False Nine vs. Real Nine

The unofficial propaganda about the European Championship is that it is “even harder to win than the World Cup.” This of course is crazy talk, as evidenced by the fact that Denmark and Greece—two teams that will never get a sniff of the Jules Rimet Trophy—have won the Euros. (In 1992, the Danes filled in when Yugoslavia stopped existing and somehow rode that luck all the way to the championship, and in 2004 the Greeks defended like gods, or had the backing of the gods, or something like that.) Even if there were any logic to the argument that the absence of Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay—the only non-European teams to win the World Cup—is compensated for by the absence of teams like the US and Australia—who qualify from the four continents that never win the thing—this would be countered by the fact that in a short tournament, with only sixteen teams, almost anyone can win. If you make it out of the group stage, three victories gets you the trophy.

This year, though, there has been much justice. An entertaining group stage was followed by quarterfinals that eliminated the pretenders and somehow produced perfect semi-finals: Spain vs. Portugal (the battle for Iberia, which pits the best team against the best player) and Germany vs. Italy (the grudge match to end all grudge matches, between Europe’s two soccer superpowers).

But first, the losers, more or less in ascending order of quality.


Ireland

Every neutral’s favorite. Since Frenchman Thierry Henry’s infamous unpenalized handball—so egregious and prolonged it would have been illegal in basketball—kept the Irish from the 2010 World Cup, their Euro qualifying campaign has had a certain righteousness about it. With effective tactics dictated by an imported Italian coach, the Irish played with discipline and managed to convince everyone they were decent and above all dependable. Then they promptly fell apart four minutes into the first game and again four minutes into the second game, and were the first ones to go out. What many people will remember is not the dejected players, but the footage of their fans, at the end of their humiliating 4-0 defeat by Spain, singing “The Fields of Athenry” at the top of their lungs. Watch the video next time you are drunk.

Poland and Ukraine

Unless it inconveniences their own team, everybody likes the hosts to win a few games at the beginning, and Poland and Ukraine obliged. The crowd roared mightily in Warsaw when Robert Lewandowski scored in the opening game, and Andrey Shevchenko—despite only having the ball for fifteen seconds the entire game—sent the home crowd into a frenzy with two marvelous headers in the first match of his final tournament for Ukraine. It was all downhill from there, however, and neither team qualified for the group stages.

The Netherlands and Russia

Everyone used to love the Dutch. They were stylish and smart, they invented Total Football, and their orange uniforms radiated so much cool even DJs would wear them. Then in the new millennium, they started playing with two defensive midfielders and kicking everyone in the shins. (You may remember that this effective strategy culminated in Nigel de Jong’s karate kick to Xabi Alonso’s chest in the 2010 World Cup final.) This year, for variation, they only hit out at each other, in depressing postgame interviews. They didn’t win a single game, and their coach resigned.

The Russians weren’t so acrimonious, and they even played together at times, but their witty and inspiring leader, Andrey Arshavin, is a player so beguiling that he sometimes disappears from games. I think he is part elf.

Sweden

Zlatan Ibrahimovic played on an entirely different plane than his blond entourage, and he seemed to enjoy that fact a bit too much. At times he actually walked around with the ball, and even stood on top of it, as if to emphasize how reluctant he was to give it to his teammates. His every movement was imperious, his goals were spectacular, and his memoir, I Am Zlatan, is a huge bestseller, but, alas, soccer is still a team sport. Sweden went home.

Croatia

Croatia should have progressed, but it was in the group of death. (The Croats would have had to surpass both Italy and Spain—winners of the last two World Cups—and that was just too much.)

France and England

France improved on its 2010 performance by making it to the quarterfinals and going out with a whimper instead of a bang. England, too, seemed intent on losing with dignity rather than with the inflated hopes and girlfriends of the Beckham era. When England finally went out to Italy on penalties, it was chalked up to bad luck, but I saw it more as seppuku. Andrea Pirlo had just stepped up and scored an ice-cold Panenka. Imagine how the poor keeper, Joe Hart, must have felt when he realized, halfway through his confident sideward lunge, maybe just as gravity started pulling him back to earth, that Pirlo’s slow-motion shot has been chipped right down the middle, into the space he had recently, impetuously evacuated. It was only good manners for Ashley Young, the English player up next, to simply swat the ball over the goal, in deference to the Italian’s obvious superiority.

Greece and the Czech Republic

And speaking of which, Germany’s coach, the impeccably dressed, nose-picking Jogi Loew—pronounced “yogi love”—had rested all three of his preferred attackers, such was his confidence in kicking poor Greece out of the Euros. (Angela Merkel cheered un-ironically from the stands.) The Czechs, who seemed surprised to be in the knockout round in the first place, had no answer for Cristiano Ronaldo and let Portugal proceed.

By some kind of miracle, this set up the perfect semifinals.


Spain vs. Portugal

Spain, if it were to win the whole thing, would be the first to triumph in three consecutive international tournaments. The Spanish would arguably have the best national team ever. Their unique way of playing, which goes by the deceptively cute name of “tiki-taka” is really a form of torture in which the victimized team spends the entire game chasing short, one-touch passes, slowly being run into the ground—at which point Spain walks the ball into the goal and wins 1-0. Crowds have whistled in derision as La Furia Roja dink the ball around, pundits have said Spain can’t keep “barely” winning, and writers have eloquently imagined ways of countering this method, but nobody has beaten Spain in a decisive game for almost eight years.

Portugal, for its part, had the tournament’s best player in Ronaldo, who for once didn’t have to be overshadowed by his La Liga rival Lionel Messi. It was the best team against the best player, and although Portugal “played really well” and held Spain over 120 minutes of regular time and extra time, it also didn’t produce a single shot on target. Indeed, the Portuguese were happy to go to penalties, where they could hope to trouble Spain’s keeper, Iker Casillas. Just as in England vs. Italy, however, an audacious chip shot (Panenka played this time by Spain’s Sergio Ramos) was followed by a crucial miss (by Bruno Alves).

Cristiano Ronaldo was waiting in the wings, scheduled to take the fifth and presumably decisive shot, but the shootout had gone so badly for Portugal that if Spain’s Cesc Fabragas made his penalty, it would end at 4-2, scuppering Ronaldo’s heroic appearance. And so it was: with Ronaldo turning his watery eyes skyward, Fabregas made no mistake. (He later revealed that he talked directly to the ball before shooting, as per instructions from his detailed vision of how he would win the game.)

Germany vs. Italy

Even though the Germans, who aren’t used to being underdogs, had never beaten Italy in a competitive tournament, they apparently were excited about the bracket, looking forward to the chance to end their strange hex. In a ploy to ensure a role for print media in contemporary sports reporting, Bild even produced a joke paper in advance, which pretended to report on a 3-1 victory for Die Nationalmannschaft. Images predicting the Italian seating arrangement on the plane home giddily made the rounds on the internet, and most neutrals thought this would finally be Germany’s year.

In stepped Mario Balotelli.

As a civilian, he is outlandish. Last year, his white Maserati was impounded twenty-seven times, accumulating £10,000 worth of parking tickets. He also accidentally set his house on fire with firecrackers, was fined a week’s wages for throwing darts at a teammate, and kept turning up unannounced in strange places, including a women’s prison in Brescia (“just fancied having a look”) and Xavarian College in Manchester, where he apparently came for the bathroom but stayed for a while.

On the pitch, he is always a threat. But to whom? He scores amazing goals, many of them invented out of nothing, but he often falls out of games and regularly gets kicked out. Several times this tournament, he has gone clear on goal and entered a kind of daze, as if he has forgotten where he is.

But against Germany, his two goals were pure force and precision, both leaving Manuel Neuer in an embarrassingly frozen pose. The first was a simple header that wrong footed the German keeper; the second was a twenty-yard rocket that left Neuer with one hand uselessly up, like a traffic cop signaling “stop” to an airplane. That was basically that. The Germans have a lot of good players, and they sent them all forward at the end, even the keeper, to try to tie the game, but all they got was a last-minute penalty, and it ended 2-1, with the Italians extending their winning streak over Germany to eight games. Balotelli said it was the best night of his life.


The Final

Everyone wanted Spain vs. Germany, but the Italians made a convincing case and deserve their place in the final. These teams played to a 1-1 draw in the group stage, and although the Spanish are the favorites, it’s clear that anything can happen on Sunday.

Tactically, there are some interesting questions. In the first game, Italy lined up unconventionally, with Daniele de Rossi, normally a midfielder, slotting into a defensive three (most teams play four). This signaled a new era for Italy, which is known and reviled for playing something called catenaccio. Translated literally, this means “door-bolt” but what it really means is “we’ll just shut down the game and defend.” Much like the current Spanish team, the traditional Italian teams have been very pleased to win 1-0 over and over again, entertainment be damned. But there is a new game in town. Italy still knows how to defend, but Prandelli is placing more faith in attack. After the Italians qualified for the knockout round, he even led his staff on a 21k pilgrimage to a nearby monastery at 3 AM.

Spain, on the other hand, is going deeper into its own national style. With David Villa (the usual “number nine” in their attack) out injured and Fernando Torres (formerly “El Niño” but currently “Chelsea’s £50,000,000 mistake”) suffering a miserable crisis of confidence, the Spaniards have been opting to play without a real striker. This unconventional method—imagine basketball without a center, or football without a running back—means that Cesc Fabregas plays as a “false nine,” nominally occupying the space where the striker would be, while regularly moving out of it to make space for his teammates to move in. In theory, this confuses the defenders, but in practice it also means you don’t really have a person focused on scoring goals. This final will determine whether this method represents the pinnacle of Spanish innovation or the depths of self-parody. It seems appropriate that the man standing in the Spaniards’ path, Mario Balotelli, is probably the realest number nine anyone can imagine.

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