Wednesday, June 15, 2016

A Plateful of Soccer (Best Served Cold)

We've got the Euros all day long and the Copa America in the evenings. I'm already spoiled enough that I am perturbed that there are no Copa 100 games Wednesday before the quarterfinals start tomorrow.

As a result, writing choices abound ...

There were the U.S. men's spirited displays against Costa Rica and Paraguay (and we have to credit Jurgen Klinsmann some for that, don't we?) in not only overcoming a desultory 2-0 loss to Columbia in the first game of group play, but in ending up winning their group.

There is the game tomorrow against Ecuador, and perhaps a deserved backtrack from a certain comment about them being "minnows" in CONMEBOL when they currently lead its qualifying, are ranked 13 in the world, and have qualified for three of the last four World Cups.

But there was something even more compelling that happened on the other side of the pond.

Iceland is playing in its first major tournament ever, thanks at least in part to the expansion this year of the field at the Euros from 16 to 24 teams. But make no mistake, "Our Boys" (or "StrĂ¡karnir okkar" in Icelandic if you prefer) earned their way to the Finals by finishing second in their group in qualifying, beating The Netherlands at home and away in the process.

To put things in population perspective (as I'm want to do), Iceland's population is roughly 330,000 people, or a few thousand less than that of, yes, Kalamazoo, Michigan. As far as countries go, Iceland is wedged between Belize and The Bahamas (or 179 out of 209) in population of  FIFA member nations. But in the FIFA world rankings, Iceland is #34, between the Republic of Ireland and Sweden, and just three spots below the U.S.

The most recognizable Iceland player to international soccer fans is probably Eidur Gudjohnsen, who played, and played well, for Barcelona and Chelsea back in the day but is now 37 years old and did not start or appear off the bench for their first major competition match, against Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Interesting side note: Eidur Gudjohnsen and his father, Arnor, hold the unique distinction of being the only father and son to appear on behalf of their country in the same international match.  Arnor started the game, against Estonia in 1996, and Eidur, 17 at the time, came on in the second half as a substitute for his dad.  

In the Portugal match, Iceland, a true soccer minnow, tied mighty Portugal and Ronaldo 1-1. Iceland fought and scrapped and was a little bit lucky, but survived. Afterward they celebrated like, well, like a country that had just tied its first ever match in an international tournament against the eighth best team in the world and a player about whom my friend Mike would say "Ronaldo loves him some Ronaldo."

Portugal took the lead in the match, but Iceland, with one of the precious few chances it had, tied it 50 minutes in on a goal by Birkir Bjarnason, then held on for the next 40 minutes for the tie, surviving two Ronaldo free kicks deep into stoppage time.

Bjarnason celebrates his goal (photo from

Was it particularly attractive soccer? No. But it was a demonstration of why soccer is great and why, sometimes, a team underskilled and undermanned (although, as is apparent from the picture, not undercoifed, even against pretty boy Ronaldo) can, for 90 minutes, make up for all of those deficiencies by playing gritty, desperate, team soccer.

“Iceland didn’t try anything,” whined the Portuguese captain. “They were just defend, defend, defend and playing on the counterattack. It was a lucky night for them. We should have three points but we are OK. I thought they’d won the Euros the way they celebrated at the end. It was unbelievable. When they don’t try to play and just defend, defend, defend, this in my opinion shows a small mentality and they are not going to do anything in the competition.”
To which Karo Arnason, an Iceland center-mid, responded: "tough shit."

I could add more about Ronaldo, but the Telegraph article is too well written to even try to challenge. So I leave you with these observations about Ronaldo while I hope you revel in the smorgasbord of soccer from which we are feasting, whilst Iceland parties like it's 999, and while I fervently hope someone is forced to eat a little crow:
But Ronaldo would not be Ronaldo if he did not view every single game as a stage for him alone to confirm his greatness, rather than an opportunity for any Tom, Dick or Heimar to seize their own 15 minutes of fame.
He is the ultimate back-garden bully, the kind of barbecue guest who would spend the afternoon doing step-overs past seven year-olds and nutmegging the neighbours’ arthritic collie. It is that mind-set which has made him great. You don’t score 487 career goals, including 50-plus a season for the last six seasons by routinely squaring to better-placed team-mates.
... you get the impression that even now, at the age of 31, it does not matter how luxurious the hotel suite – if Ronaldo has no goal to replay in his mind before lights-out, he does not get a good night’s sleep.

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