Category Archives: Croatia

A Referee-less World

Why do we hate referees? It’s an obvious question to ask after the cruelty of Fred’s fall in the Croatia match and Spain’s ultimately Dutch-antagonising head start in their opener. I’m hoping this won’t become a theme of the tournament because griping about referees is tedious unless it’s done directly, pantomime style, at the match itself. Nonetheless it’s necessary because refereeing is crucial. Badly refereed games and tournaments leave a sour taste in the mouth, with even the victor being left strangely unsatisfied, like that feeling about half an hour after a McDonald’s meal where you get hungry again because, although your stomach is physically full, your body is completely devoid of any actual nutrition.

But in order to explore the original question we have to look beyond the physical figures of the referees themselves. What does a referee actually do? The referees are there to police the game. They are there to enforce the arbitrary set of binding rules agreed upon by all the contestants, the inherently limiting parameters by which any game defines itself, and makes itself meaningful as a contest, be it between teams, individuals or even a single individual against the system itself. From Starcraft to Solitaire, a game is nothing but a simplified system defined by rules.

Why do we play games? Why do we feel the need to parcel activities within these deliberately limiting systems? We do so for the same reason that scientists use controlled experiments. We limit variables in order to create a model which allows us to explore certain ideas or behaviours in relative isolation, allowing us to answer, or at least speculate upon, questions that real life obscures within its messy complexity. While life itself is undoubtedly just an incomprehensibly gigantic game – according to the definition of game set out above – there are so many interlinking rules and systems that the rules become incomprehensible. Any observer of any game or sport would, given time and inclination, be able to decipher the rules from the game as played. Of course in the sciences and social sciences we have indeed been doing this with the game of life itself, but while I was able to learn essentially all of the key rules within football after a match or two, in the grand search for knowledge we are, for all our progress, still only scratching at the surface of our functionally infinite ignorance.

In games, then, we create a kind of life garden. We territorialise, embody and/or abstract aspects of life that, for whatever reason, we want to explore further. We remove almost all the variables and create a system that, while it can produce incredible complexity, is nonetheless comprehensible in its entirety. I may not be able to win much at chess, or fully understand how the interacting rules influence good strategy, but nonetheless my terms of engagement with chess are utterly transparent. I know that my territory is an 8 by 8 grid, I know exactly how my pieces move and my opponent’s move, that nothing is hidden and that nothing within the game is decided arbitrarily – by rolling a die, for example.  Chess thus becomes a model for rationalism, or rationalistic debate. It seeks to create a contest defined by purely logical reasoning, the system needing to be sufficiently complex enough only to give a strategic depth to that logical reasoning, as opposed to noughts and crosses which could be seen almost as an easy introduction to the concept of logic, one ultimately lacking as a contest because there is not enough complexity to produce doubt – the correct move set for the opening player will win the contest every time.

So the system stands or falls only by the quality of its rules. If the rules are not seen to function, to be consistent or to be fair* within the terms of the game, the game ceases to be a game. It becomes worse than the absence of a game – which would be life – it becomes instead the nightmarish opposite of that controlled garden we sought to create, it becomes a representation of the worst aspects arbitrary, unknowing and randomly cruel nature of the universe, operating without transparency and dispensing rewards and punishments according to pure whim. The difference between a functional set of rules and a broken set is very much like that between the New Testament and Old Testament God, respectively. The New Testament God loves us and sent Jesus to make his rules very clear to us, to provide us with an accessible and understandable route to heaven. The Old Testament God is a vengeful creature of whim, punishing us for disobeying rules we either couldn’t have known or which God himself decided to change without our knowing.

The referee, then, is God. The twenty two footballers are merely playing the game. The referee is the game. Whatever it is we seek to discover or escape from within football’s glorious abstraction exists only at the whim of the referee. The Brazil Vs Croatia match defines this as clearly as any other. A fascinating contest shot through with rich veins of Golithian Narrativium destroyed by the utterly preposterous awarding of a penalty for, at worst, a mere slip. One that did not at any point resemble even the long lost memory of a genuine foul. Thus has the entire world’s faith in football, and thus their faith in games, and thus their faith in our ability to carve meaning and fairness out of life’s harsh rock face, have been undermanned by one man very possibly thinking about a long stay in Sao Paulo and just how much he’d like to see his wife and kids again. To be God is one thing when blessed with omnipotence, another thing entirely when fragilely embodied and surrounded by a hundred thousand baying enemies.

Ultimately, we hate the referees because when they fail, they instantiate that which we sought to avoid in creating the game in the first place. The referee reminds us of the fallibility not so much of the systems we create but rather the fallibility of ourselves and the universe we live in to live up to the elegant beauty of our own abstractions of it. A bad refereeing decision is a cosmic child’s tantrum, upturning the board, scattering pieces everywhere and irreparably destroying the world we were inhabiting within the game.

This hatred is hugely problematic when, as we currently organise football, there can be no game without the referee. However, the nature of the game makes it impossible for us to expect the consistency referees would need to apply to uphold our faith in that game. Referees are the paradox at the heart of football, without them there is no game but the game cannot allow them to exist within it. The best we can do with the current paradigm is to train referees extensively and allow them to rule as consistently as possible by giving them clearest possible parameters to work within, removing ambiguity and providing suitable examples wherever possible and backing this up with a certain amount of collective decision making – subjective judgements are likely to be (but only likely to be, history is littered with examples of the contrary) better when made by a committee of the informed than a single informed individual. But all this presupposes that the modelling effect of games only works in one direction. That we are only removing aspects of life to create a game, when in fact the model then produced has the power to profoundly change the way we look at and behave within the world, and thus change the world itself. In that sense while life is evidently a giant game it’s worth remembering that within that game each and every human being represents a set of rules that, unlike the rules in other games, are able to change themselves and therefore the parameters of the game itself as the game is being played.

Take chess as our example once again. How many idioms relating to contest or conquest to we derive from this board game? How many notions of sound military strategy? Perceptions of hierarchy? Taken to its logical conclusion we could imagine a game so complex and compelling that we use it to test ourselves, that we use it as the central ordering point for society itself, a concept thrillingly explored in Iain M Bank’s ‘The Player of Games’ – a game as a culture, a culture as a game, and the two shaping each other with absolute reflexivity.

How, then, can we imagine a different football? The game only has value when the rules are held to be fair. Who holds these rules to be fair? When I play football every Thursday we don’t have a referee. Fouls are called by the committee of everyone who happens to be there on the day, and the longer term consistency is adjusted and enforced in the weekly post-match conference centre known as the pub. Serious transgressions will be met with stern conversation, peer pressure dictates the norms and polices them very effectively, because the match only exists by virtue of us all turning up to it, and the rules only exist because of our continual consent to be governed by them. Religions are an excellent example of this model of social organisation, for good or ill. The choice to join the group – the ‘faith’ you have – is your affirmation of the agreed upon rules. These rules are policed by ‘referees’ but ultimately their power doesn’t rest in their ability to apply direct sanctions (the religious equivalent of yellows, reds and suspensions) but in the peer pressure applied by the group. This tends to be applied more explicitly and even violently the more cultish a religious group becomes, with questioners of the orthodoxy greeted with banishment and life-long ostracisation.

What would happen if, though, like in our Thursday football we removed this model of fear? The fear of retribution from some higher power? A match that only exists because people turn up, played to rules agreed upon by those who go regularly, and policed by their continual discussion and subsequent consent to those conditions and those changes?

Imagine a football without the referee. Imagine an understanding between footballers and fans that we really are in this together, that this contest before us only has meaning via rules that themselves can only truly be consistent and fair if they are defined and refined via the constant communication and consent of the group buying into them. The only consequence to breaking the rules is ostracisation, but when that ostracisation is from a group you want to be part of it can often be, as Banks points out, consequence enough.

Imagine, then, the model this would provide to society. A refereeless game, each team a canton and each fan and player a voter, changes agreed upon by referenda and implementable with enough of a groundswell. Among Dulwich Hamlet fans the chant of ‘Communism Is Inevitable’ has become a firm favourite ever since this moment of glory from Ian Daly and Robert Molloy Vaughan’s phenomenal celebration of it. This may well be true, but we will know when fully consensual world communism has truly arrived when we see football, at all levels, being played without a referee.

Posted by Seb Crankshaw

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

Advertisements

Preview 11 – Croatia

Those that remember as far back as Euro 2012 will know that much debate about Croatia’s role in the tournament will surround the racist chants, banners and attitudes of the nation’s travelling supporters. Last time around the Croatian FA were twice fined for their fans’ actions.

The usual approach to such racist behaviour is to state that these acts are ‘outdated.’  Of course, this criticism almost always comes from a good place, asserting that we have no time in the modern age for behaviour that we (largely) universally condemn as unacceptable.  However, there is a strange distancing of our age and ourselves from the issue here.  Can we say these forms of expression are outdated whilst we witness them taking place in 2012, and under the threat of seeing them again in 2014?

First, we must acknowledge that racism (in most of its forms at least) is closely connected to nostalgia.  This is a point that hardly needs demonstrating; racism is almost always couched in a language of ‘the old days,’ ‘traditional values,’ and the ‘great past’ of the nation or race being celebrated.  This can easily be demonstrated in the case of Croatian football; the banners shown in 2012 contained military images and a web address of a political site dedicated to ‘the promotion of Croatian heritage and culture around the world.’  Its motto is ‘Pravda je izgubila ravnotežu,’ which is translated as ‘Justice has lost her way;’ the language of nationalism is one of nostalgia for a ‘lost’ past in which things we on the right track.

Second, and more complexly, nostalgia operates or can operate where there is nothing to be nostalgic for.  Or rather, that which we are nostalgic for is often an imaginary space created from the present and projected onto the past which we conceive of as answering the problems we are faced with in modernity.  As Svetlana Boym notes, nostalgia is ‘an affective yearning for a community with collective memory, a longing for continuity in a fragmented world.’  This once more is perfectly demonstrated by the place of Croatian nationalist culture.  A fantastic article by Gordana Crnkovic on Croatian nationalist and non-nationalist culture demonstrates that whereas Croatian culture was historically very diverse, containing Serbian, Croatian, Slovenian and other cultural influences from the region, after the war and independence a new demand for a cultural identity ‘truly its own’ was borne in Croatia.  Whilst it had a diverse history, it needed a singular one; the history it searched for was one that it never had.

Croatian cultural commentator Jurica Pavicic put it another way, saying, ‘we traded away our identity because it stank of our neighbours, and for that we got corporate goods, faceless global trademarks to whom we bow.’  The point again here is that what is missing now – a truly Croatian identity – never existed; it was always a miscellany of various cultural influences.  It is racism that creates an imagined time in which justice had not lost its way, in which we had an identity truly our own.

Does not the criticism of this racism as ‘outdated,’ whilst we see it around us in more forms than we would like to admit, not risk allowing this belief to maintain its hold?  It asserts the existence of a time in which it was legitimate to believe such things, and distances our modern world from this ancient and backwards day (even the language celebrates the ‘progress’ of modernity).

Thus, this criticism of racism as ‘outdated’ gives racism the very thing it needs to lament: an imaginary world in which its unacceptable beliefs were permitted.  In placing racism in the ‘outdated’ past we give it the very thing that it needs; an imaginary space in which racism was not only allowed but believed in.  We simultaneously avoid dealing with the very modern presence of these problems by distancing our own world from them when in fact it can be our own modernity which creates this dangerous nostalgia for a different and even racist past.

What we see here is the danger that the World Cup functions as a celebration of modernity which actually benefits from the appearance of its ‘backwards’ past – since it is that which it celebrates itself as having progressed from – but which does not deal (except perhaps by a measly £65k fine) with its continuing role in our present.

Posted by Alfie Bown

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

Irish Fans, Disenchantment with Trap and Why Roy Keane Has A Point (Sort of)

I came back home from Poland this week after a tournament that was both an unforgettable social experience and a thoroughly miserable one from a footballing point of view for an Irish fan. Right now I am desirous only of watching the rest of the tournament from the comfort of my couch. One thing I was surprised at on returning was the extent of the impression we — the Irish fans — made on people; it was palpable in Poland all right, where the hosts and the Irish engaged in an almost embarrassing, if endearing, level of mutual admiration, but the number of YouTube videos documenting the now famous looping rendition of ‘The Fields of Athenry’ was something I was not prepared for. It also got me thinking again of something I have asked myself before — most recently after the 4-0 defeat by Spain: would I trade in this universal admiration for Irish fans for a stronger, more formidable team and footballing culture?

In a way, there need not have to be a choice. Roy Keane was pilloried for attacking the fans in the midst of the Spain game, having woefully misread the singing as placid acceptance of a terrible performance. If anything, it was a mournfully defiant plaint that marked the inevitable passing of the Ireland team out of the tournament — and I would suggest, subconsciously, the passing of Irish football into the wilderness, if the rot is not soon stopped. There was an underlying sense among the fans that this might be the last chance we get for some time for Irish football to appear on the highest stage. Keane thought we were there for the sing-song and presumably wanted us to voice more discontent at what was an insultingly abject performance. He would have a point in suggesting that Ireland fans should be more vocal in expressing their disappointment but the timing and the manner of his outburst indicates that he just doesn’t get fans. That’s hardly surprising, given the man who once criticised some Manchester United fans as there for the prawn sandwiches has probably not stood on a terrace in over two decades.

Keane’s comments are in line with his anger over squandering a two-goal lead away to the Netherlands in September 2000 to draw a 2-2 and his disgust at Ireland’s poor preparation at Saipan ahead of the World Cup two years later. His timing in all three of these cases though has been questionable. Roy doesn’t do diplomacy, it is true, but you sense that had he chosen his battles better, he might have won the war. Many Irish fans — even those that stood by Mick McCarthy ten years ago — supported Keane’s stance against the FAI, but now that he has attacked them, the bridges are irredeemably burnt. Turning on the fans was a step too far.

Before the tournament, I voiced a little scepticism over whether Ireland fans were actually the ‘best in the world’. I still hold to that, mainly because I think it’s a sterile argument. Even within the same club and the same national team’s support, there are divergences in style, attitude and intensity. Ireland’s reputation derives in the main from the fact that the fans like to party and do so in a good-humoured, friendly and often hilariously surreal way. With a few exceptions, the culture of supporting a country these days is a far gentler one than in the club game; when teams convene for a tournament like the Euros, carnival is the prevailing tone and atmosphere. In Poland at least — the geographical division meant two separate tournaments were effectively being held — Ireland fans were probably the most visible and impressive in this respect, though the hosts came a close second. That said, we had a lot to learn from the way Croatian ultras lit up the stadium in Poznan with illegally smuggled flares and the Spanish outsang us for stretches of the match in Gdansk too (though that was easily done when their team were walloping us so). Both groups of supporters — with the exception of the small minority of Croats who racially abused Mario Balotelli — were similarly good-humoured and friendly. The Italians likewise, even if their fans lacked the charisma and the verve of the other three countries in the group — you get the sense Italians who follow the national team are more genteel and more casual than those who follow the clubs.

In a piece for the Sunday Independent last week, Dion Fanning cast aspersions on the Irish fans’ ‘festival of eejitry’. While Fanning was trying to make some valid points targeting both the Irish media and FAI CEO John Delaney, he caught the fans in some muddled, pious crossfire. Not least his decrying the abundant drinking that was going on — Ireland’s binge-drinking culture is definitely a worrying phenomenon but choosing as exemplary a tournament where fans of all sixteen countries were overindulging is just weird. But his point about the self-professed best fans in the world being an embodiment of Irish self-regard was spot on. It might seem churlish to say so but this self-regard has a corrosive flipside, one which results in Irish people sacrificing necessary social friction for the sake of maintaing an amiable front. Irish people want to be loved by people — including each other — and this has resulted in generations of cosy consensus that has paralysed the country in a self-prophesying conservatism. We saw it with the re-election of Fianna Fáil to government at the 2007 election, just at the moment when it was increasingly clear Bertie Ahern and the party were mired in endemic corruption; we have since seen it with the way austerity has failed to spark any mass indignation of note. It would be a stretch to say that Roy Keane is indicative of a counter-current against this consensus but more of his dissenting is probably needed. What isn’t needed is his indelicacy of expressing it, because the Irish don’t like indelicacy much.

Like Keane, I have long thought Irish football should be held to higher standards, even at a moment like the present when we clearly don’t have the personnel we had in the past. Expecting to qualify for a major tournament is not an outlandish demand, especially as we have reached play-offs for six out the last nine, qualifying for two. If we can go so far so often, why not expect us to go just a little further? During the Italy match, the fan’s ire was directed at Keane and there were no audible murmurings of anti-Trapattoni dissent. I don’t think that will ever come either, however unhappy the fans might be. Irish fans — and people in general — would recoil from subjecting a 73-year-old man to public vilification, however increasingly Lear-like he becomes in his dismissals of all suggestions of his footballing mortality. Many Irish people were repelled by the way the hapless Stephen Staunton was pilloried by the tabloid media; Stan was probably the worst manager ever an Irish team had to labour under but he should never have been put in the position he was.

The wave of dissent against Trapattoni is instead likely to be expressed by abstention. The FAI has already had difficulty filling the Aviva Stadium for competitive and friendly matches alike, creating a few financial jitters along the way as it hopes to recoup its part of the investment in the new stadium. Admittedly, the cause wasn’t helped by a relatively unglamorous Euro 2012 qualifying group, where Russia, Slovakia, Armenia, Macedonia and Andorra were the visitors. But the dreariness of watching Trapattoni’s Ireland play compounds things too and you expect the crowds to thin out as the performances and the results inevitably worsen in the qualifiers for World Cup 2014. Ireland play Germany in Dublin in October and there is little in our most recent performances to suggest we will avoid a humiliation on home soil. Personally, I have resolved not to spend another penny supporting Ireland, either home or away — the fact I live in Paris means both demand travelling — while Trapattoni is in charge. There are probably many like me. It is a shame because there are some very attractive away weekends and home matches in that group — trips to Germany, Sweden and Austria among them. The prospect of abject performances and possible heavy defeats though makes you loth to go. It’s a tough group even for a team in the right frame of mind but an Ireland without Trap could give it a decent go. As it stands though Ireland look doomed. Germany look set to be their usual rampant self in qualifiers and Sweden are also shaping up to be the country’s best side in decades, having shown some fleeting glimpses of brilliance in Ukraine. Ireland have been generally comfortable against Scandinavian teams over the past two decades but Sweden also have the ineffable ability to hoover up points against medium and weak opposition — something Ireland, even under Trapattoni’s pragmatism have rarely been able to perfect.

Ireland fans reconciled themselves to Trapattoni’s unsightly, outdated football for as long as there was a possibility of some glory in return. After Poland, that possibility has now been exhausted. The argument that Ireland simply don’t have the players is one as bankrupt as Trapattoni’s tactics — he leaves more talented players like Darron Gibson, Shane Long and James McClean on the bench while refusing to call up others such as Ciarán Clarke, Séamus Coleman and Wes Holohan. Trapattoni’s lack of trust in Irish footballers has stifled any possible creativity in the team — Brian Kerr and Mick McCarthy got Irish teams not much more talented playing some good football, with results into the bag too. The current crop can definitely punch above their weight in a way unimaginable to their veteran manager. Irish fans now find themselves in the invidious position familiar to fans of Blackburn and Aston Villa over the past season — saddled with a manager bringing the team up a dead-end, they nonetheless don’t want to see them lose. The prospect of a tough group and progressively low attendances will sooner or later result in Trapattoni’s departure. By then, it will probably be too late to salvage the fight for a trip to Brazil. That may have been sitting at the back of Ireland fans’ minds when they sang that rousing rendition of ‘The Fields of Athenry’ in Gdansk.

Posted by Oliver Farry

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

Tagged , , , , , ,

Oh Dear…

20120611-123640.jpg

The worst possible start for Ireland but even those of us that were mildly optimistic at the outset were not too surprised. It was something we had seen before. Croatia had their homework done and were able to shift seamlessly from attacking to a more reactive style. They also barely broke sweat in outpassing Ireland, whose distribution looked clumsy and one-dimensional in comparison. After all Trapattoni’s talk of dropping Keane back to counter Croatia’s triangular passing, he did no such thing, and, despite the best efforts of Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews, they were essentially struggling to contain Luka Modric, who was at the heart of most of Croatia’s better moves.

It was yet another failure on Trapattoni’s part to prepare adequately for a game against a fluid, technical, counter-attacking side. In a way it was the third installment of the two qualifying matches against Russia. Little was learned from those games, one of which was a fiasco similar to last night and the second a miraculous draw that could easily have been very different. Last night, Trap’s men were hard done by on a number of bad refereeing decisions but luck has been on their side often enough on the way to Poland to not feel too sorry for themselves.

Ireland now have a nigh-impossible task ahead of them to get out of the group. Even a miraculous four points from the next two games is unlikely to be enough, particular if we finish level with Croatia. Spain were also very impressive in the second half of their match against Italy, suggesting the fatigue everyone thought they might fall victim to has not materialised. There is a possibility Trapattoni might have a better level of organisation instilled in the players on Thursday and Richard Dunne will have regained the form that deserted him last night. It’s also very possible though that it could get very nasty for the Irish.

Posted by Oliver Farry

Tagged , , ,

Dispatch from Poznań — A More Panoramic view than Panorama

20120610-114212.jpg

There was no sign of any trouble in Poznan on our first night here. Far from it — the town square was packed with Poles, Irish and Croatians mingling and singing long through the night. I was told that riot police moved in on Friday night, nervous at the first sign of mixing of fans but they quickly stepped back. The Poles have been great hosts, entering into the party spirit with gusto and seizing on a great opportunity to showcase their country. Most visiting fans have most likely adopted Poland as their second team and the crucial match against Russia on Tuesday should be a cracker.

The football so far has been excellent, with the hosts and the Greeks giving great battle in the opening match. The Poles will be disappointed they didn’t make more of their first-half possession but it all could have been much worse if Przemyslaw Tyton didn’t save a penalty with his first touch of the ball. The performance of the tournament so far was the Russians, a brilliantly fluid and sophisticated display with Dzagoev and Arshavin in particular excellent. How good they are is hard to gauge, as the Czechs were quite poor but it will cause Dick Advocaat some alarm that the Russians surrendered the initiative for 15 minutes early in the second half to a reshaped Czech formation. Poland and Greece will have taken comfort from that.

The group of death has just got even deathlier. The Netherlands are now in a precarious position having to beat both Germany and Portugal to be sure of going through. They actually played quite well against Denmark although their defensive shortcomings were badly exposed on several occasions, including when Michael Krohn-Delhi cut inside Gregory van der Viel far too easily for the goal. The Dutch will also be aggrieved that they weren’t awarded a penalty at the end for handball but you have to doff your cap to the Danes, who turned in a superb defensive performance. Going forward, they were much less confident and the final ball was often found wanting. Three points on the board is more than anyone expected of them after the first game but getting out of the group will still be a huge task, as four points will quite likely not be enough.

Germany were as we have come to expect — solid in attack, much less so in defence where Philip Lahm and Jerome Boateng bailing out Badstuber and Hummels more than once. The winner was courtesy of a splendid Mario Gomez header, the first time he’s ever looked the part in a tournament match. It’s a bad start for the Portuguese but they’ll probably be thankful the second game is against the Danes and not the Dutch, even if Denmark did defeat them 2-1 in qualifying in Copenhagen last October.

Today is Ireland’s big day and the green army are feeling confident. I don’t expect to see a very expansive game even though Slaven Bilić is threatening an attacking approach to get points in the bag first off. It could well be the tournament’s first scoreless draw but I am keeping my fingers crossed for an Irish win by the narrowest of margins. The other match could be the one that gives an insight into Spain’s chances of completing that elusive three tournaments in a row. I don’t think they’ll beat Italy and they may even be on the back foot by eight o’clock local time tonight.

Tagged , , ,

Group C – the real group of death?

While Group B is certainly the most fearsome looking group in this year’s Euros, Group C, involving holders Spain, Italy, Croatia and Ireland, could end up being the most closely contested. I will also say in advance it is almost impossible to call. That might seem a strange statement, given most people would see Spain and Italy as the natural teams to progress. I don’t, however, think it is going to be so straightforward.

On the face of it, reigning World and European champions Spain should be a shoo-in for the quarter-finals. After all, their record in their last 43 competitive internationals is: won 40, drawn 1, lost 2. Both those defeats came in South Africa, to the USA in 2009 and to Switzerland a year later during the World Cup, both times Spain becoming unstuck against defensive sides. Spain’s friendly results over the past two years have not been impressive but they will not have too much of a bearing on what happens in Poland. What will have a bearing however is the physical and mental fatigue of the Spanish players and who they face in their first match.

Spain do not like playing the Italians. The penalty shoot-out win over Italy in Vienna in Euro 2008 is widely credited with being the psychological barrier that had to be overcome for Spain to finally succeed in a major tournament after four decades of underachievement. But now, in hindsight, you look back at it and the long years without a win against Italy loom even more impressively. However fortifying that quarter-final victory might have been at the time, Spain are still without a win in open play against the Italians since the years of the Spanish Republic — if you are talking about competitive fixtures, you have to go back to the consolation round of the Antwerp Olympics in 1920 when la Roja scored a 2-0 victory over their Mediterranean rivals. That record probably does not figure too prominently in the minds of Vicente del Bosque’s players but the difficulty of playing Italy no doubt does.

Though Cesare Prandelli favours a more expansive game than previous managers of the Azzurri, I expect a return to pragmatism in the opening match. He has had any amount of defensive headaches with the expulsion of Domenico Criscito after being arrested over match-fixing allegations and Andrea Barzagli is out of the group matches. Barzagli’s absence robs Prandelli of a Juventus pairing in central defence — Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini, playing in front of Gianluigi Buffon, conceded only 20 goals in Serie A last season. Italy were also alarmingly lax at the back in the 3-0 defeat to Russia last Friday. In Gdansk on Sunday though there will be far less space given to Spain’s attackers.

Spain are not unused to playing against, and beating, such compact formations over the past two years but Italy are better equipped at hitting them on the counter than most other teams that have parked the bus. The opening match is one that Spain are unlikely to kill off at any stage — the danger will be forever live, even if they do take the lead. Personally, I think the only chance of a Spanish victory is if they stun the Italians with successive blows early on, much as they did in the early days of tiki-taka before teams adapted by shutting up shop — think of how they destroyed Ukraine so easily in World Cup 2006 and Russia at the Euros two years later. I don’t think that is going to happen. The two teams played an entertaining friendly in Naples last August, Italy being the better side and running out 2-1 winners. The match this time will be a more frustrating affair to watch — not as dour as the game in Vienna four years ago, but one where it will be a battle over who masters the tension the quickest.

If Spain take a point off the Italians, they’re in good stead to progress, probably to the semi-finals at least. If they lose, things become more complicated. Still, a defeat in the opening game against Switzerland two years was quickly compensated for. Spain also, on paper, would be expected to beat both Ireland and Croatia, but they will have their own fatigue to contend with. Spain’s players have played, on average 58 games per season since Euro 2008, well more than any other competing team’s squads other than England. Xavi has played an average of 66 game per season. Barcelona’s fatigue was apparent in that catastrophic week in April where two defeats and a draw cost them both their La Liga and Champions League titles. Real Madrid, Atlético Madrid, Athletic Bilbao and Valencia also had long, intensive seasons. Barça looked refreshed when they swept Athletic aside to win the Copa del Rey final but the fact that match was played two weeks before the start of the Euros does not help things either. If the second match against the Irish drags on scoreless, the morale of the Spanish team will be gradually pecked away. They could be left needing a win against Croatia in the final game and a favourable result in the Italy-Ireland game for them to go through.

Some people have suggested Spain will experience an implosion similar to France at the 2002 World Cup, mainly because both sides have entered a tournament as double World and European champions. Spain will not be abject like the French though — France had the disadvantage of not having played any competitive games other than the Confederations Cup for the previous two years. They were also far more reliant on an absent Zinedine Zidane than Spain are on any single player, even Xavi or Iniesta. If things do go sour for Spain, it will be more in the manner of past Spanish disappointments, where they get frustrated on match day three, similar to World Cup 1998 and Euro 2004, and what so nearly happened in Euro 2000, when they miraculously pulled off a 4-3 win over Yugoslavia at the death. I am not predicting an early exit for Spain in the first round but neither am I saying it would be entirely unexpected.

I think Italy will do well at this tournament, despite injury worries and the return of betting scandals (though the shadow of such scandals only served to brace the side for victory in 1982 and 2006). Italy though also have to make do with two teams they don’t relish playing. Italy have yet to beat Croatia since the latter’s independence (the record is two draws and three wins for Croatia) and the Croatians do not tire of pointing this out. Their only previous meeting in a major tournament was at World Cup 2002 when Croatia, who had an otherwise poor tournament, came from behind to beat Giovanni Trapattoni’s men 2-1. Slaven Bilic’s team are likely to hit Italy on the break in this match; though the loss of Ivica Olic to injury is a severe blow, Nikica Jelavic is as dangerous a man in the box as any in this tournament, even if his international form has not been as stellar as for his club. Italy may have to settle for a draw in this game, a result that may not please either side. The final game against the Irish will be either a titanic battle to advance from the group or it will be a game where a draw might suit either team. If Ireland and Italy go into the match on four points each with the other two teams trailing on one, they might well decide a draw to be mutually beneficial. Ireland have a decent record against Italy under Trapattoni but not too much should be read into it either. Italy were hampered by an unjust early sending-off in the World Cup qualifier in Bari three years ago which finished 1-1 while the 2-0 win in Liège last year was a friendly in which Ireland were fairly heavily overwhelmed in the opening period. The World Cup qualifier at Croke Park in October 2009, which finished 2-2, is probably the best indicator of how the game might go, though don’t expect that many goals.

Trapattoni will not be too happy facing Croatia in the first game, as the fear of starting with a defeat will hamper attacking against Ireland’s most beatable opponents. Slaven Bilic has been making sounds about Ireland being the match Croatia aim to win and you can’t blame him for doing so. It will however force him to set aside his favoured counter-attacking game. Last August in Dublin Croatia outpassed Ireland (in a game, coincidentally, played on the same night as Italy v Spain) without seriously troubling their hosts. They are expected to swop their regular 4-4-2 for a 4-2-3-1 with Jelavic a lone man up front. Giovanni Trapattoni has belatedly acknowledged Ireland’s problems in dealing with a three-man midfield and has suggested he might drop Robbie Keane back to cover, something his critics have been long clamouring for. Keane’s positional sense is not the best, of course, but the simple geometry of three men against two means that an extra body needs to be in there to break things up.

Ireland’s difficulties against technical sides has led many to predict doom for them in this tournament but if Trap can make them more disruptive in the centre of the field results are within their grasp. The defence is solid with eleven clean sheets in fourteen games unbeaten, though Stephen Ward is not always so steady at left-back. Going forward, Ireland are one-dimensional, with pretty much everything serviced through the wings. When confidence is high though, the team does create more chances. What has become frustrating of late is Trapattoni’s insistence on sticking with Kevin Doyle up front when the Wexford man is clearly out of sorts. It has been striking how rejuvenated Ireland’s attack becomes when either of Jonathan Walters, Simon Cox or Shane Long is introduced. It’s encouraging to have that in reserve but you really have to question the wisdom of not starting either Walters or Long. Ireland have a tendency to surrender play for long passages and at the Euro chances will be much thinner on the ground (we could well be playing without the ball for the duration of the Spain game). If we end up playing with a lone man up front, an out-of-form Doyle is probably not the man to be entrusted with the job. As an Ireland fan I am being realistic about our chances. I don’t expect it to be a disaster but getting out of the group is going to be incredibly difficult. Four points from the three game is not beyond us and would be a creditable return from a tough group. I worry though that it might not be enough to progress, especially given Ireland’s difficulty scoring goals, Robbie Keane’s 53 notwithstanding.

I expect Italy to win the group, possibly with as few as five points. It will then be up to the other three sides to battle it out for second place — ridiculous as it sounds to be lumping Spain in among those three. The playing order is vital and, to be honest, suits the Italians and the Croatians best. If Spain maintain their morale, even after a defeat in the opening game, they should take second place. If doubt begins to set in, to accompany an already worrying dearth of hunger among the players, they will be on an early plane home. Croatia fancy their chances in their opening two games and will have a great opportunity of going through if they face Spain with four points already under their belt. Ireland’s best opportunities of picking up points look to be in their first and third games, meaning they will be going right down to the wire. Of all the groups, this is the one that could well finish with all four teams on four points, just as happened in World Cup 1994 when Ireland and Italy were also in the same group. Even then, I suspect there will be precious little to separate the four sides.

Posted by Oliver Farry

Tagged , , , , ,