Like a lot of young soccer fans in the 1990s, I loved the ’94 World Cup. And then I couldn’t find soccer on tv consistently for four years. So when France ’98 came into focus, I was pleased, and when EA sports released a video game to accompany the tournament I was even more pleased.
My brothers and I watched attentively, mocking David “Spice Boy” Beckham, scratching our heads at how Brazil’s Ronaldo could be so good with such a cannon-ball of a body, and racking up trophy after trophy with digital Scotland. At the core of it all was the game’s theme song, that obviously French anthem “Tubthumping” by Chumbawumba.
So, while my colleagues attended Saturday’s match at Target Field, my mind turned back to France, to my brothers, and to “Tubthumping”. (Though, sadly, most teams would, like Chumbawumba itself, get knocked down, and not get up again…)
Switzerland 1 – Poland 1 (Poland advances on penalties 4-5)
Within five minutes there was everything to hope for from the knock out stages. Poland continued to push, threaten and challenge a sloppy Swiss defense, leaving fans wondering if, maybe, we critically underrated the more solid defenses of Northern Ireland and Ukraine.
The game evened out after the Poles’ opening onslaught, and for a while it seemed as if Switzerland would let them take as many first-time, twenty-yard blasts as they wanted…after all, they weren’t coming anywhere near the net. But when the White Eagles finally found themselves with time to settle the ball in their opponent’s box, it was all too easy for the resurgent Jakub Blaszczykowski.
Still, a team that boasts one of the premier goal-scorers in Europe relying on anybody but him might have an issue, or, to put that in musical theatre terms:
— Peanuts from Heaven (@heavenlypeanuts) June 25, 2016
The second half saw a notable slow down for the Poles as the Swiss got increasingly physical throughout the midfield, setting up a spate of better opportunities en route to what might be one of the prettiest goals of the tournament just as time began to wind down.
Xherdan Shaqiri’s wonder-strike sent us to extra time and in so doing set a standard for the rest of the day: tentative, dull, please, god don’t anyone make a mistake, soccer. This in turn led to that most aggravating of exercises: penalty kicks. Ten tense moments and one wild blast from Switzerland’s Granit Xhaka later, the Swiss Misters were out, and the Poles marched on.
Wales 1 – Northern Ireland 0
The so-called “Battle of the Brexit” had all the hype of a battle for the ages and all the earmarks of a dull affair. Unsurprisingly dullness won out, and my spending 80 minutes buying, arranging, and filling a kiddie pool for a hot but unimpressed puppy probably was 80 minutes better spent.
In the end, the stolid, sponge-like defense of Northern Ireland was finally wrung dry on a threatening cross from Welsh talisman Gareth Bale. It could easily have bounced on to Hal Robson-Kanu for a quick push into the goal. But instead it found the foot of long time Green and White Army Defender Gareth McAuley, who slapped it into his own net for an own goal.
The Welsh advanced and the Northern Irish will have a Cinderella story to tell about how far they made it, before they made an unwanted exit from Europe. (For the second time in three days, no less–too soon?)
Croatia 0 – Portugal 1
The marquee match of the day pitted a rising darling of European football against the game’s most marketable star. Croatia looked resilient, impressive, potentially dangerous in their group games. Portugal looked distracted, frustrated, but invariably…pretty.
The game was…uh…how do I put this in the most Minnesota Nice way possible…it was…a great chance for Twitter writers to practice their comic chops, to trot out lines about Portugal’s Pepe being insufferable, about Croatia’s Persic making a bold statement with his checkerboard dyed hair, about Cristiano Ronaldo being insufferably…pretty.
Again we waded through 90 minutes of dreck, then 25 more minutes of aimless meandering in the park. And finally, Croatia began to show signs of life, with Domagoj Vida slashing into the box, threatening on corners and finally after 117 minutes helping one of the teams get a shot on target as Croatia’s effort clattered off the frame.
Off the frame…which meant Portugal could counter attack (which was apparently their “strategy”) suddenly the great toothpaste-color wave was rolling down the other end of the field, sliding a through ball past a sliding Vida to Cristiano Ronaldo, who knuckled it through the keeper before Ricardo Queresma nodded it into an emptied net for the match winner.
It was dull. It was frustrating. It even made the winner cry teardrops of boredom…oh wait…that’s a face tattoo. It was many things, but it was not…pretty.
France 2 – Ireland 1
In a re-match of the now infamous “Hand of Frog” game that saw the French qualify for a painfully lackluster World Cup 2010 at the expense of the Irish, it seemed that justice would arrive in the form of an early penalty to the Irish.
— From The Stands (@from_thestands) June 26, 2016
But in due course, the French reclaimed their stadium, their country, and their place in the quarter final. Due largely to Antoine Griezmann who continued a breakout cup with a pair of goals within four minutes that sparkled like Champagne and stung like Absinthe.
While a hearty Irish squad were unfortunately eliminated, they can at least add another Frenchman to their pantheon of villains, and one who’s got all the infuriating looks and style you’d expect of a Frenchman.
Germany 3 – Slovakia 0
Good news microbrew fans! Germany’s still alive, which means there’s even more of a reason to keep drinking locally sourced Germanic-inspired beers from Bauhaus Brewery to complement their smack down on Slovakia.
How about a Stargazer in honor of Jerome Boateng’s first ever goal for the national team? After all he may be modern German diversity, but he’s also a “slingshot through time and space” to the old school Deutschland defense.
How about a Sky Five for Mario Gotze? The man who seems to be just were Die Mannschaft need him when there’s a dire need for a goal also “ignites your senses and makes your wilder dreams come true.”
Then there’s Julian Draxler, assisting one goal, side volleying another, that’s Wonderstuff…literally. The talented youngster and the new form lager are “changing the way you think” about life, the universe and everything.
*Note, the preceding section was not a subliminal advertisement for Bauhaus Brewery, nor does Bauhaus Brewery have any oversight or influence on the author…though if they wanted to have oversight in exchange for some beer, the author would be okay with that…just saying*
Belgium 4 – Hungary 0
The Red Devils hadn’t done much to justify their status as a true threat to Europe’s elite to this point in the tournament. And truth be told, after struggling to get much past Hungary for the first 70 minutes of the match, their case is still lacking.
But the final 20 minute torrent certainly offers hope and changes the narrative around Belgium. Gone are the fears and worries, and in come the puns! From the succinct: “Hazard Warning”; to the verbose: “Playing Belgium May Be Hazard-ous To your Health”. From the Sun-Belt: “The Dukes of Hazard Ride Again”; to the Ivy League: “Fair Hazard in Jubilee Throng”…he’s back, and lazy writing is back with him!
Italy 2 – Spain 0
On Friday morning I witnessed a bizarre sight. Two people I run with made an odd trade: a pair of tickets to this clash of the titans for a smile and “thank you”. While a host of us looked on gobsmacked, ogling the tickets for what could be a decisive match in the entire tournament, it was explained that one wouldn’t be able to travel, while the other just happened to have a trip to Paris planned for that exact week. So there it was, tickets, for nothing.
While I was green with envy on Friday, I was pleased to be warm and dry at home when the match kicked off in driving rain, particularly as the traditionally methodical, retreating, dull styles of both sides took hold.
Mercifully for those who made the thousand-mile journey and those at home, the game increased in intensity and pleasure as it wore on. The Italians capitalized on a ragged Spanish defense to clatter home a first goal off a set piece. The Spaniards zig-zagged their way through an often stifling and invasive defense. The Turkish referee operated on some kind of whistle roulette, awarding operatic swan dives and ignoring clattering collisions.
And just when it looked like Spain might find a late equalizer to force extra time, might pepper Gianluigi Buffon with so many shots that he finally collapsed like his doppelganger Sylvester Stallone in Rocky V, might save talismanic manager Vicente del Bosque from awkward questions about retirement: the Azzurri were sprung, while La Roja was caught flatfooted in defense, and I turned green again wondering if I could have been there in person.
England 1 – Iceland 2
Sorry I just…
Enjoy it for a moment before I get all goofy on you.
Okay, here we go.
Minnesotans who found a way to watch this match on a Monday afternoon would be excused for being a little conflicted, after all this is a battle between two natural fan favorites. England: inventors of the game, creators of our language, owners of the most enjoyable league to watch with your buddies and a beer on a Saturday morning, home to a rabid host of fans who would fit right in at a Vikings bar in October, and entering their 50th year without a trophy to hoist (making them positively Browns-esque). Iceland: complete underdogs, likely related to some of the Scandinavian stock in the state, home to filming for America’s other recent obsession, Game of Thrones, on a Cinderella run in a continent that dismisses Cinderella runs as quickly as they dismiss colonial pleas for less taxation.
An early penalty gave England confidence, but a quick Iceland equalizer fueled excitement for all. As the Three Lions whimpered into a monotonous, shrug of an attack, “Strakkarnir Okkar” (Our Boys) continued to play their style and struck with bounder through the hands of Joe Hart (is there really any other kind of bounder?) to take the lead.
From an objective point of view, it likely helped Iceland that England returned time after time to the same impotent attack: tapping it back and forth at the halfway line, jogging lightly to the center only to be deflected, trying the wing only to see a poor cross or another Icelandic clearance start the cycle all over again. But from an emotional point of view, who the hell cared?
Iceland beat England. Enjoy it.
After the first day of the knock out stage my hopes for a thrilling second stage were knocked down. But when I shook my head in disappointment, I found myself remembering this: when Shaqiri struck, before 240 minutes of boredom set in, a guy next to me at brunch marveled, “wow…now that was gorgeous.” That guy was my little brother who has played and watched soccer with me for almost two decades. Who has long been better on the ball and off the ball. And who has loved underdogs (like Iceland) all the way back to our giddiness playing France ’98.
After all, on Saturday I got knocked down, but I got up again, bad matches will never keep me down. And with my brother beside me, it’s easy to sing the songs that remind us of the good times, and the songs that remind us of the best times.