Austria: You know that somewhere along the way a gigantic mistake was made by UEFA, the European soccer Federation, when the week before the Euro Cup tournament starts, the positive headline on ESPN Soccernet for the host country’s team reads: "Austria Boosted By Breaking Into FIFA Top 100. "
The top 100 you say? Impressive.
Actually, they're all the way up to 92nd, just below Mozambique and just above Thailand, noted football powers both.
If that's not enough to convince you that they shouldn't be playing, here are three more reasons:
1) Austria's glorious Euro Cup history:
• 1960 - Did not qualify
• 1964 - Did not qualify
• 1968 - Did not qualify
• 1972 - Did not qualify
• 1976 - Did not qualify
• 1980 - Did not qualify
• 1984 - Did not qualify
• 1988 - Did not qualify
• 1992 - Did not qualify
• 1996 - Did not qualify
• 2000 - Did not qualify
• 2004 - Did not qualify
• 2008 - Qualified as co-host
2) On Austria's preview page, it states that while the team has no current nickname, they used to be called 'Wunderteam' in the 30s. So in other words, they've been so crappy for so long, they had their nickname revoked. Imagine if somebody called you "speedy" your whole life and then all of a sudden you broke both legs and gained 200 pounds while you were laid up in bed. That's Austria's soccer team.
3) Finally, most damning of all, Austrian citizens actually ran a petition drive urging the country's soccer federation to forfeit the team's automatic entry in the competition for being hosts. They didn't feel they were worthy enough. Even the Atlanta Hawks didn't do this.
The website of the 'Österreich zeigt Rückgrat' (Austria shows Character) campaign states: 'It cannot be denied: the performance of the Austrian team is an insult to your sense of aesthetics as well as to what you expect from this sport. Their participating in Euro 2008 is to you a contradiction in itself.'
It might sound like a joke, but the organizers of the campaign are quite serious and are genuinely concerned that rather than being a chance to showcase Austrian culture and hospitality to the world, Euro 2008 represents a unique opportunity for painful humiliation on a global scale.
If all this isn't embarrassing enough, the most famous football player in Austria's rich football history, Toni Polster (he had 44 career goals in 95 international appearances), rocked a truly hideous gray perm late in his career.
Yeah, it's that bad.
As for the current squad, I know literally nothing about them. Their top striker, a fellow named Roland Linz, has managed five goals in 27 international games (not good) and plays for a club in the Portuguese league (even less so). Their best player, meanwhile, is the hilarious surnamed midfielder Andreas Ivanschitz, who has been dubbed "The Austrian David Beckham" which means he can't dribble, can't use his off foot, can't use his head and he's married to some talentless, anorexic, attention-craving skank.
It figures to be three ugly games and a quick exit for the Austrians and one can only hope that some frustrated unemployed painter tuning into the game from his flat isn't driven over the edge when Poland pastes them 3-0.
Croatia: One never knows what to make of Team Tablecloth. When you underrate them, they surprise everybody and grab 3rd place in the '98 World Cup. When you overrate them, they exit meekly in the '06 group stages.
Well, maybe "meekly" isn't the right word. If there's one thing we learned in the 2006 World Cup, certain barriers cannot be crossed. For example, if you don't want a painful head-shaped bruise on your chest, don't call Zinedine Zidane's sister a whore. And if you don't want a mere soccer game to inspire a near international incident with its flurry of altercations, fisticuffs and red cards, then don't put Croatia and Australia in the same group.
Not only did referee Graham Poll lose complete control of the game, letting both teams spike and tackle each other up and down the pitch, but when he finally did decide to start disciplining players, he completely made a mess of it and let Croatian defender Josip Simunic play on, despite having already given him two yellow cards. Surely one of the word refereed games of all time, Poll's performance was called 'a debacle ' and he was quickly dismissed from working any more games in the tournament.
Joey Crawford meanwhile still works Spurs games.
The Croats were a surly, physical bunch indeed back then, just a bitch to deal with on the pitch, but suffering from a glaring lack of finishing, scoring just two goals in three games and going winless before exiting stage left.
In their heyday in the late 90s (heyday being a relative term as the nation itself isn't quite old enough to drink yet) scoring wasn't much of a problem for Croatia as they had Davor Šuker in the line-up, a guy who won the Golden Boot in the '98 World Cup for scoring six goals in seven matches and who once held the record for most goals in Euro Cup qualifying when he netted 12 in 10 games to get his country in the '96 tourney (record since broken by David Healy of Northern Ireland who scored 13 goals in their failed bid to make this tournament).Šuker is best known however for scoring on this chip against Denmark's legendary keeper Peter Schmeichel during the '96 Euros, as part of Croatia's 3-0 stunner over the then defending title holders, Denmark.
5 Of The Best (Lobs) (via menzies1992)
The team has been in better form of late, however, finishing 1st in their qualifying group with a 9-1-2 record, with the only loss coming to Macedonia off all teams. They beat England twice, including a 3-2 road conquest that eliminated the Three Lions from this tourney, and also had a pair of 0-0 draws vs. Russia. They led the group with 28 goals in the 12 games, but 13 of those came in their twin slaughterings of minnows Andorra.
Croatia's strengths are in the middle and the flanks. Their midfield of Niko Krancjar, Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, and Dario Srna all play for or will soon join major European leagues (two English, one German, one French) as do Vedran Corluka and Danijel Pranjic, two wingbacks with some pace and crossing ability.
The team's weakness is up front where their best striker, Eduardo (that certainly sounds Croatian), who led them with 10 goals in qualifying, broke his ankle recently so he's out. They'll have to make do with Mladen Petric, who tallied a not-too-shabby seven times himself and Ivica Olic, who played in eight of those games, mostly as a sub, and whose lone goal was a crusher at England. Also they're old and slow at center back with captain Niko Kovac, his brother Robert, and that Simunic guy.
Still, I predict a relatively successful tournament for Croatia. I expect them to finish second in their group, behind Germany, and to even upset Portugal in the quarter-finals before bowing out in the semis, once again losing to Doucheland or however you spell it.
Germany: Die Nationalelf. That's their actual nickname, Die Nationalelf. It either translates to "The National Eleven" or, perhaps less likely, "The National Elf." Who is America's national elf? Vern Troyer? Anyway, unlike France, ze Germans aren't coming into the tournament having lost their best, most inspirational player.
What they have lost though, could be just as critical. Jürgen Klinsmann may not have been the tactical brains behind Germany's surprising 3rd place finish in the '06 World Cup, but the ex-star striker was a godsend for the team as a motivator and a fresh face and he seemed to push all the right buttons as their manager. He was awarded the Bundesverdienstkreuz (Federal Cross of Merit, officially Verdienstorden der Bundesrepublik Deutschland), the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, but resigned shortly after the tournament, citing the desire to return to the United States, where he now lives, to spend time with his family.
And he did just that, for eighteen months. Apparently now though, he's sick of them again because in July he will be taking over as manager of Bayern Munich.
Klinsmann's right hand man and tactical guru at Germany, Joachim Löw, has taken over the job and pledged not to change a thing - after all it was his system they were running in '06 - but Löw has had the kind of transient migrating coaching career in club football that would make Larry Brown blush, albeit without any of Brown's success. So far there have been no glitches for him on the international stage, as his squad was the first non-host to qualify for the tournament (The Czechs leapfrogged them in the standings after they had already clinched their spot) but one suspects that as a guy who had a middling playing career, Löw might lean more conservative than Klinsmann, the world-class goal maker when it counts. Just like there are some NFL coordinators of note who have failed to make it as head coaches, I get the feeling that Löw might be in over his head as the figurehead here.
He certainly will not be lacking for players. The Germans are very strong on the left side with wing back Philipp Lahm and midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger working well and endlessly supplying superb crosses and into the danger area. Up the middle they have the notoriously testy Michael Ballack and Torsten Frings winning balls and firing long range rockets at midfield and Per Mertesacker and Christoph Metzelder beating the hell out of people in the back.
There are some spots to be earned on the right side and up front, however. Bernd Schneider was the starting right midfielder in the past World Cup, but he's out injured so the job will go to either Clemens Fritz or David Odonkor, who was excellent as a sub for Schneider two years ago. At the back Arne Freidrich is the incumbent, but may give way to Marcell Jansen. The more offensive inclined Thomas Hitzlsperger could replace Frings as well, if they're desperate for goals.
At forward the fabulous somersaulting Miroslav Klose will start at one spot, that's a given, but his partner could be the talented but inconsistent Lukas Podolski, half-Brazilian Kevin Kuranyi, or Mario Gomez, who scored an impressive 28 goals in 32 appearances for VfB Stuttgart of the Bundesliga this year.
Klose is either celebrating a goal here, or Saudi Arabian keeper Mohammed Al-Deayea has the most explosive farting power in the history of mankind.
In addition to Löw, I just don't trust Ballack or pouty goalie Jens Lehmann much in big moments, and I have my doubts about the big, yet slow, pair at centerback as well. I think a favorable draw (doesn't it seem like they always get those?) will take Germany far, as they'll comfortably win their group, knock out my homeboys in the quarters, and crack the Croats again in the semis.
The ultimate prize will elude them again however, as I see an equally talented - and younger - Spanish side coming off as the victors in a hotly contested final.
Poland: Quick, how do you know when a Polish footballer is really good?
When he gets recruited to play for Germany.
Amazing but true, the German starting forward tandem of Klose and Podolski are both, in fact, Polish. One might think had they stayed put it would totally challenge the footballing landscape for both nations, but really that would be giving Poland too much credit and Germany not enough. Doucheland will always scrounge up quality forwards, by hook or by crook. Poland meanwhile has rarely featured the kind of midfielders worthy of playing with such marquee talent up front. Klose and Podolski wouldn't be who they are playing for the Bialo-czerwoni (you guessed it, The-white-and-red) just as Manu wouldn't have been Manu toiling aimlessly for some decrepit outfit such as the Milwaukee Bucks. If the tension between the two nations wasn't testy enough, given their history, it wasn't helped any when a Polish newspaper ran a front page story featuring a picture of German captain Michael Ballack and his manager decapitated. Lovely.
Oddly, while Poland has made seven World Cups, this will be their maiden voyage into the Euros. They had a successful qualifying campaign, going 8-2-4, good for 28 points and first in their gropu ahead of the always-hyped Portuguese as well as other solid footballing nations such as Serbia, Belgium and Finland.
And of course, Kazakhstan. Iz niiice.
Luckily, Poland avoided having to play Israel.
The strength of the Polish team is in their midfield and they employ your basic 4-5-1, although it can be viewed as the 4-4-1-1 that France used so effectively with Zinedine Zidane in ’06. The man in the middle who makes it all work is Ebi Smolarek, and he’s the head of the snake. Like Zidane or Maradona he’s more of an attacking goal scorer than a playmaker for others. He led the team with nine tallies in qualifying whereas their top forward Maciej 'Magic' Zurawski, who figures to start alone up front scored just once in ten games. Smolarek will be supported by on his line by the shifty Jakub Blaszczykowski on the right and hard shooting Jacek Krzynowek on the left. Behind them in a holding role will be Mariusz Lewandowski and Dariusz Dudka.
Where the team might suffer is in the back, where their guys are tough as nails and perfectly willing to scrap, but as one might expect slow of both body and mind. There is no way the starting four will make it through the third game without someone being sent off or giving up a penalty kick. In fact, Poland lasting 90 minutes against the Germans with the full complement of 11 on the pitch would be a bigger upset than them actually winning the game. Well regarded keeper Jerzy Dudek, 35, wasn’t invited to the party and has given way to Artur Boruc while defender Bartosz Bosacki, who scored Poland’s only two goals in WC ’06 (both coming in a 2-1 triumph over Costa Rica) wasn’t chosen either, which makes little sense.
I guess that even though their manager Leo Beenhakker isn’t a Pollak himself, he can certainly get into the spirit by acting like a dumbshit.
Poland figures to battle Croatia for the second spot behind Germany and that looks to me as much of a 50/50 proposition as any soccer game possibly could be. On a hunch I’ll go with Croatia to squeeze by them if only because Poland drew Germany first and figure to be put behind the eight ball right away.