The quarterfinals of Euro 2012 were held in different cities — Gdansk and Warsaw, Poland; Kiev and Donetsk, Ukraine. But on Sunday, sometime after Italy defeated England in a penalty shootout, capping one of the more one-sided 0-0 results you're likely to ever see, I had a strange vision. All the losing teams from the round, connecting in the same airport on their way back West. Czechs, French, English, and Greeks, milling around, comparing levels of distress in their jeans, seeing who had the largest pair of Beats by Dre headphones. Then, over the loudspeaker: "An important announcement to anyone who is trying to get out of Krakow or wherever we are in this hypothetical fantasy situation. Sorry, bit of a delay. Engine trouble, what have you. Hold tight for a bit and enjoy the airport's many amenities."
Ah, but that's the thing. There are no amenities at this airport. There's only one, barely functional Wetzel's Pretzels. Or whatever the Eastern European version of Wetzel's Pretzel's is (let's not contemplate this). And they only have a couple of pretzels left. Dozens of football players from four nations come to the same realization: This could be their last chance at nourishment for hours. But they remained locked in their spots, unmoving, waiting for someone else to do something. It stays like this. For the rest of time.
Cool story, right? This is the hell I imagine for these four national teams; semi-eternity in an Eastern European airport, staring at a handful of pretzels, famished, unable to advance, unable to strike, simply hoping the other will trip over themselves as they take their hunger into their own hands.
Euro 2012 has been the tournament of headers, the tournament of Cristiano Ronaldo, and the tournament of locker room espionage (moles and leaks reported in the Holland and Germany changing rooms, while France's internal strife almost feels like the work of a double agent). But if the quarterfinals round had an overarching theme: It was about the battle of, to borrow a phrase from Jonathan Wilson of The Guardian, "proactive and reactive football."
If this song sounds familiar, it's because it was playing on a jukebox when Chelsea lost to Barcelona in a controversial Champions League semifinal in 2009. It was fired up again when a 10-man Inter Milan squad successfully smothered Barcelona at the Camp Nou in the second leg of the 2010 Champions League semi. It was ringing out when Spain survived a beating at the cleats of Holland to win the 2010 World Cup, and it has raged on over the last few years. Hell, if it sounds familiar coming from me it's because I talked about it in relation to this season's Champions League semifinals.
In each of the quarterfinals matches, one team tried to attack while another sat back and defended. One team wanted the ball while another was happy to let them have it. One team wanted to dictate an outcome while another counted on the kind of things you can never really count on: lucky bounces, lucky breaks, and breaks in the concentration of their opponent. In each contest, the team that showed more initiative, more aggression, and more interest in scoring came out on top.
The first two quarterfinals matches felt triumphant, with Ronaldo leading Portugal over a Czech Republic side punching above their weight class and Germany throttling Greece with master classes in attacking and management. But the weekend matches were different. They were slogs. And because the football was somewhat muted, it provided more space to think about this central tension in European and, really, world football. It feels like after every football match of consequence, club or country, we're talking about one team who tried to play and another team who tried to stop them from doing so. And it's a debate that seems singular to football. Let's look at how that debate played out through the prism of the last two quarterfinals matches from the weekend.
France vs. Spain
Spain ended this game with 59 percent of possession, but, gun to my head, I could not recall a single stretch of attacking football played by the French. The most offensive thing France managed was Manchester City's Samir Nasri running out on the field as a substitute in the 65th minute with his collar popped. You're not Cantona, dude.
The day before, on Friday, Germany manager Joachim Löw shocked the football world, or at least the slice of the football world that feverishly refreshes Twitter to see who is going to be in a starting XI, by dropping Thomas Müller and Lukas Podolski in favor of the largely untested (on a senior international level) Marco Reus and Andre Schürrle. He also swapped out one of the tournament's leading scorers, Mario Gomez, for Miroslav Klose. This was, in Löw's own words, a "cheeky" decision. It had some real tactical benefits for Germany — Reus and Schürrle pressed the Greeks well. Reus's inclusion especially seemed to delight Mesut Özil, who had the kind of game that will be sung about in beer halls for the next 10 years. But it was also a baller move, especially for a guy who looks like he shops at Uniqlo and has been caught picking his nose and eating it.
French manager Laurent Blanc did the reverse. He played two fullbacks, Anthony Reveillere and Mathieu Debuchy, on the right side, in what one of the preeminent tactical pundits, Michael Cox, suggested was an effort to negate the most athletic player on the Spanish team, Jordi Alba. Where Blanc was going, he didn't need Samir Nasri, so he dropped him. This was a huge gamble. Blanc left, arguably, his most creative player on the bench in favor of the defensive duo.
At the 17-minute mark, ESPN commentator Adrian Healey idly mentioned, "It will be interesting to see how Debuchy fares we just saw him fall on his face there." This was accurate. He had just fallen on his face.
At the 18:12 mark, Debuchy was on his face again as Alba raced past him at the touchline, lofted a perfectly weighted ball across the box, and set up Xabi Alonso for what was, for all intents and purposes, a training ground header, considering all the defenders that were around him. (None.) It took less than 20 minutes for Blanc's plan to blow up in his face. The thing was, the goal didn't really come from Alba; it came from where Spain's goals always seem to come from: the middle.
It was Andrés Iniesta to Sergio Busquets, Busquets to Xavi, Xavi to Iniesta. It was a poem. You don't need to look at it written out because you've heard those names — sometimes reversed, sometimes in a different order, but some combination of those names chanted at you like some sort of koan, over and over again, for the last four years.
It only took one second, one blink of an eye on the part of Debuchy, a guy playing his first game of the tournament in that position, for Iniesta to cut his throat. Debuchy took a step toward Iniesta and it was "sleeps with the fishes" time. Alba had the two-step jump he needed and the rest was a SportsCenter clip. If Alonso had missed that header he might as well have not gone home at all.
When Alonso's well-taken, clinical, one-bounce header went past France's Hugo Lloris, I thought of Laurent Blanc and how he was now going to have to chase a goal with an array of attacking talent — Nasri, Hatem Ben Arfa, Jérémy Menez, even the unproven Marvin Martin — all in the one place they could do the least amount of damage: the bench. He gambled, and lost.
The conventional wisdom is that if you play Spain, and for that matter Barcelona, at their own game, if you even try to attack them, you will be torn to pieces. They can break down teams when they put 10 men behind the ball; imagine what they can do against five or six?
Blanc wasn't about to find out. He elected to employ a system with which managers like Jose Mourinho (Inter) and Roberto Di Matteo (Chelsea) have succeeded against Barça. You defend and you wait. And if you're lucky you'll catch Gerard Pique humming "Hips Don't Lie" to himself and you can hit them on the break.
This whole routine, I must admit, is starting to lose any kind of tension for me. Watching this game with a few friends, whose interest in football ranged from "I used to play" to "He shouldn't touch him, that's not fair," I was forced into the role of raging, goateed guy trying to explain free jazz to a bunch of Eagles fans. "You don't get it, man! It's art! Nobody can do this!"
It's almost as though without any kind of competition, Spain's achievement is diminished. It almost seems to be a chore for Spain itself. You don't hear the usual moaning about teams trying to negate them. They just get on with it. Spain don't feel like artists anymore. They feel like for-hire killers. I don't find it boring to watch Xavi and Iniesta play keep-away. But I'm starting to wonder if Xavi and Iniesta do.
England vs. Italy
Oh, did you say boring? Sorry, I was asleep dreaming about Andrea Pirlo standing in the hair conditioner aisle of a Duane Reade. Weird, right?
This match was much different from Spain and France, though it centered around the same central theme. One team tried to win the game in regular time, the other would probably still be standing happily in two banks of four, waiting for the Mayans to call time on the entire planet if UEFA rules allowed it.
Roy Hodgson didn't even bother pulling a Larry White (the name Laurent Blanc went by when he played for Manchester United). He started the same side that beat Ukraine, 1-0. He set up England in his preferred 4-4-2 formation, with Wayne Rooney playing just off Danny Welbeck.
Here's how this was supposed to play out. Wayne Rooney returns from suspension, sending Andy Carroll to the bench as a game-changing sub. He gets 90 minutes of running on his legs against a Ukraine team that's just happy to be there, rekindles his Manchester United strike partnership with Welbeck, gets acclimated to Scott Parker and Steven Gerrard as his servers, and goes hammer, chasing down Andrea Pirlo like his hair transplant was seeded with a five-hour energy drink. Italy, with all their beautiful, well-coiffed ball players, wouldn't be able to deal with all that English passion. Or whatever.
And now for something completely different. Andrea Pirlo could have built a guest house with all the room he had to work. Instead he built a studio and painted a masterpiece. Rooney seemed disinterested in tracking back to hassle the veteran Juventus metronome. And whenever he or Gerrard or Parker or anyone else got close to him, Pirlo seemed impervious. He was working on something, and these angry little Englishmen would not disturb the artist at work.
For the entire game he searched for something. A short pass, square to Daniele De Rossi. A lofted, precision missile toward a streaking Mario Balotelli; just a few inches off. Little one-twos with Riccardo Montolivo. Balls into the channel for Antonio Cassano.
And the whole time England seemed to just sit back and watch. Watching as Italy took 36 goal attempts, watching as Pirlo took little stabs and grand gestures at his canvas. According to ESPN Stats & Information, he completed 118 passes during the match.
A long, arduous game, one in which even England's best chances were squandered with bad touches and errant passes, finally came to its conclusion in penalties, which Italy won 4-2. In the end, Pirlo finally executed his masterstroke: a "Panenka" penalty kick that fell past a diving Joe Hart like a feather falling from the sky. The expression on Pirlo's face as he turned and ran back toward his teammates, the one he gave Hart, was about as close as you can get to giving someone the finger without actually doing it. After the match, Pirlo admitted gamesmanship factored into his decision. He wanted to stick it into the abdomen of England and twist. He wanted each subsequent England penalty taker to know who they were dealing with.
"It was easier for me to chip it at that stage," Pirlo said. "Maybe my effort put some pressure on England, and in fact Ashley Young missed the next one after me."
He said a lot more than that before the game. When asked about the possibility of England defending deep, à la some classic Italian teams, Pirlo quipped, "People talk about England playing the Italian way, but that's rubbish. Only Italy can play the Italian way. And we do not care for anyone who tries to impersonate us. It's like trying to play against Spain the Spanish way."
This is, in the end, the only thing that will get teams, national or club, to stop playing so defensively. When you exist in that kind of (for lack of a better term) negative space, there's nothing there. You don't have an identity; your identity is reacting to what the other team is doing. Italy found that out the hard way. They finished last in their group in World Cup 2010, got themselves a new coach, some new faces, and instilled a more positive, affirmative style of play. Roy Hodgson has two years to figure out what or who England is. Really, he has even less time. England begins qualifying matches for World Cup 2014 in September.