Usually, a bittersweet feeling sets in at the end of the group phase of a major tournament. Friends old and new must take their leave, and all of a sudden half the storylines in the soap opera disappear. In the World Cup, there’s always some spunky underdog—a Trinibagonian or two—to mourn. Teams that may have played some tasty football—yer Cote d’Ivoires and so on—fail to survive. There’s almost always a big part of me that feels like the really fun part of the affair ends when the multiculti two-games-a-day fete gives way to the zero-sum knockouts.
This time, not so much. Portugal, eliminated today by Michael Ballack’s noggin (have I mentioned how impressive that thing is?), is the first side I’ve been at all sorry to see go. France? What a non-entity they turned out to be. I guess, based on WC2002 and this go-round, that The Feeling skips a tournament for them. Who else was there again? The Czechs? Eh. Romania? The thinking man’s Austria. Switzerland? I actually spent one night there once, and barely remember it; I feel the same about the team. Somehow, even though this tight 16-nation format probably ensures a stronger field overall than the bloated, continental-affirmative-action-diluted World Cup, Euro 2008’s also-rans are a pretty tepid lot.
On the other hand, who would have expected a match-up between Turkey and Croatia, a pair of outsider teams that looked in serious decline a couple years ago, to look so promising? Or that Russia, of all intercontinental empires, would suddenly look like the crew to give Holland a challenge? Or that the Dutch, kind of a cynical and brutal outfit two years back, would get all soulful and total-football-nostalgic? It’s been a great championship so far—just a very unbalanced one.