Friday, June 11, 2021

One year late, but it is here

Perhaps it is because of the COVID lockdowns, the lack of sports and excitement, or even the one-year delay, but I have been looking forward to these European Championships. This despite the low expectations on quality and the continued xenophobia, greed and politics that continue to haunt football in general, but very specifically when it comes to national teams.

That said, I will enjoy focusing on football ranting over the next month or so, and delighted to see fans in the stadiums!

The opening match was as much a disappointment about Turkey, as about a warning about Italy. I had certainly expected more from the Turks' young team, but they did not seem like a team that wanted or even believed that they could win , and only one shot on goal throughout the match is only witness of a team that was there to defend. 

And they defended well, but we can thank the Italians that it did not work, and Italy's 3-0 victory was not too big. Italy were deservedly rewarded for their patient pressure and dominance, and should indeed be considered one of the candidates to go all the way.

Who are these candidates anyway?

Let us start by saying that all teams can make it; there are no weak sides in the tournament, and on a good day the lowest ranked sides of Finland or North Macedonia can defeat the highest ranked of Belgium or France. And be certain that we will see surprises from smaller sides, as well as disappointments from some of the so-called "giants". That said, there are certainly some teams that I will personally find interesting to watch (in no particular order):

  • France: the defending World Champions have the most complete squad of all, with perhaps the best player in the world, N'golo Kante, as well as super stars as Kylian Mbappe or Rafael Varane, even a returning Karim Benzema, who had been out of the world cup squad. If things work for them as they did in Russia in 2018, they will win
  • Belgium: The side continues to be ranked number 1 in the FIFA world rankings, and continue to have a side that can defeat anybody. However, as in 2018, one has a feeling that they lack one last bit of something to go all the way. That said, personally, Belgium will be one of my favourite teams to watch, and as long as they don't face Denmark (which they will), to support
  • Portugal: One cannot dismiss the defending champions from 2016, despite it being the most boring final of all time. Portugal are still led by the Great Cristiano Ronaldo, who despite his age is still brilliant and surrounded by hugely talented players. Portugal will go for the repeat for sure, and will be contender, although I hope it will be more entertaining than in 2016....
  • Germany: The ever-strong German poor results lately have probably weakened expectations, but one would be silly ever to discount the Germans. This will be the end of the Joachim Low era, and no matter how they do, it will be interesting to see how it ends, and whether it lays a foundation for a new era of for German national football; the talented youngster are plenty. Personally I always look forward to watching Germany, but I never support them!
  • England: I will not support England in any match. That said, any football fan should be excited about their talented young team; after so many years England is managing to get hugely talented youngsters from the best league in the world. After making it to the semifinals of the World Cup they must certainly be considered contenders for the title; expectations from English fans are always huge, but this time they are justified
  • Croatia: I always love watching Croatia, simply because no matter what, they put so much passion into the game. After making it to the world cup final in 2018, they are nevertheless an older side, but still led by the Great Luca Modric, and many talented young players. Despite it all, they are unlikely to win the title, but could defeat anyone
  • Denmark: Of course I am biased, as I will support Denmark, but beyond that, I think that after many years of not having a full first-rate side, Denmark now has a full contingency of solid players, all playing in big clubs in some of the best leagues. In particular defense looks world class (including one of best goalkeepers in Kaspar Schmeichel), and there are many promising young players. The attacking power is still weak, and although they will have to do their best, on a good day they can defeat anyone

Of course, all 24 sides are worth watching, and may I add that Italy (winning today) and Spain should probably also be considered (serious) contenders for the title. Additionally, it will be great to watch and welcome the fans from Finland and North Macedonia to their first international tournament ever, and hope for them that they get some good results and fun on the way!

And last of all: let us enjoy this with respect and friendship centered around our common love for football, and forget all the narrow-mindedness that keeps separating us.

Monday, June 07, 2021

USA-Mexico in the CONCACAF Nations League

The inflation of national team tournaments has reached CONCACAF, and yesterday the very first CONCACAF Nations League final was played in Denver, Colorado, between the two all-dominant teams from the CONCACAF region, Mexico and the USA.

It was an eventful match in what I guess must have been historical in being the first final of this tournament. But also, it underlined the almost-hateful rivalry between the two sides that compete to be the best among all the small teams of CONCACAF. And in Denver the Mexican team was almost at home, as Mexican fans seemed to outnumber the home-fans.

Mexican fans have been known to be passionate, if not dirty, and as has been happening a lot recently, the match was suspended temporarily due to Mexican fans' homophobic chants of "puto". It is ok they suspend the match, and have fined Mexico for this. However, I would love to see this kind of approach in other parts of the world, not least Europe, where national teams still seem unpopular for the mere act of kneeling against racism.

The passion of the Mexican fans seemed to provoke the US players who in my view reacted wrongly to the Mexian fans' attacks. In particular when Christian Pulisic scored the penalty kick for 3-2 in extra time, he rain directly towards the Mexican fans silencing them.

A clear provocation that should have cost Pulisic.

After 2-2 in ordinary time (where the USA twice equalized a Mexican lead), USA went ahead on a penalty which was revised thoroughly on VAR. In the dying second of the match Mexico was awarded the chance to equalize on a penalty, but Andres Guardado's kick was saved by the young Ethan Horvath, who had come on as a substitute for goalkeeper Zach Steffan when he got injured. Horvath, who plays in Club Brugge in Belgium had two great saves before taking the penalty that effectively gave USA the title.

Horvath was the hero of the day.

Less of a hero was the Panamanian referee. Granted, it was not an easy match amid the near-hateful atmosphere in Denver, but the referee did not help, failing to efficiently strike down on the numerous little dirty tricks played by both sides.

It was an interesting and eventful match, but it is nearly impossible to want either of these teams to succeed.

Saturday, June 05, 2021

How I became a Brøndby fan

Recently Brøndby won the Danish league for the first time in 16 years. This made me happy, very happy, but also led to a reflection about why I support Brøndby; how did I become a Brøndby fan?

The first time I saw Brøndby play was in 1987, the year that Brøndby won their second Danish title, and were emerging as the dominant force in Danish football through the 1990s. This was in Ikast, a small town in central Jutland, which had a team that competed in the top Danish league. Now, you could consider that I was an Ikast fan; living nearby I went to a lot of matches in Ikast, so it was the team I supported. That said, Brøndby was putting Danish football on the European match, and that same year, 1987, Brøndby made it to the quarterfinals of the European Champions Cup only to be eliminated by the later champions of FC Porto.

In 1989 I went to the Danish Cup final with my father, Ikast-Brøndby, in a legendary match that ended 3-3, and only in extra time Brøndby ended up winning 6-3 (check it out on Youtube). This was a Brøndby side of players that would become legends: Peter Schmeichel, Lars Olsen, Kim Vilfort, John Faxe Jensen, Brian Laudrup..., and although I supported Ikast in that match, I was impressed by the club and the fans.

Soon after I moved to Spain, USA, and the reference point when living abroad increasingly became Brøndby, and less and less Ikast. In fact, Ikast ceased to exits in 1999, when it merged with Herning Fremad to form FC Midtjylland. By this time FC Midtjylland, a team based in Herning, simply was too far from my memories from Ikast, and although I sympathize with the giants from Herning, I simply feel no connection to the side.

My attachment to Brøndby on the other hand only grew. As I moved to the outskirts of Copenhagen for university, a rivalry was emerging between Brøndby and the newly minted FC Copenhagen. For me Brøndby, the team that had already given me some memories became my natural choice among the many teams in the Danish Superliga. 

I went to Brøndby matches  once in a while (far from enough) and in 1999, when Brøndby qualified for the Champions League, I went to all matches against Bayern Munich, Manchester United and FC Barcelona. The first match, against Bayern Munich, remains a treasured memory, when Allan Ravn's memorable late kick gave them a victory against a German side that would make it to the CL final that same season (against Manchester United).

Although I increasingly spent time outside Denmark, I was in the stadium in 2002 against FCK, another memorable match, when a late equalizer by Mads Jørgensen effectively gave Brøndby the title. 

By this time there is no doubt that I supported Brøndby, and as I have moved from country to country over the last years, Brøndby has remained my point of entry to follow the Danish League. I have been hugely disappointed over the last 10 years, as the club almost went bankrupt (and I purchased stocks in the club) and as they have been unable to wrestle the two powerhouses of Danish football: FC Copenhagen and FC Midtjylland.

But a new title has come, hopefully more years of Brøndby giving us new memories, wherever we are in the world!

Me

Monday, May 31, 2021

The curse is lifted

Cruz Azul has had an awesome season that they were expected to crown today as they played at home at the Estadio Azteca against Santos Lagunas in the second leg of the Mexican Guardianes finals. 

"La Maquina" had won the first leg 0-1, and with a 1-1 tie they took the title that had eluded them for 23 years, to a degree that many believed that there was a curse on the team. Perhaps the curse was in the player's head, as the team initially appeared  tense, and Santos Laguna was clearly the better team in the first half. But the second half was Cruz Azul's and they deservedly got an equalizer from their Uruguayan striker "Cabecita" Rodriguez. They were still nervous though, and the dying seconds of the match exploded into a brawl between the players, as the tension of the dying second was clearly too much for some Cruz Azul players.

A pity to end the match like that, but it was quickly forgotten amid the delight of thousands of fans, who have suffered so many disappointments for 23 years, but have stuck to their team. I am sure they will be celebrating like crazy!

It is interesting that quite a few leagues have been won by clubs that had been waiting for a title for many years, just as Cruz Azul (although none for 23 years!): Spain (Atletico Madrid, 7 years), Denmark (Brøndby, 16 years), Italy (Inter Milan, 11 years), France (Lille, 10 years), or even just here in El Salvador, where FAS took their first title for 12 years.

Maybe it is the year that that ended all curses!

The Salvadoran champions from FAS

Today I watched the final of the Salvadoran Clausura Championship between Alianza FC and Club Deportivo FAS, from the beautiful city of Santa Ana.

Alianza could win their third consecutive title, and together with Santa Tecla they have been the dominant club in El Salvador over the last years. FAS, in the meantime, is in fact the most winning club historically in El Salvador, but their last title was in 2009.

Despite a bad pitch on the Estadio Cuscatlan, the atmosphere was fantastic with fans returning to the stadium. Alianza played a poor first half and were behind 0-1 on an excellent free kick goal by Kevin Reyes. In the second half Alianza put pressure and managed to equalize, but were unable to get a decisive winner despite pressuring a hard-working FAS side. In the end it had to be decided by a dramatic penalty contest.

Twice Alianza had a match-ball in the penalty kicks. First, Henry Romero made a terrible shot that flew out of the stadium, and after CD FAS failed their first "sudden-death" kick, Alianza failed a second kick that could have been a winner when Michel Mercado hit the post. After scoring another, CD FAS goalkeeper Kevin Carabantes made an outstanding save that ended FAS' title drought and has surely started a well-deserved party in Santa Ana.