Tuesday, June 19, 2012

CHEATSHEET: EURO2012 Knockouts!

Won't someone watch EURO2012 with me? Please?? I feel like a lonely little American hoarding all the fun for myself. I don't really have a rooting interest. I don't even get to watch most of the games live (I stream the games here after work, and they're free OnDemand on Comcast right now, too). But I'm ALL IN on the EUROs. Here's a little context to help you enjoy the show:

THE KNOCKOUT STAGE

Good news! The Group Stage is over, which is admittedly kind of a relief to American sports fans not used to this sort of point system. The tournament now advances into a more recognizable bracket format. If you lose, you go home. If you win, you move on. Simple as that.

THE TEAMS STILL STANDING + THE SCHEDULE

Czech Republic vs Portugal
Thursday June 21st, 1:30 EST on ESPN


* The way I understand it, the Czechs have rather overachieved so far, so feel free to cheer for them as an underdog. One of their greatest assess is goalie Petr Cech, who plays for Chelsea, a London based team in the English Premier League. Chelsea just won the European championship a few weeks ago (I would liken this to the NCAA Football National Championship, if NCAA Football had a tournament instead of bowl games; please leave comments below if you have a better analogy).

On the subject of Petr Cech - you'll recognize him by his helmet. A few years ago, he suffered a scary head injury during a game and now he wears a helmet when he plays. He's a tough, tough cookie.

* I've said it before, I'll say it again: The Portuguese are a beautiful, beautiful people. Watch this game if nothing else for the eye candy. Portugal's best player Ronaldo is one of the two best players in the entire world (depending on who you ask). He's something of a villain, but I've discovered that when it comes to soccer, I tend to like the villains better than the heroes. Soccer is just kind of a douchy sport, so why not fully embrace the douchiness?

Portugal should be favored, Ronaldo should be the 'hero' - and if he isn't, they'll work him over LeBron James style. He's been a similar disappointment in national tournament situations thus far in his career, though pundits seem to agree he's more Kobe than LeBron.

Germany vs Greece
Friday June 22nd, 1:30 EST on ESPN


* For anyone who enjoys watching CNBC, CNN, or CSPAN, this is the match-up for you. Welcome to the EuroZone! This match is really happening. Repeat, this match is really happening. It seems to me to have near Archduke Ferdinand potential if it goes ugly early. Seriously - this match is actually happening.

* Germany more or less WALKED through the so-called 'Group of Death' (nickname given at every tournament to the group that seems to have the best teams in it, much like the toughest bracket in NCAA Basketball). Germany beat everyone while Greece squeezed its way through the easiest of the four groups. Expect flops, expect hard fouls. The first half will be must-see TV, but I wouldn't be surprised if the final score is 5-0 in favor of the very efficient Deutsch. But then again, you just never know (see: Greece's EURO2004 victory).

Spain vs France
Saturday June 23, 1:30 EST on ESPN


* Repeat after me: Tiki-Taka. Say it outloud, it's fun. Tiki-Taka. You will hear these syllables over and over again during this game. Tiki-Taka is the style of soccer the Spanish play, much like we'd reference a "West Coast Offense" in football or a "Triangle Offense" in basketball - at least, I think that's what it means - it may just be Spanish for 'boring'.

The Tiki-Taka Spanish make tiny little pass after tiny little pass, lulling competitors and spectators alike into a stupor before striking. Like a snake. And then winning. Like a snake. I can't decide if like the Spanish or not. They're also kind of beautiful. Like the Portuguese. And they're rather short, which makes them fun-sized. Roger Bennett from the Men In Blazers podcast jokingly refers to them as smurfs, which is especially smurf-fastic when they wear their blue uniforms.

* The French are a stylish bunch. I've enjoyed their uniforms, a dark blue with almost antiquey-distressed looking gold letters and numbers. I don't really know what else to say about them. I think this game will be awesome to watch, so long as the French don't let the Spanish sit on the ball the whole time. Blargh. Ooo, and also the drama of Fernando Torres. That is all you need to know about this game.

England vs Italy
Sunday June 24, 1:30 EST on ESPN


* I recently came to the realization that team England may be national soccer's equivalent of the Chicago Cubs. They have ludicrously passionate fanbase that always expects to lose - but they also always have astronomical aspirations - but then they get angry when they underachieve - but then, if they do happen to win by some miracle they go absolutely bonkers. At the moment, we're enjoying the bonkers. Cubs fans, you tell me: what comes next? Do they win a couple more before they collapse, or just hurry up and get it over with?

One thing in England's favor was that they came in with rather low expectations. New team captain, new coach, several star players out injured, and their best player suspended the first two games due to kicking a dude during qualifying. So far, the stars have aligned for team England. We'll see how they do against the Italians.

* I actually read somewhere in the days leading up to the EUROs that the Italians considered pulling out of the tournament before it started due to match fixing scandals in Italy tainting the team. It kind of set Italy up as a villain in the tournament, though the player I watch the most, Mario Balotelli, actually plays in England (and for all I know other players on the team do as well).

I think of it like this: Much the way college football has several different conferences (the SEC, Big 10, PAC-However-Many, etc), each European country has its own soccer league. The most famous is probably the English Premier League, but Spain, Germany, and Italy all have exceptional teams as well. The best few teams from each league play in a tournament called the Champions League each year to determine the best team in Europe (this year it came down to Germany's Bayern Munich and England's Chelsea, with Chelsea winning). Just as the SEC recruits players from all over the United States, these soccer teams recruit players from all over the world. Therefore, I'm not quite clear on how the Italian league's match fixing impacts these Italian players, but I digress.

AND IF YOU'RE STILL ON THE FENCE...

A few more tid-bits submitted in a last-ditch effort to get you to watch these games with me.

* Fans in the stadium keep throwing flares on the field. Can you imagine what would happen if a fan threw a lit flare on a field here in the States? CHAOS WOULD ENSUE! In the EUROs? The players don't seem to care that they're running around in a cloud of white smoke. I've never seen anything like it. It's so rock star, like they're playing around dry ice. The first flare I saw was during a driving rain storm. Serious question to the fan who threw that flare: How determined do you have to be to throw a lit flare on a soaking wet field during a driving rain storm? WHAT ARE YOU HOPING TO ACHIEVE!?

* Also, soccer played in driving rain is awesome even without the addition of a flare. It's not like gridiron football where the field turns into a lumpy, muddy quagmire - it becomes a giant green slip-n-slide. So far these EUROs have had several rain games and I'd love to see more.

* Soccer fans sing and cheer like no other fans in any sport ever. They're so organized, so passionate and so creative, it's like a show within a show. If you watch an American sporting event, the only song you're likely to hear is "Bulllllll, S*******, Bullllll, S*******." (Note: Most of those *'s were meant to be "i's".)

* In the knockout/bracket stage of the competition there are no ties. Repeat: From this point on there will be no ties.

* The intro-animation, where we fly over Europe and see the crests of all the countries with the dramatic music is very cool and geographically educational. And we go in and out of the broadcast to the mystic sounds of Cold Play. Good production value over-all. ESPN has come a long way in their soccer coverage.

* Again, Greece vs Germany is actually happening. Maybe instead of flares they'll throw Euros (the currency) on the field.

The tournament goes through July 1st; it's not too late to jump aboard. Please?