Thursday, June 19, 2008

Italy advances to Round of 16 with win over France

Soccer is tough for most Americans to watch because we grew up with baseball. Hmm, wait...isn't baseball also a game of anticipation? Regardless, soccer never quite caught on here as a professional sport, which is a shame considering there are many quality players worldwide. Soccer was really invented in England; baseball and basketball (and American football) are sports that were created right here, so it's no surprise that we favor our own pasttimes.

In any case, even many Americans would be surprised at the quality of play in a tournament such as Euro 2008, and it may even make a fan or two out of them. The MLS is okay, but it's not nearly the quality of play one sees every day in the Premier League, Serie A, even La Liga. Maybe it'll get there, but it would take a 500% or so increase in fan involvement and sheer number of fans. Americans as soccer fans would also never give the atmosphere required for a truly great soccer experience. I think the grunge era destroyed any possibility that we'd ever see Americans jumping up and down in unison and chanting fight songs while any team in any sport was playing a regular season game, short of something special happening like a 100-point game in basketball or a 20-strikeout game in baseball. That's part of the fun with soccer, of course; you see fans go absolutely batshit during even meaningless games, so you can imagine the euphoria of seeing an important tournament with national pride on the line. See Celtics Game 6 at the Garden the other night for what was probably the best American sports crowd I've ever witnessed - chanting songs with 5 minutes left to play; willing their team's reserves to fast breaks and dunks; tasting a championship and becoming as involved as fans can be in that experience. Short of that, go to a rock concert here and then go to one in Europe - the fans in American stadiums don't even get up to clap; in England, their favorite rock bands are showered with applause from the beginning of the set.

But I digress. Euro 2008 is a great tournament even for the most casual soccer fans. Italy, fielding the oldest team in the tournament's history (1960-present, every four years), lost to a motivated and young Netherlands team to begin the group stage, tied with Romania, and then beat old rival France 2-0 in regular time to advance to the quarter-finals. They face Spain, another young, well-coached, motivated team, and that may be their toughest test of the tournament. Italy usually loses the "head" game - meaning, they lose to a France or Brazil in a major tournament because of the mentality behind facing the opponent, regardless of the talent of that particular opponent in that year. For example, no matter how great Italy's team is in a World Cup, Italia fans will always, always be deathly afraid of Brazil because Brazil has one more world cup title and always seem to get the better of Italy. They've already played those trap games in this tournament, and should be prepared to take the tournament if they can get past Spain, a team no one expects them to handle very well with Gattuso and De Rossi sitting out due to yellow cards in the last game.

Regardless, it should be a fun tournament, and we could all learn a bit as American sports fans by watching it - forza Italia!

For more on the Euro 2008 tournament, check out Tony's Azzurri blog.

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