Europe kicks!

Italian white trash spitting! Hot British lads wearing G-strings! Aging French stumbling to a Foreign Legion-like doom! It must be the European soccer championship.

Published July 3, 2004 10:21PM (EDT)

On Sunday, around the time America turns on the barbecue grills to celebrate its independence, Europe will turn on the TV to celebrate the new champions of the sport America knows as "soccer." For everybody else, of course, it's still and always will be football, the world's primary entertainment and a business that hasn't stopped growing since its marriage with television half a century ago.

Euro 2004 has been an interesting tournament, though hardly as electrifying as the previous edition, which connoisseurs consider one of the best football (OK, soccer) competitions ever. What's been interesting about it is, above everything else, the collective fall of the superpowers. All teams that boast World Cup titles (Italy, Germany, England, France) were eliminated either in the first round or in the quarterfinals. The four semifinalists were home team Portugal, Holland, Greece and the Czech Republic. While at least three of these teams (the exception being Greece) have been knocking on heaven's door for decades, nobody would have predicted all four of them in the semis -- or that Greece and Portugal, two of Europe's poor Southern relations, would meet in Sunday's final. Factor in that Porto won the European title for clubs (over the much more rich, famous and decorated likes of Real Madrid, AC Milan, Manchester United, Juventus, Bayern Munich and Arsenal -- the ruling elite of Euro soccer), and it's apparent that this was the year of the underdog.

The European championship isn't the World Cup, but European fans care about it almost as much. Bragging rights in their own playground are at stake, and the tournament has a reliably high standard of quality. (European fans can be real snobs, and many don't feel quite right about tournaments played at noon in the dead of summer, such as the U.S.-hosted '94 World Cup, or in stadiums full of Korean fans in uniform blowing plastic trumpets.) Moreover, European clubs have so diluted their national identity that their performance in international games can't possibly mean the same as it once did for the country they belong to. Real Madrid doesn't have more than a handful of Spanish players; Arsenal (one of the historic London teams) is half-French, including the coach. Therefore, in the age of globalization and the European community, national team soccer plays an important role keeping national identities in shape. For the last hundred years, soccer has defined what it means to be Italian, English, Dutch or German as well as any other national endeavor. Club soccer may offer the absolute best of the game, but national team soccer retains the ability to express some of its essential values and archetypes.

And so: Everyone knows that the Italians are defensive-minded, and lure the opponent forward to stun them with crafty fast breaks; the English love to tackle and crisscross the field with long balls; the Dutch stress possession and versatility, their typical player being a jack-of-all-trades; the Germans rely on pace, power and simple geometries. Much can be written (and has) about the ways these styles of play reveal fundamental truths about a nation's history and character. The Italians have always been smaller than Northern Europeans, and ever since the Roman Empire, Italy has been invaded by just about everybody, hence its defensive mentality; Italy also has rich artistic traditions, hence its taste for creative counterattacks. By the same token, England being an island, Holland being a hub of commerce, Germany being landlocked, etc., could be imaginatively connected to their game.

Of course, each national style can be perceived as a virtue or a sin, according to the changing fortunes of the respective teams in international competitions.

Take the Germans: Though always lacking in flair, their relentlessness and machinelike organization have made them a consistently dominating force. "Football is a simple game," famously said former England player Gary Lineker, "where 22 players play against each other and in the end Germany wins." Except it no longer does. And spoiled of its aura of invincibility, Germany now appears joyless and gray, painfully aware of its shortcomings and longing for new inspiration. Its coach Rudy Voeller was the first to resign after the elimination from the tournament, daunted by the looming task of leading the team in the next World Cup campaign on its own home turf. There was always something militaristic about the German game, a triumph of discipline and physical might. Suddenly this feels old-fashioned and obsolete: If Germany is an army, it's an old-school one in a new type of war. To be German today is to learn self-deprecation and contemplate the strange notion of hiring a foreign coach; in other words, to look at the world with very different eyes.

Italy, which was an early favorite to win the trophy, was another crushing disappointment, and its campaign was marred by the tournament's big scandal. On their first game against Denmark, Italy's star player Francesco Totti was caught on camera spitting on a Danish defender, and was promptly labeled "the Italian llama" by the Danish press. UEFA had no choice but to disqualify him for three games. The Italian team plunged into chaos and paranoia, and flew home after just two more lackluster performances. Spitting is not unheard of in soccer (Germany coach Voeller, once an outstanding player, was literally showered by Dutchman Frank Rijkaard in the most egregious such incident), but the amount of coverage a game of this level receives makes it most unwise. Totti's spit was unequivocally documented and available to see 24/7 all over the Internet.

Through sheer visibility, its very ethical dimension came into sharper evidence. Spitting can be seen as an act of rebellious insouciance or supreme arrogance. Totti's spit carried both meanings. A proud product of the Roman borgate, or working-class suburbs, Totti is a rich white-trash boy who was lashing out against a lesser colleague, presumably angered by rude tackling. His spit expressed a rebellion against a system that stifles creativity with rough play, as well as the insufferable attitude of a spoiled brat. Does that say something about contemporary Italian men? Undoubtedly, the combination of rebelliousness and arrogance defines the ethos of one of Italy's most culturally influential modern exports, the Mafia (full disclosure: I feel allowed to criticize Italy harshly, as I am Italian myself). Be that as it may, the Italian coach Trapattoni was sacked, and the new one (Marcello Lippi) promised to rebuild the team. Around Totti.

England was the most unlucky team of the tournament. It started the campaign with high expectations, fielding its best side since the legendary World Cup victory of 1966. The whole country was on a high. If you walked through the streets of London last Thursday, the day of England's ill-fated match with Portugal (I happened to be there), you couldn't go more than a few steps without passing by a Cross of St. George. Up until a few years ago, the national flag was hardly ever visible, a perceived anachronism that was best left alone due to its potentially inflammatory religious overtones, and the feeling that it had been co-opted and corrupted by the far right. The Union Jack was enough of a fashion statement to overcome such problems, but the Cross of St. George? Forget about it. Clearly, something changed over the last few years. A wave of popular enthusiasm for the national team reclaimed the flag and the desire to rally behind it (without having to go to war). England was on the verge of pulling a great upset in its debut match against France. Zinedine Zidane scored twice for France in overtime and crushed that dream. England regrouped, won the next two games with convincing efforts, and met Portugal in what will be remembered as the most dramatic match of Euro 2004. England scored first, Portugal equalized toward the close of regulation. Despite Portugal's spirited performance, England should have won with a last-minute goal that was unjustly disallowed by the Swiss referee. The game went into overtime and then to the penalty kicks. England had to do without its best player, forward Wayne Rooney, who was the victim of an injury in the early stages of the match. To top it off, team captain David Beckham missed his penalty (his third consecutive miss in international games). Such momentous bad luck reminds us of the ultimate reason why the world loves soccer (and America doesn't, at least not as much). A high-scoring game is best suited to ensure that the best team wins -- especially if you have playoffs. Soccer still leaves a much larger role to chance and human error. In this sense, soccer is more like life: not fair. An England victory would have been unfair to Portugal, who did more to win the match. Portugal's victory was unfair to England, who scored a goal that should have counted.

Still, there was a major consolation for England: In Wayne Rooney, not yet 19 years of age, it has the most exciting young player in the world. A stocky, rough-edged scouser (Liverpudlian), Rooney is the anti-Beckham. While Beckham graces the cover of Vanity Fair, is married to a Spice Girl, cheats on her with spicier ones, sports fancy tattoos not to mention ever-changing hairstyles, revels in his status as a gay icon and has once confessed a proclivity for wearing female underpants, Rooney harks back to pre-metrosexual models of masculinity. He wears a military haircut, already carries a few extra pounds, doesn't court the media and surely wouldn't be caught dead wearing a G-string. How refreshing to know he will be England's hero for the next 10 years.

The underwhelming performances of Spain followed the country's long history of choking. In a sense, that's also true of Holland, which always makes it a little further than Spain, but almost never goes all the way. The same cannot be said for France, reigning European champions and '98 world champions. In the last decade France took soccer by storm with a multiethnic team led by Franco-Algerian Zidane, and featuring several players of African, Caribbean and Armenian descent. They came from all the best leagues in the continent, bringing with them a wealth of skills, experience and tactical savvy. At its best, France looked like a world all-star team. At its worst, such as in this tournament, it resembled a foreign legion, battle-weary and demotivated. Thirty-one-year-old Zidane can still do things with the ball that most players couldn't do if you removed the other team from the field. What he can't do is outpace younger defenders, or save the day every time with a magic trick. Most of the French team isn't any younger than Zidane, and France's elimination is probably just a matter of wear and tear. Whether another great generation is ready to take over remains to be seen.

And so it was that the final came to be played by Portugal (the perennial unfulfilled promise) and Greece (the amazing dark horse, an 80-to-1 contender going into the tournament). Portugal was finally worthy of its self-image as the Brazil of Europe, defeating higher-ranking teams like Spain, England and Holland -- matches evocative of ancient maritime rivalries. Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari and playmaker Deco are from Brazil, and Portugal's dazzling wingers, old fox Figo and young hotshot Christiano Ronaldo, might as well be. Greece proved to be a well-rounded, hardworking, hungry team capable of beating the odds game after game (its victims include Portugal in the opening match, titleholders France, and the talented Czech Republic, who looked like a likely tournament winner until their captain Pavel Nedved, European player of the year, twisted his knee in the semifinal). Greece in the final is the inspiring proof, akin to the victory of the blue-collar Detroit Pistons over the superstar-laden Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA finals this year, that a team without stars but rich in commitment and tactical acumen can beat anyone. Interestingly, the team is coached by a German, Otto Rehhagel: Perhaps classic German wisdom is well suited to an emerging team after all.

It's hard to resist the temptation to read Portugal and Greece's success as a metaphor for their respective countries claiming a place at the table of the powerful nations of Europe. This final may not break most-watched records, but it's historically significant. To appreciate this significance is to instantly understand a paramount reason why soccer has yet to claim the U.S. It won't happen until this country can feel part of this centuries-old international drama of rivalry and envy, fate and willpower, generational grudges and karmic comeuppances. Ultimately, the international soccer fan is a different animal from any type of American fan because he brings to the game a stake in such larger narratives.

Soccer fever makes it clear why we need sports as much as ever. They are, of course, the last true meritocracy, where nepotism and lucky breaks can only take you so far (doping could change that, but not particularly in soccer, where size and strength don't count as much as skill and vision). Most important, they provide an outlet for collective feelings that are otherwise repressed by the twin constraints of traditional responsibilities and modern p.c. ethics. The sports fan can evade responsibility and regress to his childlike self, accessing a world of clanship, masculine bonding and competition (with its dark side of violence and prejudice). For a few hours, he can dip into a bubbling cauldron of intense passions that only war could express more powerfully. Euro 2004, like any such tournament, was a spectacle on the stands as much as on the fields. Grown men and women dressed like oranges, roosters, Vikings, bullfighters, commedia dell'arte characters, singing, screaming and crying. There must be something to it. Watch the game Sunday, and judge for yourself.

By Alessandro Camon

Alessandro Camon is a screenwriter and film producer based in Los Angeles.

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