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Pittsburgh let me down last night. My wife scored free tickets for us to go see The Roots play at the Cuthbert Amphitheatre here in Eugene last night. The air through the crowd was electric as the Philadelphia-based hip-hop artists took the stage. From a steady diet of their classics to a heartfelt rendition of Bob Dylan's seminal protest ballad, "Masters of War", The Roots put forth immense effort and I felt wholly satisfied for having been granted the tickets unexpectedly. Yet it was not the fact that I was watching a band from the opposite side of Pennsylvania which has me perturbed at Pittsburgh...

 

Why, oh why, did my streak have to die?I have long taken great pride in being a hockey fan. I remember watching my first Cup final back when I was but six years old. I was still rather lacking in a finer understanding of the game; all I knew is that Lanny, his 'stache and the Calgary Flames had won over my team of choice, Patrick Roy and his Montreal Canadiens' teammates. Barring the unfortunate league setback in 2005 which wiped out the Stanley Cup that season, I have caught every annual awarding of the oldest trophy in North American sports since the Flames won it all back in 1989...

 

That is, until last night. While Chris Osgood and his Detroit Red Wings brethren were busy skating around the ice with Lord Stanley's Chalice raised high overhead, I was instead sitting on the lawn at the top of the amphitheatre listening to a phenomenal band belt out superb tones. I feel as though my hockey-fan card should be revoked. What had amounted to a fast-paced and high-stakes battle came to a conclusion without me. As I pen these words I still stare in shock from time to time at grainy online images of the momentous occasion and wistfully long to observe it on a bigger screen in real time.

 

But alas, that moment has passed and I can never get it back. Perhaps it is only those most die-hard of sports fans, the guys who get up at four in the morning for Tour de France broadcasts and World Cup soccer, who can understand the depths of agony which persist when a long-standing tradition gets broken. I highly doubt it, though. I may have raced on foot thirty blocks across town to catch the final seven minutes of the 2003 New Jersey/Anaheim final; I may have called in sick to work to see more than one finale. I saw Hull's foot in the crease after bombing out of the national debate tournament in Phoenix, triple-digit weather outside unnoticed as I stayed rapt with my eyes on the hotel-room television. I watched Bourque get his sixteen wins and a long-sought Cup in another hotel, this time resting on a king-size bed with delivered pizza in a La Quinta in Oklahoma City. So I didn't catch the hoisting of the Cup this year... yet here I am, alive and still able to get these words out to you. Congratulations to Hockeytown USA on their hard-fought victory, and here's to the start of another Cup-viewing streak extending far into the distant future...

 

 

 

 

And with that bittersweet note, we are off and running on this week's column... which now makes it an even dozen of these volumes to date. So many things are happening in the wide world of sports across the globe this week that it is hard to even know where to go from here. Finals at the French Open, the culmination of the Triple Crown series, new faces at clubs across Europe as soccer turns toward national-team play and the Euro 2008 championships, another grand tour is in the books... so many directions we could head from this point...

 

 

 

Contador claims his second Grand Tour...So I will continue on with congratulations before moving on further. Much has been made of the ASO decision to deny Astana entrance into this year's Tour de France. The team, which has helped to disgrace and discredit the Tour's legitimacy in recent years (see Operacion Puerto 2006, Alexandre Vinokourov 2007). ASO, looking to protect its event, chose to distance itself from this beleaguered team. So why all the uproar? Because defending Tour champion, Alberto Contador, joined Astana in the offseason and will miss his opportunity to defend his title in the world's most famous bike race. The team, now retooled with new riders and a new management team led by former U.S. Postal/Discovery Channel boss Johan Bruyneel, has taken steps to change its image and justifiably feels slighted by the missteps of past incarnations of the team under this name.

 

Yet this slight was quite possibly the blessing in disguise needed to vault Contador to a higher echelon of the sport's greats. The Giro d'Italia, which culminated with a final-day time trial into Milan, saw the diminutive Spanish dynamo win his second straight contested grand tour in resplendent fashion. The first bicycle race from which I saw live coverage in real time was the 2005 Paris-Nice stage race. On the final stage, Contador was on a breakaway ahead of the field, barreling down the side of a mountain into Nice, when his foot unclipped from the pedal and he nearly careened into a rock face. Yet he managed -- SOMEHOW (I'm watching the tape again and I still don't understand) -- to stay upright.

 

This is a metaphor for the man's entire career. Through all the adversity he has had to face -- cerebral cavernoma discovered when he collapsed off his bicycle and went into convulsions during a 2004 race in Spain; eight months of recovery from the surgery to fix his congenital vascular defect; his false implication in the 2006 Spanish doping investigations -- Contador has emerged victorious to become perhaps the best of his generation's riders. Only twenty-five (in fact, Alberto was born on December 6, 1982... with the time change from Spain we are almost exactly the same age!) and already a champion of the two greatest stage races in cycling, Contador appears poised for another decade of dominance in his sport. Now if he can only gain entry into the races to maintain that dominance...

 

 

  

 

One place where the rules for entry ARE certain also rests in Europe. Soccer's club season is coming to a close in the Old World as players turn their focus toward Euro 2008, the national-team competition set to begin this weekend in Austria and Switzerland. The field of sixteen are set, the two host nations joined by qualifiers decided over the past year-plus of action amongst all of UEFA's representatives. The fourteen who qualified are the elite of the continent, pitted against one another to determine who is currently the best in Europe. The field of sixteen is first broken down into four groups of four, much like the World Cup or the Champions League. From these four groups, the top two teams will emerge to face single-elimination competition in a bracket format until a champion is crowned on June 29.

 

Group A pits the host Swiss against Portugal, the Czech Republic and Turkey. In qualifying, Portugal finished with SIX draws against seven wins and one loss and qualified in second behind Poland. Their biggest star, Cristiano Ronaldo, is coming off a goal-poaching season for the ages and victory in the biggest continental club competition... though he is currently hounded by speculation that he will be leaving England for Real Madrid. The Czechs, meanwhile, finished top of their group, a 9-2-1 record putting them ahead of the Germans. The Slavic side, semifinalists in 2004, come into the tournament on form. Turkey, surprise semifinalists in the 2002 World Cup, qualified second behind defending Euro champion Greece in qualifying group C. The Turks took two losses in qualifying, to Bosnia and to the Greeks -- more than their foes. With a good portion of the Turkish side hailing from this year's Champions League contender Fenerbahce, I predict the boys of the Bosporus going through with the Czechs and relegating Portugal to a surprisingly-early exit...

 

Group B has the other hosts, the Austrians, up against the powerhouse German squad as well as Croatia and Poland. Yet, strong as Germany has proven in recent international competition, it was the less-heralded sides from Croatia and Poland which won their qualifying groups while the historically-dominant team fell to second behind the Czechs. The battle will rage amongst these three sides... but I see Germany ultimately finding a way to prevail. Between Croatia and Poland it will come down to their respective group finales against one another in Klagenfurt on June 16... and I see Croatia, who allowed only eight goals in qualifying and was a +20 in differential, finding a way to take the second spot...

 

Every tournament has its Group of Death. And for Euro 2008, Group C serves that function. Any one of the four teams in this group could advance, and any of the four could easily move on to become European champions. Italy and France, the two finalists from the 2006 World Cup and the two teams to qualify from qualifying group B, are pitted against each other once more as the lottery balls between these two historic foes seem to be magnetized to each other in recent years and competitions. Joining the Group of Death are Romania and the Netherlands, respectively the first- and second-place teams from qualifying group G. Holland is the perpetual enigma of Europe -- not since the time of Van Basten and Gullit has this team fully realized its potential. Romania showed its resolve against the Dutch, taking four of a possible six points from the Oranje in qualifying. Italy advanced ahead of France in group B... and the two first-place qualifying teams in this group will leave Holland and France in the dust...

 

Group D, meanwhile, is the home of the defending champions from Greece. The surprise victors of 2004 still appear strong, having been the only team in qualifying to amass ten wins and doing it in only twelve matches. They are joined in their group by Spain, an even bigger enigma of a team than Holland. Consistently laden with top-shelf talent, the Spaniards simply cannot bring it all together when the stakes are highest. Their foes against the Greeks are Sweden and Russia. Neither, in my mind, poses a serious threat to the qualification chances of the two favorites... and thus Greece should advance ahead of Spain out of this group...

 

My odds for the finalists once the tournament hits the single-elimination win-or-go-home stage? Here they are... but remember that my predictions are usually for nought!

 

  1. Italy - 3-2
  2. Germany - 5-2
  3. Czech Republic - 3-1
  4. Greece - 4-1
  5. Romania - 7-1
  6. Croatia - 7-1
  7. Spain - 10-1
  8. Turkey - 15-1

 

 


One of my dark-horse picks makes a final!!!
Or perhaps maybe you should be trusting these picks for a change. After all, I said if the Stanley Cup finals went six or more, the Red Wings would prevail... and now the news comes from Roland Garros in Paris that my dark-horse pick in the women's draw at the French Open, Dinara Safina, will be squaring off against the new world number-one, Ana Ivanovic, for the championship. Safina, long overshadowed by her brother (Grand Slam winner Marat Safin), is now emerging from his shadow to take charge in the women's field. She delivered Justine Henin's final defeat as a professional; now she is poised to take her first major tournament after unseating three compatriots to make it to the final. With victories over then-number-one Maria Sharapova in the octofinals, Elena Dementieva in the quarterfinals, and Svetlana Kuznetsova in the semifinals, Safina cleared the way for a first-timer to win a Grand Slam in this tournament left wide open by the sudden retirement of Justine Henin.

 

On the men's side, Roger Federer has returned to his dominant form and will face off against home-country favorite Gael Monfils in a surprise semifinal challenge. Monfils, who lost against Federer in the 2006 Doha Open final, is a 6'4", 180-pound titan on the court. His appearance shouldn't be so surprising -- after all, Monfils is a player who has reached the semifinals of every Grand Slam tournament in his young career. Only 21 years old, Gael has the opportunity to give France a three-pronged punch alongside Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Richard Gasquet (both out with injuries from this tournament) for years to come... and can set himself up for future success much like Novak Djokovic did at this year's Australian Open with a defeat of Federer preceding a title...

 

A surprise challenger to Federer in another Grand Slam semifinal... Speaking of Djokovic, the match highly-anticipated when the draw was first released has come to fruition. The Serbian champ will be facing off against three-time defending French Open winner, Rafael Nadal, in the other semifinal. Nadal undoubtedly has to be considered the favorite to advance against the Federer/Monfils winner... but Djokovic, himself only 21, has already proven his immense talent and has the potential, if anyone does, to upset Nadal on his preferred surface.

 

Djokovic is playing lights-out tennis, having dropped only his first set of the tournament on his way to the semifinals. Novak is young, dangerous, and getting better by the day. Yet Nadal is on his best form of the season to date, peaking for his favorite tournament. He has yet to lose even one set in this tournament, having in fact dropped only 26 games in five matches en route to the semifinals. Djokovic is playing well, and will certainly give Nadal fits... but Nadal is a man possessed and on a mission, and should advance to his fourth straight French Open final. Stay tuned next week for the conclusion of tennis' second of its four Grand Slam events of the season...

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile, the heart of the thoroughbred-racing season comes to a fever-pitch finale of its own as Big Brown lines up with his competitors at the starting line of the 140th running of the Belmont Stakes on Saturday. It has been thirty years since Affirmed became the last Triple Crown winner in horse racing. Ten horses including Big Brown have had the chance to complete the sweep in New York; all so far have failed in their effort to complete the treble. Certainly, it would be exciting to see another horse accomplish what none have since Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed all pulled it off in the 1970s. But at the same time a Big Brown victory could accelerate the devolution of horse racing...

 

How, you ask? Because champions are the most desirable studs on stables throughout the Bluegrass country and beyond. And the trend of crumpling horses (Eight Belles, Barbaro) we have witnessed in recent years is indicative that horse breeding has begun to favor one characteristic -- speed -- over all others to the horses' detriment. No longer is stamina, endurance or strength of major concern when attempting to breed champions. The quest to be the fastest has led many stables to aggressively pursue ways of breeding in even more speed. Some muscles get bigger, others get smaller, as horses become increasingly imbalanced for their duties. As the Triple Crown becomes more and more a distant memory, perhaps the folly of this decision made over the past three decades will finally come to light. If Big Brown wins, this policy of selective breeding becomes validated. While it would be nice to see a horse accomplish this rare feat, it would be better for the long-term health of the "Sport of Kings" if this validation were not to take place...

 

 

 

 

And on this note, I feel validated in knowing I have brought you the best of this week's news from around the wider world of sports beyond America's traditional Big Three. As the summer gets hotter, don't forget to drift into the less-traveled sports channels to catch some of this obscure yet exciting action... and stay tuned here for all that hard-hitting news you've come to expect from A Non-Traditional Sports Fan in America...

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