I was originally planning to ignore the soccer completely, because sometimes I feel like sports takes up a disproportionate amount of life.
Sport is so trivial. But then, what isn't?
Under the circumstances I find myself strangely compelled to opine.
The Dutch have savaged Italy 3-0 and France 4-1 in the first two matches of Euro 2008.
As reader Branko points out, so much for the "Group of Death."
The Dutch team has been brilliant, and no matter what else happens this tournament, their demolition of the defending World Cup holder and runner-up is one for the history books. Most of the 7 (!) goals will also go onto the tournament highlight reel. My absolute favorite was the second goal against Italy, with three moments of greatness in quick succession from Giovanni van Bronkhorst, Dirk Kuyt and Wesley Sneijder.
The Italy win was deeply satisfying because if anyone deserves to lose like that, it's the Italians. This is their comeuppance for years of treating the world to negative (I won't say catenaccio) football.
The France win was awesome because they were worthy opponents and they still got beat. When the Italians went down 2-0 I expected them to open up their game and show off some of their formidable talent. I was very disappointed when they kept playing like they were defending a 1-0 lead. Including attempting to delay the game with bogus injuries (?!) The Dutch, to their credit, were looking to make it 4-0 at the end of the game.
The French came out after halftime playing (quite rightly) all out, like men with nothing left to lose. So both teams played fast, beautiful soccer. Kind of like the magnificent Dutch loss to Czech Republic at Euro 2004.
The French came very close to scoring a number of times, and when Thierry Henry pulled it back to 2-1 I thought we were going to have a tight game on our hands.
And then Arjan Robben scored a freakily good goal the very next minute to make it 3-1.
Which brings me to my real theme: luck.
The best team doesn't win in football nearly as often as in other sports. I've heard it said that this is because it is so difficult to score that a single goal in either direction is usually decisive.
Fun with statistics: the second goal is actually an even better predictor of who will win a game than the first goal.
In any case, a marginally better team will tie or lose to a marginally worse team at least half the time in soccer. A team usually has to be either extremely better or significantly better and somewhat lucky in order to run up a lopsided score.
In the case of the Italians and French, the Dutch may have been significantly better, but to have so many goals fall in _ they were also very lucky.
Stepping out of the orange fever reality distortion field for a minute and looking at the team, I would say this: the Dutch have a range of very good to brilliant attackers (Van Nistelrooy, Van Persie, Robben and Kuyt) and midfielders (Sneijder, Van der Vaart).
However, in my book their only excellent defender is Giovanni van Bronckhorst. Khalid Boulahrouz is playing well right now, taking away a lot of balls, but I don't know him enough to know whether this is exceptional. Last time I saw him play, he was also making a lot of mistakes (ditto for Bouma and Ooijer, formerly of PSV).
Of course Van der Sar has somehow become a truly great 'keeper in his old age, which is crucial. But there are also always goals that no goalie can stop.
I don't really think Van Basten makes a difference either way, but I like one thing about his attitude from the start: there's no problem in drawing Italy and France in the first round, because if you can't beat any team in the tournament you might as well go home.
So, in my view the Dutch are vulnerable on defense and we'll see what happens: they must have at least a 1-in-8 chance of winning the tournament now, if you figure 50-50 chance in the quarters, semi and final.
Call it 1-in-6 because the Dutch *are* the best team in the tournament, by all appearances.
I certainly hope they win because:
a) they deserve it when they make the game so pretty and fun to watch and
b) it's going to be very entertaining to be here to watch the Netherlands go nuts if it happens.
But the odds are still against them and in the meanwhile it's in my nature to be the guy whispering into Caesar's ear during the triumphal march: "Memento Mori."
Monday, June 16, 2008