Italy-Romania. I’m always amused by how much pre-game secrecy surrounds the starting lineups for middling national teams (like, say, the U.S.) when world champion Italy has no problem giving away its lineup moves more than a day before kickoff. We already know that Italy will have at least two changes today, including the insertion of Alessandro del Piero as a second forward alongside Luca Toni and defender Giorgio Chiellini for the dinged-up (and, of late, hapless) Marco Materazzi. Expect more tinkering in the midfield (Daniele De Rossi for Massimo Ambrosini?), especially since the Azzurri knows that it needs to bag three points against a defensive-minded Romanian team after getting nothing against Holland. I don’t think Italy was nearly as bad in that game as the Oranje was good, so look for an Italian rebound here. Italy 2, Romania 0.
France-Netherlands. After one game Les Bleus was the Euro’s most disappointing team and Holland its most impressive, which means reality is probably somewhere in-between. Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira should be back from injury for France (au revoir, Nicolas Anelka and Jeremy Toulalan), which should make things easier for Franck Ribéry to start being dangerous again like he was in World Cup ’06. Meantime, Holland can’t be expected to match the counter-attacking clinic it put on against Italy, although this Dutch team only knows one way to play: attack, attack, attack. Look for more of the same through potent midfielders Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart, but I also sense that the porous Dutch defense is going to show up here as well. France 2, Netherlands 2.
Two other things on my mind:
• Do any of you language mavens know the origin (time, date, etc.) of the soccer term Group of Death? The first mention I could find in a database search was in a May 10, 1986 article in The Times of London a month before the start of World Cup ’86 in Mexico. Strangely, there were no mentions before the 1982 World Cup, although that may be due more to the limitations of the database than anything else. It’s kind of a ridiculous term when you think about it, a little bit like soccer commentators talking about “bombs” and “daisy-cutters.” Do you have any suggested alternatives for naming a soccer tournament’s most difficult group? How about Group of Grandpa Simpson (since all he does is walk around saying “Death!!!”)?
• This blogging thing isn’t so bad after all. I’d rather be reporting from Europe, but I have to say that I’m really enjoying doing this daily blog for the first time. The dirty little secret is that you can see far more details in a game when you’re watching at home on HD (with a DVR) than when you’re sitting in the stadium (even though the press-box seats do have low-def televisions that help a bit). The downside, of course, is that you can’t interview any of the players or coaches before and after the games or soak up the atmospheric details that go along with doing real journalism on-site.
Then again, the quality of media-interview access at a Euro isn’t usually that great. Consider: despite the hundreds of media members at the Final Four in April, I was able to get sit-down one-on-one interviews with Bill Self, Roy Williams and Tyler Hansbrough, and SI was a fly on the wall in the overnight scouting session of the Kansas coaching staff before the title game. When it comes to the Euro, unless you have crazy-good connections or get lucky (I somehow got Thierry Henry on the phone two nights before the Euro 2000 final) you’re stuck with quotes from cattle-call press conferences and anything you can get from the so-called post-game Mixed Zone—a winding gauntlet between the locker-rooms and team buses that the players walk through as the (unshowered masses) of journos jostle for their attention on the other side of a chest-high wall.
Oftentimes the players just walk right through and don’t say a word, yet I’ve seen some creative methods used by media members to counteract that. At World Cup ’06, for example, an Italian TV network would put a blindingly attractive, skimpily dressed female on the mixed-zone wall and use her to attract the players’ attention, only to switch a male interviewer in her place once the players had stopped.
Who do you like in the games today? Post your comments below, and check back later for Blog updates following each game ...