“…(a) bizarre game between two mediocre teams…”
That’s how the Toronto Globe and Mail’s TV critic come soccer columnist John Doyle described yesterday’s clash between Austria and Poland. He’s got it about right. There is no doubting the average-ness of the two teams in question.
Neither Poland nor Austria will be the centerpiece of glorious national celebrations in a little more than two weeks time. More likely they will be at home, watching Portugal or Holland or some one else stand alone on top of Europe.
But, Doyle—always a joy to read, it must be said, whether he is writing about Grey’s Anatomy or Ruud van Nistelrooy—missed one important word in his description of the contest. What he should have penned was this: (a) wonderful, bizarre game between two mediocre teams.
Just like a lover of food can appreciate the honesty of a greasy spoon from time to time, a football fan can enjoy the beautiful game even when it’s a little bit ugly.
Austria and Poland were playing for everything but really nothing. No logical observer believes that either team has a chance to advance. The Poles were outclassed by Germany in their opener, and Austria has been a punch line throughout.
Although Croatia flipped things on top with its surprising win against the Germans yesterday, the experts used a pen to fill in their Group B quarterfinal spots a long time ago.
Anything can happen and all that but not really. The Germans will rebound in four days time, and the favorites will go through.
But, all that didn’t make the drama of yesterday any less real or any less entertaining. A neutral felt for the poor Austrians. They, as mentioned, had become a joke in the lead up to the tournament.
Yet, they were playing with intensity and—at the risk of slipping into a cliché—heart. You weren’t human (or you were Polish) if you weren’t hoping for the home team to get something from this match. Grab a point, score a goal, and save some pride.
But, football, like all sports, can be cruel. Despite generating all the pressure and looking to be the better team, Austria found themselves down a goal midway through the first half.
Making matters worse, the Polish goal was clearly offside. It was becoming clear that this wasn’t going to be a kind tournament to the plucky Austrians.
Nearly 93 minutes passed—more than 180 minutes since the co-hosts first kicked ball in anger at this event—before the by then completely shocking and unexpected breakthrough came. A free kick. An Austrian goes down in the box. The referee points to the spot. The old guy (38!) steps up and…
In the end, it won’t mean anything. But for that brief moment, it was the most important goal in the whole footballing world. Grampa Austria—Ivica Vastic, 38, 50 caps, now the oldest scorer in Euro history—had kept Austria alive, no matter how precariously.
Next up is a surely irritated Germany, who looked disastrous against Croatia.
Technically, it’s an attractive match-up full of historical implications (as is nearly every game involving the Germans given its propensity to randomly invade places in the early to mid twentieth century), but realistically it’s a bit of a dud.
With everything to play for, it’s hard to imagine Austria having much of a chance.
But, that simply didn’t matter last night. Football, like all sports, is about the moment. And the moment yesterday belonged to the co-hosts. Going in they hoped for one positive result. They got it. The rest hardly matters now.
Today: The Group of Death goes back at it with Italy playing for its life against tricky Romania and a tremendously interesting match-up between France and Holland. No one will be writing the word “mediocre” tomorrow.