Billy Harris has written a football column for Stuff and the Sunday Star-Times for many years. He's often provocative, and never short of an opinion. And with the final of Euro 2012 due to kick off in just half and hour as we type this, his column from yesterday was especially relevant; he opines:
The problems with the Beautiful Game are many and varied.There's the diving, faking, complaining, whingeing and tantruming. And that's just Cristiano Ronaldo.There are the professional fouls. The tactical fouls. The petulant fouls. And the non-fouls, when a player goes down to illegally gain a free kick. And especially the feigning.How many times a game – 20? 40? Does a player pretend to be hurt when he is not? The behaviour of the shysters and cheats, and there are more per head of population in football than in any other sport, must make real mean like Colin Meads and Grizz Wylie say something like: "Jeez mate. That's not on".No, any game which spawns, and then tolerates, individuals like Ronaldo and the perhaps even more repugnant Mario Balotelli obviously has serious problems, and it's to the code's shame that it has yet to stamp them out.But the semifinal of Euro 2012 between Italy and Germany reminds us that the game still has so much to commend it.This was football as it's meant to be played. Or at least as most people like to see it. End-to-end, chances galore, two excellent teams slugging it out.And though it was Balotelli who scored Italy's goals, one of them a thunderous drive, it was the 33-year-old maestro, the peerless Andrea Pirlo, who showed the athletic Germans that in a game now dominated by strength and pace, there's always room for a player with vision, intelligence and an ability to pass the ball to make even the Spanish midfield green with envy.Xavi, Iniesta and Co. have racked up their usual outrageous tally of passes, but somehow Spain are looking short on ideas near goal.With their belief that possession is nine-tenths of the victory, a philosophy apparently confirmed by their choice of a 4-6-0 formation with no strikers, Spain are in danger of passing themselves, not the opposition, to death.That almost happened in their semifinal with Portugal, where, until extra time, they'd hardly mustered a shot on goal.
Then he reflects on the dull semi-final between Spain and Portugal, and asks the question that has been on many lips:
Their win by way of shootout owed much to their excellence in penalty taking, but also to the Portuguese error of leaving their best penalty taker, Ronaldo, till last.What's the point, they must be asking themselves, of having your best taker take the "critical" fifth penalty if the shootout doesn't get that far?
Harris merely reflects what countless others have thought or said over the semi-final shootout. It seemed bizarre that Ronaldo was held back and held back as Portugal missed two of their first four penalties and lost the shootout and the match.
And as he closes, Harris laments the penalty shootout, and has a final reflection on the hapless English:
But the drawn game remains a problem in need of solving. Far too many matches end up decided on penalties, and the shootout, great drama though it provides, is an unsatisfactory way of separating two teams, little better than the coin toss used in the past.The 1994 World Cup final, won by Brazil on penalties over Italy after a dull 0-0 draw, brought the matter to a head, but 18 years later, Fifa, moving at glacial speed as usual, still hasn't found an answer.England are still lamenting the fact that the gap between them and the top nations remains as wide as ever.Even their best player, Wayne Rooney, is found wanting at international level, a pitbull with no teeth thrashing around among Dobermans.Again he was hailed as the man to lead England to victory, and again he came up short.