), but I really didn't see too much of that yesterday, and I'm concerned with our conception of beauty. Fernando Torres made a nice break past Philipp Lahm and chipped the ball over Jens Lehmann for the match's only goal, and that was about it for the highlight reel. There were a couple of other good chances, including a shot or two off the post, but the longer-lasting image of the match will be the countless times when Spanish players had a clear shot at goal and held up only to try and make two or three more passes and setup a highlight-reel goal, which of course didn't work. The Spanish friend I was watching the match with commented that there were probably heart attacks all over Spain at the squandered chances.

True attacking soccer is great, and a joy to watch, but please don't lower the quality of a real goal of beauty by trying to artificially create them when you don't need to. The best equivalent from another sport I can think of would be an NBA star attempting a slam-dunk contest move in a real game with a high chance of failure, instead of just dropping in the layup (Vince Carter, anyone?). Please, just go for the goal when you have a chance. Soccer is really about winning, not just about beauty (even if no one's ever got the message about those "Total Football" Dutch teams: sure, they were fun to watch, but they usually came up short in the end).

Germany failed to impress Sunday, though. They were acceptable, but let Spain have too much of the ball and didn't create enough chances of their own. They displayed little of their trademark aerial superiority on set pieces, surprising given the massive height advantage they held over the Spaniards. Schweinsteiger had a good match, but his crosses weren't as spot-on as normal, while Ballack was intense but not particularly effective, Podolski was invisible and Klose was far from dangerous. I was also disappointed with Joachim Low's decision to take off Philipp Lahm shortly after the halftime break: sure, he let Torres through for the crucial goal, but you need your best offensive players on the pitch when you're coming from behind. As we found out against Turkey, the Lahm giveth and the Lahm taketh away: there's no point taking him away when he has yet to giveth.

Again, Spain had a solid tournament and deserved the win. They weren't as absolutely dominant as many would have you think, though: sure, they won all of their group stage matches, but Sweden and Greece each only lost by a goal and were very much in the contest. The only really impressive win was their 4-1 thumping of Russia in the opener. They scraped through on penalties against an Italian side that muddled through the group stage in mediocre fashion, then laid a second whipping on the Russians and squeezed out that 1-0 victory over the Germans in the final.

Overall, it was a great tournament and provided plenty of fantastic matches. I think the real lesson of the tournament is how even European soccer is becoming, though: Austria, probably the worst side in the tournament, put in a very good effort and was close in every match, while there was little between most of the other teams. Newcomers like Russia and Turkey showed they can run with the big boys, while France and Italy learned the hard way that past glory and six euros might get you a pint. The overarching impression isn't of Spanish dominance, but a very even field that produced some magical soccer, which bodes well for what we'll see at the World Cup in 2010.

- Stephen Brunt's column on the final [The Globe and Mail].
- Hirshey and Bennett weigh in [Two-Footed Tackle, Page 2]
- Ben Knight's take on the celebrations in Toronto [On Soccer]
- Duane's thoughts on the final [Out of Left Field]
- The tournament produced some great TV ratings in Canada [William Houston, The Globe and Mail].
- The excellent Mike Cardillo's thoughts on the final [Deadspin]
- Neate strikes back with a classic Simpsons video: "holds it... holds it... HOLDS IT!" [Out of Left Field]

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