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Commentary: Euro 2012 needs to step up quickly

BY SETH ROBERTS | JUNE 12, 2012 6:30 AM

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America needs to like soccer. The world's most powerful country represents the only population with little to no interest in the global game, and it's sad.

The ongoing Euro 2012 tournament has the potential to dent the national indifference. Soccer has transcended cultural differences for decades, and Euro 2012 should be the perfect way to increase the sport's stateside profile.

The pieces are in place. Each game is nationally broadcast on ESPN, and the tournament features some of the best teams in the world. Thirteen of the 16 countries in the field are ranked in FIFA's top 20, including seven in the top 10; this European championship is the premier, most balanced collection of talent in the sporting world.

But it's clear the event has a lot of work to do after the first slate of games wrapped up, and two main factors must be changed if the soccer world expects the United States to give a damn by the end of the tournament.

The games

The prevailing American criticism of soccer is that watching the World Knitting Championships would be more interesting than sitting through a 90-minute soccer match. It's a perception that couldn't be further from the truth.

Usually.

Only one of the 16 teams in Euro 2012 looked remotely impressive. Russia kicked the stuffing out of the Czech Republic, 4-1, on June 8 — the first day of the competition — and no match has come close to being as interesting since.

Both of the presumptive co-favorites, No. 1 Spain and No. 3 Germany, played like kindergartners in their respective openers. The Germans managed to squeak out a 1-0 win over Portugal despite being thoroughly outclassed for 89.5 minutes, and defending world and Euro champion Spain displayed approximately none of the passing precision that earned it FIFA's top ranking in its 1-1 draw with an aging Italian side.

Some of the world's best players have been invisible (see: Christiano Ronaldo, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and Arjen Robben). Other stars were only notable for boneheaded mistakes, for falling down for no reason, or for rolling around in short-lived agony after opponents breathed on them (see: Mario Balotelli, Robin Van Persie, and Franck Ribéry, respectively).

The games haven't had much scoring, with the exception of Russia's 4-1 line and Croatia's 3-1 win over Ireland, but that isn't the problem; soccer by definition isn't going to put up football-esque score lines, and tight contests are tense and engaging when they're well-played.

No, the problem is the games have been downright boring. Most teams appear comfortable sitting back and playing for draws; it's a strategy that has proven successful in past European tournaments, such as when Greece managed to win the 2004 event despite scoring just 7 goals in as many games, but it's the opposite of what soccer needs to be in order to succeed in America.

Soccer needs to be exciting, even in the face of inevitable 1-0 finals. Euro 2012 has been anything but.

The presentation

ESPN's coverage of the 2010 World Cup was wonderful. But the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader in Sports has pulled a complete 180-degree turn through eight matches this summer and has rendered already yawn-worthy soccer almost unwatchable.

The issues start in the studio, where Bob Ley has been forced to pry useful information from former international players Alexi Lalas and Michael Ballack. He hasn't been successful. Ballack has no experience behind the desk and has very little to say; his soccer résumé is outstanding, but he's little more than a pretty face under the lights.

The studio commentary has been putrid, but is downright glorious compared to the revelations leveled by color commentator Kasey Keller. The former USA goalkeeper was above average as a player, but he serves as a living, breathing reminder of why Americans shouldn't call soccer games. Nothing he has to say — and he doesn't ever shut up — is useful, articulate, or even accurate. Watching the games he has called is infuriating and instills the desire to punch babies.

Shut up, Kasey. You're not helping the cause.


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