Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Playing It Safe Is a Recipe for Futility

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Playing It Safe Is a Recipe for Futility

Article excerpt

Coaches positioned eight players in a protective mode around their penalty boxes. That concedes initiative automatically to the opponents.

For fans, the opening nights of the European Championship quarterfinals have been the equivalent of paying top dollar for a theater show in which half the leading cast members fail to show.

Or worse, because the players did show up in Warsaw, Gdansk and Donetsk, Ukraine -- they just did not dare show what they were capable of.

The Czechs, the Greeks and even the French arrived fearing humiliation, so they adopted wholly negative tactics to avoid being embarrassed by Portugal, Germany and Spain.

Sports should not be like that. It is easy to pontificate from the stands that games are there to be won -- and that if you are afraid of being outclassed, then at least go out fighting, and entertaining.

But players, by and large, obey the coaches. And from the start of each of these games, the coaches positioned eight players in a protective mode around their penalty boxes. That concedes initiative automatically to the opponents and invites them to pick the locks or batter down the heavy defenses, but timid coaches think those tactics will at least spare them heavy losses that would mar their resumes.

They lose anyway, but they tell us how they kept the score down.

Of the three losers, Laurent Blanc of France deserves the least credit. He, after all, did have top-notch attacking individuals in his squad. He selected Franck Ribery, Karim Benzema and Yohan Cabaye, but France starved them of the ball.

They either were preoccupied facing the wrong way or were isolated with nowhere to go when they did cross the halfway line.

The French captain, goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, viewed it all from behind. "We were against the best team in the world," he reasoned. "We had to attempt the impossible. We didn't manage it, but we should not be ashamed." His comrades all repeated the mantra, that if only France could have reached halftime at 0-0, it could have posed a threat in the second half.

Aha, the game plan: Defend until the opponent tires and then strike.

No doubt the Czechs felt the same against Portugal and the Greeks against Germany. But France? Surely they would try to hit Spain on the nose and see how the champion reacted.

The Czechs had fallen to Cristiano Ronaldo's brilliant perseverance. The Greeks got lucky when Germany squandered chances, but lost anyway, 4-2.

That mismatch in Gdansk was a classic case of the haves and the have-nots. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany was in the stadium, taking time off from telling Greece how to pay its bills, and leaping to her feet to punch the air every time her team scored a goal.

Merkel knows her soccer. She expected victory, and for a politician, there is no better place to be than sharing the euphoria that was pretty much guaranteed. …

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