Archive for the 'European Cup' Category

Dec 02 2013

Profile Image of Vishnu Kadiyala

The Danish Fairy Tale

A friend of mine is a fan of F.C. København, the most successful Danish league side of the last 10 years. København have won 7 of the last 10 Danish Superliga titles, but are more famous for being a Cinderella team that beat Manchester United and drew Barcelona and Manchester City in the Champions League. Remarkably, however,  København is not the most successful Cinderella that Denmark has produced. That honor belongs to the Danish team that won Euro 1992 against all odds, which wrote a fairy tale that can rival any work by Hans Christian Andersen

The Champions

The Team that shouldn’t have even been there

European football in th 1970s and 1980s was dominated by the Germans and Dutch. These bitter rivals had won 3 of the 5 Euros held in that timespan, and were favored to repeat then dominance in the 1992 Euros. But qualification had to occur first. Sweden, as host country qualified automatically, while the Netherlands, Germany, France, England and Scotland qualified by winning their groups. The Soviet Union qualified, then ceased to exist as a country, but sent a team under the name “Commonwealth of Independent States.” The last team to qualify was Yugoslavia, who had beat out Denmark, Northern Ireland, the Faroe Islands, and Austria for a spot at Euro 1992.

But as so often occurs in football, fate had other plans. After the death of Marshal Tito, ethnic tensions had risen in the Soviet Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The various ethic groups started arming themselves, creating a very volatile situation. In mid 1992, Slovenia and Croatia declared independence, starting the Yugoslav Civil wars. During these conflicts, atrocities such as the last genocide in Europe occured, resulting in the breakup of Yugoslavia. In an effort to calm the situation, the United Nations passed Security Council Resolution 757, which banned Yugoslav participation in global evens. Part g of the resolution banned Yugoslav participation in sporting events

As a result, the Yugoslav team was disqualified from the 1992 Euros. Denmark, the runners-up in that group, were selected to replace them. Barring the disqualification of  the former Yugoslavia, Denmark would not have has a chance to write one of the most remarkable tales in soccer history.

The Danish Team

The Danish team, despite finishing runners up in their group, were actually a solid team. In the 1984 Euros, they had lost to Spain, the eventual runners up, on penalities in the Semifinals. The 1992 team boasted players such Peter Schmeichel, Brian Laudrup, Henrik Andersen, and Flemming Søgaard Povlsen, who all played in the major leagues of Europe. However, the most famous and talented player of that Danish generation, Michael Laudrup, had decided not to go to the tournament due to differences with the coach. Famously, Michael Laudrup though Denmark’s chances were so low that he decided to stay on holiday instead of representing his country

 

Laudrup must have regretted his decision

 

The Group Stages

Denmark was placed in a group with France, England, and Sweden (which was another stroke of luck-they may not have qualified from the other group). In the 1st game, they played England, drawing 0-0. In their second game, Denmark faced the host nation, Sweden, but lost 1-0 thanks to a goal by the Parma midfielder Tomas Brolin. At this point, qualification was still possible, but Denmark was last in their group, with only 1 point (France and England had drawn their first two games, so were ahead of Denmark but behind Sweden). At this point, qualification was not in Denmark’s hands; if England won their game by a small margin, Denmark would have been eliminated on goals scored and head to head results.

But Sweden defeated England 2-1 after falling behind early. It was now up to the Danes to determine their own destiny.

In the last game of the Group stages, Denmark faced France, a team brimming with talent. At that point, France boasted players such as Didier Deschamps, Eric Cantona, Laurent Blanc and jean Pierre Papin. During the game, Denmark took an early lead when henrik Larsen scored in the 8th minute. But Papin equalized for France in the 60th minute. As the clock ticked down, Lars Elstrup scored in the 78th minute.  With this goal, Denmark was through to the knockout stages.

The Knockout Stages

But what chance did Denmark have? They were drawn against the mighty Dutch team, who were mounting a strong defence of their 1988 championship The Dutch boasted players such as Ruud Gullit, Marco Van Basten, Dennis Bergkamp, Frank De Boer, Frank Riijkard, and Wim Kieft. Gullit, Van Basten, and Riijkard had formed the backbone of the famous Arrigio Saachi A.C Milan teams of the late 1980s, which had won back-to-back European Cups (a feat which has not been equaled since).   The Dutch were heavily favored, but football is a game of where any given team can win given the right circumstances.

Those circumstances were provided by Henrik Larsen, who gave Denmark the lead in the 5th minute. The Dutch equalized due to a Dennis Bergkamp goal, but Larsen scored again in the 33rd minute. As the clock was winding down, Denmark seemed destined for a famous victory. But Ruud Gullit scored with 3 minutes to spare, sending the game into overtime. Though both teams threatened, the match went to penalties. It was Peter Schemichel’s time to shine. The newly minted Manchester United keeper has just finished as runners up (to give this a little perspecitive, Sir Alex Ferguson had not yet won his first Premier League). The first Dutch and Danish penalties were scored, but on the second Dutch Penalty, Schmeichel was able to save van Basten’s penalty

 

The rest of the Danish and Dutch scored, so Denmark won5-4 on Penalties, eliminating the defending champions

 

The Final

Still, Denmark couldn’t repeat another miracle, could they? After all, they were facing Germany, one of the best teams in the world. The Germans had won the 1990 World Cup, and boasted future legends such as Matthias Sammer, Jürgen Klinsmann, Bodo Illgner, and Andreas  Brehme.  They had easily beaten Sweden 3-2, with Sweden’s last goal coming in garbage time. Again, the Danes were heavy underdogs.

 

Surprisingly, the Danes took the lead in the 18th minute- John Jensen, who was later bough by Arsenal solely because of his efforts in the final, scored a screamer with his left foot. It was the first real goal scoring oppurtunity, but the Danes had capitalized. But the German seemed determined to score. For the next 60 minutes, they laid siege to the Danish goal. shot after shot was on targer, with Schmeichel performing acrobatic saves to preserve the Danish lead. It seemed that the Germans would eventually be rewarded for their dominance

But the Danes had destiny on their side. During Euro 1992, one of the most touching stories was that of Kim Vilfort . Vilfort was a Brøndby IF player who was a solid if unspectacular player. Picked to replace Laudrup, he was one of Denmark’s few true offensive threats. However, Vilfort had a 7 year old daughter, Line Vilfort, who was striken with Leukemia. During the tournament, Vilfort had to twice leave the Danish camp because his daughter’s condition was deteriorating. However, he was sent back by his family to rejoin the team, and had scored one of the penalities in the shootout against the Dutch.

In pretty much the second actual chance for the Danes, Vilfort shot a low goal  in the 78th minute that evaded Bodo illgner and gave the Danes a comfortable cushion.. They weathered relentless German attempts for another 12 minutes, after which Denmark Were champions of Europe. Sadly, however, Line Vilfort would die soon after the tournament

 

 

Denmark’s victory at the 1992 Euros remains the most remarkable moment in the history of that championship. It showed how a team with no superstars could beat teams brimming with individual talent if they possessed defensive discipline, efficient counterattacking, and a healthy dose of luck. The Danes wrote the blueprint which Greece successfully followed in 2004. Yet, the Danish victory remains the most improbable result in the history of the Euros due to the fact that had it not been for Yugoslavia’s disqualification, the team would never have been in the tournament. Yet, Denmark were worthy winners, writing one of the unlikeliest fairy tales in the history of the game.

 

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Jul 05 2012

Profile Image of Philip Kaisary

¡Tricampeones! Spain complete their cycle

“Years have gone by and I’ve finally learned to accept myself for who I am: a beggar for good football. I go about the world, hands outstretched, and in the stadiums I plead: ‘A pretty move, for the love of God.’ And when good football happens, I give thanks for the miracle and I don’t give a damn which team or country performs it.”
- Eduardo Galeano

 

They are calling them el generation de fenómenos – ‘the generation of phenomenons.’ On the night of July 1, 2012, in Kiev, the most talented generation of footballers that Spain has ever produced – or, perhaps, will ever produce – fashioned their most lucid performance. With their destruction of Italy by four goals to nil, the largest margin of victory in a European or World cup final, Spain has become the only team to defend successfully the European Championship, and the first international side since the Uruguay teams of 1924, 1928, and 1930 to win a hat-trick – tres tantos – of consecutive major tournaments.

Spain, the perennial underachievers have become perennial world-beaters and record-setters. Much has been made of the fact that the cycle that was set in motion when Spain defeated their bête noire, Italy, on penalties in 2008, a team that they had never previously beaten in tournament football, has now come full circle. Italy has been beaten again, and with panache.

Spain’s recent dominance of world football has been so staggering that we must rouse ourselves from the enchanted state that their mesmeric play is capable of inducing and remind ourselves of its unreal reality: Spain have not so much as conceded a goal in a knock-out game since Zinedine Zidane scored a break-away solo effort in their 2006 World Cup quarter-final against France. Or to put it another way, as Rob Smyth has observed, “Iker Casillas’s net has been untouched for sixteen and a half hours.” Spain’s extraordinary cycle has been defined not only by their inventive and artistic football, but also by their impregnability.

Yet, it is not for achieving their record-setting triptych of victories that Spain 2008–’10–’12 now assumes a place in the pantheon. Hungary 1953, Brazil 1970, Holland 1974, Brazil 1982: football’s immortal sides are not mere winning machines, but the workers of miracles. Last night, Spain’s miracle was to play at a level of such audacious incisiveness, married to an impregnability approaching perfection, that, as Pablo Neruda might have put it, it were as if the moon and the stars lived in the lining of their skin. If it was not quite as astounding as Barca’s 5–0 destruction of Real Madrid in 2010, the spectacle of the condemned Italians chasing Spanish moon-shadows was both exquisite and cruel.

That the Italians had sight of goal on occasion only exacerbated the cruelty of the joke: as if the cat-like Casillas would ever be beaten! Denied agency, Spain’s adversaries became mere victims: the harder Italy chased, bravely competing for territory and possession, the more stretched they became and the more hopeless their cause. By half-time Spain were two goals to the good.

Jonathan Wilson has argued that Pep Guardiola’s final season at Barcelona became like a Greek tragedy – the hero aware of his destiny yet unable to prevent it. This final’s narrative arc also took on something of the hue of Greek tragedy: Spain compelled Italy to chase the game, creating the conditions in which Italian defeat would be fulfilled by their desperate attempts to avert it. The theme of Italy’s defeat had been scripted through the ages: Aeschylus and Sophocles, Yeats, Mann, and Conrad. Italian defenders strained and stretched sinews, contorted their bodies (to breaking point in the cases of Giogio Chiellini and Thiago Motta), pressed and continued to chase, but Spain’s prodigies created or discovered space where none seemed to exist, stretching, manipulating, and piercing defensive lines, seemingly at will. Such exquisite mastery sears itself in the memories of aficionados forever.

The aesthetic aspect of Spain’s sublime technique and dazzling collectivity is consummate evidence with which to buttress Lilian Thuram’s contention: “Footballers can be like artists when the mind and body are working as one. It is what Miles Davis does when he plays free jazz – everything pulls together into one intense moment that is beautiful.”

Intense moments of beauty in which fantasy and reality blur: Xavi’s perfectly measured pass for Jordi Alba in full-flight, inviting the left-back to return to earth to score a goal I had only thought possible on a Playstation; the balletic quality of an Iniesta body-swerve; the high-speed smuggling of the ball through, between, around, and away from Italians all night long; the sublime improvisation inherent to what Xavi calls “mig-toc” – “half-touch” – tiki-taka that maps the coordinates of a beautiful and unrelenting dance: ‘there is only one ball and you shall not have it.’

With Spain’s near flawless performance in Kiev, the argument about the identity of football’s greatest team just got more complicated.

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Jun 26 2012

Profile Image of Laurent Dubois

Mario Balotelli and the New Europe

During international football competitions like the European Cup, eleven players briefly become their country, for a time, on the pitch. A nation is a difficult thing to grasp: unpalpable, mythic, flighty. Historians might labor away to define the precise contours of a country’s culture and institutions, and even sometimes attempt to delineate its soul, while political leaders try mightily (and persistently fail) to stand as representatives of its ideals. But in a way there is nothing quite so tactile, so real, as the way a team represents a nation: during their time on the pitch, they have in their hands a small sliver of the country’s destiny. And in those miraculous and memorable moments when individual trajectories intersect with a national sporting victory, sometimes biographies and histories seem briefly to meld. At such moments, the players who inhabit the crossroads of sporting and national history –Maradona in 1986, Zidane in 1998 — become icons, even saints.

This charged atmosphere can also mean that the collective of a given country’s team can also become a symbol. This was perhaps most forcefully the case in France in 1998, when the fact that the country had won it’s first World Cup with a team bewildering in it’s jovial diversity (Armenian! Algerian! Guadeloupean! Kanak!) was taken by many as signifying and symbolizing the arrival of a new France. The feeling was short-lived but powerful, indeed energizing. And it suggested one particularly powerful way through which international football competitions can speak to questions about national identity and belonging, and more specifically the place of immigration and immigrants in the nation.

Watching the 2012 European Cup competition, you can increasingly see how histories of immigration have reshaped the world of European football. For a long time, France was relatively unique in the extent to which players with roots outside of Europe played central roles on the national football squad. It’s a tradition that goes back to the early 20th century in France — in the 1930s the Senegalese player Raoul Diagne and the Moroccan Larbi Ben Barek both played on the French national team, for instance, and a string of Algerian players did as early as the 1920s and through the 1950s. Portugal, meanwhile, had the great Mozambican-born Eusebio in the 1960s. The great French generation of Michel Platini, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, included a number of players with African and Caribbean roots. By then, other countries — particularly the Netherlands, which famously included several players of Surinamese background, and England which in the late 1970s incorporated a series of black players largely of Caribbean ancestry — began fielding more diverse teams. But in other countries the process was much slower. Germany, Italy, and Spain in particular continued to field teams with few if any players of non-European background. Perhaps the most startling contrast in this regard came in 2006, when a French team in which 19 of 23 players on the squad had roots in Africa, North Africa, the Caribbean, or the Indian Ocean, in contrast to an Italian team which, with the exception of some Argentine-Italians, had no players with non-European roots.

In the past years this all begun to shift in important ways. The German team in the 2010 World Cup was heralded for it’s multi-ethnic composition — with Ghana (via Boateng), Brazil (via Cacau), Tunisia (via Khedira) and Turkey (via Ozil) all represented. If the numbers were small compared to the French team, it still represented a shift, one brought about through a conscious longer-term policy that sought to expand and diversify training and recruitment in German soccer. Similar changes are visible on other national teams. Switzerland’s team (absent from this Euro) benefited strikingly in South Africa from the contribution of Gelson Fernandes, son of Cape Verde immigrants who scored their goal in their stunning victory over Spain. At the Euros this year The Czech team showcased the talented Thedor Gebre Selassie, son of an Ethiopian doctor. And the player who truly defined Sweden’s exalting performance against France in the final group game in this year’s Euro, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, is the child of Croatian and Bosnian parents.

There is obviously no simple explanation for how and why certain international teams include players of immigrant background. At some level, each player’s trajectory is an individual story, one that combines talent, discipline, and luck to bring them to the highest levels of the sport. But there are also larger social and historical forces at work. These involve three inter-related processes. At the broadest level, there is of course the history of migration in each European country. While these histories are — especially in an increasingly integrated Europe — tightly connected, they are also quite diverse. Migration to some countries — most notably France and the U.K. — is shaped by their colonial histories, though both countries also have large migrant populations that are not from former colonies. In places like Belgium and Italy, migration from former colonies (particularly the Congo in the former case and Ethiopia and Somalia in the latter) is a small part of a broader tapestry of migration. And intra-European migration, particularly from Eastern to Western Europe, is also part of the story as it has long been.

But patterns of migration don’t necessary become patterns of sporting participation. For that to happen, there have to be mechanisms for the inclusion of migrants into the networks of training that professionalize young players. To understand how that happens in different countries, you need to understand the different types of professionalization — most importantly the structuring of academies or sport-training tracks in schools. That is something Lindsay Marie Krasnoff explores well in a recent piece contrasting Spanish and French academy systems. Interestingly, though, the Spanish national team remains an outlier in some ways, for there is a striking absence of players of non-European background on the team. Why is this the case? Will it change in the coming years?

In this European Cup, the most important and fascinating player of immigrant background is clearly Mario Balotelli. For the past decades, Italy’s national team has had very few black players, and none ever so prominent as Balotelli. He’s earned a place as the team’s key striker, and his presence has been at the center of polemics and debates around racism at the Euro competition. His story is as fascinating as it is complex. Born in Sicily to Ghanaian parents, he had health problems as a child and ultimately was fostered with a wealthier Italian couple. Although the fostering was initially meant to be for a year, Mario ended up staying, leaving behind his Ghanaian name of Barwuah and taking on that of his foster parents, the Balotellis. At 18, he took on Italian citizenship. As the Daily Mail reported in 2010, his relationship with his biological parents became strained and distant. A brilliant player, Balotelli has found vertiginous success on the pitch, coupled with regular appearances in the newspaper for various teenage stunts, and has been recruited to play as one of his national team’s key strikers during this tournament.

Though a number of players intervened into the discussion about how to respond to racist fans during the European Cup, none was more forceful than Balotelli, who announced that he might walk off the pitch if confronted with monkey noises or other forms of racist abuse. As it happened, he was — during the Italy vs. Croatia match — as several hundred fans made monkey noises at him and one threw a rapidly-retrieved (and photographed) banana onto the pitch to taunt him.

He didn’t carry out his threat of leaving the pitch, though the fact that he had emphasized the issue probably helped pressure UEFA to take action after the match. They fined the Croatian Federation 80,000 Euros for the behavior of his fans. Of course that fine can seem rather small, especially when compared to other fines levied by the same body. As The Star reported: “The fine is €20,000 ($25,000) less than the UEFA disciplinary panel ordered Denmark forward Nicklas Bendtner to pay one day earlier for revealing a sponsor’s name on his underpants.”

During the next game, against Ireland, Balotelli scored his first goal of the competition. What happened next generated perhaps one of the most potent and fascinating moments in the tournament: as he turned to celebrate, he began to say something. But his teammates rapidly put their hands over his mouth, muffling and silencing him. The image was unsettling: a goal celebration that was also a bit of a mugging, as if the job of Balotelli’s teammates was to make sure that he scored but didn’t speak afterwards. Most commentators — like those I heard on Belgian television — commended the action, taking the line that given Balotelli’s penchant for controversial statements and behavior, they were doing the young man a favor. But what, precisely, was Balotelli trying to say? The Independent has suggested that — like Samir Nasri who, after scoring against England, had shouted “Ferme ta gueule!” at the camera, presumably responding to a recent criticism in L’Equipe about his lack of scoring — he was going to taunt the Italian journalists who had been critical of his performance in previous games. Then again, maybe he was just going to say something about how awesome he is, which he clearly enjoys doing as well. But there’s another possibility, which is that Balotelli had some words for the racist fans from the previous game who had taunted him. His teammates stifled whatever it was that was about to come out of his mouth.

Balotelli faces seeping racism at home too: in anticipation of the Italy-England match, Italy’s leading sports newspaper, La Gazetta Dello Sporto, published this cartoon, whose racial vocabulary is not that far from that of the Croatian fans.

As Elizabeth Cotignola has recently noted in a provocative piece about the specter of decline threatening Italian football, migration — and a more open approach to migrants in Italian society — may be the key to assuring the future of the sport in the country. If that is true, Balotelli may represent the beginning of a new era in Italian football.

What is striking in the lead-up to the Germany-Italy game is that, no matter which team wins the victory will be the result of a collective effort by a group that brings together diverse histories. If the Italian teams wins, there is a good chance it will be thanks to the alliance of the veteran Andrea Pirlo with Mario Balotelli. Though Balotelli failed to score in open play, he threatened England on several occasions. Pirlo, meanwhile, directed the team effectively, and topped the evening off with a cheeky and brilliant panenka during the penalty kick shoot-out. The experience of the French team in this tournament is testament, once again, to what can happen when a team of very talented players lacks a figure who centers and directs the action of the team — the way Zidane did in 2006, for instance. But with Pirlo and other experienced players behind him, Balotelli has the opportunity on Thursday to earn a place in the pantheon of Italian football.

Balotelli has now scored twice, once against Ireland and once scoring the first penalty against England. Will he do so again against Germany? And if so, what will that mean for him, and for Italy?

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Jun 08 2012

Profile Image of Laurent Dubois

What Would Thuram Do?

In 1996, after France narrowly defeating Bulgaria to move on from the group stages of the European Cup competition, the French defender Marcel Desailly made a striking accusation during a press conference. Hristo Stoichkov, the star Bulgarian striker, had racially abused him during the game. “Hey Desailly, do you know that little kids are dying of hunger in your country,” Desailly claimed Stoichkov had said to him on the pitch during one of a number of heated entanglements. And then he added: “Shitty country, shitty blacks, shitty skin.”

Desailly was born in Ghana but grew up in comfortable circumstances with his mother and a French step-father. As he writes in his autobiography, Stoichkov’s comments ultimately had an awakening effect on him, driving him to reconnect with Ghana after years of relative distance. But his public accusation against Stoichkov was itself both a courageous and relatively rare thing: this was not something black players did in the 1990s in the midst of major tournaments. And there was in fact little result: the UEFA did nothing to Stoichkov — who when confronted by Desailly after the match had refused to apologize and said “I believe what I said.” The incident was, in any case, soon overshadowed by a larger racial scandal, when far-right French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen famously attacked his national team — which included Desailly, Lilian Thuram, Christian Karembeu, and Zinedine Zidane — of being composed of “foreign players” and “fake Frenchmen” who didn’t know the words to the Marseillaise, or else refused to sing it if they did. The comments incited a wave of criticism from the players, politicizing many of them, as well as from politicians and media figures in France. Though France didn’t win the Euros that year, the tournament ended up setting the stage for the 1998 World Cup in at least two ways: it helped solidify the team, but it also transformed it into a symbol of multi-cultural France and made supporting Les Bleus a form of anti-racism activism for many. (This is a story I tell in some detail in my book Soccer Empire).

Eighteen years later, another European Cup begins, and once again the question of race, nation, and sport are center stage. This time the story is beginning in a very different way: thanks in large part to a controversial BBC show about Ukraine and Poland called “Stadiums of Hate,” there has been wide-spread concern about the presence of racist, anti-semitic — and violent — fan groups in the countries hosting the Cup this year. Sol Campbell urged English fans to stay away from the Euro, and others have made similar warnings. In response, Polish and Ukrainian authorities have decried the BBC show as extremely partial, focusing on a marginal phenomenon, and tried to reassure everyone that there will be no problems during the tournament. But yesterday members of the Dutch team, having just returned from a visit to pay homage at Auschwitz, were greeted by monkey calls by a group of Polish fans as they practiced, prompting Van Bommel to warn that the team would leave the pitch if this happened during a game. Mario Balotelli, meanwhile, has already threatened to do the same.

Will the players do it? Many people are hoping they will. In a recent interview I did with Lilian Thuram, he insisted that if players — and all players, not just black players — banded together and refused to play as long as racism of any kind was tolerated in the stadium then the federations would very quickly act to solve the problem. But UEFA President Michel Platini has announced that if Balotelli or anyone else walks off because of racial abuse, they’ll get a yellow card. It will be up to the referees, not the players, to decide whether the situation in the stands merits and end to the game.

If we take a step back from all of this, there’s a fascinating set of historical shifts at work. It wasn’t all that long ago, after all, that many European countries dreaded the arrival of English fans, who were notorious for right-wing affiliations and violent behavior. In one incident among many, during the 1998 World Cup fans of the England team, in Marseille for a game against Tunisia, rampaged through the center of town beating up people they saw as North African, as well as attacking a beach in the middle of the day and beating up families picnicking ocean-side. The problem of English “hooliganism” was in fact a pan-European obsession throughout the 1980s and 1990s — producing among perhaps it’s signal literary expression in Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs (a brilliant work of that is part embedded ethnography journal part journey to self-realization as thug). Monkey noises, bananas thrown on the pitch, neo-nazi symbols, brutal beatings and killings — it was all there, and it was thoroughly English in many European’s eyes. Now, some decades on, the English are leading the charge in criticizing the Ukranians and Poles for their unruly and violent fans, and it’s not surprising that some of the accused have had their hackles raised by the process.

At the same time, of course, the reality is that in England — precisely because of the magnitude of the problem — is now home to what is probably the most aggressive and committed program of action against racism in football in Europe. This year alone has seen two major cases involving racism on the pitch, and indeed what England captain John Terry has to look forward to after the Euros is being put on trial for racial harassment — which does make the English a bit of an easy target for accusations of hypocrisy. There have been arrests for racist tweets and programs through which fans can warn officials about racist chants they hear.

Of course, one way to interpret this is to insist the England still has as much of a problem with racism in football as the Ukraine and Poland do. But that would be a bit too easy: for it is true that today the kinds of anti-semitic, neo-Nazi, and racist banners and symbols that were clearly visible in stadium crowds shown on the BBC would rarely if ever be tolerated by officials in an English stadium. And in Italy, Holland, Spain and France the situation — while far from perfect — is also very different from what it was even a decade ago.

Underneath all this, of course, is a broader set of intricate tensions about Europe itself: after all, Eastern European immigration to Western Europe is a major phenomenon, and while such immigrants are not generally stigmatized quite as harshly as those from Africa and Asia, there are clearly social and cultural tensions that subtend all of this. (During one political campaign in France, just as an example, the threat of the “Polish plumber” who was to come and steal the jobs of perfectly competent “French plumbers” was bandied about). While it’s often difficult to trace the connections between such broader social phenomenon and football, they should not be disregarded as part of the current story — and one of the reasons the whole question has created so much tension, accusation, and counter-accusation.

Every international football tournament brings scrutiny to host countries — recall the extensive worried hair-rending surrounding the problem of security in South Africa (which turned out to be largely a non-issue), or simply look to the various panics surrounding whether Brazil will be “ready” for 2014. But to my knowledge — and I may well be overlooking cases here — the question of racist and anti-semitic fans as the major problem for a host is a new phenomenon. (The most dangerous thing about South African fans, it seemed, was the vuvuzela). And within Europe’s contemporary political landscape — as well as the landscape of European football — it needs to be taken seriously. The defense that racist and anti-semitic fans are a fringe group is an old one: the same was, rightly, said by those decrying the depictions of English “hooliganism” in the 1980s and 1990s. But the question of their presence, and their impact on the field of play, is as relevant as it ever has been.

What has changed since 1996? At once a lot — and too little. The intense scrutiny about racism in football is testament to the success of the actions taken by players such as Desailly, Lilian Thuram, and Thierry Henry — who responded to racial epithets directed at him by Spanish national team coach Luis Aragonès by partnering with Nike to launch an anti-racism campaign. But it’s striking how relevant the message of this campaign remains.

What players like Mario Balotelli — as well as Lilian Thuram, from a retirement he has devoted to anti-racist activism and education – are saying is that a more militant approach may be needed. After years of football federations and FIFA carrying out extensive public campaigns against racism in football, it can still emerge to haunt one of the sport’s most important international tournaments. It may turn out that all the sound and fury about this will turn out to have been misplaced. Perhaps the small groups of Ukranian and Polish fans foregrounded in “Stadiums of Hate” are truly a fringe, and they will be successfully kept out of the stadium — and away from visiting fans whose physical appearance might not please them — during the next month. Let’s hope that is the case. But if it is not, it may be politically and historically necessary for players to force the issue, as some have threatened to do. And, especially if action is taken in full solidarity — so that it is not presented as a problem facing black players, but rather as one affecting all players — it might make an important difference. Balotelli certainly loves to court controversy, but his matter-of-fact approach to the issue is refreshing. After all, in what other profession would those in charge simply tell people to deal with it if people racially harass them while they are working? Players have the right to wonder: how long do we have to wait?

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Sep 06 2011

Profile Image of Laurent Dubois

The Blues in Bucharest

Filed under European Cup,France

There was something oddly consuming about the dullness of today’s France-Romania European Qualifying match. It was played in Bucharest, in front of a packed and energized crowd of Romanian fans, who understood that this was probably the pivotal moment in the country’s attempt to get to the European Cup next year. The legendary, shiny-headed Howard Webb was officiating, lending the match a weighty air. The two national anthems were sung with an unusual verve and passion by snappily-dressed performers — the match commentator exclaimed that Edith Piaf couldn’t have done better with the Marseillaise, and I came away humming the Romanian national anthem thanks to the rendition given by the enthused, tuxedoed singer.

The contrast between the care given to the performance of the anthems and that given to the pitch upon which the match was played, however, was a little startling. It was as if the two teams had been condemned to play on some dusty pitch behind an elementary school in Durham. Clods of grass and dust shot up with pretty much any tackle, and you could almost see Ribery and Benzema stumbling around on the uneven pitch. The French team played well given the circumstances, slowing the game down, keeping possession, showing a tactical calmness and precision that was a relief to see — compared, at least, to the various scenes of panic, disarray, and incoherence that French fans have learned are always possible.

The game had a few brief flashes of interesting play, but they usually ended in some lunging shot off to the side of the goal or a play petering out in the midst of clods of dirt and flying grass. A tussle left Evra’s shirt torn, and it looked slightly piratey and glamorous hanging around his neck. When Samir Nasri was substituted in the 75th minute, after having been kept along with Malouda on the bench for most of the game, you could see him kind of listening to what Laurent Blanc was telling him, while members of the French coaching staff yawned behind him. By the end, between increasingly labored bursts of patriotic song from the Romanian crowd you could almost hear the sounds of tens of thousands sighing as they watched their teams run petering out. They booed and hissed at the end of the game, and it was a depressing sound, since it wasn’t clear against whom it was directed: the Romanian team for failing? The French team for allowing them to? Or just the damned world for being the way it is?

During the game, in one corner of the pitch, a gauntlet of black-clad, SWAT-teamish police with nifty headbands stood at the ready, as if at any moment they might have to burst onto the field with machine guns in a last ditch effort to save Romania’s chances, or maybe to save football itself from oblivion or meaninglessness.

Across the continent, Belgium offered up it’s classic, drippy cold weather to the visiting U.S. men’s team, along with a slightly humiliating stew of a 1-0 defeat. Since I was born in Belgium, I took some joy in the victory — it’s been a long time, I’ll be honest, since I’ve even seen the Belgian team play, and I came away looking forward to doing so again. Still, all in all one didn’t end the game feeling particularly excited about anything.

Elsewhere, at Wembley, football had already offered it’s ugliest side with the killing of a Wales fan. Perhaps, in the end, some blah matches are nothing to complain about: at least no one got hurt. As Jason Davis put it succinctly: “Soccer/Football, you’re a terrible bummer today.”

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Oct 14 2010

Profile Image of Laurent Dubois

Karim!

Filed under European Cup,France

France, happily (for me at least) continued it’s strong run in Euro qualifiers with a convincing victory over Luxembourg, which is reassuring since the team has a bit of tradition of wasting such games with draws. The first goal by Benzema was a beauty.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I9P4nxiaz2E

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Oct 09 2010

Profile Image of Laurent Dubois

A Sigh of Relief for France, and the Arrival of Loic Remy

Filed under Europe,European Cup,France

Yes, the European Cup of 2012 is still 21 months away, and the fact that the qualifying games are already underway seems slightly obscene: I’ve barely recovered from the drama of the World Cup, and now I’m supposed to start thinking, and, hoping about this tournament? But no matter: I’m awake. Today’s match between France and Romania, played in the Stade de France finally offered up a tiny glimmer of light. Romania has been a serious problem for France in the past years, particularly in the European Cup qualifiers and the group play in 2008. They haven’t been able to defeat France, but they’ve battled time and time again to a draw. And they are clearly France’s most serious opposition in the qualification group. So winning tonight was really important. Of course we can’t quite rule out the possibility that France will end up in some ridiculous 0-0 match, or worse, with Luxembourg or Albania: France, after all, lost it’s first qualifying game to Belarus. But between their subsequent defeat of Bosnia and tonight’s victory, they’ve secured a spot at the top of their group, and seem to be headed in a substantially different direction from the limping start to the qualifying campaign for the 2010 World Cup.

Allez les Bleus? We shouldn’t rejoice too soon, probably. Other teams, notably Germany and the Netherlands are already coasting high at the top of their groups, with 9 points while France only has 6 because of their first loss. But then again why not rejoice, at least a little? We followers of the Bleus know it’s important to rejoice while we can.

The game was also a plebiscite on the still very young managerial moment of Laurent Blanc: absurdly so, since the guy should be given a little bit of time to climb out of the utter train wreck handed to him. But having already garnered measured praise in the last months, he was showered with it after tonight’s game. The game was won in extremis, with two goals in the last seven minutes, the first a well-played counter-attack with a remarkable pass by Alou Diarra finished with precision by Loic Remy. The other, secured literally in the last thirty seconds of the game, was a beautifully and cooly played advance. But it was won, dare I say, with panache. And the players were obviously truly delighted, relieved, and looking like they were finding their footing.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HgOhbM_g4GA&feature=related

The ecstatic announcer on TF1 in the clip above declared the match a “deliverance.” Indeed, France hadn’t one in the quasi-sacred space of the Stade de France — site of it’s 1998 apotheosis — in a full year. The stadium, the commentator exuded, “is no longer cursed.” We’ll have to see about that. But you could see a tight and joyful crowd there, lots of French flags and, still and always, a smattering of Algerian ones too. On TV, meanwhile, over 8 million people watched the game: a nice number for an early qualifying  match like this one. People are clearly eager for some kind of redemption.

I’m left with a sense of belief that perhaps now the tremendous pool of talent in French football, having been frittered away in recent years at the hands of a bizarre and incompetent coach and a sclerotic federation that seemed paralyzed as they watched the fortunes of the national team dissipate, can quickly be tapped to create a team that will once again be a joy to watch. Perhaps the good thing about the World Cup is that it lowered our expectations: I’m actually elated at the simple fact that today wasn’t a disaster, that I’m not driven as I was this summer to write a pained screed against French football.

As heartening for me at least was the performance of, the scorer of the first goal today, Loic Remy — the child of parents from Martinique — who along with Malouda and several other players is carrying on the venerable tradition of Antillean footballers carrying much of the French team. With Henry in retirement and Anelka in satisfied exile this tradition could have been in some danger of getting interrupted, and there are fewer players of Antillean background than there have been around in this selection, but the three who are there — Malouda, Remy, and Clichy — seemed poised to play a key role in the coming years. (Remy, now playing at Marseille, has been touted by some as the new Henry.) Dimitri Payet, born in the Indian Ocean department of Reunion, made a great shot on goal today and then, minutes later, the crucial pass back to Gourcuff that created the second goal. The return of Benzema and Nasri, of course, has also been welcome. And there a host of players whose parents immigrated to France from Africa, including the particularly key Alou Diarra. Most importanlty, Blanc seems to be doing what Domenech, for some reason, didn’t do at least since late in 2006: give the players some space to find their way, and find their way to the goal.

All this reminds me forcefully how completely odd and infinitely rejuvenating this odd game is: how many times have we been here before, holding on to the tiniest shred of promise, heedlessly rushing into a new round of games that almost inevitably lead us to disappointment?

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