• Whither the center-forward? With all the emphasis on lone-forward formations these days (see: Portugal, Turkey and the Czechs already in Euro 2008), I’m wingered-out and hoping that somebody (anybody!) can step forward as a deadly center-forward in this tournament. My latest hopes are centered on 20-year-old French starlet Karim Benzema, who lit it up for Lyon this season and has the
• Injuries blow. Italy is missing Fabio Cannavaro. Holland won’t have Arjen Robben, Ryan Babel or (likely) Robin van Persie. All those injuries won’t keep me from getting fired up for Italy-Netherlands in today’s Group of Death match, but it will force the Italians and Dutch to prove how deep they are. France, too, will be without injured captain Patrick Vieira, which will force 88-year-old Claude Makélélé to come up big in another marquee game (which he did just fine for Chelsea in the Champions League final).
• ESPN’s hiring of Andy Gray for Euro 2008 was a masterstroke. I’ve always been a big admirer of Gray for the way he calls a game--he's incisive, he’s measured and he’s blessedly devoid of shtick. Best of all, he doesn’t talk down to the American viewer or dumb down the sport. It’s high time that U.S. media execs realize that great soccer doesn’t need to be presented as anything other than great soccer to appeal to mainstream U.S. sports fans. Yet there’s also a whole other world of American viewers who will recognize Gray as the “voice from the video game.” True story: I remember talking once about video games with NBA forward Bo Outlaw, who started rattling off the names of world soccer stars (“I love Luis Enrique!”) based only on his love for the EA Sports soccer video game that featured Gray’s voice calling the shots. (And Outlaw was right: virtual Luis Enrique was the Tecmo Bowl Bo Jackson of soccer video games.)
• Who said Brazil wasn’t playing in Euro 2008? Anyone else notice a pattern? Pepe scores the first goal for Portugal while playing alongside Deco in the midfield. Poland’s most dangerous offensive threat against Germany was dynamic midfielder Roger Guerreiro. And Turkey starts midfielder Mehmet Aurelio. All four of those guys--Pepe, Deco, Guerreiro and Aurelio--are (more-or-less recently) naturalized Brazilians. It’s a trend that has been going on for years, but it seems to have accelerated even more of late as the world’s greatest producer of soccer talent sends its players to every corner of the globe. (Yes, that was the naturalized Brazilian Zinha who scored for Mexico against Argentina last week.) My only question is this: When is the world’s most celebrated nation of immigrants going to get on this train and naturalize a Brazilian for the U.S. national team?
• One old French guy is gone, but ... So Zinédine Zidane has retired for France--we'll always remember with fondness the first time we saw Zidane play for France at Euro ’96—but Makélélé isn’t the only 30-something Frenchman who’s stuck around. So has defender Lilian Thuram, who might have been France’s MVP at World Cup ’98, scoring two goals against Croatia in the semifinals and helping lead France’s magnificent back line throughout the tournament. My first major event assignment for Sports Illustrated was France ’98, and the home team’s title allowed me to write about Thuram in the story commemorating France’s big win. (Yes, that really was Mike Ditka on the cover in July instead of France. Yikes.)
Through-balls: The home teams sure aren't getting any benefit of the doubt. First Switzerland isn't awarded a penalty against the Czechs on a clear handball in the box, and then Austria gets called for a dodgy penalty in the opening minutes against Croatia. I know it's not the letter of the law, but refs needs to take into account time and place on penalties. Borderline fouls in the far corner of the box should be a cause for swallowed whistles ... Separated at birth: Germany’s Christoph Metzelder and Into Thin Air author Jon Krakauer ... When did Portugal’s Simão Sabrosa lose the last name and become just Simão? … Speaking of Simão, did anyone else see him call off Cristiano Ronaldo and take a dangerous Portugal free kick? Wouldn’t that be like Chris Klein calling off David Beckham on the L.A. Galaxy? … Time to induct Germany’s Miroslav Klose into the Runs Like a Girl Hall of Fame (alongside charter member Mike Randolph) … Worst dye-job of the tournament: Germany’s Sebastian Schweinsteiger, who looks like a poor-man’s Melissa Etheridge.
Post your comments below and come back after France-Romania for an update on the Euro 2008 blog….