10 June 2008

A starry night

Holland 3 Italy 0

As a spectacle, Euro 2008 finally kicked off last night.

Say what you like about Ruud van Nistelrooy's opening goal - and much has already been said in the media and online over the past 12 hours or so about whether or not it was offside - but Holland's other two goals were aesthetic beauties worthy of any Dutch Master.

If the final goal scored by left back Giovanni van Bronckhorst was a classic example of counter-attacking football, coming as it did from a sweeping end-to-end move started by a fine save by Edwin van der Sar, then the goal scored by Wesley Sneijder to give Holland a 2-0 advantage was the equivalent of van Gogh's Sunflowers or A Starry Night. Again, van Bronckhorst featured prominently, initiating the move with a goal-line clearance before sprinting forward to receive the ball and deliver an incisive cross into the Italian box, which was cushioned by the head of Dirk Kuyt into the path of the arriving Sneijder, who volleyed the ball home. It was reminiscent of the sweeping Brazil move finished by Carlos Alberto in the 1970 World Cup final, a true team effort widely regarded as one of the greatest goals ever scored.

European Championship finals have witnessed some astonishing goals in the past: van Basten's thunderbolt volley against the USSR in the 1988 final, Gazza against the Scots at Euro 96, Suker and Poborsky's deft chips at the same tournament. Sneijder's goal last night arguably betters them all: it was that good.

And it was exactly what this year's tournament needed too, with the five preceding matches serving up a mixture of mild entertainment and downright drudgery (in particular, the desperately disappointing France v Romania). There was always a danger that the first genuine heavyweight clash of Euro 2008 would be a terrible letdown, as such games often are, but somehow you just know that any game involving Holland is likely to have some kind of a spark to it.

There is something genuinely uplifting about watching the Dutch national team. Here are five reasons why:
1. They seek first and foremost to play beautiful football - this is, after all, the nation which gave us the concept of 'total football'
2. Their history contains a veritable Who's Who of great players: Cruyff, Gullit, van Basten, Bergkamp and so on
3. They can always be guaranteed to produce as many headlines off the pitch as they do on it - there is always at least one story of in-fighting, or a training ground punch-up, or players refusing to play for the coach or with other players
4. Their fans are lovably bonkers: a sea of orange-clad maniacs who add colour and atmosphere to any stadium
5. Finally - and perhaps most importantly - they are, statistically, the only major footballing nation who are comparably bad to England when it comes to penalty shootouts (England have won just one out of six in major tournaments; Holland's record is one win in five)

Arguably the Dutch have the most talented squad in the tournament - and this is without heavy hitters such as Clarence Seedorf and Mark van Bommel, who refuse to play for coach Marco van Basten. Equally, one could make a case for them being the weakest team in what has been labelled (as happens at every major tournament) Euro 2008's 'Group of Death': a group which includes both 2006 World Cup finalists (Italy and France) and Romania, who headed Holland's group in qualifying.

Yesterday, they showed the best side of what Dutch football is all about, while demonstrating how fine the margins in international football truly are. A questionable opening goal, followed by two majestic goals which arose directly from Italian near-misses. In no way, shape or form were Italy three goals inferior to Holland last night - a draw would not have been an unfair result - and so Italian fans can rightfully feel somewhat aggrieved this morning. And yet, in a country which has a deeper appreciation for artistry than any other on Earth, they may also feel a grudging admiration for having being part of and party to two moments of great footballing beauty last night.

If we see a goal or a game even half as good as what we saw last night, then Euro 2008 will already have been a memorable tournament. Bring it on!

9 June 2008

Poland 2 Germany 0

Yesterday was, it must be said, a good day for the Poles. Well, in a glass half full sort of way, anyway.

In the Germany v Poland game at Euro 2008, both goals were scored by Lukas Podolski, the forward born in Gliwice in Poland, and son of former Polish footballer Waldemar Podolski.

Unfortunately, the Podolskis moved to the former West Germany when Lukas was just two, which meant that last night he was scoring against the country of his birth rather than for them.

Oh well.

It will be of little consolation to the Poles in defeat, but in addition to Podolski they can also claim to have produced not one but two of Germany's strikers: Podolski's Bayern Munich and Germany team-mate Miroslav Klose was also born in Poland (and, like Podolski's father, Klose Sr was also a Polish professional footballer).

It makes you wonder, though. What if footballers were only allowed to represent the country of their birth? How much poorer a team would Germany be without Podolski and Klose? How much better would Poland be? And might we have seen last night's 2-0 scoreline reversed?

Better news for the Polish nation came several thousand miles away in Montreal, where Robert Kubica - F1's first ever Polish driver - secured his maiden win in only his 29th race. The victory would have been sweeter still for the fact that it came in Canada, where last year Kubica suffered a horrific 300km/h crash - his car spearing into a barrier, rolling across the track shedding bits of carbon-fibre bodywork everywhere, before finally striking the opposite wall - from which he was miraculously fortunate to escape with a sprained ankle and a concussion. (link)

Yesterday's win couldn't have happened to a nicer, or more talented, driver. For all the fuss that has centred on the similarly inexperienced Lewis Hamilton - a competitor and friend of Kubica's from the junior formulae - I have a sneaky suspicion the Pole is at least as capable as the more trumpeted Briton. In this, his second full season in F1, he has been a model of speed and consistency in a BMW car which is undoubtedly not quite a match for the Ferraris and McLarens. And yet victory yesterday propelled Kubica to the top of the drivers' standings. It's a position which, in all probability, he will not be able to maintain in the long run, but it is also just reward for a driver who quietly goes about this most dangerous of businesses without courting the limelight.

Yesterday, the contrast with Hamilton could not have been more stark. While the McLaren driver committed a basic error by running into the back of Kimi Raikkonen who had stopped in the pitlane in response to a red light, Kubica kept his nose clean and drove a fast, flawless race to beat his veteran team-mate Nick Heidfeld (who was also seeking his first win) to the chequered flag.

And therein lies the irony. On a day when a Polish-born striker playing for Germany beat Poland at football, we also witnessed a Polish driver in the most German of teams, BMW, beat his German teammate to both his and the team's first F1 victory. You've got to love it.