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Pounding The Soccerball: Day One of the Euro '08 Blog

Hello, and welcome all you fans of the footy to my comprehensive and exhaustive (if not exhausting) Euro Cup '08 preview. If you're new to this tournament, it features 16 teams, all European (so no superpowers like Brazil, Argentina or ha-ha USA) split into four groups of four. They play each other once and the top two in each group advance to the quarters where it's single elimination from eight to four to two and you get the picture. The way this preview will work is I'll tackle each group on the eve of their first day of competition, so today you can read all about Group A, featuring Portugal, co-hosts Switzerland, the Czech Republic, and my homies, Turkey.

I will attempt to blog about the games (all 31 of them) and their various lengths will depend on how interesting they were, who was playing, how much time I have, and how much sleep I need. Those of you with a trained eye for my work should know by now when I'm rested and when I'm not. It really shows in the blog if you know what to look for. For example, when I'm tired, I often write nothing, a telltale sign that I'm off my game.

This tournament will be taking place in Austria and Switzerland and as a consequence two crappy teams got to gobble two of the precious sixteen spots. Spots that could've gone to Denmark, Scotland, Ireland, or of course ENGLAND!!!

FUCK SHIT SHIT FUCK SHIT Ingerlund aren't in the tournament. I'll try not to let it ruin it for me, but it will be hard. They always have so much angst and drama, they're like the Red Sox before October of 2004. Their press is so amazing to devour, particularly after the inevitable elimination on penalty kicks. The Three Lions are every sports writer's dream, they're so easy to opine about.

With them not being here I have three simple requests of the tournament:

1. Turkey needs to advance at least out of the group stage.

2. There have to be a minimum of 80 goals scored in the 31 games (2.58 per isn't much to ask for).

3. The Final cannot end on penalties.

With all that out of the way, let's get to the previews and enjoy Switzerland-Czech Republic (the Hingis Bowl) and Portugal-Turkey (the Asshole Bowl).

Group A:

Czech Republic: The classic proverbial team that had all the talent but could never quite put it all together. The Czechs made the Euro Final in '96 as a Cinderella team, but lost in the Final to the dreaded Germans. They were probably the best squad in Euro '04 and dominated the Greeks in the semis, but their best player, Kurt Cobain lookalike Pavel Nedved got injured early in the game and they just couldn't score despite having almost all the chances. They got knocked out on a Traianos Dellas header off a corner kick in the 105th minute. I expected big things for them in the '06 World Cup and even picked them to be surprise winners, and they certainly got off to a great start, humiliating USA 3-0 in their first game, but they fell apart quickly after that, losing to Ghana and Italy and not making it out of the group stages; humiliating me in the process.

Now though, Nedved is gone, retired. So is his longtime midfield mate Karel Poborsky. Their best remaining creator, Michael Rosicky, is too hurt to play. In other words, THEY GOTS NO MIDFIELD.


Nedved's international career didn't end with quite the degree of finality that Cobain's did, but it ended all the same.

Basically, the Czechs are the exact opposites of the Croats. Their strengths are at forward, at goal, and in the back. They're so depleted that their manager, Karel Brückner, is openly contemplating playing the ultra-conservative 5-4-1, with lone striker Jan Koller up front and the other nominal starting forward, Milan Baros in a supporting role at left midfield. Really, watching them should be a thrill.

They're set in the back though, for sure. Superstar Petr Cech and his retard helmet will be in goal and he will be supported by a backline of Zdenek Grygera, Marek Jankulovski, David Rozehnal, and Tomas Ujfalusi, all playing their club football in Seria A of the Italian League.

The Czechs have to be taken seriously. They finished first in their qualifying group with a record of 9-1-2, dealing with the likes of Germany, Ireland and Slovakia. While their lone loss was at home to the Germans, they avenged it in spades, winning 3-0 in Munchen. They also allowed a mere five goals in 12 matches, tying France and the Netherlands for lowest in qualifying. The 6'7" Koller is one of the best aerial threats in the world and his injury was a major reason the Czechs sputtered out of last World Cup.

Still, there is no one left to get him the ball and even the most impenetrable of defenses is bound to show a crack or two if they can't possess the ball. It says here the Czechs will exit in the group stages again, drawing twice to hosts Switzerland and Turkey and losing to the intolerable Portuguese.

Portugal: While winning the tournament itself was unquestionably the biggest reason for Manoli's joy as a half-Greek, it was the team they beat in the Final - Portugal - that made it especially sweet for both of us. You see, growing up around Half Moon Bay and San Carlos, we were around a lot of Portuguese people, and how can I put this nicely?

We hate the Portuguese.

We loathe them. Can't stand them. They're the rudest, most insufferable, foul, obnoxious, contentious, argumentative assholes on the planet.. And the men are worse.

Family Guy Portuguese (via yourubenfff)

Take this from me, a proud member of the second rudest, insufferable, foul, obnoxious, contentious, argumentative assholes on the planet, the Turks.

While there are some countries I would prefer to win over the others, Portugal will be one side I'll never support in a million years. It's just not going to happen. Not only have all my personal dealings with these people ended badly but just watch Portugal play sometime. They act all arrogant and do fancy ball tricks like Brazil, only they're not nearly as good and when they find themselves goalless or trailing at the 60th minute mark or so they get incredibly frustrated and chippy. They tackle with their studs up, curse opponents and referees openly and embarrass fans of the sport everywhere with their belligerence. In the last World Cup they played the Dutch - another bad body language outfit - in the round of 16 and both squads finished the game with nine men.

Look at their best player, Cristiano Ronaldo. Is this guy a ponce or what? He's consistently come up small when the stakes mattered most and in every way imaginable he's the A-Rod of international football. They even have a passing resemblance to one another. A-Rod tried to slap a ball out of Bronson Arroyo's mitt in the '04 ALCS, Ronaldo illegally stopped in mid-stride on his Champions League penalty kick against FC Chelsea (it was saved anyway).

I despise Cristiano Ronaldo.

Fortunately, despite his amazing success this year at Manchester United, I'm of the opinion that he can be held in check. The guy isn't a central midfielder, he's merely a fancy-dribbling left wing. Those guys can be contained, as was the case two years ago when then it-boy Ronaldinho of Brazil was rendered a non-factor in the World Cup. Sure, opposing defenses have to pay extreme attention, and will have to double at times, but it can be done. Maybe his legs will be tired from scoring all those goals.

He'll have a lot of help in the midfield. Deco is the guy in the middle who really makes everything go, and now that Luis Figo has retired, Portugal is his show, no matter how much hype Ronaldo gets. Also attacking from the middle will be a third midfielder, either Simão, Nani or Ricardo Quaresma. The trio will be supported by two holding types in Miguel Veloso, and Fernando Meira, with veterans Petit and Raul Meireles in reserve. Include hard-charging youngster João Moutinho and that makes eight quality midfielders battling for three open spots. Expect to see a lot of second guessing from the fickle Portuguese media if Brazilian manager, the notorious hot-head Luiz Felipe Scolari can't find the right combination.

There is considerably less depth at the front and back. With Pauleta's retirement the lone striker spot is up for grabs between Nuno Gomes and Hugo Almeida, neither of whom are world class finishers. Ricardo Carvahlo is a good center-back, but he has little help around him and the whole lot of them are disagreeable foul prone bastards. Don't even get me started with their asshat goalkeeper, Ricardo.

The Portuguese finished runners-up in Euro '04 and 4th overall in the last World Cup, but with Figo and Pauleta gone for good, the end has truly come for "The Golden Generation," albeit without any gold. It's time for a bit of a backslide and while they're still good enough to come out on top of a mediocre Group A, I see Portugal falling victim to a quarterfinal upset at the feet of the Croats, another squad strongest in the midfield and weak inside the boxes.

Switzerland: Another team I dislike tremendously is Switzerland, a squad who stole Turkey's rightful place in WC '06 by coming out ahead on aggregate goals in their two legged home-and-home qualifying playoffs. The Swiss won at home 2-0 in the first leg while Turkey prevailed 4-2 on their home turf. Because road goals count double, for some arcane reason, Switzerland came out on top 6-4 and advanced into the Big Show. The Turkish fans and players weren't very sporting about the outcome and an incident happened.

In Germany however, I got some measure of revenge as the Swiss went on to make some dubious World Cup history. Not only did they become the first team to get eliminated despite never allowing a single goal in open play, but they also were the first to not score a single goal in a penalty shoot-out, going 0 for 3 to lose to Ukraine before the best-of-five reached their fourth shooter.

While I don't think Switzerland's automatic birth in the tournament as a host country is as much of a travesty as co-host Austria's, I still would've liked to see them earn it on the pitch considering some of the teams (England, Scotland, Ireland, Denmark, Serbia) that were left on the outside looking in.

Do I, in my heart of hearts, think the Swiss are better than any of those footballing nations?

In a word, no.

Again their key player will be center-back Philippe Senderos, one of the finest defenders in all the world. His partner in the middle will either be Mario Eggimann or the more experienced Patrick Muller, if he's physically able. Their wingbacks, Philip Degen on the right and Ludovic Magin on the left, think defense first but are capable of tossing the odd cross into the box or even finishing off a play ever once in a blue moon. They'll have their work cut out for them making keeper Diego Benaglio clean because he's nothing special.

Their middling attack is led by Tranquillo Barnetta at midfield and really all of his partners here are basically just extensions of the defense, content to win balls and nibble them over to him or play longball to striker Alexander Frei. They're short on skill and even more so on creativity. Hakan Yakin is one of their subs but he definitely shouldn't get to play against Turkey; Hakan's a Turkish name.

Frei's partner up front, if he even gets one (Yakin would be the likely fifth midfielder in a 4-5-1), will be either Marco Streller or Eren Derdiyok. Whee.

I don't fancy Switzerland's chances in their group at all and I'm certain Turkey in particular will be very motivated for revenge in their match-up. While it wouldn't be the most shocking thing in the world to see a mediocre host country advance to the quarters, they drew three spirited, angry opponents to try it against and on paper it's hard to make any kind of argument for them, other than I've always been wildly attracted to Martina Hingis.


Actually, she's Czech.

Turkey: And last but not least (and certainly not last, I hope) are my homies, the Turks.

What's to love about Turkey, you ask? Our food for one. It's amazing. Here's a great snack for all of you to try. Get a bag of those big Bavarian type pretzels and some good feta cheese. Not the crappy kind you'd find at Safeway, but the good stuff you have to go to a Mediterranean market for. Place some of the cheese on top of a pretzel with a fork and eat. Repeat as many times as necessary. Fucking delicious. My mom taught me that when I was like, three. So imagine how the more complicated recipes that involve meat and cooking and stuff tastes.

Also, our language, translated literally to English, is hilarious. For example, our word for snail, sumuk bojek, literally translated, means "booger-bug." Our midfielder Hamit Altintop's surname means "Goldenball." Striker Nihat Kahveci in English would be Nihat Coffeemaker. I wonder if he has endorsement deal with a Starbucks in Turkey or anything. Joltin' Joe DiMaggio did "Mr. Coffee"commercials for years and he was a prick.

Anyway, it has long been a topic of discussion (or at least I like to pretend so) among the global football community and particularly between Turks themselves as to how good their team really is. No one seems to know if they're ever over or underachieving.

Yes, they came from nowhere to finish 3rd in the '02 World Cup, but who'd they beat to do it? China in the group stages, Japan in the round of 16, Senegal in the quarters and the Republic of Korea in the Third Place Game. All that tournament proved is that we'd be favorites to win the bloody Asian Cup.

In the years following we missed out on qualifying for the '04 Euros thanks to losing a home-and-home playoff to Latvia of all teams and the aforementioned disaster in '06 against the Swiss. Lost in the disappointment of those final two games was the fact that Turkey finished ahead of Denmark and Greece in their qualifying group, just behind first place Ukraine.

In qualifying for this tournament we got off to a dream 4-0-0 start, punctuated with a stunning 4-1 road triumph at Greece where nobody hardly ever scores one let alone four. After that game one got the sense that our football federation already booked their hotel rooms in Switzerland, not worried in the slightest that eight qualifying games remained.

So Turkey went on a nosedive. Of course they did. They went 1-2-3 over the next six games and were lucky just to have those six points. They lost to Bosnia-Herzogovina, drew to the likes of Malta and Moldova and suffered the indignity of having rival Greece clinch their spot in the Euro Cup on their home pitch with a 1-0 win. Turkey managed to rebound just in time with a huge 2-1 road win at Norway (where the hosts just needed a draw to clinch second place) to come back from ahead and sneak into the tournament.

But in they are, regardless. As with most teams, their ideal eleven will not be taking the pitch due to injury. Emerging right back Gökhan Gönül is out with a broken right foot and midfield playmaker Yıldıray Baştürk was ruled out as well. Altintop has recovered from his own broken foot and is pronounced fit, but who knows what kind of game shape he's in? The country's most famous all-time player, forward Hakan Şükür was discarded for being too far past his prime.

What Turkey do have going for them is an in-form Kahveci, perhaps their most dynamic striker ever and was tied for fourth leading goal scorer in La Liga this past season, netting 18 for Villarreal. He will be supported up front in the 4-3-2-1 with Altintop and Tuncay Sanli. They'll be supported on the wings by fiery captain Belozuglu Emre on the left and the oncoming youngster Arda Turan on the right. Other attacking midfield options are Tumer Metin and speedy Gokdeniz Karadeniz. Brazilian born Mehmet Aurelio is the ball winner in the back and it will be his duty to snuff out threats before they get serious and run balls to Emre and co. If manager Fatih Terim wants to go with a traditional 4-4-2 he can pair Kahveci with Semih Senturk or Mevlut Erding and tighten up his midfield by inserting young Manu lookalike Mehmet Topal to play with Aurelio.

Turkey's weakness is in defense where they're either too old, too slow, too inexperienced or too other bad words I don't wish to type. Towering centerback Servet Cetin is a nice option for cornerkick headers, but not much of an asset in his own end. His partner Gohkan Zan isn't any better. Galatasaray's Hakan Balta will man one fullback spot, but the other isn't settled as far as I know.

The biggest roster controversy for the Turks is in between the sticks. Recber Rustu has the experience, but he's 35. Volkan Demirel is in his prime, but it's not much of a prime.

The Turkish spirit and the chemistry of their attackers should be enough to grab second place in Group A. They will spring at least one upset, either drawing Portugal when everyone expects a loss or beating the Czechs when most would expect at most a draw. They've got more speed and dribbling skill than their opponents give them credit for and they've proven time and again hey won't be easy outs against even quality sides. Turkey's hopes will be snuffed out by the efficient German machine in the quarters, but it'll be competitive throughout.

While Manoli's favorite Greece game is the '04 Euro Cup Final against Portugal, mine is slightly different.

Greece : 1 - 4 : Turkey (via alicetiner)

Go get 'em boys.