On the Pitch with an American Novice: Euro 2008 Week 1 Review

World Cup ‘06 was an epiphany for Brother Reynell. After years of looking upon soccer as a bunch of guys kicking a ball around, Reynell came to realize the subtle intricacies of futbol. Join him as he continues his journey into the light of the game on the pitch.

We are almost to the quarterfinals and here is what we know: The defending champions (Greece) are out. Croatia, Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain have won their groups and are in. Turkey finished second in Group A, which means they will face Croatia on Friday 6/20 in the quarterfinals. And there is a chance neither recent World Cup finalist (Italy and France) makes it out of group play. There are plenty more scenarios to be played out that we cannot possibly know until after today, so let’s dish out some accolades for the first week.

Overachievers: Croatia and Netherlands

Now I know that Netherlands is an old world power when it comes to football, which shouldn’t really qualify them to be overachievers for winning their group. But come on! They are in the proclaimed “Group of Death” with both World Cup finalists (Romania is no slouch either). What did they do? Gave Italy their worst defeat in twenty-five years (3-0) and made France look downright silly (4-1), scoring their third goal less than a minute after France’s lone goal. They’ve won Group C and can rest against Romania on Tuesday 6/17. In my neophyte-like preview, I neglected to mention Ruud van Nistelrooy, who is closing in on the all-time Dutch scoring record (Oh yes – the title of this blog will often ring true). He scored the first goal against Italy and got the ball rolling.

Croatia has lived up to their dark horse label, especially playing without their top goal scorer from qualifying, Eduardo da Silva. After a questionable second half performance against host Austria, they defeated what seemed to be everyone’s favorite entering the tourney, Germany (2-1). They were the first team to qualify for the quarterfinals and can rest their players against Poland today. I have personally enjoyed the play of midfielder Luka Modric, who has signed a deal to play with Tottenham in the Premier League next season.

Underachievers: Greece, defending European champions and 10 qualifying wins

I’ve learned what defensive football is all about by watching highlights from the 2004 Euro where Greece did the improbable (For those who do not know, they defeated Portugal in the championship that year 1-0 despite being out shot 17-4). I’ve also learned that you can only advance if you can produce a few goals of your own. Greece in the first two games? 0 goals. Zip. Zilch. Nada. Their 1-0 theory worked in 2004 but has earned them an early exit in 2008, guaranteeing a new European champion.

Player of the Week: David Villa (Spain)

Villa has four goals in two games, including a hat trick against Russia and the game winner in stoppage time against Sweden to assure Spain all three points. And he’s done all of this with a severely bruised thigh.

Goal of the Week: Arjen Robben (Netherlands) vs. France

Not only was it a beautiful goal squeezed through only inches of space, but it was also the backbreaker for the French. This came less than one minute after Thierry Henry’s goal made it 2-1 and breathed some new life into France and their fans. You could almost hear the French’s hopes deflate after Robben’s brilliance made it 3-1.

Save of the Week: Gianluigi Buffon (Italy) vs. Romania off a penalty kick

How often do you see a goalie make that kind of save on a penalty kick? Plus, since they tied 1-1, that save is the only thing keeping the World Cup champions alive.

Call of the Week: Netherlands vs. France

“Well – if this is a Dutch oven, the French are toast.”

Game of the Week: Turkey defeats Czech Republic 3-2 (winner advanced to quarterfinals)

This is the type of game that people should watch who condescendingly state, “Soccer is so boring. They pass the ball around for ninety minutes just to tie.” The Czechs went up 2-0 into the 70th minute. The comeback began in the 72nd minute with Arda Turan scoring Turkey’s first goal. On a Turkish cross in the 87th minute, Czech goalie Petr Cech mishandled the ball and Nihat found himself as the benefactor, punching it through to tie the game 2-2. Two minutes later, Nihat again slipped through the defense and scored a beautiful goal off of the crossbar to put Turkey ahead 3-2. The goals ceased but the action didn’t. After punching away a shot, Turkey’s goalie Volkan Demirel shoved Czech’s Jan Koller to the ground while the referee was watching. The ref pulled out his red card and dismissed Demirel. The Turks, however, already used all of their substitutions. Tuncay Sanli decided to take one for the country. The 5’11” 154-pound Sanli put on the 6’3” 200+ pound Demirel’s jersey and gloves. As he stood in goal, Sanli looked like a six-year-old in his first youth soccer match. At the perfect time, the camera cut to him as he clasped his now oversized gloved-hands together, looked towards the sky, and said a prayer – so far my greatest moment from the tournament. When the final whistle blew, tears poured from Czech Republic’s all-time leading scorer, Koller, as he acknowledged the Czech fans. Tears also poured from the Turkish coach who was obviously in a state of disbelief. Turkish fans rejoiced and Czech fans hung their heads in sorrow. As Jim McKay said each week on The Wide World of Sports, this was the quintessence of “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”

For those of you like me who are experiencing their first Euro, I’m sure you’re also wondering what happens next. Russia and Sweden will wrap up group play on Wednesday 6/18. The quarterfinals will begin on Thursday 6/19 and will pair group winners with the runner-up from the adjacent group (i.e. Group A winner will play Group B runner-up and Group B winner will play Group A runner-up; winners from these games will face in the semifinals). At this point it becomes single elimination. I originally thought that teams were then reseeded after quarterfinals, but apparently it remains like a bracket. I guess this partially explains why I picked three members from Groups C and D to advance to the semifinals, which I now realize is an impossible scenario. The championship (Sunday June 29) will pit the winner from Groups A and B and the winner from Groups C and D.

Some links to keep you updated:

Match Schedule

Match Highlights (videos)

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