Euro 2012: The Iberian Civil War

Oh hey there, you sexy thangs.

There is something special about the semifinals of major sporting tournaments. Whether it’s the Final Four™ in ‘Merican college basketball, or the unique FA Cup semifinals that once were contested at a neutral venue roughly equidistant from the clubs in question, or the Frozen Four or any conference championship game or series at the professional levels of American sports, the semifinals are where shit starts to get real for the players and fans alike.

Maybe it’s because in many respects, the semifinals are as difficult or more so than the final. At the end of the day, the tournament brackets are arbitrary. You’re just as likely to face the strongest opponent in the semifinal as in the final, because math. Once the penultimate battle is joined, if your side takes the lead you can’t help but begin to think that the fairy tale deity of your choice, in His wisdom, has bestowed grace on you; this year is your year. All of the hard work, emotional rollercoasters, and sacrifice, not only in this season but really since you were just a little nipper will be worth it when your heroes step into the arena to vie for the right to occupy the pinnacle of your sport.

When your snotty classmates made fun of you for plastering your bedroom walls with posters and collecting trading cards and wearing the same replica jersey 300 days in a row, that hurt. But now you can take pleasure knowing that your boy/girlhood team is going to ascend the heights of glory, and it will mean that much more to you than it will to them, wherever they are now (well above you in the social and economic hierarchy, probably).

And then, just when you were starting to believe, it all falls apart. Your team makes a fatal mistake, and they can’t recover. No one remembers the Nearly Men, the ones who gave it all but who just weren’t good enough. Mired in the hollows of defeat, you wonder why you wasted most of your emotional energy on pointless coordinated manipulations of a synthetic leather sphere when you could instead have been developing meaningful relationships with other people.

And then you inhale a bottle of pills and lean heavily on the only person who has been there for you since the beginning (Jack Daniels), The End.

Later to-day, the national football teams of Spain and Portugal will face off for the right to take on the winner of Germany and Italy for the 2012 European Championship in scenic Kiev, Ukraine. The smart money is on Spain; this could be the swansong of a gifted group of players that comes about once in a generation. In terms of how utterly dominant they are as compared to the teams of their day, this Spain team is in the pantheon of the greatest national sides to have ever played: Brazil in 1970, and Hungary in the early 1950s.

Their core consists of most of the Barcelona side that may in fact be the best ever to play the sport, such is the ease with which they dispatch virtually every opponent with a style that is imitated but never reproduced at a fidelity high enough to be mistaken for the real thing. Add in the best Spanish players on the Real Madrid juggernaut (the wonderful goalkeeper Iker Casillas and the glue that holds the entire side together, Xabi Alonso) and the result is football that is irresistible and maddening in equal measure.

The Spanish play better as a team and are simply better at every position than the Portuguese, with one exception so glaring that it may just undo Spain’s hopes of an unprecedented third consecutive victory at a major championships: the mercurial Cristiano “C**t” Ronaldo.

C**t Ronaldo has had a year that will go down in the annals of sporting history: 60 goals in all club competitions in a season when his Real Madrid teammates knocked the mighty Catalans off their perch, a feat whose rarity boggles the mind… except that Barcelona’s Argentinian genius Lionel Messi only went and scored 73.

Stung by unfavorable comparisons that are more than slightly unfair, Senhor Ronaldo has built up a head of steam in this tournament, singlehandedly running Holland ragged and destroying the Czechs in the quarterfinals with a two-goal performance that could have been four but for the stubbornness of the goalposts.

The outcome of Spain vs. Portugal will hinge on two things: whether the Portuguese can remain compact and organized enough in defense not to be torn apart by Spain’s passing, and whether C**t Ronaldo can exploit Spain’s lack of pace and tendency to play a high defensive line. Spain’s pressing game is so good that it rarely matters that acres of space are left open at the back; indeed, that compromise is an integral part of the tactics that lead to Spain having 60% – 70% of the possession in every match.

Your correspondent thinks Portugal has just enough quality to spring the Spanish trap and create maybe two clear goalscoring chances. Will they be clinical enough to take those opportunities whilst frustrating Spain’s gifted, relentless attack? Probably not.

You heard it here first: 2-0 to Spain.

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