Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Shhhh.... Don't tell anyone, but the football's on

Incredibly, it is now Day 12 of Euro 2012, and things are hotting up nicely. I mean the football, of course, as clearly summer has decided to stay home and send autumn in its place.

Here in Paris you'd be hard pressed to know the football was even taking place. It is remarkably quiet.

At Trocadéro, down the road from where I live, there is an official UEFA 'fan zone'. This blue-tented big screen affair has generated some noise, mostly from Portuguese, Spanish and Italian expats exuberantly driving home and honking their car horns in celebration of their respective group stage victories.

The lack of local French interest is baffling, however. If this was America, it would be understandable: when the Pasadena Rosebowl near Los Angeles hosted the 1994 World Cup Final locals interviewed outside it had absolutely no idea what was going on inside it. France, though, should patently know better: they won the World Cup on home turf just four years later, a result that carried them through to winning Euro 2000 in Rotterdam two years after that.

Perhaps, then, the reason for the muted French interest in Euro 2012 lies in the fact the years since Rotterdam have been somewhat turbulent for Les BleusA group stage exit from Euro 2008 preceeded the abject misery of their performance in the World Cup two years ago (matched only in its depth of despair by England's dreadful run in South Africa), managing just a solitary point from their group draw with Uruguay. To compound the rancoer nationale, a nuclear mushroom cloud hung over the team following Nicolas Anelka being sent home for "comments directed against the national coach", Raymond Domenach (he of the Thunderbirds-themed visage). 

It was a split as divisive as any imaginable, like the shells of a clam prised apart by boiling water, and resulted in players indulging in the national industrial pastime for going on strike. Zut and, indeed, alors. However, there was more 
turbulence to come last year when it was alleged that the FFF, la Fédération Football Française, and new coach, Laurent Blanc, had discussed "informal" quotas for limiting the involvement of players from African and Middle Eastern backgrounds in the French national team.

It's not entirely clear what effect this has had on the French team, this morning sitting on top of Group D, a single goal ahead of England, but it doesn't seem to have done much to shift the
indifference. Whereas suburban English homes are currently draped in Union Flags and German cars race through Berlin, Hamburg and Munich trailing pennants of black, gold and red, France appears to be hoisting one giant Gallic shrug to the whole affair.

Should France progress tonight, some of the spirit that memorably spilled out onto the streets of Paris in 1998 will return, but it is unlikely to dislodge the current national preoccupation in the country's tabacsthe oh-so-French bust-up between the women in newly installed president Francois Hollande's life (his current partner, the agreeable Paris Match hackette Valérie Trierweiler, and Ségolène Royal, the mother of his children and a defeated candidate in this weekend's senatorial elections).

Anyway, back to the footy. Tonight's matches between England and Ukraine and Sweden and France will bring Euro 2012's group stage to a close. Sweden, Russia, Croatia, Ireland and the Netherlands are already heading home. Poland are already home, which is handy. 

Of the early departees, the Dutch have been by far the greatest disappointment. Runners-up to World Champions Spain in South Africa, much was expected this time. Instead we saw their fractious spirit raise its implosive self yet again, with blame, egos and genetic impatience rearing up in the wake of defeat to Denmark, and then again defeat to that always contentious opponent Germany.

Installing Rafael van der Vaart and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar for the final Group B game against Portugal appeared to be a brave attempt by Bert van Marwijk at restoring dynamism to a limp side, whose hopes had rested on Robin van Persie's otherwise good season with Arsenal. The change came at the cost of dropping van Marwijk's son-in-law, the red card waiting to happen that is Marc van Bommel, whose family connection was never going to be a pacifying ingredient in the boiling soup of orange-clad egos.

Van Marwijk's decision to play van der Vaart looked to have worked when the Tottenham midfielder  latched on to Arjen Robben's pass in the 11th minute and looped in one of the best goals of the tournament so far. But the Oranje had forgotten about the preening, narcissist that is Cristiano Ronaldo.

Real Madrid's most prodigious proponent of hair product may well be one of the most annoying ponces to have ever graced the beautiful game, but you can never fault his ability on the ball. And with the Dutch defence looking like they were still enjoying a Sunday morning lie-in at nine in the evening, Ronaldo went through them like a comb through over-gelled hair. Or a monster ego through a sea of them.

After the match van der Vaart commented: "We all have to take a good, long look in the mirror," something Ronaldo presumably wouldn't have any difficulty with. Arjen Robben reflected equally painfully: "Of course there were some internal issues, but we'll keep them indoors." Well, partly: "The hunger in the team is there, but we failed together" he added through gritted teeth before heading home to a dejected nation packing its orange T-shirts, face paint and flagons of Heineken and chilled rosé away until the next time this nation gets behind its national football team in such vibrant enthusiasm.

Media wags have noted that the teams from countries floundering economically in Europe - Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal - are enjoying Euro 2012 the most. I'm not quite sure what that says about England. Expectations have been lowered this time around. English hubris has been shattered too many times in the past; too often we've been informed of a "golden generation" of players, a media invention that has served to hype things up to unsustainable levels.

This time around there has been a more muted build up to England's appearance. Perhaps its just a sign of these austere times, maybe it's just me being on the other side of the English Channel and surrounded by local disinterest, or maybe it's that the jury is refusing to deliberate on Roy Hodgson - but there is a distinct lack of fervour surrounding the English.

As with France, the spectre of South Africa hangs around England like a foul odour. Even now, mention of Algeria in any English pub will launch a tirade. The English have politely given Hodgson benefit of the doubt, and without the white heat of attention that usually piles up on hapless England managers, Hodgson has been quietly getting on with his job. One of his undoubted strengths.

Handicapped by pre-tournament injuries to Lampard and Cahill, batting them away over the suggestion that excluding Rio Ferdinand had more to do with non-footballing matters than footballing matters, Hodgson has demonstrated great tactical nous in England's two games so far.

While the amazing win over Sweden could have gone horribly the other way, Hodgson got the best out of a side that has had the confidence it lacked (or lost) in South Africa restored. For now, there seems to be a restfulness about England, a welcome absence of silos, of factions, of fissures of the kind that split the Netherlands apart. Against Sweden, England looked like a team, played like a team and won like a team.

Let's hope it lasts. Of course, in a tournament like this, getting into the knockout stages means you're always 90 minutes away from the next plane home. England, tonight in the Donbass Arena in Donetsk will want to win and win well to avoid meeting Spain in a quarter-final. They only need a point, but three is what we want.

Wayne Rooney's return from suspension comes with mixed feelings. Andy Carroll did such a good job against Sweden - with one of the finest headed goals I've ever seen - you almost feel compelled to give him a shot at starting tonight. Rooney's availability, however, changes everything. He may be potty mouthed, he may have anger management issues, he may have an unnaturally full head of hair again, but he is, from the first whistle, a handful for defenders. Carroll will probably score, but Rooney is more likely to, especially after being caged up, metaphorically speaking, over England's opening two games.

Either way, it will be no easy game tonight. That is, I know, a footballing cliché of the most heinous kind, but what else can you say about England taking on the one remaining co-host, Ukraine, who have much to fire them up, and not just the fact the tournament is partly taking place on their home soil. There is, according to the Ukraine team doctor, a "50-50 chance" that Andrei Shevchenko might not play - no bad thing, you may have said during his Chelsea years - but with the national captain back to outrageously good form, his absence may prove telling. Unless the cheeky Ukraine scamps are pulling a fast one...

The real mystery for me, however, is what happens if, as expected, France go through. Paris has hardly made a peep yet about Euro 2012 - will progress tonight uncork the noise?

No comments:

Post a Comment