Sunday, 24 June 2012

Why is brilliant football so boring to watch?

Something awkward once happened to me in a pizza bar in Spain. It was a few years ago, in a small town on the Costa Brava, and I was reading an English-language newspaper that I'd managed to purchase in exchange for a million pounds in a nearby newsagent. The owner of the bar came over and clocked my reading material.

"Torres?" He said to me.

"Er... que?" (My Spanish is excellent.)

"Torres! My friend. Torres. MY friend."

And he wandered off, smiling and shaking his head at how stupid I was. Later I remembered that at this point, Torres was both Spanish and currently playing for Liverpool. The bar owner had obviously sought to make some kind of ethereal connection with me through the medium of Premier League strikers. 

It was sort of like that bit in Pocahontas where Pocahontas and John Smith don't speak each other's languages, but through the magic of love they can understand each other perfectly. Sort of like that, but with football. Anyway, it was a passionate, confusing and slightly aggressive encounter, like all good incidents in rural Spain.

Last night, as Spain destroyed France in their march towards the Euro 2012 final, Torres (my friend of a friend) and his gang of wandering goal-fanciers gave a masterclass in highly skilled and intricately strategised football. They were constantly in possession, denying every French chance and performing a kaleidoscopic pattern of eternal passing. It was brilliant, assertive football. But it was maddening.

It was the 'mine-all-mine' school of play. It was tiki-taka, constant short passing and never letting the other team have so much as a sniff of the ball. It was wanting to win, not wanting to play a great game. Granted, France were all over the place and seemed to have forgotten how to attack, but Spain didn't make many bold decisions and seemed desperate not to open up the game. 

Some pundits will try to tell you that this sort of football is exciting, that it keeps up the pace and showcases the skills of the players in charge. It's a privilege, they say, to watch such a team at the height of its powers.

They are wrong. It's the essence of moneyed football: tight, efficient and uninspiring. It's not in the spirit of the game (it's not generous, or reactive, or creative) and it just leads to one team kicking their heels for 90 minutes and waiting for it all to be over.

A caveat: not all world-beating teams play like this, and not all the ones that do make it so boring to watch. But the way Spain played last night, while it got them their win and let them dominate the game, was the dregs of international football. 

And what's more, actually, it doesn't showcase the real skills of the team using it. You catch glimpses of players' genius when you see them tackle, strike, take beautiful corners and lead a devastating attack from nowhere, not when you see them endlessly pass back and forth to their pals over tiny distances. We want to watch football, not piggy-in-the-middle.

All of which is exactly what I shall say when I next meet one of Torres' friends in a Spanish pizza bar, and you should too.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

The Final Eight: Euro 2012 Group Stage Round-Up

So now the competition starts to get exciting. But if the group stage completely passed you by (understandable: it takes commitment to stick out the whole of a mid-afternoon skirmish between Poland and the Czech Republic) and you don't want to wade through reams of technical analysis and triumphalist England rhetoric, you might fancy brushing up on HTO's version of the back story before the drama really begins to unfold.

Who's on form? Who could make a giantkilling sweep to victory? Who's hairier, the entire Czech Rep team or Franck Ribéry? All will be revealed in HTO's run-down of the final eight and their chances for the next stage. Oh, and here's a handy schedule from the BBC of all the upcoming fixtures.

Czech Republic
The Czechs had a shaky start, shall we say, by losing their first match to Russia 4-1. So it was a big surprise that they even made it to the quarter finals in the end, let alone that they did it in style to graduate top of the group, above the team that hammered them so comprehensively in the opening weekend. They're the hipster outsiders of the knockout stage, and will probably lose to Portugal, but what they lack in world-stage experience they make up for in pluck. An outside chance.

What to look out for: Fashion fans will enjoy Petr Cech's snazzy helmet and the chance to follow some high-testosterone hair growth from the whole team as the tournament progresses.

They've been a bit tetchy at the suggestion that their success so far has been down entirely to the inspirational double-goal-scoring force of Cristiano Ronaldo. Coach Paulo Bento is keen to remind everyone that there is more than just one man on the team, telling the BBC that "The individual effort of players is not important. We have an identity, we have certain ideas and then the players put that into practice." Yup, they're a team, doing lots of teamwork and focusing on working together as a team. Cristiano Ronaldo is just one cog in a complex and finely oiled machine of ensemble play, with no standout star but rather a carefully balanced formation using the strengths and weaknesses of a whole team. The team's team spirit is really inspiring, as a team.

What to look out for: Cristiano Ronaldo.

 Could Greece snatch a win from Germany?

World football's second 'Super Mario' (after Balotelli), Mario Gomez has helped Germany out a lot with their progression through to the knockout stage. He's an efficient striker, who makes a lot out of relatively few touches of the ball per game. He helped his country to win all three of their matches and nail Group B, and on that record alone they're already most pundits' favourites to make it to the final. Even Angela Merkel's going to take a quick break from counting all of her country's euros to turn up to the quarter final against Greece, apparently.

What to look out for: Relentless competence, with the odd flash of inspiration from Gomez. They've promised they'll try to show a bit more 'killer instinct' from here on out, though.

Despite winning this tournament in 2004, Greece arrived this year with low expectations. Their country is in an economic bog, morale is low and there have been plenty of snide jokes flying around about having to have a whip-round to pay the bus fare. But Greece have had, if not the last laugh, then at the very least the penultimate one, by somehow managing to scramble out of their group through one win, one loss and one draw to face Germany in the knockout stage. But Greece's captain, Karagounis, is banned from the next match because of diving offences (but the Mediterranean is beautiful at this time of - oh, sorry) and so, to be honest, that'll probably be the end of them.

What to look out for: They've gone from underdogs to, well, dogs, so cross your fingers for a Phoenix-style journey to glory. If they keep up the solid defence they brought out against Russia, who knows what could happen?

 England have luck on their side... for now

If any English newspaper is to be believed, England are the heroes of the hour, on a sunlit path to the final. If you ask anyone else in Europe, England have lucked out, and they're still the arrogant band of middling nightclub-botherers they always were. They're playing Italy next, and won't find it as easy as they think they will. A tip: if you're travelling to Ukraine this summer, don't mention that disallowed goal in the final match of Group D, or you may find yourself kicked into a large net, squealing "It was offside anywaaaay!"

What to look out for: In an increasingly hair-themed tournament, keep an eye on the medical marvel of Rooney's toupee transplant. There's some as do say it's enchanted.

To celebrate his team's win against Ireland and consequent progression to the knockout stage, coach Prandelli decided to take a moonlit walk to a Camaldolese monastery outside Krakow. If that's not romance, then you just tell me what is. They had a hesitant performance in their group, with a couple of tense draws before breaking through with a decisive victory over Ireland. But one of those draws was against world champions Spain, so if they can hold it together with the favourites then we could be in for some fireworks in their quarter final against England. In any case, the Azzurri are just beautiful all round. I am not biased.

What to look out for: A steady hand from Buffon, goalkeeper to the ancients, and hopefully a few more balletic goals up for grabs from Balotelli and Cassano.

 Some serious game-upping is needed from France

The reigning European and World Champions will be looking to continue their dominance, and they've mostly been playing well so far. Still, France could well be their kryptonite in the quarter final, as they were the last team to beat them in a major tournament (in the final 16 of the 2006 World Cup). Spain were certainly a bit all over the place in their 1-0 win over Croatia, only scoring right in the closing minutes, and enduring a tight draw with Italy, but they put Ireland firmly in their place with four goals to nil. Personally, like Germany, I don't find them particularly exciting to watch. Once you've got over the "Ooh, I'm watching the world champions" feeling, they're competent but not that inspiring, really.

What to look out for: Iniesta and Pique giving their masterclasses in technical football. Torres is also never one to ignore, and he should come into his own in the knockouts.

France are brilliant because they contain the scarred, sex-scandalled and hirsute Franck Ribéry (subject of an upcoming 'HTO's Favourite Footballers' post), who looks like he was found in a smoky corner of a provincial French bar, drinking wine and growling anecdotes about his army days, before being hauled over to Ukraine to play for his country. He's actually just consistently a very good footballer. As for the rest of the team, they've been unconvincing in their group, with a one-all draw with England not the worst moment of the stage - oh, no, that was their 2-0 defeat to Sweden, of all people. Sweden! Sweden had already been knocked out and hadn't beaten France in a competitive game since 1969. As far as form goes, that's not promising.

What to look out for: They should rise to the challenge of Spain, but with the kind of messy and defeatist playing we've seen from them so far, that may not happen. Probably their biggest worry is Ribéry getting distracted by a beautiful woman and wandering off the pitch.

See you in the knockouts!

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Paddy Pantsdown Rides Again

Novelty underwear: officially worse than racism. Or, at least, more expensive. Denmark striker Nicklas Bendtner broke the cardinal rule of international football the moment he scored his goal, lowered his shorts and revealed 'PADDY POWER' emblazoned across his V-Zone. Endorsing a betting shop just above your crotch? "That'll be £80,000, please," screeched Uefa, in disgust.

It didn't even look cool. It looked like something Nicklas Bendtner's mum might have sewn in, if Nicklas Bendtner's name had been Paddy Power rather than Nicklas Bendtner. Which I admit, in Denmark, would be unlikely, so he probably shouldn't use that as his defence if he's hoping to dodge the fine.

But for moral guidance in our understanding of this incident we must turn, inevitably, to Man Utd defender and England wallflower Rio Ferdinand. He took to Twitter: "Uefa are you for real???£80,000 fine for Bendtner for underwear advertising....all of the racism fines together don't even add up to that?!"

Good point well made, Rio. He goes further: "If racism made money for Uefa like advertising does do you think Uefa would take it as serious?" 

I think Ferdinand means "if clamping down on racism made money for Uefa", but unwittingly he's hit on an interesting problem, which is that racism already does make money for Uefa. Fining teams for their fans' racist chanting makes money for Uefa, and clearly doesn't do enough to dissuade it. Meanwhile, large numbers of racist fans travelling to matches, bringing with them racist banners and racist songs and enjoying being horrible racists together, make money for Uefa. Racism is quite a big part of the reason why some groups of people enjoy football, unfortunately.

Obviously to stop this, Uefa need to keep showing a zero-tolerance attitude to racism from every corner of football. They need to stamp it out with a much heavier boot than the one they use for sponsorship infringement. A sport entirely without racism will have much greater reach than one riddled with it, so as well as being ideal from all non-monetary points of view, it'll reap its own financial rewards. But with this latest ugly PR move, the organisation is at risk of looking laissez-faire.

Anyway, the forgotten victim of all this is, of course, Paddy Ashdown (Baron Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon to you and me), as the whole fiasco calls uncomfortably to mind a certain Sun headline of yore. Maybe Bendtner was in fact using his undies to construct an arch political commentary on a matter close to his heart and the hearts of Lib Dems everywhere. So what if it happened in 1992? Obviously to some, it's still raw.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Czechs and Beards

What's the secret to footballing success? A set of eleven massively hairy chins? We will soon see, as the whole Czech team has decided not to shave until they exit the Euros and already, things are looking grizzly. It's only been a couple of weeks, and Petr Cech (above) looks like a man who's been wandering the desert for forty days and nights, practising penalties all that time.

In recent years, football and beards have become ever more closely related (cf the wonderful, though not very often updated, Footballers with Beards blog). It's a way of enjoying sport to which women can find it hard to relate; there is less pride, and less sense of camaraderie, in a neglected lower leg than there is in a fully-thatched face. But the door to the latter is closed to us.

This is a shame, because the beard is a handy way of measuring time. It's a known fact that in the olden days, before paper calendars were readily available, the only reliable way of knowing how many Premiership games there were left in a season was by the length of the FA chairman's sideburns. In many ways, a nobler time.

My driving instructor decided to do an ultra marathon, and stopped shaving from the moment he made the decision until the moment he crossed the finish line. The journey of self-discovery along the way was given greater depth, as well as greater itchiness, by the changes to his face. He was a man on a mission, too busy for trifles such as soap and cologne.

There seems to be something pure about forgoing the razor; it signals a desire to return to a concentration on physical power rather than on the fripperies of modern life. Perhaps the effect on the Czech Rep team will be a primeval banding together, a kind of caveman tribalism that'll translate to play and make them visceral and unstoppable. Maybe it will tap into powerful, deep and long-forgotten early-human instincts for victory. Though Petr Cech did say it was just for "team banter".

Worth a shot, I suppose. He also told the Guardian that his only concern about the plan was that he might scare his children if he still hadn't shaved by 2nd July (the day after the final). Having no knowledge whatsoever of how fast the average beard grows, my concern would be that by then the hair would be so long I would trip over it on the pitch, or accidentally wind it around a goalpost. Or it would mean that the national team was mistakenly disqualified from the tournament for fielding a squad of brown bears rather than football players. I simply don't know.

Clearly, on this matter, I'm underqualified. Anyone care to enlighten me on why, as far as sport is concerned, hairiness is next to godliness? Has anyone ever stopped shaving in the run-up to a fixture? What should the Czechs look out for?

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Ice and Lightning, or, The Weather Hates France

Lightning stops play! On Friday night, the Euro 2012 group stage match between France and Ukraine was suspended for the best part of an hour because of a thunderstorm directly above the stadium. It was pretty exciting. But it wasn't the first time this year that an important France game was suspended due to bad weather; their rugby match against Ireland in the Six Nations was completely rescheduled because the pitch had frozen solid.

Usually matches are only suspended, as in the rugby case, for safety reasons (generally if there's something wrong with the pitch making conditions extra sticky or slippery), but on Friday it was far more dramatic: evidently an official had calculated there was a bona fide chance of Franck Ribéry getting a jolt between the eyes. Rather than keep going to see if the extra electricity managed to jump start the play and get a few tasty goals in, the ref ushered the delicate players indoors, poor lambs.

The rain was as dramatic as the lightning, the grass oozing into a network of tributaries within seconds. Thankfully, the pro pitch has a drainage system so advanced it'd make a human urinary tract blush, and proceedings could get going again once the storm had passed.

But again last night, the rain falling on the match between Poland and Czech Rep was so heavy at times that it looked as if the players would be washed away, clinging wanly to floating goal posts and wondering if they might not get a free kick out of it. There were moments when I asked myself if Stadion Miejski was, in fact, a large bath waiting to be filled.

But the match went on, eventually seeing Czech Rep de-soggy themselves enough to make it to the quarter-finals in good time. Not so for France and Ukraine, whose places in the next stage are yet to be cemented or denied, a spot of rogue static notwithstanding.

Poor France. If there is a weather-controlling God (though I've always thought that worrying about storms and sunshine would smack a little of micromanagement on the part of The Creator), He's clearly quite riled up about French matches at the moment. We shall have to hope France don't make it to the final, otherwise that could well be the last we see of the ice caps.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

HTO's Favourite Footballers: Hope Powell

A manager rather than a player (though she was a midfielder once for her country, and a great one), Hope Powell is currently masterminding Team GB's Olympic women's football preparations, and handling the England qualifiers for the 2013 Euros. Here are five reasons why she's a kickass member of the British football scene.

1. She was born in 1966. As far as an England footballer is concerned, if there is any chance at all that she could be the re-incarnation of England World Cup-winning hopes, she's gold dust. And her name is Hope. Whatever tournament they're playing, they've got a damn good chance through superstition alone.

2. She's been England women's coach for 14 years, and was their first ever full-time manager. Think how many England men's coaches there have been in that time. The girl's got staying power.

3. She was the first woman ever to be awarded the UEFA Pro Licence, the highest qualification UEFA offers to coaches. This means that, technically, she's qualified to coach any national team - including the men's. She obviously loves where she is with the women's team, but don't rule this out just yet. She's got plenty of career left, and the times they are a-changing.

4. Her pet hate is cowardice. She was furious with her England team for seeming reluctant to volunteer for the penalty shoot-out against France in the finals of last year's World Cup. She treats the players as briskly and professionally as the pro men's players are treated by their managers, which is exactly what the women's branch of the sport needs to keep gaining credibility.

5. She's been through hell and still keeps fighting for women in sport. As a 12-year-old, she was cut from her local football team just for being a girl, and snuck out of the house to play in matches. In England, she's singlehandedly propelled the game over the last ten years, making gains for the sport and getting her team the time and equipment they deserve. Women's football is still seen as vastly inferior to men's, but Powell is on a mission to change that.

Now you're convinced, see her team in action. BBC 2 is broadcasting England's 2013 Euro qualifier live tomorrow (Sunday 17th June) at 5.15pm, and Powell's team really needs a win. And then, in a few weeks' time, GB will be fielding its first ever women's football team consisting of players from all over the isles, under Powell's direction. It's going to be an interesting few months for the sport.

"People are under the assumption that men's football is better than women's football. I work for the national team. I work with the best female players in the country, playing against the best players in the world. Why would I want to leave that?"
- Hope Powell

"I will not be bullied, and I won't compromise. Not for anything."
- Hope Powell

Friday, 15 June 2012

Why the obsession with being 'clinical'?

Shirokov scores for Russia against Czech Rep at the Euros

"When we win the ball back and break out, we've got to make certain the last pass,
cross or actual finish is very clinical." 

- Roy Hodgson, 14/6/12

“[Italy] play good football and just need to be more
clinical when the scoring opportunities arise.” 

- Gianluigi Buffon, 14/6/12

"Russia swept to an impressive victory with a slick counter-attacking display and some clinical finishing to take early control of what was predicted to be a tight group."
- Reuters, 8/6/12 

Footballers love a good clinic. It's where they go for an antibiotic-based tidy-up after a carefree night with some reasonably-priced ladies; it's where they get a cheeky between-season hair transplant; it's the place their girlfriends come back from with lovely high-up breasts and scary lips. The clinic is a magical wish-granting place for the high-earning player.

So it is only to be expected that they want to recreate it on the pitch. But it's not just the players. We keep hearing this word from teams, journalists, managers and pundits alike, all citing it as a desirable aim whenever a big tournament comes around: Italy played well, but they needed to be more clinical at crucial moments. A clinical Germany proved too much for Ireland. We need to be more clinical with our finishes. Etc.

What it actually means is 'precise'. It means that if, say, Russia were being clinical in their play against Czech Republic, the ball went where Russia wanted it to go. It means the players are concentrating and they've planned a strategy, which is actually quite a basic pair of demands to have of your team.

But the way the term is applied is interesting. It's most often trotted out when Western European teams are set to play against teams from Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. This is a little troubling; it betrays the fact that football fans from Britain, France, Italy, Spain and the rest think of Russia, Sweden, Denmark and Germany as, first and foremost, chilly and heartless, though efficient, places. Sort of the way that Jeremy Clarkson thinks about German cars.

'Clinical' comes hand-in-hand with 'cold'; it doesn't go with 'passion', or 'flair', or 'imagination'. No, those are the attributes of the Mediterranean teams (and daydreaming British Isles teams after a few beers). There's something a little unnerving about the clinical; it implies scalpels, blood, and possibly a crazy evil doctor in a horror film. The labelling of Northern and Eastern European sides as 'clinical' comes with a dose of fear.

And is it really a quality to aim for? There's a lot to be said for avoiding being flashy or disorganised, sure, or getting carried away with the excitement of the thing. But we don't watch football to see endless examples of cold precision. If we wanted that, we could go to an actual clinic, marvel at the surgeons and get some botox while we're at it. No matter how clinical a footballer can be, I wouldn't want him in charge of a boob job. Even if he was using footballs as implants.

Great artists know the value of precision, skill and preparation, and can put those together with imagination, improvisation and flair. Footballers are perfectly capable of doing this, without having to flit around as if scoring a goal is somehow akin to administering a delicate spinal jab. It's not.

Extra Time: Introducing a Football Links Roundup

Whaddya mean, Half-Time Oranges isn't enough for you? Well, I guess that's fine. Here's a smattering of the best football moments, thoughts and writings of the week, from the rest of the web. Let's start with the goal of the Euros so far, courtesy of Pirlo for Italy:

Pirlo's free kick against Croatia, 14/6/12

Ten things That English People Do During a Football Championship, by Lucy Robinson at HuffPost: "English people, especially men, have a very unfortunate penchant for removing their tops during football championships. As you have probably noticed, this is a shame."

How Germany fell in love with Mario Gomez, from The Guardian, in which we learn that the striker's favourite food and drink is pizza and ginger ale.

An insight into how the Irish watch their Euro matches, through their electricity usage.

Meanwhile, in the Scottish Premier League... the downfall of Rangers FC, as it happened.

A piece about Hans Selander, Roy Hodgson's favourite footballer, at The Telegraph. Interesting reading ahead of tonight's England game against Sweden, Hodgson's old club.

And just in case you haven't seen it yet, here are some owls that look like Roy Hodgson.

Feeling confident? Sweden predicts the front pages of tomorrow's English newspapers.

Are replica Euro 2012 shirts toxic?! Probably not, but hey, a bit of scaremongering never hurt anyone. Right?

It can be a bit of a downer when, on an internet romp looking for Euro 2012 news, you realise just how much racism, violence and homophobia there's been surrounding the games already. It's the ugly side of the tournament, for sure. So, as a cheer-up, here's a clip of Gary Lineker being street:

Loses it a bit at the end there.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

A Tale of Two Managers: Di Matteo & Redknapp

Have you seen the 1997 film Face/Off? It was on TV last night and I watched it for the first time. Nicholas Cage and John Travolta, the former a psychotic terrorist, the latter a stuck-up FBI agent, swap faces in a procedure which the surgeon makes sound suspiciously simple ("And then it's just a matter of connecting up all the nerves and muscle tissue" - hmm).

There are some japes in which Nicholas Cage uses John Travolta's face to sleep with John Travolta's wife, and John Travolta gets trapped in a torture prison. It's a lot like Freaky Friday.

Anyway, it was on TV in between two bits of breaking football news: the first, that Roberto Di Matteo has been given a two-year contract as Chelsea manager. The second, that Harry Redknapp has been sacked as Tottenham manager.

Now, these two have had dramatic seasons, both of which had a volte-face earlier this year - one a turn for the better, the other for the worse. You could do a fair job of convincing me they made some secret FBI deal to swap faces in January. But before you write me off as just hopped up on 90s action movies, which, admittedly, I am, you'll see that this makes a disturbing level of sense.

OK, so a quick recap of Di Matteo first. When Chelsea sacked André Villas-Boas as their manager in March, Di Matteo (then the assistant manager), was put in temporary charge. Chelsea looked rough at this point, limping through the Premiership and looking askance at the Champions' League.

The players were demoralised - it's no secret that they hadn't liked Villas-Boas much. He'd left superstars Frank Lampard, Michael Essien and Ashley Cole on the bench for a match against Napoli, and responded to a series of defeats by cancelling the players' day off - a workplace initiative that Ebenezer Scrooge might have considered, in his darker moments.

But Di Matteo galvanised them on a movie-style scale. Suddenly the team had energy and inspiration - they were the underdogs, the world was against them, and they had a mild-mannered Italian assistant coach in charge. Nobody liked them (come on, it's Chelsea). But overnight, they became unbeatable.

Their subsequent achievements read like the most outlandish of English football wishlists. Win the FA cup? Sure. Win the Champions' League? Easy. Become the most beloved team in the country, going on a zero-to-hero journey that draws admiration from swathes of new fans? Tick.

Chelsea owner and notorious sulk Abramovich could have ignored all this in his search for a new permanent manager, and word on the terraces was he was after Pep Guardiola at any cost, but eventually, yesterday he signed Di Matteo up for a two-year contract. And Chelsea lived happily ever after. Screenplays are being drafted even now.

Redknapp, who has something of the plotting vole about him, started the season well, but Spurs ultimately had a mediocre time and slipped down the rankings. To make matters worse, Redknapp suddenly faced a very real threat of conviction for tax evasion in January (at around the time that the face switch, which may or may not have happened, definitely happened), and shortly after being acquitted was thought by pretty much everyone to be a dead cert for England Manager. Must've been a slap in the face when, out of nowhere, the job went to Roy Hodgson instead. Bummer.

And Chelsea dogged Spurs all season, whacking them out of the FA cup by beating them 5-1 in the semi-finals and then nicking their place in next year's Champions' League by winning it themselves, the swines. Somewhere in Redknapp's house there's a dartboard with Di Matteo's face on it.

It's been a helluva spring for these two managers, their fates entwined. According to film law, their fortunes will only switch back once each truly understands the triumphs and difficulties of the other. This may take time. Meanwhile, if I never blog again, you can assume I'm correct, there's an international football face-switching conspiracy, and I've been silenced by UEFA's military intelligence branch.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

HTO's Favourite Players: Mario Balotelli

Balotelli has unfortunately found himself in the middle of something very serious at the Euros, which is the ongoing issue of racism that perennially lurks around football internationals. But far more than being just a victim of the insecurities of morons, he's football's greatest comedian - or possibly comedy's greatest footballer.

He's pretty famous for this, but now his season at Manchester City is over and he's on the world stage playing for Italy, and additionally his funniest moments have been slightly overshadowed by his more violent ones, his antics bear some reflection.

Here are five reasons why you, too, should be excited every time Balotelli pitches up anywhere.

1. It's difficult to narrow down Balotelli's strangest qualities, but a solid starting point is that he's allergic to grass. Frankly it's a miracle he's even outside, let alone that he runs around on it and slams head-first into it for a living.

2. His absurdist approach to honesty. Towards the beginning of last season, he crashed his car in Manchester. When the police searched and breathalysed him, they asked him why they found him carrying £5000 in cash. His reply? "Because I am rich." Further example of his richness: allegedly driving around Manchester handing out stuff he'd bought from Argos to strangers. He's almost Paul Gascoigne lite, minus the fishing rod.

3. The night before the Manchester Derby, he accidentally set his house on fire by letting off a firework in his bathroom. Or maybe it was a friend who let off the firework. Or maybe, if you let off a firework inside your house, any resulting fire probably can't then be described as "accidental". History is inconclusive. But in any case, that's a committed approach to calamity. Nonetheless, he scored in the match the next day and...

4. part of his goal celebration, he lifted up his shirt to reveal another shirt, carrying the slogan "WHY ALWAYS ME?"

5. He's Italian and his name is Mario.

"I don't speak with him every day, otherwise I would need a psychologist." 
- Roberto Mancini

All for One, or, One-All

The opening weekend of Euro 2012, and its leakage into this week, has been all about the one-all draw. If football were fashion, one-all would be the peter pan collar (a little analogy for the laydeez, there). Poland/Russia, France/England, Spain/Italy. Poland/Greece. You see what I'm saying.

I'm over it, personally. At this stage in the tournament, that is both the most exciting and the most boring possible result. On the one hand, both teams score. Both sets of fans get their goal-rush sugar high. But then also, at the end, everyone is slightly disappointed but feels as if they should be pleased. And nobody is left with any real advantage. Boo.

England have never won their opening match at the Euros. It's traditionally a nervy fixture, and we all know how much the English like tradition, so you get the feeling they just wanted to keep things proper. But oh my, did you see the outpourings on Twitter after Lescott's goal? You'd have thought England had been handed the cup then and there. And all for nought.

It was a shame for last night's Poland/Russia match to end in a draw, as it was a genuinely stylish and energetic game. The backdrop of decades of Soviet control over Poland probably helped to bring the tension. And Blaszczykowski's goal was so forceful and perfectly angled that it even took him by surprise - afterwards he had the delighted look of a boy who's just flicked his gum right into the bin without really even concentrating. But ultimately, no conclusive blood was drawn.

The flurry of one-all draws in the group stage is like the bit at the beginning of a really good party where lots of acquaintances turn up and nobody's drunk yet, so they're all being terribly patient and polite. "Oh, you work in accounts? That's fascinating! My aunt works in accounts!" and "Your dress is gorgeous - don't be silly, of course it's not too short!"

Whereas what we want is for everyone to get trashed and smear food all over the curtains. "Accounts is FUCKING boring", we want them to slur, and "You look like a slut in that dress." And for the inhibitions to be cast aside on the pitch, rather than in the pubs between poorly-policed racists-on-tour. We want, in the words of managers across the ages, a result.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Let’s Gdansk

Hello, this is a football blog.

Now, I don’t know much about football, but I know what I like, and that’s a good story, some melodrama, and grown men crying. I’m assuming there is already a vibrant football blogging community but I haven’t checked, largely because I’m pretty sure that, if I made contact with them, I’d be ripe for a good shunning. That’s fine. I’ll just sit over here and enjoy football by myself.

Although newish to the game, I live with an ardent football fan (Man Utd) and am also the daughter of one (Man City; this causes minor problems). In addition I work in an office full of them (mostly SPL), and I have been known to look at a ball with a less-than-suspicious glance. I like Arsenal. Recently I’ve been thrust into the depths of Euro 2012, through the means of the office sweepstake. 

My allotted team is Ireland, who I think really are just happy to have been invited.

Nonetheless, I’m bean-keen. Some unambitious early Euro thoughts: everyone is saying that Holland have a good shout with Van Persie, despite choking on their first match against Denmark, but I’m going to say it again. Although, the nice thing about them losing was that it sort of proved that Arsenal wasn’t just a one-man team for their whole premier league season – if Holland can’t even beat Denmark with Van Persie, then that does some credit to the Arsenal squad for, y’know, helping him along.

England are hilarious for their consistent triumphs of hope over experience. They are single-handedly getting me my fix of grown men crying. I like the look of the French, mostly because they are always the best-looking entrants in any international sports fixture (cf Rugby, Cycling).

The person who sits next to me at work has Russia in the sweepstake, and he has noted an admiration for their aggression mingled with disappointment in their racism.

It will be boring if Spain win.

My boyfriend, Lid Path, is part Italian, so tearful passion and tomato-based dinners form the prevailing emotion in our house at the moment. They are our official team, unless Ireland make a dramatic sweep to victory, in which case I supported them all along.

For the next blog post, I will endeavour to have something a bit more lucid and thoughtful to say! But for now, hello will have to do.