Tag Archives: football

7 things Americans don’t understand about Europe

I don’t understand Americans in Europe. Actually, I don’t understand them in their own country as well. I mean, I don’t get baseball, NASCAR, American gun laws, the American insistence on using an archaic measurement system and above all I don’t understand ice in whiskey. But I think Americans do not understand Europe either. Not all of them, of course, but I think the average American has no clue about may things that are quite common in Europe. Here’s a small guide to the visiting American, helping rectify the most common American misconceptions about Europe.

What most European cities really look like

What most European cities really look like

  1. Europe is a continent, not a country
    “Europe is my favourite country” – how many times have I not come across this statement? Admittedly, the last one I saw was made by a Canadian, which only serves to prove the point that Canadians (and Australians) are a bit of Americans in disguise. Perhaps for people from countries the size of a continent it is difficult to understand. But Europe actually consists of more than 50 countries (depending a bit on how you define “country”). They have their own flags, anthems, culture and for what its worth their own foreign policy. Lumping them together is like saying “animals are cute” – sure they are, but a bit overgeneralizing.
  2. Europe is not the same as the European Union
    Its true that by now the majority of Europeans live in EU-member states. But there are still dozens of countries in Europe that are not a member, and the EU still covers less than half of Europe’s physical area. Besides, contrary to what Eurosceptics and Europhiles alike would like you to believe, the EU is not a super-state. Its members are independent countries who largely run their own affairs.
  3. Europe is more than the tourist hotspots
    Sadly, most Americans who visit Europe, and even many of those who live in Europe rarely leave the beaten track of old town centres, business districts and tourist top destinations. Their impressions of Europe are limited to Paris and Venice, and perhaps a bit of the countryside of Tuscany or the valley of the Loire. Their image of Europeans is therefore that of sopisticated, cycling, latte-drinking fashionistas. Sad truth is that most of Europe is less like the Champs-Élysées and more like the suburbs of Dusseldorf or the Bulgarian countryside – full of moustached people in jump-suits, who drink beer for lunch.

    What most of Europe's countryside really looks like

    What most of Europe’s countryside really looks like

  4. The UK is not a part of Europe
    This is actually what the British themselves believe, and their Anglo-Saxon cousins have inherited this belief. However, the UK is separated from the European mainland by a stretch of water just 33 km wide and less than 50 meters deep. People have even crossed swimming! The UK has been a part of the EU for over 40 years. Culturally, economically, socially, ethnically, religiously, geographically – any way you put it – the UK is firmly a part of Europe. Dear Britons – you are Europeans. Get over it. And mention it to your cousins, will you?
  5. Europeans have more than two parties
    In the USA it is simple – you’ve got the Republicans and you’ve got the Democrats. Europe is a bit more complicated politically. In most European countries its an elaborate game of multiple parties and coalitions. I know Americans like things simple, but European politics just doesn’t work this way. But don’t worry about this one, most Europeans don’t get it either.
  6. Football – no, its not soccer, its FOOTBALL
    Americans don’t even understand the name of the game that drives Europe crazy. They think they have football and what the Europeans play is soccer. But seriously – American “football” is played with the arms and hands mostly. Even if the occasional kick is taken into account its “limbsball” at best.

    What football really looks like

    What football really looks like

  7. European social system
    “Social=socialism=communism=DEVIL” – that’s pretty much the line of thought of the average American. “Europe” is in the USA a symbol of all that goes wrong when the government takes over. In reality, in the USA government spending is ~47% of the GDP and in the EU government spending is ~49-50% of the GDP. Hardly a difference, isn’t it? True, in Europe poor people get various benefits and social subsidies. But in the USA the system is pretty much the same – the benefits are just called “tax credits” so that it sounds more business-like. But how can people who pay no taxes get tax credits? A-ha! That’s just social benefits in disguise!

So dear Americans – whether you’re visiting Europe, or just hearing some news about “Europe” – do keep in mind that things are a) a bit more complicated and b) perhaps not that different than at your place. And if you have stories of European misconceptions about the USA – I’d love to hear, I’m sure there are plenty.

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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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10 ways to tell you’ve lived too long in Rotterdam

While I was working on the list of 21 signs you have been too long in the Netherlands, I noticed that a few of the things I came up with were, in fact, not generally applicable to the Netherlands, but were specific to Rotterdam.

  1. You think it was worth it to stand for two hours in line at Richard Visser’s on December 31st to get the best oliebollen in the country.
  2. You remember the last time Feyenoord actually won something.
  3. You follow the performances of Sparta and Excelsior in the second league.
  4. You refer to the capital of the Netherlands as 020.
  5. You know the bridges in Rotterdam by their nicknames.
  6. When you cross the Maas to the other side from the one you live on, you get homesick.
  7. Which is why you actually avoid the other side.
  8. Skyscrapers built in a couple of weeks no longer surprise you.
  9. Bram Ladage fries are a healthy snack.
  10. You have a favourite modern architecture icon in Rotterdam (mine is the Bergpolderflat).
Richard Visser

Richard Visser

Bergpolderflat

Bergpolderflat

The Maas

The Maas

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Croatia – a small European country that has been robbed yesterday

Yesterday at the 70’th minute I stopped watching. Croatia was robbed.

England, 1966. The Hand Of God, 1986. Spain vs South Korea, 2002. The FIFA World Cup Finals keep producing controversies. Qatar 2022 is still 8 years away but it is already in the running for the most controversial World Cup yet. And Brazil is no stranger to football controversies – have another look at Rivaldo’s performance back in 2002, rivalling that of Fred’s in yesterday’s match against Croatia. Sadly, the first match of 2014 World Cup added yet another smeared page to the history of football. The awkward decision by the referee to award Brazil a penalty against Croatia is a fitting opening to a World Cup already mired in corruption, failed constructions and violent protests.

FIFA insists on living in the past. After years of dragging its feet it finally introduced Goal Line Technology, unable to resist the storm of criticism following the missed England goal against Germany 4 years ago in South Africa. But what about instant replays being allowed as a refereeing asset? Basketball, tennis, ice hockey, rugby – the list of sports that recognize the need for supporting technology, its importance in reducing controversy, is growing.

I accept that the referee can not be everywhere all the time. Yesterday’s decision may have been an innocent mistake. But with so much at stake, how can one not be suspicious that Brazil failing to win the opening match was just not an option, at any cost? Undoubtedly, poor record by the home team would fuel the justified protests against spilling resources on fancy one-time events instead on necessities like sewage or basic education. Until football referees in crucial matches are allowed access to modern-day technology, doubts will remain about the real motives behind faulty decisions. And a small European country will feel it has been robbed of what might have been an excellent start to its World Cup Final.

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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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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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