Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Conspiracy Theories?

The only way Italy could defeat Bulgaria last night and still fail to go through to the next round, would have been if Sweden and Denmark drew by a 2-2 margin or higher.

In the dying moments of Italy's match, Antonio Cassano's goal in stoppage time gave Italy its first victory of the tournament, 2-1 over Bulgaria only to find out that the Denmark-Sweden match had just ended, you guessed it, a 2-2 draw.

Surprisingly, the headlines of il Gazzetta wasn't filled with accusatory headlines, merely the shoulder shrugging acceptance of defeat: Vinciamo ma Usciamo, we win, but we exit. Appropriately enough. They are probably painfully aware of the fact they'd barely even beaten Bulgaria and didn't really deserver to advance in any case.

Thus, Danmark videre efter EM-drama behind national hero Jon Dahl Tomasson (cool photo of Tomasson celebrating in the rain), and Vilken rysare! as the Larsson led Swedes both advance to the quarterfinals.

I samma stund gjorde Italien 2-1.
Konspirationen lever.
Sverige lever.
Danmark lever.

To date:

(nicked off the Swedish paper's site)

Grupp A M V O F Mål +/- Poäng
Portugal 3 2 0 1 4-2 +2 6
Grekland 3 1 1 1 4-4 0 4
Spanien 3 1 1 1 2-2 0 4
Ryssland 3 1 0 2 2-4 -2 3

Spelade matcher:
12/6: Portugal-Grekland 1-2 (0–1)
12/6: Spanien-Ryssland 1-0 (0–0)
16/6: Grekland-Spanien 1-1 (0–1)
16/6: Ryssland-Portugal 0-2 (0–1)
20/6: Ryssland-Grekland 2-1 (2–1)
20/6: Spanien-Portugal 0-1 (0–0)

Grupp B M V O F Mål +/- Poäng
Frankrike 3 2 1 0 7-4 +3 7
England 3 2 0 1 8-4 +2 6
Kroatien 3 0 2 1 4-6 -2 2
Schweiz 3 0 1 2 1-6 -5 1

Spelade matcher:
13/6: Schweiz-Kroatien 0-0 (0–0)
13/6: Frankrike-England 2-1 (0–1)
17/6: England-Schweiz 3-0 (0–1)
17/6: Kroatien-Frankrike 2-2 (0–1)
21/6: Kroatien-England 2-4 (1–2)
21/6: Schweiz-Frankrike 1-3 (1–1)

Grupp C M V O F Mål +/- Poäng
Sverige 3 1 2 0 8-3 +5 5
Danmark 3 1 2 0 4-2 +2 5
Italien 3 1 2 0 3-2 +1 5
Bulgarien 3 0 0 3 1-9 -7 0

Spelade matcher:
14/6: Danmark-Italien 0-0 (0-0)
14/6: Sverige-Bulgarien 5-0 (1-0)
18/6: Bulgarien-Danmark 0-2 (1-0)
18/6: Italien-Sverige 1-1 (1-0)

Danmark-Sverige 2-2 (1–0)
Målen: 1–0 Jon Dahl Tomasson (28), 1–1 Henrik Larsson (47 str), 2–1 Jon Dahl Tomasson (66), 2–2 Mattias Jonson (89).
Varningar, Sverige: Erik Edman, Kim Källström.
Domare: Markus Merk, Tyskland.
Publik: 26 115.
Italien-Bulgarien 2-1 (0–1)
Målen: 0–1 Martin Petrov (45 str), 1–1 Simone Perrotta (48), 2–1 Antonio Cassano (90).
Varningar, Italien: Marco Materazzi. Bulgarien: Martin Petrov, Valeri Bozjinov, Ilian Stojanov, Zdravko Lazarov.
Domare: Valentin Ivanov, Ryssland.
Publik: 16 002.

Grupp D M V O F Mål +/- Poäng
Tjeckien 2 2 0 0 5-3 +2 6
Tyskland 2 0 2 0 1-1 0 2
Holland 2 0 1 1 3-4 -1 1
Lettland 2 0 1 1 1-2 -1 1

Spelade matcher:
15/6: Tjeckien-Lettland 2-1 (0-1)
15/6 Tyskland-Holland 1-1 (1–0)
19/6: Lettland-Tyskland 0-0 (0–0)
Varningar, Lettland: Aleksandrs Isakovs, Vitalijs Astafjevs. Tyskland: Arne Friedrich, Dietmar Hamann, Torsten Frings.
Domare: Mike Riley, England.
Publik: 22 344.

Holland-Tjeckien 2-3 (2–1)
Målen: 1–0 Wilfred Bouma (4), 2–0 Ruud van Nistelrooy (19), 2–1 Jan Koller (23), 2–2 Milan Baros (71), 2–3 Milan Baros (88).
Varningar, Holland: Clarence Seedorf, Johnny Heitinga. Tjeckien: Tomas Galasek.
Utv, Holland: Johnny Heitinga (75).
Domare: Manuel Enrique Mejuto, Spanien.
Publik: 31 498.

Kommande matcher:
23/6: Holland-Lettland
23/6: Tyskland-Tjeckien

4 mål
Wayne Rooney, England.
3 mål
Henrik Larsson, Sverige
Zinedine Zidane, Frankrike
Jon Dahl Tomasson, Danmark
Antonio Cassano, Italien
2 mål:
Thierry Henry, Frankrike
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sverige
Ruud van Nistelrooy, Holland
Milan Baros, Tjeckien
Frank Lampard, England
1 mål:
Mattias Jonson, Sverige
Fredrik Ljungberg, Sverige
Marcus Allbäck, Sverige
Simone Perrotta, Italien
Maniche, Portugal
Nuno Gomes, Portugal
Rui Costa, Portugal
Fernando Morientes, Spanien
Paul Scholes, England
Steven Gerrard, England
Zisis Vryzas, Grekland
Giorgos Karagounis, Grekland
Angelos Haristeas, Grekland.
Angelos Basinas, Grekland
Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal
Juan Carlos Valeron, Spanien
Maris Verpakovskis, Lettland
Marek Heinz, Tjeckien
Jan Koller, Tjeckien
Torsten Frings, Tyskland
David Trezeguet, Frankrike
Nico Kovac, Kroatien.
Igor Tudor, Kroatien
Milan Rapaic, Kroatien
Dado Prso, Kroatien
Jesper Grönkjaer, Danmark
Wilfred Bouma, Holland
Dmitrij Kiritjenko, Ryssland
Dimitrij Bulykin, Ryssland
Johan Vonlanthen, Schweiz
Martin Petrov, Bulgarien

***** so the next round looks like this: (gone: Italy, Spain, Croatia, Russia, Bulgaria, Switzerland)

Portugal - England -thurs
France - Greece - fri
Sweden - (Holland??!!) (or perhaps, more interestingly, Latvia still have a chance)-(sat)
(Czechs?) - Denmark -(sun)


Meanwhile, don't look now, but The Mets have won five straight!

Monday, June 21, 2004

Super Rooney

Super Rooney, l'Inghilterra vola

Una mezzora abbondante sull'orlo dell'eliminazione, poi l'Inghilterra trascinata dal super baby Rooney, due reti e primo posto nella classifica cannonieri, schianta la Croazia 4-2 (N. Kovac, Scholes, Tudor e Lampard gli altri gol) e avanza ai quarti di finale dell'Europeo. La squadra di Eriksson però non riesce a evitare l'incrocio pericoloso con il Portogallo perché la Francia rimane prima nel girone e "vince" la Grecia, nella parte di tabellone in cui conta di finire domani l'Italia, se batterà la Bulgaria e Danimarca-Svezia sarà una partita vera.

That's right, England advance to the quarterfinals against Portugal based in large part, upon the shockingly exciting play of the 18 year old phenom, "super baby Rooney" by defeating a stubborn and brave Croatia in a thrilling 4-2 match last night.

"The mind ought sometimes to be diverted that it may return the better to thinking." --Phaedrus

Since the boys back home were whingeing about this sudden proliferation of football news at the expense of baseball cantering, Sports Amnesia has graciously conceded not the entirety of the fan base is cogniscent or even cares about the advent of the twists and turns of the Euro 2004 (just as I will be conspicuously absent from any commentary about something called the Olympics when the time comes), and thus returns to its roots of April, the pine tar and the steroids, the 40 year olds outperforming the generation that followed them, the cold blood thrill of interleague rivalries renewing, abeit, with an irretractable aim to intersperse such observations with football.

That said, as one casts a hesitant eye upon the recent comings and goings of a week's worth of baseball, or perhaps more precisely, reveres it with the telling glance of historical perspective, one cannot help but observe some strange developments.

The Slack Pack

The current bottom feeders in nearly all six divisions would hardly rate as shocking; Baltimore, Montreal, Pittsburgh and Colorado have arrived at their current underachieving levels with a predictable precision that would be admirable for those clocking themselves against the speed of mediocrity.

An argument might have been made against the KC Royals reassuming their familiar nest in the nadir of the AL Central if their shocking performance last season were any indication of future success but really, once the ink had dried on their signing of that perennial pariah Juan Gone, back in the doldrums of January, regardless of his two MVP awards and 429 career homers, their season was already doomed. Juan Gone is the antithesis of whatever youthful enthusiasm the Royals toyed with last season and his signing forged a newer, more cynical and impatient approach. That they will still have Juan Gone in August and not Carlos Beltran, is indicative of the errors having been duly made, the momentum of a franchise duly gutted.

We might mention that seeing the Seattle Mariners 9 games back from the lead, hopelessly mired at the bottom of the AL West is surprising until you consider how demoralising it is as a franchise to choke so consistently and so artfully two years running and to do so with an aging cast and a rapidly diminished carry on bag of dumb luck, was simply too much for the Mariners to overcome after swallowing the loss of three of baseball's biggest names over the course of half decade.

No, a truer manifestation of the unthinkable is found nestled in the bosum of the NL Central where one finds the astonishing 35-31 record of the Milwaukee Brewers. Conjecture over this heretofore unfathonable development would be meaningless if it not examined through the lens of the fortunate relinquishment of the stigma that was the Selig family, and thus, having been spared the ignominy of additional humiliation, are finally allowed an interesting cast of youth, of particular note being Lyle Overbay, acquired through the trade of the disabled Richie Sexson, ready and able to take his swing at infamy. Lyle Who, indeed. With the departure of the Seligs it is now allowable to admire the wonders of that paen to bad beer, Bernie Brewer, as he slides from his perch into a beer stein following each Brewers home run and victory.

And yes, still within that same NL Central lie the Cincinnati Reds, cursed, almost since the very day of the Junior trade back in February of 2000, finally allowed a modicum of breathing room, as has Junior himself now that he's snuggled into the forum of the 500 career homer family.

All of these miniature surprises, and more, like the rapid demise of the Arizona Diamondbacks, and (good god, what is happening in Tampa?!) have set the season on its ear despite the traditional triumvirate of power that continues to be concentrated in the Bronx, Fenway and well yes, exclusively within the rivalry itself, predictable and perhaps forlorn with its absence of tangible controversy.

Art Howe Still Has A Job

Yes, this must rank somewhere on my own personal Richter Scale of surprises. It is a supreme testimony to the inadequacies of the surviving members of the NL East that for all their shoddy play, all the bonehead fielding errors, all the hitless hours of a mediocre batting order, all the first base blunders as Piazza stubbornly stumbles like a child at his new position and all the submoronic miscalculations by Art Howe, on this day the Mets not only stand a mere two and a half games from first place, but have the unmitigated gall of optimism to begin to make trades to strengthen themselves as though this mirage might continue.

Rather ominously, despite this optimism, Mets GM Jim Duquette logically refuses to endorse Howe, has fired his batting coach and continues to allow Howe's future to dangle precariously as though the deeper understanding of this success is that it has been achieved not in part because of Art Howe, but in spite of Art Howe.

So perhaps the question of where the Mets stand at this moment in time with the return of the Human Hammy Jose Reyes and the acquisition of Astro outcast Richard Hidalgo is a moot one whilst the Artless Howe still stands in the dugout like the captain of a ship that is destined to see its sinking stern disappear beneath the quiet lapping of the waves.

Lakers Amazing Implosion

Although the NBA is not often addressed herein, the speed and ease with which the Pistons dispatched the Lakers in the Finals was almost as shocking as the speed with which the dynasty has been dismantled. Speculation runs rampant as Phil Jackson takes a year's sabbatical to contemplate what team of superstars he might next steer into a collision course with championships, as Shaq preemptively announces his desire for a trade as though the oft injured limbs of a rapidly aging 32 year old and a 30 million dollar contract will be in great demand and Kobe awaits word on whether he will spend his future with the Lakers or in a high security prison somewhere in Colorado. As we watch the dying embers of the once seemingly inpenetrable walls of superiority that was the Lakers the question begs, who is more likely to add another championship ring to his collection?

Euro 2004

Of course, all of this pales in comparison to the battles to be waged this evening in Portugal. Yes, minions, it is back to the business at hand. For tonight, England will face the nasty squad from Croatia needing only a draw to advance and join Greece and Portugal in the Quarterfinals. A mere 4 years ago in Charleroi, England sat precariously in this very position, fresh from their satisfying victory over the Germans and the disaster of a Belgian riot squads hosing down hooligans with water cannons, needing only a draw against Romania to go forward and it was then, at that juncture between success and abysmal failure, they suffered the humiliation of a loss that sent them packing, disfunctionally and prematurely, back to the motherland.

The Croatians are a notorious bunch. They've publically admitted that part of their strategy is to goad English teen phenom and perenially hot head, Wayne Rooney, into an early ejection. Their fans have been called out for racist slurs against opposing squads. Their goons are underdeveloped on the pitch but dangerous not only for their latent talent but also for their penchant for diving and dirty play. They are the perfect foil and on paper, the English should have a go at them with little difficulty but paper is meaningless in this tournament and the reality that hopefully manifests itself tonight will be that England rise higher still, above the squalor of their opponents' side and dispatch Croatia quickly. As to avoid unnecessarily jinxing the squad, Sports Amnesia will refrain from a prediction and hope for the best result, which would likely be a quarterfinal matchup against the Portugese hosts.

Until then, it is time to don the colours of Saint George and go off into the night seeking pints of ale to fortify the spirit and celebratory scenes to follow.

Friday, June 18, 2004

Euro 2004 - First Week Edition

One week since the kickoff of the shocking 2-1 opening tournament victory of Greece over Portugal, Sports Amnesia has some tips, observations and further predictions.

Euro 2004's Worst Side

The nominees are the Russians and the Bulgarians, both of whom have failed to score in either match they've played. The Russians have been outscored by Portugal and Spain by a 3-0 margin and the Bulgarians have been outscored by the Danes and the Swedes by a 7-0 margin. For those who think that having the Russian players' wives flaunt nekkid photos of themselves wasn't inspirational simply because the Russian team has looked limp, lackluster and lamentable in their two scoreless outings, just think about what those scores against the Spanish and Portugese would have been without some delicious Russian flesh to fill their dreams in the Komsomolskaya Pravda every day. After all, if the Bulgarians can lose to an the Swedes 5-0, what might have stopped the Russians from losing 10-0 to an inspired Portugese side were it not for those wanton wives? Well, if you listen to Bulgairan national coach Plamen Markov it's all in the defence. "We should have been more defensive in the first game," he said, referring to the 5-0 drubbing by Sweden. Hmmmm. What a novel concept. Perhaps this enlightnment is why they only lost 2-0 to the Danes. Rediscovered their defence.

Whilst Latvia was long considered the shoe-in for this award, (and who wouldn't have made them favourites after having won just two of their matches in 2004, beating Slovenia and Kazakhstan, drawing with Azerbaijan and Iceland, whilst losing to Belarus, Hungary and the Czech Republic?), the fact that they opened the scoring against the Czechs the other day despite losing, already puts them one up on the Russians and Bulgarians.

And today might even see them add to their list of accomplishments. The Latvians have faced the Germans only twice, in the nascent Nazi years of 1935 and 1937, and lost both matches by a 6-1 aggregate. This was the beginning of the end. Not long thereafter, the effects of the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement of 1939 had steadily forced Latvia under Soviet influence until August 5, 1940, when the Soviet Union finally annexed Latvia. It hasn't been a pretty last century for the Latvians to date but even a draw against the Germans would invoke a modicum of deserved nationalist fervor.

Upset Specialists

Perhaps the biggest upset of Euro 2004 has been how few upsets there have been. Sure, the opening match saw Greece knock off host Portugal 2-1 and then saw them draw against Spain and currently see them leading their group. But these aren't really upsets. First of all, Portugal and Spain are notorious underachievers who choke in the clutch and second of all, the Greeks were no pushovers to begin with, despite their lack of positive PR. After all, they qualified ahead of Spain to get here and after losing their first two matches of the qualifiers, went on a tear, winning their last 6 matches by an 8-0 margin, including a 1-0 victory over Spain in Spain, not to mention drawing against Portugal in November in a friendly. Hardly a record of underdogs.

They aren't without their colourful characters either. Otto Rehhagel, the Greek coach, has whinged about the colour of the nets, despite the Greek success: "It is a catastrophe," he said. "They are black. This could only have been the work of some bureaucrat, not a football man. They are mournful, ugly nets. Fans want to see the ball going into white nets."

Indeed, strike another blow for the work of bureaucrats and mournful, ugly nets. Maybe if they'd been white nets, the Greeks wouldn't have found them so often so far.

Francesco Totti

The Italian's lackluster performance to date which see them needing a big victory over Bulgaria to advance, is nothing compared to the humiliation they've suffered at the hands of their star striker caught spitting in the face of Denmark's Christian Poulsen in their opening match draw. Totti is quite a sportsman. In the 2002 World Cup, he was sent off for diving in the closing stages of the match against South Korea which triggered the Azzurri's humiliating exit from the World Cup. Lucky for the Italians, Totti, despite his notoreity, is not a player they can't do without.

The Teens Have It

At the other end of the spectrum, England have fallen hard for their 18 year old new golden boy and national hero, Wayne Rooney, following two strong performances against the French and the Swiss, which included two goals, one of which made him the youngest player ever to score in the European Championships. This isn't a total shocker, as many had forseen this tournament as being Rooney's moment of glory. One particularly clairvoyant punter actually bet £25,000 that Rooney would finish as England's top scorer at Euro 2004.

Now England's manager, Erickson has jumped on the bandwagon, calling Rooney the best teenager he's ever worked with, including Roberto Baggio and Rui Costa.

And don't think this doesn't make the lads at Everton ecstatic. They'll be sorry to see him go but they won't be sorry to pocket at least £45 million when he does.

Lost in all the hoopla has been the impressive debut of Germany's 19 year old Bastian Schweinsteiger, who came on as a substitute in the 68th minute of Tuesday's match against Holland and made several penetrating runs on the right, creating space for himself by being in constant motion and dribbling with dazzle. First of all, you've got to like his name, which means roughly someone who raises pigs in German. This seems apropos, considering the team he plays for. Like Rooney, he's been a bit wild, lost in the excesses of fame and youth. Unlike Rooney, he didn't start, nor did he score, but he has established himself as one of Germany's top young players and future stars. Perhaps these two will go neck-in-neck in the 2006 World Cup some day.

The success of Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo, despite his idiotic love affair with step-overs at Manchester United, was hardly a surprise. After coming on to score a consolation goal in Portugal's 2-1 loss to Greece, he made a perfect outside-of-the-foot cross that Rui Costa stabbed home for the insurance goal against Russia and has strongly established himself as Rooney's top opponent for Teen of the Tournament. Chances are he will join the starting 11 when Portugal take on Spain in the most important match left in Group A. Portugal hasn’t beaten Spain for 23 years. They played nine months ago in Portugal, and Spain won 3-0. Ronaldo could triggering mass euphoria across Portugal if he leads them into the quarterfinals.

Oddest Stadium of the Lot

Watching the Danes and Bulgarians yesterday, one couldn't help but be stunned by how odd Braga Municipal Stadium looks. The stadium was built in a former stone quarry, and has only two high lateral stands whose roofs are held up by steel cables across the breadth of the pitch. Behind one goal is a rocky hill, into which the 30,000 capacity stadium was built, and on the other is an open plain with a stunning view of a valley. In other words, a missed chance could go sailing over the goal and into the yawp of the valley waiting below.

Today's Matches

On paper, Latvia-Germany hardly looks like a heart-stopper. But Latvia beat Turkey to get here and also beat Sweden recently, so they aren't the mice they appear to be. After Germany's cowardly lone-striker underdog display against Holland Head Chimp Rudi Voller says he is feeling brave enough to use a second striker against Latvia. Even with their single striker option, the German defence looked like Swiss cheese against the underachieving Dutch and one might consider that Maris Verpakovskis, the Latvian speedster who scored against the Czechs, could be a factor again. Rooting with heart instead of head, Sports Amnesia goes with a 1-1 draw.

Czechs against Holland promises to be a very exciting match although Holland's apathetic midfield play when the Dutch idiot Advocaat started Boudewijn Zenden in midfield instead of Wesley Sneijder, would presume the Czechs to have a rather easy time against them. The Czechs have already humiliated the Dutch once in their qualifying round and the are still the sweethearts of this group. Due to Advocaat's stubborn stupidity, mark this down as Czechs 2 Holland 1.

This means the Czechs clinch their group with 6 points, followed by Germany with 2 points, and Latvia and Holland with 1 following today's matches. That sets up the hope that the Dutch beat Latvia and the Czechs humiliate Germany to see the Czechs and Dutch through to the quarterfinals.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Euro 2004 Special

Only a day and a half until the first match of the Euro 2004, between hosts Portugal and Sports Amnesia's very own darkhorse, Greece, slated to open the tournament. Sports Amnesia predicts this match will be an upset and will spur the Greeks on to a quarterfinals showing. In fact, it isn't just Sports Amnesia thinking this. Even the Greeks have issued a warning that the Portugese shouldn't take them lightly. Here's a look at each Group:

Group A: (The Group of Sun. Three of the Four teams in this group come from warm, sunny places. The fourth comes from a cold, dismal place.)

The stench of historical underachievement prevails in a grouping which has Spain, a team who prior to every tournament, is considered one of the best teams on paper before some sort of melodramatic reality of self-denial and choking swoops down and carries them off from their lofty expectations. Every tournament appears to demonstrate that the expectation is simply too much for the Spaniards to handle. You might have fallen for the prank in the 2002 WC and even the Euro 2000 but from here, it will be a surprise if Spain, despite their immense talent, dont' choke yet again and allow the weight of expectation to foil them.

Portugal is just two years removed from a World Cup humiliation that saw them fail to advance past their own group round despite having assembled one of their best teams ever. Were Spain not in this Group already usurping the Lifetime Underachievement award, I don't know that Portugal would get past this group either. But as hosts, it's a moral obligation.

Greece, (80-1 odds against winning) as previously noted, is the darkhorse candidate in Sports Amnesia's stable despite having been outscored 0-10 in their last international showing in the 1994 World Cup in America. This could prove either to be an amazing feat of prescience or an idiotic and transparently foolish effort at predicting the unpredictable but the Greeks, having cocked up the Olympic Games already before they've even started, will have to save face somewhere. That translates to an opening match draw against Portugal, an inexplicable victory over Spain where everyone will smack themselves in the forehead wondering why they didn't see the Spain derailment coming from 100 miles away. Before defeating the Russians and moving on to the next round.

And Russia, the token cold, dismal country of the group, stands one of the better chances of anyone in the Championship to exit their Group pointless. The Russians only qualified because the brave and heroic Welsh side lost their argument in court that Russia should have been disqualified for having allowed a player who later tested positive for drugs to play on their side. The Welsh, those silly people, should have known that the Russians would prevail. It's a big set up, you see. Let the Russians in just so you can urinate on them after they've fallen down drunk and incoherent. Take it easy, Wales. Your revenge is coming.

Predicted order of finish: 1. Portugal 2. Greece 3. Spain 4. Russia

Group B: (The Group of Not-Quite Death, But Painful Nonetheless)

Of course, the cataclysmic confrontation between France and England this Sunday dominates the expectations of this group although ultimately, it may not have as much bearing on the outcome of the group itself as one might expect. You could look at it myopically; that regardless of whether France beat England or England beat France, both would be able to humble Switzerland and Croatia, making the result of their own match significant only in deciding who earns a first place showing and who gets the second place slot.

France, who won the 98 WC and the Euro 2000 before stumbling out of the blocks without Zidane in the 2002 WC, have every reason to expect a repeat as Euro Champs. Normally, a team this talented would suffer the danger of overconfidence but having been humiliated in the 2002 WC already, there is little chance that they will take anything lightly along the way. If they remember even further back, they can think about 1992 when they arrived to the Euro Championships with a perfect record in qualifying, winning all eight matches, including four against countries as strong as Spain and the former Czechoslovakia. They went on to draw against Sweden, draw against England and lose to Denmark, getting knocked out in the opening round. This time around, look for them to defeat the English in their opening match and trample competition from there on.

On the other hand, England should be happy to lose to the French in their opening match. It will prevent them from becoming deflated and overconfident and lethargic when they face Croatia and Switzerland, their two most important matches. In fact, it will be the wounding of England by France that will allow the English intestinal fortitude and clear-headed focus to push through to the next round.

As for Croatia, this will be the best team not to make it through to the next round. They can certainly defeat Switzerland and frankly, if the English didn't have to beat them to advance, there is a good chance the Croats could defeat them too. But the logical sequence, as outlined above, is England losing to France and fighting their way through to advance. If the sequence were, let's say, England defeating France in the opener, well then, I'd say there was a good chance England would do something foolish, like lose to Switzerland, but that would of course, mean the French would take the Croats seriously and well, let's just stick with the notion that the Croats will be dangerous but the Croats will not go forward.

You'd be hard pressed for me to make a case that Switzerland even belong here. Yeahyeah, they won their stinking qualifying group, in essence, by beating Ireland and Romania and letting Russia pound them. This isn't a good team and the absurdists chanting warnings in the background should be silenced rather quickly after the Croats dismantle them. Switzerland is not a football country. It is a country of mountain climbers and bankers.

Predicted order of finish: 1. France 2. England 3. Croatia 4. Switzerland

Group C: The Snooze Attack

They say that the Group of Death is Group D but for my money, Group C is the most even and will be the most hotly contested of all the groups.

Italy, with their immensely talented squad, would be an exciting ticket against any three of these teams but the reality is, Trapattoni will have his side snooze attack football and the matches that don't end up 0-0 draws will end up being 1-0 victories.

One of the favourite darkhorses of the tournament are Bulgaria, which some might find surprising given that they're 80-1 odds against winning the title. It wasn't so very long ago (1996) that the Bulgarians took the quarterfinals against Germany and shocked everyone. But this sort of idealistic reminiscing is rather pointless when considering that Stoitchkov is no longer around to save them. Their opening match against Sweden will likely decide who gets to be Italy's handmaiden going into the quarterfinals.

Sweden, the 9th most likely of the 16 squads to win the tournament according to Sky Bets, closes their first round against Scandanavian archrivals, Denmark. This will be in essence, a matchup of rigid, practical furniture against cheap, mass-manufactured furniture, the deadly battle of Ikea vs. Dansk Møbelkunst. I won't be shy about this: what this really boils down to is a battle of the national drinks and I'm rooting all out for a Danish victory. After all, why should a country which produces beers like Tuborg and Carlsberg be defeated by a side that, yes, produces http://absolut.com/">Absolut and all their fancy advertisements but yes, also produces something as utterly undrinkable as Crocodile Beer??

Predicted order of finish: 1. Italy 2. Denmark 3. Bulgaria 4. Sweden

Group D The Group of Death

Yes, it sounds very ominous indeed but in reality, this group amounts to one quality side, one habitually underachieving side, one side which historically do well but just don't have the players to do it again and one side that well, beats it's chest about nothing.

It's no secret why so many are enamoured with the chances of the Czech Republic. Need we remind how they steamrolled through their qualifiers without losing a match and defeated their own group rivals, Holland, once already? (echoes of 1992 France, anyone?) Their opening match against Latvia could produce one of the most lopsided outcomes of the tournament.

As we know, Latvia haven't much to root for. Yes, they did humiliate the Turks in Turkey no less (something not even the English couldn't do) to qualify. But don't look for the Latvians to sweep through the tournament as much more than a foil to the other three squads. It's been done before, in equally shocking fashion, way back in 1992, when the Danes, who only qualified because Yugoslavia, in the middle of a civil war, withdrew, ended up winning the whole bloody tournament but if you're looking for some sort of repeat, forget it. But Latvia aren't ready for that role just yet.

What you've got instead after the Czech Republic are historical hatreds and quite probably, uninspired play. You might wonder who will be more likely to show up, the Holland who destroyed the Scots to make it into the Euro 2004 or the Holland who lost to Ireland 1-0 last week and played with a collective uninspiration that was inspiring in its degree of apathy. The hint here is that manager Dick Advocaat has finally come to his senses, by naming Van Nistelrooy as the lone striker and benching the perennially All-Apathetic captain, Patrick Kluivert so that some of the young and hungry Dutch can have a chance to show their flash and style before they too become indifferent, swollen millionaires with no effort in their play.

This decision, in fact, is what will propel the Dutch past Germany in their opening match. I don't care what the Germans have done in the past. I don't care how they are like the inverse of the Spaniards, a side whom nobody thinks will do much yet habitually advances and does something.

Not this time.

Predicted order of finish: 1. Czech Republic 2. Holland 3. Germany 4. Latvia.



Portugal defeat England
France defeat Greece
Italy defeat Holland
Czech Republic defeat Denmark


Italy defeat Portugal
France defeat Czech Republic


In a rematch of Euro 2000, Italy plays France and this time, gets it right, winning 2-1.

Saturday, June 05, 2004

Who Are These Reds And Where Did They Come From?
"I have left orders to be awakened at any time in case of national emergency, even if I'm in a cabinet meeting." -- Ronald Reagan

This is the part of the season where the early pretenders are supposed to fade away quietly in the standings, achingly extinguishing the early Spring hopes of fans optimistic enough to believe their side's opening month might possibly be a harbinger of success to come.

This is also the part of the season where you'd have expected to see the Cincinnati Reds joining their brethren in mediocrity, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Milwaukee Brewers, in the dank cellar of the National League Central. The NL Central, after all, is supposed to be the sole domain of heavyweights like the Houston Astros, Chicago Cubs and St Louis Cardinals. Hell, the Reds are so supposed to be out of the race by now, even the evil Clear Channel radio refuses to broadcast Reds games on the radio in Lexington, Kentucky with a strong signal station, as though the idea of the Reds being competetive was so ludicrous, there was no need to broadcast them on with a signal any stronger than the stone-age, shout-it-out-the-open-window WXRA-AM 1580.

So imagine yourself last December opening up a sportspage of the future and seeing on this 60th D-Day anniversary that the Cincinnati Reds were inexplicably lodged at the peak of the NL Central and playing .600 ball. After all, what was the probability? The equivilent of Marge Schott dying at 75? Oh yeah, in case you're wondering, the Reds have a winning record since she died. Perhaps the curse of Marge Schott has finally been lifted.

Now, imagine how the hell the Reds got here.

What are they doing at the plate? Well, to put it mildly, they're not exactly tearing it up. They rank 14th of 16 National League teams in batting average, hitting a collective .247, better only than the Mets and the Expos. They rank 10th in slugging percentage. The one thing that might be pointed to is that they have a .340 team OBA, behind only the Giants, Colorado, and fellow NL Central dwellers, Houston, and are ranked fifth in walks. On the other hand, they lead the National League in striking out and are tied for fifth for grounding into double plays. So even though they get alot of men on base, they don't seem to do much with them thereafter. They have 21 stolen bases in 54 games, hardly the definition of terror on the basepaths.

So naturally, one must assume if it isn't their bats and it isn't their run scoring abilities or speed, then it must be the pitching.

Well actually, no. Their 4.37 team ERA ranks 12th in the National League. Their opponents are hitting a whopping .270 against them, ranked 14th. And they are getting walloped, not just hit against. The collective slugging percentage against Reds pitching is .456, which, if it wasn't for Colorado pitching, would be the worst in the National League.

What other stone can be unturned in search of the answer to this puzzle that is the success of the Cincinnati Reds, the best fielding team in the league? Only if we can nudge the definition of "best" into being 12th out of 16 in fielding percentage.

So, the current ingredients are: no definitive team speed, an ability to put a better than average amount of runners on base but not doing much with them, a mediocre defence and an ulcer-inducing starting rotation. Not exactly how you'd imagine building a winner. Not unless you were playing for some local tavern team of crappy Midwestern beer guzzlers in a summer softball league.

The Reds have only outscored their opponents by a barely visible 258-255 margin. That means that the Reds are winning on vapor. Of all teams with a winning record in the Major Leagues right now, only the mysterious Twins, who have actually been outscored by 15 runs despite a winning record, have a lower margin. The next closest are the Padres, who have outscored their opponents by a total of 9 runs over 55 games, and they've only won 30 games.

Yet somehow, these Reds lead the entire National League in victories. Somehow, they are tied for the second most victories in all of the Major Leagues, behind only the New York Yankees. That's right, if all the teams were stacked one atop another right now in a giant metaphorical heap, only the hated Yankees would be ahead of the Cincinnati Reds, and this isn't even 1976 any more.

To begin with, you might wonder how much of those unattractive, porcine pitching stats are owed to a mediocre rotation. After all, once you erase Paul Wilson's inexplicable 7-0 start (13% of all Reds victories), the rest of the starters are like a reheated tv dinner at 13-16. Wilson is the first starting Reds pitcher to begin a season 7-0 since righty Mike LaCoss went 8-0 in 1979. The 1979 Reds finished 90-71 in winning the Western Division only to get swept in the NLCS by the World Champion Pirates. (whew, when was the last time somebody could say that: The World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates?)...

Once you get beyond the nausea that is the starting rotation sans the frequently injured Paul Wilson, you can see that the bullpen has already held 40 games, best in the National League. The bullpen has accumulated an 11-6 record, which, at a winning percentage of .647, is higher than the rotation's collective 20-16 record. In fact, if you might even come to believe that the success of the team is somewhat driven by the bullpen.

You might also examine the fact that despite the mediocre fielding average, the Reds have one of the best-rated fielding range factors in the league and the fact that they've allowed only 15 stolen bases, the second lowest in the league. The defence would seem to cover alot of ground and save alot of pitchers problem baserunners.

You could point out that while the two alleged uninjured powerhouses of their outfield, Junior and Dunn are only hitting .242 and .260 respectively, Junior has an OBA of .352 and Dunn is on base at a .434 pace.

Another factor to consider is how well the Reds play at night, when they are 21-12, by far the best in the National League. The only team anywhere near as good at night are the first place Dodgers, who are 8 games above .500 after sunset.

Lastly, something immeasurable, something that doesn't rear its head in a frenzy of statistical hocus pocus, is the overall spirit of justifiable enthusiasm to date. "I think there's a buzz right now in the city about the Cincinnati Reds, and they wanted to come out and see what's going on," said Sean Casey after Friday's walk-up crowd of 10,755, the largest since the Reds started keeping track of those totals in 1987. This is infectuous, especially on a team that has lingered in the middle of nowhere for so long.

Yet for all this love and happiness in Cincinnati, the NY Post's Joel Sherman quoted one AL executive saying,

"Sean Casey is not a .379 hitter, Paul Wilson is not going to go 22-0 and Danny Graves might have 21 saves, but he's also allowed seven homers in 27 innings. They've got enough talent to finish within 10 games, but that's about it."

Tsk, tsk. The pain of disbelievers having to swallow the pride of their erroneous predictions is almost audible.

Sherman continues chewing on the nihilistic fringe by espousing that the Reds should give up already and surrender their stars to the megaliths of baseball.

"The Reds, for example, actually have their three highest-paid players - Casey, Graves and Ken Griffey - playing well, and should move them if they can. The most interesting possibilities, though, could involve young first basemen. Texas has a load of hitting and a top first-base prospect, Adrian Gonzalez (who hit .216 in his AAA debut last season), nearly ready, so one scout said, "I would trade Mark Teixeira if I could get a young, high-end starter."

I wouldn't trade anyone. I'm not going to trade Junior simply because of the chance that his spell with mid-career injuries was merely an mirage, a bump in the road to further fame, and he still might possibly finish his career with the Reds someday chasing Barry Bonds for the All-Time Homerun record. After all, he's going to beat Fred McGriff to 500, isn't he?

And where's the logic in trading Casey, who at 29 is one of the best fielding first basemen in the league and leads the league in hitting? For the career .256 hitter, Mark Teixera? On what planet does this take place?

So despite the naysayers and the creeps so eager to write the Reds off and trade their best players, I'm going to listen to the Reds play the Expos on radio today and see what the excitement is all about.


If you were a fan of the endless tease Montreal Expos moving to the Washington, DC area, which would you prefer, that they keep their best players to improve the market value of the club as Tim Kurkijan suggests, or, would you prefer the scenario that "Maybe they'll strip that club to the bone, cut payroll even more, and start over fresh."?

I would jettison as many as possible. The first person you might hope they'd try and dump would be the perpetually injured Nick Johnson. And by god, do it fast because he's got that two week window right now where he isn't hurt and he's hitting .429 in 8 games so far.

Next in line would be the insufferable Carl Everett, who is hitting .246 in his Canadian purgatory. And will somebody please tell me when it was that the consistently worse-than-mediocre Peter Bergeron was ever considered a prospect? Is it the hope inspired by his .226 lifetime batting average?

And what's going on with Jose Vidro? The .302 lifetime second baseman is hitting .234 at the moment. Keep in mind how fast two other second basemen fell from grace so rapidly. Carlos Baerga and Roberto Alomar. Is he too, washed up, at the age of 30, which he will be in August? Is he going to be joined by the 29 year old shortstop Orlando Cabrera in the bargain rubbish bin, who at .227 is hitting a full 40 points below his career batting average?

Now that I think of it, the entire batting order should be gutted, carted off like rubble to wherever they can find homes for whatever price. Let's have a look at the 25 year old Indian reject, Ryan Church, who is currently hitting .387 with 10 homers and 36 RBIs in 45 games for the Edmonton Trappers in the offence-happy Pacific Coast League. That's what I'd say if I were a potential fan of the potential Washington Expos - er, what would they be called anyway? The Washington Monuments?


So much for my Armandogeddon-Flails-at-Shea theory. Actually, it's not just my theory, it's the theory of every Met fan in the world. Maybe it's time to muzzle that barking dog, finally. Although he surrendered a homer to Mike Piazza last night breaking his 40 consecutive batter hitless streak, and endured ear-splitting boos upon his return to the Shea Stadium mound, in two games at there this season, he's recorded two saves. Armando's last four appearances have come against the Mets and in that time, he recorded four straight saves, pitched four and a third innings of closing relief and allowed only Piazza's bases-empty banger. Not bad. Well, there's always a pennant race meltdown to hope for.


The international battery of the year-to-date must be the Orioles and their starting rotation of of Sidney Ponson (Aruba), Eric DuBose (USA), Daniel Cabrera (Dominican Republic), Erik Bedard (Canada) and Rodrigo Lopez (Mexico). Catching them are Javy Lopez (Puerto Rico) and Robert Machado (Venezuela). Ok, hardly an overwhelming World Cup of Baseball battery, but go on, find a more international battery on one team.


If you think the oversaturated, mindless vacuum of fast food suburban mall teenage intellect is expanding at an alarming rate, you might consider what Junior had to say about the possibility of reaching the 500 plateau in career homeruns.

"How many kids talk about hitting 500 home runs?" he asked rhetorically. "No, they always talk about hitting a home run in the World Series like Joe Carter to end the game. That's it. That's the goal. That's something we all dream about as kids. It just hasn't happened to me yet."

It's probably true for everyone's childhood. For most of us, youth is living in the moment of the sun, not the accomplishments achieved by sunset. After all, what kid in Tampa Bay is outside right now playing a game of sandlot ball thinking to himself, "Goddamn, if only I can be like Fred McGriff and lurch my way to 500 career homeruns in the most excruciatingly unexciting way imagineable?!"


By the way, after listening to the WGN's Ron Santo far too many times this season, I've come to the conclusion that he is baseball's current most obnoxious radio announcer. For those of you who, like me, are still malingering on radio broadcasts instead of the watching and listening to someone like ESPN's Joe Morgan mysteriously rattling his way through the subconcious, I'd like to hear who are your favourite radio announcers and who are your least favourite. When you're up at 3 in the morning and nearly every game is getting a live online radio feed from mlb.com, you'll listen to any team's broadcast at least once.


Lastly, although football (American soccer) seems to have no fan following beneath the MLS puddle of excitement over Freddy Adu, it should be pointed out that England won their friendly match yesterday against the indominable Iceland national team by a healthy 6-1 margin and will next face the current European Champion France in their first match of the Euro 2004 in Portugal a week from today in what promises to be something akin to the end of the world here in England, regardless of the outcome.

And lest you think I'm just name-tossing, jumping on the Freddy Adu bandwagon like the rest of the fair weather fans, allow me to point out my prescient nature in all things Adu. Waaaay back in March of 2003, I asked the now-nearly redundant question, right here on sportspages.com: America's Pele?.

Thoughts on the demise of Ronald Reagan can be found at Desultory Turgescence.

Good news. Happy to announce Arseblog and Danger Here and Soccer Fever have been added to the links list as fine purveyors of football disinformation.

Thursday, June 03, 2004

The Hamstrings That Ate Manhattan
"Don't let it end like this. Tell them I said something." -- Pancho Villa's last words.