Thursday, June 19, 2008

Endgame at the Euros

Endgame at the Euros.
Euro 2008 is now in its 'endspiel' as they say here.

It is hard to believe 24 games have already taken place, with only seven to go, but I for one always get a bit of a sinking feeling as a tournament enters its knockout phase.

The first round is always the best part of any tournament to experience because the fans of all the countries are around. I find nothing more lonesome than the free days before the final as the tournament winds down and the partying concludes. Unless of course England were involved but no hypotheticals for now.

So far, Euro 2008 has lost some huge fan groups - the Swedes, Czechs, Poles and the largest two of all - those of host nations Austria and Switzerland.

The silver lining is of course that games from now on are winner-takes-all, 'there must be a result tonight' knock-out. This means more passion, incident and recrimination and no repeats of France v Romania.

* * *

Here in Vienna the tournament is anything but dead. While we may not get 200,000+ in the fan zone again like we did when Austria played Germany, there will be standing room only when Croatia tackle Turkey here on Saturday night. This is almost a local derby.

Both nations have huge immigrant populations in the Austrian capital, Croatia's an old legacy of being part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Turkey's from being part of the neighbouring Ottoman one. While most Turks in Vienna are 20th century arrivals, they have always had a presence here in one way or another; in 1683 Turkish forces surrounded Vienna and almost took the city.

Official statistics claim 16,500 Croats live in Vienna out of a national total of 56,000 but their flags are everywhere, especially around the Balkan enclave of the 16th district, the Ottakringerstrasse, a neighbourhood shared with who else but their opponents at the Pratar on Saturday.

The Turks are even more prevalent if anything, with their cuisine the most commonly found in the city.

Turkey's last-gasp win against the Czechs was celebrated by thousants of noisy red-clad fans jammed into the fanzone and across the city long into the night. Surely no set of supporters cheers their team with such fiery, nationalistic fervour as the Turks. Expect Saturday to be one big, noisy, high-pressure night in Vienna.

I was there the last time the two met in the European Championship, in Nottingham in Euro 1996. Both had qualified for a finals for the first time and after relentless pressure, Croatia ran out winners thanks to an 86th minute winner from Goran Vlaiovic at the City Ground.

* * *

The host nations have been the subject of gripes from a number of English journalists these past few days, complaining Austria and Switzerland are too genteel and more interested in Alpine sports than hosting a football tournament.

I wonder how badly travelled these men are if they have only just discovered Alpine Europe and its clean and pleasant ambience. Comparing joyful and spotless Salzburg to the grotty and scary Marseille at France '98, I know which I prefer to be a fan in.

Austria and Switzerland have excellent public transport networks, free of charge to ticket holders, and there are no sirens, heavy-handed policing, sounds of breaking glass, fans with blood pouring from wounds and local toughs waiting on street corners to assault you, all of which I have experienced in other European countries with football.

But leaving that aside, are they implying every European Championship ever after should be held in one of England, Spain, Germany or Italy?

The same condescending argument was trotted out when the World Cup went to the helmetball-loving USA in 1994 and baseball-loving Japan in 2002.

I disagree. I don't think football should be a closed shop and the staging of those two World Cups sparked a surge in interest in the countries involved and in the case of the USA, the birth of a professional league which 12 years later could attract the England captain across the ocean.

For the same reasons, Poland & Ukraine deserved Euro 2012 more than Italy and I look forward to the FIFA World Cup coming to China and Australia before long.

* * *

Who on earth would want to be a referee with all the abuse they get? Howard Webb is the latest to get police protection for his family after Polish fans posted his address & the usual death threats on the internet after he awarded Austria a last-minute penalty (quite rightly according to the rules).

Other refs this tournament who have placed their head on the guillotine include Sweden's Peter Frojdfeldt, who awarded Ruud Van Nistelrooy's goal against Italy despite Christian Panucci lying in a heap over the goalline and clearly not being active, and Mejuto Gonzalez, who sent off both coaches at the Austria v Germany game for no obvious reason.

The Sun in England has printed referees' contact details before in a shameful baying to the crowd. Swiss referee Urs Meier was one of their victims in 2004, receiving 16,000 abusive emails before being placed under police protection.

Then a year later, Anders Frisk, one of Europe's top refs, retired after death threats to his family from Chelsea fans after Jose Mourinho had stoked the fire by falsely claiming he and Barcelona coach Frank Rijkaard had conversed at half time in their Champions League clash.

Sooner or later a referee will get seriously hurt, or worse.

Anyone who has ever reffed a game at any level can confirm just how tough a job it is, which makes the comments from Polish coach Leo Beenhakker and the even more stupid Polish sports minister Miroslaw Drzewiecki, who called Webb a "disgrace" and a "fraud", quite despicable.

Until robots and cameras take over the officiating, we have to accept the human eye will make mistakes.

You have to expect the odd decision to go against you, even if it involves a goal in the last minute. That is the way football has always been. Everyone knows that.

In any case, keyboard ultras should beware: Howard Webb is a police sergeant by trade and looks the sort of guy I would not want to meet on a dark night.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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