Tag Archives: EURO 2012

FIFA World Cup 2014 – can a small European country win?

Half way through the 2014 FIFA World Cup the tournament can be only described as “spectacular”. There was everything. There were goals – lots of them. So far, the average number of goals scored is the highest since 1970 – that’s 44 years! And some goals these were.

There was drama – like that last minute penalty sending Greece through at the expense of Ivory Coast. There were spectacular matches like the Netherlands vs Australia roller coaster. There was the good – Costa Rica’s success is a huge surprise, there was the bad – who would have thought Spain AND Portugal will be gone by the end of the group stage and there was the ugly – none else but Luis Suárez aka The Uruguayan Dracula.

Sure, there were downsides as well. There were horrible refereeing mistakes (or were these “mistakes”, like in the opening match when Croatia was robbed?). Some matches were outright boring, like the useless 0-0 played by Iran and Nigeria. The Asian and African teams proved once again that they only come to serve as decoration until the real tournament begins. While a record 2 African teams advanced into the Top 16, the chances of Algeria or Nigeria eliminating Germany or France respectively are not high to say the least. By the time the next round is over, it will be, again, a tournament of European and American teams. And the champion will, as always, come from Europe or South America.

To me, though, the biggest result so far is the success of teams from small European countries. Of the 7 that entered, 4 advanced to the Top 16, compared to only 2 out of 6 big European countries that participated. But can a small European country  win the biggest tournament in the world? In the past, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Netherlands and Sweden all were as close as it gets – they all stood in the final and all lost. Between them, these small European countries lost 8 World Cup finals.

Why does this happen? Can’t a small country win a big tournament? Well, yes, they can! Tiny Uruguay won the World Cup twice! The same Czechoslovakia and Netherlands, as well as Greece and Denmark won the European Championship before. And its not like winning the European Championship is much easier than winning the World Cup – 10 out of 19 World Cups were won by European teams, so the competition in Europe is on pair with everything you can meet at the World Cup. If it would happen once or twice, it would be a coincidence. But 8 out of 8 is a pattern.

Patterns are made to be broken though. For example, for 50 years the World Cup was won by a European and then a South American country – until Spain succeeded Italy as champion of the world in 2010. The same Spain broke the “rule” that a European championship is not won twice in a row – until Spain’s victory in 2012 no one succesfullt defended the European title.

In this year’s World Cup, all 4 teams from small European countries are on the same “side” of the knockout stage, so there is a good chance one of them will reach the final. Making predictions about anything in the future is difficult, making predictions about football is especially difficult and making predictions about this tournament is absolutely useless in light of the spectacularly surprising results so far.

But I think there is one thing that the teams of Netherlands, Belgium, Greece and Switzerland have in common this year – they have all shown resilience and determination. They came back from trailing behind, even playing against champions of the world. They fought back even in hopeless situations, like Switzerland exposing the weakness and arrogance of France by scoring twice after trailing 5-0. They gave all they had until the last second, like Greece in their last group match. They played to win, even when there was nothing at stake, like Belgium against South Korea. This is the stuff champions are made of. And this time, maybe, just maybe, a small European country can become champion of the world.


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How football bankrupted Ukraine

Ukraine has been out of the headlines in the last week, toppled by Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. But after this weekend, Ukraine will be back on top of the news, following the Crimean referendum. Its not going to be pretty for Ukraine and the question everyone will be asking is – how did it get this far? Well, I say football is to blame. This is my version of what happened.

Suppose you have a house. Its a nice house, a big one, that you have inherited from your parents. But it’s an old house, with plenty of problems – the roof is leaking, insulation is non-existent, some windows are broken and the piping is rotten. Your house needs a total overhaul to be restored to its former glory. The problem is – you have just lost your job, your wife is sick and the children need money for new school books, so you’re not exactly swimming in cash.

What would you do? You do have an asset – your house. So a reasonable option would be to take a loan with the property as guarantee, to last you through the tough times and make the repairs before the roof caves in on you. This way, you will have a solid home, your children will benefit from good education, your wife will go to a good doctor and if all goes well, with the new job you will repay the small loan you took and get your family back on your feet.

There is, of course, another option. Mortgage your whole house and spend all the money you get on a huge one-time party, making only cosmetic repairs, so that the roof doesn’t leak into the champagne and caviar you serve your guests. Invite everyone – the boss who fired you, the contractor who “fixed” the leaking roof the last time, hell, invite all your old girlfriends, too – show them how successful you’ve become in life. Who cares that the party will be over and leave you with a huge hangover, a ruined house and a loan you can’t repay? Sell your grandma’s jewelry, too, while you’re at it – no expenses can be spared for a good party!

Unfortunately, the last option is what Ukraine has done when hosting the Euro 2012. Various reports say that the tournament has cost Ukraine 10 to 14 bn USD – four to six times the original estimate! What’s even worse, half the money wasn’t event spent on unnecessary infrastructure like lavish football stadiums – it was just stolen. Who remembers now that Ukrainian media seriously claimed that Ukraine’s road to the EU will start at Euro 2012?

Football alone was not the cause of the downfall of Ukraine. The financial crisis and widespread corruption have hit Ukrainian economy hard, eventually leading to the ousting of the government of Viktor Yanukovych (and a Russian invasion). But hosting the Euro 2012 tournament has undoubtedly made the problems worse.

Ukraine’s woes must be a warning sign to other “emerging” countries that waste their assets on prestige projects. I’m talking to you, Russia and Brazil – chopping the fruit garden around your house and selling your winter coal stock to finance an even bigger party won’t make it better.

The conclusion is obvious – hosting huge events like FIFA World Cups and Olympic Games is possible only when you already have the money, the infrastructure and the judicial system that can cope with such huge money flows. Otherwise, you will be left with a herd of white elephants and a huge debt millstone hanging around your neck, like Ukraine, or Greece. And the last word about the burden of Beijing 2008 Olympics on China’s economy has not been said yet, I’m afraid.

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Europe’s hidden treasures unveiled

First of all, I’d like to congratulate myself with a blogging landmark – this is the 100th post! Kudos to me!

Having spend quite some time in Europe, I’ve had the chance to visit some of the more remote corners of the continent. As a traveller, I like finding the hidden spots, the places not yet tramped by mass tourism. Often, these are places that are very close to those flooded with visitors, but take the left turn where everybody goes right, and you’ll be rewarded with unique experiences, great sights and, often, a thicker wallet. These hidden spots are, of course, not hidden at all, they’re just a tiny bit off the beaten path. I’d like to make them a bit less hidden, by sharing with you some “hidden” spots I’ve had the pleasure to discover.

1. Rago National Park, Norway
On the Norwegian mainland, opposite the well-visited island chain of Lofoten lies the Rago National Park. There’s not much plant life diversity, nor are there many birds and animals. There is, however, plenty of magnificent nothingness and the views are amazing.


These views are all yours in Rago – no one’s around for miles

2. Texel, Netherlands
Called “mini-Holland”, this small island has plenty to offer. Unlike Rago, Texel actually has the highest biodiversity in the Netherlands. Birds, marine mammals, insects and most of all, sheep, all are present in great variety (except the sheep). Also on Texel – beautiful sandy beaches, a unique piece of WWII history and a wacky beachcombing museum. There are no coffeeshops though, so the “mini-Holland” experience is a bit incomplete.


Holland in a nutshell – Texel

3. Ghent, Belgium
Say Belgium and people will name Brussels (and Manneken Pis), Bruges and perhaps Antwerpen and Liege. Ghent? Never heard of, right? Well, wrong. Ghent has everything all the other Belgian cities have to offer plus a huge extra – the Gentse Feesten. In July the city is host to one of the biggest festivals in Europe, as the streets are taken over by theatre and music performers of all kinds. As a bonus, Ghent has not one, but two Manneken Pis! Eat your heart out, Brussels.


The Belgian sense of absurdism is well-suited for Ghent’s street theatre

4. Alpstein, Switzerland
The Alpstein (otherwise known as Appenzell Alps) is a mountain range in the East of Switzerland. While not as high as its bigger cousins in Valais or the Bernese Alps, Alpstein is just as rugged, and offers all extreme activities known to man, without the altitude sickness. Aplstein gets huge amounts of snow in the winter, the summer sun is abundant, the tiny mountain lakes are clear and cold, and if you’re looking for more sophistication, the charming medieval town of St. Gallen and the jet-set of the Bodensee are a short train ride away. And my favourite Swiss cheese – Appenzeller – is made here! No wonder I love Alpstein.

Clear mountain lakes, plenty of snow and hot summer sun - Alpstein

Clear mountain lakes, plenty of snow and hot summer sun – Alpstein

5. IG Farben Building in Frankfurt, Germany
Germany abounds with Holocaust monuments. The impressive Holocaust Memorial in Berlin and concentrations camps like Bergen-Belzen or Dachau all serve well their purpose of keeping the memory alive. But the one I was most impressed by was an office building in Frankfurt, which nowadays hosts the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University. During WWII this building was the headquarters of IG Farben, the firm that developed the Zyklon B gas, which was used to kill millions of Jews and other “unwanted elements”. The irony of the headquarters of IG Farben now hosting the department of Cultural and Civilization Studies of a university named after the greatest German artist is mind-bogging. As is the building itself, by the way. If you’re in Frankfurt, don’t miss it.

The IG Farben building holds the "Smell of Guilt"

The IG Farben Building still holds the “Smell of Guilt”

6. Kiev, Ukraine
The Ukrainian capital is one of the ten largest cities in Europe, yet not even the final of Euro 2012 was able to put in on the tourism map. Which is a shame. Because in addition to the glister of golden onion domes everywhere you look, Kiev, one of the oldest cities of Eastern Europe, has trendy art galleries, exotic night life, iconic Soviet-era monuments and all that for a bargain price. Hurry up and go there before this rough diamond has been cut, set and tamed.

Golden domes of churches are everywhere in Kiev

Golden domes of churches are everywhere in Kiev

7. Vall de Boí, Spain
Taüll, the biggest village in this remote Pyrenean valley has only 273 inhabitants. What Vall de Boí lacks in numbers, though, it makes up for in style. From outside, the nine Catalan Romanesque Churches of the valley are splendid examples of Medieval architecture. From the inside, they are decorated with frescoes of amazing colour richness and of a style I can only describe as avaunt-guard. Pretty neat for the 12th century, if you ask me. As an extra, the valley is one of the access points to the Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici National Park, so it’s definitely worth a detour.

Sant Climent de Taüll, the engineers will surely appreciate the window design

Sant Climent de Taüll, the engineers will surely appreciate the window design

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The Orange wave

Another sad chapter in the deceptions book of Dutch football has been written. To the losses of 3 World Cup finals adds a shameful zero-point exit from Euro 2012, of a team so much has been expected of. Undoubtedly tomorrow’s papers will be full of analyses of how and why. However, I would like to shine some positive light on this mournful situation. The people of Kharkiv have been given the chance to experience the Orange Army invasion. Yet another city has been swallowed up by the Orange Wave, thatmad cheerful crowd of Dutch national squad supporters. I have personally been a part of the Orange Wave swallowing up Swiss cities back in 2008 and I can testify that its a unique experience. The Dutch team is probably the most supported worldwide, except perhaps Brasil, and not just due to the football qualities of the players. Its the colour, the passion, and the image of Holland as the worldwide capital of sex, drugs and techno that gives the national football team and its fans a unique and universal appeal, magnified by the overwhelming size and excitement of the bright crowds that paint the streets orange everywhere they go. Here’s to the Orange Legions!

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Let the Euro games begin!

The month of May is traditionally full of European action. Not only the UEFA Champions League and Europe League finals are played. The Eurovision, that big annual small European countries festival, is also taking place in May. For one day a year it magically doesn’t matter whether you’re as small as Malta or as big as Russia, whether you’re a republic, a monarchy or a dictatorship, the points are yours to give as you please. It is also the time to settle scores, as the (public) voting reflects political grievances, migrating populations, historical conquests and alliances and religions. A goldmine for a modern anthropologist and a must for anyone who wants to become familiar with the complex fabric of European society.

Netherlands-Macedonia qualification match for FIFA 2010

But by now this is all ancient history. Its June, and almost time for another great European spectacle – the UEFA European Football Championship or Euro. Its the biggest all-European sporting event and, like the Eurovision, the chance to settle some scores. In this year’s tournament, every group features a match loaded with emotions and history. In Group A Poland vs Russia is a match between two neighbours who have invaded each other a countless number of times, and the recent aircraft crash in Russia, that killed the entire Polish government has not improved the relations a bit. In Group B the clash between Netherlands and Germany needs no introduction to anyone remotely familiar with football history. While back in the old days the Dutch grievances were fuelled by the German requisition of bicycles during WWII (whoever says “you can take our Jews, if you just leave the bikes” – ends up with no Jews and no bikes), nowadays the bad blood is mostly based on the loss of the World Cup Final in 1974, which even the winning of the Euro 1988 did not set right. In Group C Spain vs Italy is perhaps not as charged as the previous fixtures, but it is nevertheless a match between the last two champions of the world, and is no minor affair. Finally, in Group D the opening match between France and England brings with it a rivalry that goes back to the Tapestry of Bayeux of the 70’s – the 1070’s that is! While England and France are no longer invading each other militarily, both countries keep grumbling about mutual cultural, linguistic and economical invasions.

The Euro is, however more than just a game. The Olympic Games have for the past 60 years almost exclusively been held in big countries and the last FIFA World Cup in a small country dates back to 1962, leaving the Euro as a small European country’s best chance to win big glory. In the 21st century tournaments held in small countries have become more a rule than an exception, and with the Euro often co-hosted, it has visited no less than 7 small countries! And while the “older brother”, the FIFA World Cup, was almost exclusively won by the big guys, the Euro has seen its fair share of small European triumphs. Greece, Denmark, Netherlands and Czechoslovakia are all small countries that made it big time in the Euro, proving that size not always matters. At least in the Euro it doesn’t. Let the Euro games begin!

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Redefining “small”

While I have defined “Europe” and “country” in terms of football, I have failed to do the same for “small”. I will now rectify this misalignment. Since there are so many different ways of “measuring” the size of a country, the definition will remain subjective. Let me start by saying that any country that is not large must be small, so defining a “large” country will do the job just as well. Population or territory don’t define a large country sufficiently well, we need some external measure of relative importance.

In order to get in line with my other definitions, I have come up with a football-related criterion of “largeness”. Its the largest football event – the FIFA World Cup. In the past 50 years the World Cup has been hosted by a select group of nations, that have been judged capable to hold such a big venue. Within Europe the club is even more select, with only 6 members. Strictly speaking 5, but Russia will hold the 2018 World Cup and by no means can be called a small country anyway, so it counts. This selection criterion gets nicely rid of Poland and Ukraine which I have been struggling with anyway. Dwarfed by much larger neighbours – Germany and Russia –  these guys need each other just to organise the Euro 2012. Obviously they are not mighty enough to be called “large”. However, this leads to a new issue – Turkey. It has never hosted a World Cup and has no plans to host one for the coming years. Well, in my view it says more about Turkey than the selection criterion – just having the numbers (population of 80 million) doesn’t make you big.

As a check, we can look at the hosting of the Summer Olympic Games. In the post-war period, the Games have been hosted 8 times by a European country. The Helsinki Games have been postponed due to the war and don’t really count. The only other small country to have hosted the Games was Greece. While the pursuit of the Olympic dream can hardly be blamed for Greece’s current problems, it was not helpful to say the least. The event has proven that a small country just can’t handle it on its own. Scrapping Finland and Greece, obviously small countries, the list is almost the same as the list of the European countries that have hosted the World Cup. France is the big absent,  but its not due to lack of trying. Poor Paris has put up a bid three times in the past 25 years, only to lose time and again (the French? Losing? Who would have thought…).

So where does this all put us? Ukraine, Poland and Turkey join the list of small European countries. Congratulations! And the big guys are:

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