Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Height Of Sport

Second only to the Canadiens in my personal sporting hierarchy is international football. England is my poison.

Yesterday, I watched as my second team gave a clinic to the 9th ranked team in the world – beating Croatia 5-1 with as many near misses as goals. No matter how exciting rookie's skating backwards in Brossard can be – I'm afraid Habs news took a back seat.

Not only was it exciting, it ended well – something I can't take for granted in watching sports these days. And thank goodness for England; because, if I'm honest, they probably give me more exciting moments than from 15-odd years of Canadiens hockey have. David Beckham's injury-time free kick against Greece in 2001, Michael Owen's run against Colombia, the 5-1 mauling of Germany are moments that stand up with The Kovalev:Koivu:Zednik line clinic against Boston, Theodore's pirouette save and the thrashing of Carolina pre-Gerber pulling.

Hockey still wins 350 nights out of 365, hence the blog. But some nights football can just take over with it's magic.

Last night was one of those nights for me. You see, it's getting down to the wire in qualifying campaigns for next summer's World Cup in South Africa. The first round of the NHL playoffs is the only real equivalent to nights like last night in hockey terms. A night where many teams could qualify, and many could be eliminated. A night where the possibilities for future match-ups create the intrigue and the suspense. A night where I care about every game and every goal because it could affect my team.

40 teams faced off in 20 matches yesterday. A few teams qualified (England – hooray, Paraguay) and several were ousted (Saudi Arabia, Trinidad, Finland, Belarus, Scotland, et al). And the competition tightened with about 50-odd teams vying for the remaining 21 places.

It's an excitement that would be hard to replicate in hockey, to be fair, since rivalries between teams rarely reach the pitch they can when it's countries involved. And quite simply, there just isn't the blanket interest from every region of the world (sans N America, of course) that football can count on. At the very least, the Olympics give us all a chance to cheer for something/someone else than the marathon to the Cup.

The run down

If members of the Canadiens organization and alumni are soccer fans, this is what they would have seen and felt last night:

Jaraoslav Halak:
Witnessed his countrymen exact an efficient plan in Belfast to beat Northern Ireland with a 0-2 victory. Any and all Slovaks are probably quite proud of this edition of their national team which is one point away from clinching the first place in any tournament round-robin competition since independence.

Roman Hamrlik, Jaroslav Spacek, Tomas Plekanec: Viewed a lesson in how to come back from the brink. 5th in the group and with a negative goal difference things didn't look good. A couple of good results from the other group members and a romp of 7-0 over tiny San Marino takes them back within reach of a playoff shout. They'll need help from their former countrymen to do it now, so look for the D to be extra nice to Halak.

Brian Gionta, Hal Gill, Paul Mara et al:
The Americans again look poised to qualify while their population ignores them. The team on the rise walked over Trinidad and Tobago who won't be making a return to the party this time. Chances that the guys watched? Slim. But like hockey, soccer is a niche sport in the US – sometimes the players come from the same pool (Higgins, for example, starred in both).

Scott Gomez: Scott has double CONCACAF celebrations as his native US have assured themselves that place I mentioned above. and, in handling the thus far impressive Costa Rica, Mexico, the country of his paternal ancestry has now also assured themselves the same breathing room.

Yannick Weber, Robert Mayer: The Swiss got a free ticket into Euro as hosts and didn't avail themselves very well at all, winning a single match. Before last night the Swiss were teetering on the edge of another qualification, but took the lead from their goaltenders rather than their ski team as they crumpled under the pressure. Losing the lead they had gained in the first half, Switzerland only managed a 2-2 draw against footballing minnows Latvia. If Weber and Mayer are keen scoreboard watchers like most soccer fans, they will have had reason to celebrate some, though, as Greece managed to prove once again what a fluke the European championship was as they handed a rare point to Moldova (costing themselves a valuable 2 points). Switzerland still hold the cards, so the young Habs may still be smiling.

Andrei Markov, Alex Kovalev:
Russia, with football's version of Scotty Bowman at the helm (Guus Hiddink), again impressed. They have paced Germany all the way and it seems that their match against each other on the 10th of October in Moscow could be a qualifying classic.

Saku Koivu, Petteri Simila: When you get drawn into a group with Russia and Germany in most sports, you're not going to be going home happy many times. Last night, though, the Finland football team showed why how much they miss the leadership that their national hockey team has, as they somehow managed to draw a game with a principality 3 miles across (Liechtenstein). usually Liechtenstein restrict themselves to taking points from Luxembourg.

Brothers Kostitsyn: Not much joy for the Kostitsyns as Belarus' draw vs. Ukraine means they won't go any further. On the bright side, by holding the Yellow and Blue to a point, the lovely Belarussians made my afternoon a lot more enjoyable – as it meant England would only require a single point from a draw for automatic qualification. One less distraction for the brothers won;t be a bad thing – though perhaps they'll turn to Mother Russia?

George Gillett: Watched as his main men Fernando Torres, Dirk Kuyt and Steven Gerrard all flew on qualified teams – Gerrard with 2 exceptional England goals. More joy as Glen Johnson (sounds like a hockey player) showed his worth on the England wing.

Habs bandwagon: The Habs bandwagon will be happy, because the team they supported all along (after Zidane's headbutt) also won on the night and Italy look safe to qualify without a playoff. The first country to be asked to do so as defenders of the crown.

Cristobal Huet, Mike Ribeiro: Hockey sensibilities aside, i am English after all. I had to shoehorn the fact that both France and Portugal may falter this year in somehow. France managed a draw and saw favourable results from their rivals so aren't down and out yet. Portugal is set for a shower of Ronaldo tears as they made their bed long ago. Ask Italy what happens when Sweden and Denmark stand in your way to qualification (I'm sure we won't see that kind of sportsmanship from never-dived before Portugal, though).

Obviously we hope all the Canadiens have a really celebratory June, but if they are soccer fans, at this point it looks like Halak, Johansson, Weber and the American contingent may need the most beer and BBQ meat on hand. I'm already planning for the most exciting month of the quadrennial.

June 11:
World Cup Opener – 11 am
Game 2 – 1:30 pm
Stanley Cup clincher? – 7 pm

A man can dream...

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