Euro 2012: Episode IV

31 August 2010

Let’s face it. Your 20s aren’t what you expected. You’re lowly-paid, overworked (or underworked – or both), and you’re dreading the day that that itch gets so bad you can avoid the doctor no longer. And you pine – pine – for the simple summer days when your team was humiliated by Spain or Germany (or even the Dutch!). Well, if you’re European your wait is over, since those 47 long months until Brazil 2014 will be broken up by Euro 2012 somewhere out East, where natural gas and Russian denial-of-service attacks come from. The rest of us Americans will have Shark Week expanded to a month and the invasion of the Maldives to enjoy, but until we start awarding three points for a win in international police actions, I’ll settle for trying to decide if Moldova or Albania are more formidable with a little leather ball.

Group A

Germany (World Cup: 3rd place), Turkey (UEFA qualifiers Group 5: 3/6), Austria (Qualifiers Group 7: 3/6), Belgium (Qualifiers Group 5: 4/6), Kazakhstan (Qualifiers Group 6: 5/6), Azerbaijan (Qualifiers Group 4: 5/6)

You may remember Germany having a particularly good World Cup with an extremely young team and no Michael Ballack. They may be a bunch of gays, but undeniable a stylish one on the pitch and as much fun to watch when they cracked against Spain as when they crushed England and Argentina. O(e)zil, Muller and the other non-standard-character-promoting players have been crafted into a powerful system by Joachim Low, who will surely stay as Germany coach through the next World Cup. The best of them might have a decade of national team play ahead. Not only will they top the group, and not only will they do it without losing a game, they will be at worst second-favorites to win it all.

Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan are perpetual also-rans who might pick up points here or there – mostly from each other. (Despite the rankings, Azerbaijan are better.) As in all things Belgium are a poor imitation of the Dutch and are in the midst of an unending breakdown. Their only real accomplishment in World Cup qualification was scoring a goal against Spain, and 1998 coach Georges Leekens can’t help a lack of top-shelf talent, a shortage cruelly exposed in their 11 August friendly defeat to underrated Finland. A result for them would be lasting longer than their country does.

In fairness bets on their groupmates Turkey and Austria aren’t much more inspiring: Turkey underperformed in World Cup qualification while Austria managed only four home wins in a group won by Serbia and a French team busy packing for their journey into the wilderness. Austria have also had a deal of upheaval in their coaches – 3 since Euro 2008 – while Turkey will still be working with a youngish team. (Only two current call-ups will be out of their 20s when eligible for their first game, which falls on midfielder Emre’s thirtieth birthday.)

And you thought the Mike Ditka pornstache was dead and buried

I favor Turkey. They’ve had time to reflect on missing the World Cup and have a huge pool of native talent with experience in European competition. They’ll also have the distinct advantage of experienced Dutch coach Guus Hiddink, who guided South Korea to the 2002 semifinals, Australia to the 2006 Round of 16 and Russia to the 2008 European semifinals (before watching them fuck up on the verge of the World Cup). What’s the chance lightning strikes twice?

Oh, fine. Take an option on Belgium then.

Key matches: Turkey and Austria in Germany.

Group B

Russia (UEFA qualifiers Group 4: 2/6), Slovakia (World Cup: Round of 16), Irish Republic (Qualifiers Group 8: 2/6), Macedonia (Qualifiers Group 9: 4/5), Armenia (Qualifiers Group 5: 6/6), Andorra (Qualifiers Group 6: 6/6)

If not for all the crappy teams you’d call this a Group of Death. Macedonia competed for the second-placed spot in Group 9 up to the final day, while Russia were unlucky to be drawn with Germany, shut out of outright qualification and then stunned by little Slovenia in the playoff. As for Ireland, they attract myths. Like their luck.

Let’s dive right in. Macedonia aren’t that good and never win away – impressing against Scotland does not equal impressing. (But more on that shortly.) So there’s them apples.

After their 2010 failure Russia have a new coach, Dick Advocaat, who left Belgium for Russia after Hiddink left for Turkey. (Whose previous coach was made Consul of Rome.) It will be familiar ground for Advocaat: a team with an occasionally-bright past and a few big-name stars which is nevertheless short on raw talent. Besides a few players in the Premier League (Arshavin most notably) they almost all play for Zenit St. Petersburg and the Moscow teams; however there’s no solid core of the sort Barcelona supplies Spain or Juventus used to for Italy.

Slovakia, of course, ran away with perhaps the easiest qualifying group and then stunned Italy on the final match day of the World Cup’s first round. Their team is precisely the opposite of Russia’s, an international melange marked strangely by a core of players in the Turkish Superlig, including the really impressive Robert Vittek. (His exploits detailed better here.) It’s hard not to be impressed, but Slovakia were gifted with weak groups – twice – and an extraordinary Italian team who realized you win by scoring goals just fifteen minutes before the end of their Cup journey. Ten games against opposition of considerably greater quality, the best I can say for them is that they might – maybe – sneak into 2nd. 3rd is far more likely.

The headquarters of the Irish national team. Also the Army, police force and cereal production authority

Which brings us to Ireland. If your heart wasn’t broken and your face contorted into rage over Thierry Henry’s handball, then you’re an asshole. Still, they’re managed by Giovanni Trappatoni – the kind of Italian manager you actually want, unlike a few I’m aware of – and most of the team plays in England or Scotland, lending some mutual experience and a coherent style far beyond what the country’s own anemic league could provide. There’s a diversity in the selection of players available and anchors in forward Robbie Keane and goaltender Shay Given. Both are heading towards the close of their international careers and both will be looking to wrap it up in style – especially Given, as he’s replaced (likely permanently) by England international Joe Hart between Manchester City’s posts.

Perhaps ridiculously, Ireland will top the group. Russia will come second.

Key matches: Any pair of Russia, Slovakia and Ireland. Watch especially when Ireland travels; I think they’re better away.

Group C

Italy (World Cup: Group stage 4/4), Serbia (World Cup: Group stage 4/4), Northern Ireland (UEFA qualifiers Group 3: 4/6), Slovenia (World Cup: Group stage 3/4), Estonia (Qualifiers Group 5: 5/6), Faroe Islands (Qualifiers Group 7: 6/6)

Or maybe this is the Group of Death, with three World Cup qualifiers in one delicious package. Somebody’s going to go home a sad panda, are they not? And it’s already begun; two stoppage time goals were all that prevented the Faroe Islands upsetting Estonia and – surely for the first time ever – taking the lead in a qualifying group. You’ll forgive me for underrating these two juggernauts, but this will be their last appearance in a paragraph I really ought to have ended thirty words ago.

I do need to take a moment to disregard Northern Ireland specifically rather than just lumping them with the others. They weren’t bad as recently as 2006, when they beat Spain 3-2 at home; the scorer of all three, Sunderland/Ipswich Town’s David Healy, is still available for the campaign. But even in the Euro 2008 qualifiers they came third, behind Spain and Sweden, and they’ve never qualified for the European Championships. Worse, nothing jumps out at me to say that this year they will.

I’m sure they’re all nice guys, though.

Italy will be very early in their reconstruction after the horror show of this year. In Prandelli they’ve got a new manager and some of the oldest players will retire themselves, with a couple of young standouts like Quagliarella and New Jersey’s own Giuseppe “The Situation” Rossi available to take their place. It’s not clear how far and how fast this reconstruction will go; attacking options Pirlo, Gilardino and Pazzini were recalled while the entire back line has been retooled. Even into qualification several players are receiving first call-ups, suggesting (rightly) that there isn’t much satisfaction to be had from the lost to Ivory Coast; of the returners, from perhaps the widest spectrum of Italian clubs  ever, a number are relatively unknown. They’ll have to get known pretty fast if Italy is going to avoid the dragon-slaying potential of the second-place playoffs. (I will give some points. Mario “Stupid Mario” Balotelli returns to ignominy for the first two games. Well done.)

Serbia were unlucky not to go to the World Cup round of 16 – they fell to weak Ghana thanks to a red card, a penalty and international sympathy for OMG AFIRCAN TEAM!!!11, gained a shock victory over Germany and then collapsed when Australia found their own shit too late, a trend that’s plagued Serbia longer than just this June. Even if they wanted to retool it’s not clear they have enough options, as their team is not hugely aged or experienced to begin with and already draws in the best of the Serbian soccer diaspora. Matters are made worse as Coach Radomir Antic landed himself a four-match ban for slagging off the referee in the Australia game and the Serbian authorities, complaining of the lack of better options, demanded he take a pay cut or get the boot. (And took the chance to piss all over him as they did.) They should have thrown him into the Guus Hiddink merry-go-round. They could have sent him to Iceland and got San Marino’s coach.

Slovenia, meanwhile, finished the best of the three, narrowly missing clearing the group at the expense of either England or the USA. Like Serbia’s, their squad is pretty settled and proved unusually thrilling despite extremely limited resources. What can you say? They had the fussballgeist. But this is a fickle thing, and surely they won’t keep it. The problem for a team like Slovenia (or indeed Serbia) is that in order to progress in a more difficult group – which this one is – they will need to rely on all of the same players over a long period of time, a big difference compared to gambling on their fitness in three games over 10 days. A bench consisting of all (and only) of the finest players with major league experience in the country makes attrition their biggest foe, especially for those players who have both league and European competition. Any changes forced on them due to form or injury will have more of an impact on systems which have already proven relatively successful with a certain set of players. The temptation will be to shoehorn new players into the old system.

All material, this one. Italy will be shaky but will have enough time to put together a decent team. I don’t smell the magic around Slovenia again, but I’ll back them to continue on in second place. Serbia’s turmoil (and pre-existing injuries to a few key players) will cost them.

Key matches: Slovenia away in Belgrade.

Group D

France (World Cup: Group stage 4/4), Romania (UEFA qualifiers Group 7: 5/6), Bosnia and Herzegovina (Qualifiers Group 5: 2/6), Belarus (Qualifiers Group 6: 4/6), Albania (Qualifiers Group 1: 5/6), Luxembourg (Qualifiers Group 2: 5/6)

Does anyone else think that when Henry handled the ball he stole Ireland’s luck?  I think that. The President of Ireland and some Druid prince and his Leprechaun Army will probably have to rip out his beating heart and turn it into an amulet so Milla Jovovich can use it to stop the destruction of the Earth with her sidekick, Norm from There’s Something About Mary, and the Artist Formerly Known As the Second-String Mel Gibson.

Either way, once again France drew the Group of Life. An AIDS Ward XI could go to the finals from here. Belarus, Albania and Luxembourg are all minnows and Romania’s not much more: They have a new coach who’s okay but they draw their core team from the country’s own biggest sides, whose failure in European competition leaves the national league and by extension the team in freefall. (Though, famous last words.)

France and Bosnia/Herzegovina, then. As ever the ball is pretty much in France’s court. B/H are what they are and though certainly no pushover they don’t have the depth to metamorphose into a really superior team. If they win, it is because France aren’t pushing hard enough; if they lose it is because France are on the way to comprehensive reform. Given their dive into the abyss in South Africa, coach Laurent Blanc has the leeway to completely recraft this team. He has the players, too. The real question: Does he have the balls?

His first step was decisive: against Norway he banned all 23 of the players in South Africa and called up a whole new squad, declaring also that only the blameless keeper, Hugo Lloris, is certain for re-inclusion. This offered him the chance to call up an entire raft of the neglected and ignored. The cost was a 2-1 loss, but it may be the best of all France’s late sufferings. Lessons were learned, and the squad now named for the beginning of Euro 2012 qualification is a decent melange of old and new: Saha, Benzema and Mexes return as Loic Remy and the excellent Jeremy Menez join up.

The consensus was that after the collective punishment of the Norway match the entire thing should be put behind France; for that reason, and for the effect on qualification, the further bans handed out to Anelka (the “mild-mannered” man who will never play for country again) et al were a mistake which could only hamper the team. Bilge, I say. In fact wouldn’t have mattered a jot if Laurent Blanc called up eleven new people to play Norway, all were terrible and then he called them up again. Everyone on the team must know they’re optional and that bad attitude is worse than bad form, since it means they’ll be humiliated despite rather than because of their skill on the pitch.  Sending this message is the only thing that can save these miserables. On September 7th in Bosnia, we’ll see if they have done enough.

I want Blanc to succeed. I think he will. France will top the group and maybe even with a little style. B/H to the playoffs.

Key matches: The very first one. If France win in Bosnia they’ll be pretty much home free. Runner-up status to the matches between Bosnia/Herzegovina and Romania.

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To assume makes an ass of you and me. So let’s get on with it. Part 1 here.

Group C – In-ger-lund!

England, United States, Algeria and Slovenia; last prediction 1st England 2nd Slovenia

Listening to today’s Football Weekly – the super-duper special World Cup preview – I can’t help but wonder what’s wrong with the English. Is the malaise in football’s motherland so great that America – America! – can be turned into some great vicious enemy waiting to maul hapless, helpless Albion?  What strange days we live in.

Yes, England looks a bit, uh, French lately. Indifferent against Mexico and fortunate to have two of Japan’s three goals go their way, you would rightly sniff a bit at the prospects of this being England’s Year. But only a bit: England were deadly in the qualifiers. You might smell a whiff of diffidence from their surrender to the Ukraine, but then a little charity is perhaps in order, especially since the squad was so much more unsettled this year than last. (A contagion starting with the Russian roulette going on in goal and abating only at the shiny golden pate of Wayne Rooney.)

But then. That Japan match was just – ugh. Ugh! God. I feel the bad kind of dirty just thinking about it. England’s best chance was a penalty. Which Frank Lampard missed.

Deep breaths. Deep breaths. We recall that they’re facing the same USA side that took a single point in 2006 and blew the 2007 Copa America. Their qualification run was basically identical this time around and the Confederations Cup, while an inspiring moment for a team of lesser lights, mattered rather less to Spain and Brazil, who seemed as though they simply couldn’t be bothered to lose. 3-1 against Australia is no mean feat – but big losses to the indifferent Czechs and the Dutch (minus Van Persie) are highly unencouraging.

See?

But that’s not how I really know the USA is in trouble. You know how? All this big tough bluster about giving England a rough time and psyching out Wayne Rooney when they can’t even muster the best widow’s peak. Like Jay DeMerit is Cristiano Ronaldo and Rooney’s just going to oblige them an hysterical red card  or gift some horrible passing error in a fit of pique. I think they’ve been basing their team strategy on the Nike commercial.

Told you so.

Of  course Algeria are a horror show and will not foul themselves to a single point. (Though I’ll tip them for worst group stage disciplinary record – take that Uruguay!) Slovenia, however, still tug at my soul. Their friendly results are encouraging but sparse – only three since last September, two wins and a loss (to England). However in terms of finding it where it counts Slovenia are up there, tossing out the top three seeded teams in their qualifying group and an excellent Russian side in the playoffs. Like I said before: it’s the fussballgeist.

Admittedly their group was easy-ish. But besides Mexico, was the USA’s any more challenge?

Hmm. Perhaps cynicism towards your home nation is an Anglophone thing.

England wins all three. Their first match will result in less a defeat than a rout of the United States. Slovenia comes through, but on only four or five points.

Group D – Sitzkrieg

Germany, Australia, Ghana and Serbia; last prediction 1st Germany 2nd Australia

The months have not been terribly kind to Germany. They’ve lost Michael Ballack to a needless meaningless injury (Arsene Wenger will hopefully feel some sick pleasure that the pendulum swings both ways) and ex-coach Franz Beckenbauer is using it as an excuse to say they won’t contend. Balls. (Balls-ack? Can I get a har har?) Ballack was good, a lynchpin, but Germany are not a team so inspired by a single player. His loss doesn’t rule them out the way Rooney’s would England or Ronaldo’s Portugal. It’s the difference between an A and A- team.

But maybe they don’t sweep the group. All of the teams they face are notionally quite strong; Serbia and Australia actually so. Ghana has a lot to offer in FIFA World Cup but they were bad at the Africa Cup of Nations, atrocious against the Netherlands and will see none of Michael Essien, who was a best a toy flashlight in the midst of a black hole.

Australia impressed in 2006, qualified effortlessly in the more difficult Asian Confederation and their last several friendlies have been positive. (Especially after forcing a 0-0 draw with the Dutch.) Star midfielder Tim Cahill is an injury doubt but you’d argue this still leaves them better off than others. (Germany, Ghana…)  I noticed Serbia got some buzz as a dark horse team; this is right, if for no other reason than that they’re on par with Australia (and the USA) but get nothing like the coverage. Reservations about their shaky form lately weren’t helped by a slightly hysterical 4-3 result against Cameroon.

Though neither were they after Australia’s 3-1 loss to the USA…

Germany will top the group, but may give up a draw. Australia with Cahill is 54-46 to come second; without 52-48. See what I did there? I used numbers to seem sciency.

Group E – Stale Danish and doubled-over Dutch

The Netherlands, Cameroon, Denmark, Japan; last prediction 1st Netherlands 2nd Denmark

I have to admit the subtitle’s a bit forced. After I spent a solid 15 minutes on it. Yeah.

The Dutch have continued a strong run of form after a perfect qualifying run, but… I don’t know. I watched them against Ghana and it was probably the most jittery big victory I’ve seen. They seemed tentative and slightly distracted and only very late did they expose the soft underbelly of Ghana’s misery and crap goaltending. For a great team, they weren’t very great – and they’ll be down the truly excellent Arjen Robben in the opener against Denmark. If they’re lucky.

The Danes, however, have fared far worse. Their key men both up front and in back, Nicklas Bendtner and Simon Kjaer, are on the knife-edge for desperately-needed inclusion against the Dutch. Then just today the coach/namesake of Olsen’s Gang took to his bed with a fever. In South African winter. You can’t make this shit up, can you? Bendtner and Kjaer have at least returned to full training, but with all three fit Denmark dropped three of the last four friendlies. (Taking it easy to avoid injuries?) Bendtner in particular is a blessing, since Olsen brought only three strikers to the tournament, preferring to keep his options open in a variety of supporting roles.

Cameroon are fully fit and somehow even more pathetic. Samuel Eto’o threatened to quit because Roger Milla wouldn’t be his friend (dude, cold) and the rest of the team aren’t much to write home about. Even Japan has rather more depth. Cameroon haven’t won a match since the group stages of the Africa Cup of Nations and I’m not sure their 0-0 draw against Georgia qualifies as a result. Or their 1-1 against Italy, come to that.

As for Japan – I can’t even. Read this instead. Too bad they’ll go as their fan contributor knows his stuff and is far less crap than I.

The absence of Robben probably won’t noticeably hinder the Dutch this early. They’ll come first. The Danes, luckier than good of late, to slide in second. If Cameroon are lucky they’ll make a good third.

Rather a dull day, actually.  What looked set to happen did with few diversions.

In other qualifier news, Bahrain tied New Zealand at home.  Any draw at the second match will favor the Bahrainis as long as it isn’t scoreless.  New Zealand should be worried about this.  (Though I suppose New Zealand should be more worried about not being good.)

WON

Denmark 1-0 Sweden (Group 1)

Portugal 3-0 Hungary (1)

Switzerland 3-0 Luxembourg (2)

Israel 3-1 Moldova (2)

Greece 5-2 Latvia (2)

Czech Republic 2-0 Poland (3)

Slovenia 2-0 Slovakia (3)

Finland 2-1 Wales (4)

Germany 1-0 Russia (4)

Azerbaijan 4-1 Liechtenstein (4)

Spain 2-1 Armenia (5)

Bosnia and Herzegovina 2-0 Estonia (5)

Belgium 2-0 Turkey (5)

Belarus 4-0 Kazakhstan (6)

Ukraine 1-0 England (6)

Austria 1-0 Lithuania (7)

Serbia 5-0 Romania (7)

France 5-0 Faroe Islands (7)

Cyprus 4-1 Bulgaria (8 – and the ouch of the day)

Montenegro 2-1 Georgia (8)

DREW

Irish Republic 2-2 Italy

QUALIFIED

Denmark

Germany

Serbia

Italy

GUARANTEED PLAYOFF BERTHS

Russia

Bosnia and Herzegovina

France

Republic of Ireland

WHO’S UP, WHO’S DOWN

Portugal 3rd to 2nd; Sweden falls (1)

Israel 4th to 3rd; Latvia falls (2)

Czech Republic 4th to 3rd; Northern Ireland falls (3)

Azerbaijan 6th to 5th; Liechtenstein falls (4)

Ukraine 3rd to 2nd; Croatia falls (6)

Sean St Ledger, the bipolar anima of the Irish team

Of course the sole draw was also one of the most decisive matches.  Ireland were on fine form and Italy, though not up to their 2006 standard, were exciting nonetheless.  But Italy was also standoffish, so in that sense the match was a showcase for the best and worst of the Irish team: the Italians seemed to be merely “dropping by”.  The best was the late header by Sean St Ledger – his first for Ireland – off a free kick by Stephen Hunt; the worst was when, in the ninetieth minute, an Italian push failed to be picked up by a surely-shellshocked St Ledger and effortlessly sent a Gilardino strike past the hapless Shay Given to tie it.  (Credit where due: itself a beautiful goal.) Perhaps the problem is that Ireland doesn’t yet know how to win? It has been awhile.

The game was probably irrelevant – both Ireland and Italy will win their final match which would have left Italy ahead anyway and Ireland got clear of 3rd place Bulgaria regardless – but I must admit it struck some slice of Celtic pride buried deep inside me to see the win slip away.  Hopefully Ireland, as well as they may have done, will be a bit more put together for the playoff rounds.

WHAT THE FUCK?! MOMENT

I could subtitle this section “OPPROBRIUM.” It goes out to the entire English team – working together.  They decided to be asleep at the wheel against Ukraine, which handed that side a desperately needed win whichwill see them through to the playoffs at the expense of Croatia.  No disrespect to Ukraine, but they should not have won if England played at full speed (just as they didn’t before and neither did Croatia).  They didn’t.

Cheering for England - fresco in oils

Cheering for England - fresco in oils

Perhaps this was further revenge for the Croats’ sending off of England in 2008; and if it is, it’s shameful.  But I don’t think so.  I think England did what they always do – got just enough to do the job and decided to coast the rest of the way through.  The Spanish haven’t done this.  The Dutch didn’t.  Neither did the Germans.  But that’s the difference, isn’t it?  They play every single game while the little princesses on the England squad don’t want to take the risks required to win lest they get hurt. Because of their diffidence a weaker team will get through.  The Greeks killed Socrates for less.

Perhaps a coach from another football can sum it up better.

WINNERS

Dont cry, poppet, you can still lose to Russia

Don't cry, poppet, you can still lose to Russia

Portugal – Only towards the end, faced with the abyss, did they find it.  Their 3-0 trouncing of Hungary was exactly what they needed to get ahead.  Now only a sure thing against Malta stands between them and a certain playoff berth – though Denmark must be given the honorable mention for beating Sweden, which benefits Portugal at least as much as it does them.

Slovenia – They beat the Slovaks. They beat them handily. This was quite unexpected. When the Slovenes first made my giney tingle shortly before the 12 August mini-qualifiers they were fifth place in the group and were checkered at best, and it was mostly dumb instinct and mathematics that suggested I favor them.  But the thought that they could crawl up 5 places to the very top was unheard of. It is now a possibility; see below.

Ukraine – They beat England. I wrote in August that this would be a “shock of epic proportions.”  And how. It was mostly ignored in the press, partly because the England-Ukraine game was streamed online only via a shoddy connection in a first for useless technology and partly because England already made it. But that shouldn’t take away from Ukraine’s accomplishment despite my above tirade. They played well and bought themselves a playoff birth.

Cyprus – I know it doesn’t matter, but they badly battered Bulgaria (alliterative win), which is nominally a far superior team. I’m a little sorry they weren’t paired in a group with Turkey, considering what they appear to be capable of. But that’s probably my sick way of seeking vengeance for Turkey’s own bust-out.

LOSERS

Sweden – Don’t confuse yourselves, my erstwhile Scandinavian countrymen: you’re done. (And it didn’t stop me from quietly flailing for Denmark – personal loyalty before genetic, I suppose, though thank God my grandfather is dead.)  Even if Sweden won Denmark would have got the better of a tie, which would have shut the door to Portugal for good. Perhaps I should have pulled for the Swedes after all. But this seems unsporting.

Either way Sweden’s play was not worthy of them. The Danes flagged at the end and Sweden’s attempt at exploitation were two goals marred by offsides. Even then they could have meekly held the line for the last ten minutes and taken their chances with Albania and a tie with Portugal on points. They did not. Their World Cup ends here for it. The stain at Parken is lifted.

Norway – The vanquishers of Scotland will almost certainly have nothing to show for it. Barring some extreme fluke they will be the weakest of the 2nd place finishers and so excluded from the second round.  Unfair perhaps, but they were in a group with one very strong team and three relatively weak ones.  I’ve heard (though I can find no evidence) some griping about how this went down in the first round; I think should this occur again (which the addition of a Kosovar team might prevent) they ought to exclude from the final group one of the Pot A “best” teams and instead include two “E” teams. None of the second place runners had a chance against a Dutch side like that. They just sucked all the air out of the room and lacked the politeness to throw one at the last minute. Eh, England? Eh?

There's always 201...mumble

Everybody else – For fully half the teams the qualifiers are done, though almost all still play on Wednesday.  When you consider teams that aren’t technically “out” but have no real shot that number shoots up to include almost everybody besides those whose berths are already secure.  End of the line. Have your tickets ready.

WHAT WILL MATTER WEDNESDAY

Despite the large number of games to be played on the 14th, almost none will be of any significance. Here are the few which will:

Group 2: It is not impossible that Greece tie or even lose to Luxembourg.  They’ve won only a single game – against group leader Switzerland, and drawn two to last-place Moldova. It is also not impossible that Israel defeat leaders Switzerland. If they did they’d sneak past the Greeks by either a point or on the tiebreaker. I am most certainly not holding my breath, but keep your eye peeled on them – especially Greece-Luxembourg. If Greece struggles, get your slide rule.

Group 3: Fascinating to the last. Slovakia is holding Slovenia by a mere two points with one game left in a group where everyone has fucked someone else over at least once. The Czechs are a close third but are ultimately irrelevant – they needed Slovakia to win today.

Slovenia are certain to win their final match against San Marino; the crucial game (indeed the only game) will be Slovakia’s.  Despite the numbers their loss today has put Slovakia on the back foot; assuming Slovenia’s already won (and they have) Slovakia will have to beat Poland. A draw will drop them to second; right now they’re even on goal difference but the Slovenes will pound San Marino to run up the numbers.  Though Slovakia’s final match is away, the location in Poland is relatively close to Slovakia, lending a less hostile atmosphere than they could otherwise expect, and their away record is 3-1. But Poland are still a threat.

Whichever team comes in second will nevertheless be a distinct underdog going into the playoffs, especially with this newfound extensively ridiculous seeding system – out of spite I’ll call it the French system – so first place is quite the plum. I stand by my original rankings; Slovakia have one last victory in them. Either way we will see either a fourth- or fifth-seeded team gain an automatic qualification. That’s something special.

ALMOST EVERYPLACE ELSE

As an added bonus! (Except Africa. Probably racist but I haven’t even begun to pay attention to it. I blame my parents. Actually, fuck it. On no basis at all, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire and South Africa will be joined by… uh… Algeria, Nigeria and Cameroon.  Special attention to Algeria-Egypt (14 November) and Nigeria-Mozambique.

In South America you want to watch Argentina-Uruguay and, perhaps far below that, refresh the page with Chile-Ecuador. This(ese) will be the decisive game(s) there. (I like Uruguay for a narrow win and the final automatic spot; Argentina will settle for the playoff.)

In North America Costa Rica will play the US and a win there will get them the third spot. If they don’t get it Honduras can clinch with a win over El Salvador; I think there’s even odds on a tie between the two favoring Costa Rica, with Honduras playing off (and falling to) Argentina in November. That’s six months for Argentina to sack Maradona and get a real coach. It really is too bad. Hand of God; head of Dog.

After Wednesday’s (very truncated) recap I’ll mention the playoffs, though we won’t know much about those until the seeding (yes, they’re seeding, the bastards) on the 19th.

Our German friends went to the polls this evening in what was variously described as a “yawner,” “soporific” and “one of the dullest in living memory” in which turnout reached a record low. How low is as yet unclear: there seem to have been about four million fewer votes cast this year (depending upon the number of outstanding ballots).  That kind of drop should translate to a fall of 5-7 percent in terms of turnout, for a “lowest ever” result of around 70-72%.

(Yes kids. 70% is the lowest ever in Germany.  Let this be a lesson that there are other – and I dare I hazard the sacrilege of saying better – ways of doing democracy.)

However I would submit that this has been a crucial poll for both Germany and the world.  Suffice it to say that Germany remains, even now (especially now), the economic engine of Europe.  Their unemployment is now below even our own – the benefit of a strong social safety net built at great cost during years of boom – and the first shoots of global recovery have appeared there.  Along with France it essentially decides the direction of Europe, flail though Britain might (indeed, rightly or wrongly); it is a cornerstone of America’s Afghanistan policy, its European policy, its Iranian policy, its Russian policy… I run on.  (And could.)  But in short, this was an election of great significance to us – and not, indeed, just for foreign policy. What is happening in Germany is heading for us, too.

Background

On a basic level the political system is – was – dominated by two large parties and a number of smaller ones.  The Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) are centre-right – though the name falsely implies some commitment to clericalism, more prominent in their Bavarian branch than generally.  They’re generally the party of rural areas, the country, and the south of Germany, especially Bavaria.  The Social Democrats (SDP) are centre-left – the party of the unions, workers, cities, especially in the north.  They have between them provided every Chancellor in modern German history.

In addition there are the Free Democrats (FDP, known colloquially as the ‘Liberals’), re-established along with the SDP and CDU/CSU at the refounding of the Republic.  They’re just that: though what we would call relatively “progressive,” as with most modern classical liberals  – sounds weird, especially as in America we term it “libertarian” – what the FDP really cares about is economics and driving government out of business.  As such it’s slightly socially moderating to either the SDP or the CDU/CSU, but economically quite radical.  Wealthier, college-educated urban Republicans would be quite at home here, and the FDP appeals to an educated, wealthy urban/suburban demographic.

Unlike other democracies (and totally unlike the US) Germany does not allow a leader to have less than the total support of Parliament, called Bundestag; that means no minority governments as in Canada.  Throughout most of modern German history neither major party could gain a majority in parliament.  This meant not only that the FDP always chose who governed, but assured that they were almost always in government.  Though they were always the bridesmaid and never the bride, this made them relatively impervious to shifts in the electorate or their own vote totals.  Vice-Chancellor Genscher thus served in that role for twenty years and was continuously in government for twenty-five years under three chancellors.  Neither party cared much for them, but there was rarely a way around them.

But in the 1980s two other forces have appeared.  The first were the Greens (known as Bündnis 90/Die Grünen, or Alliance ’90/The Greens, after the coalition between Western and Eastern parties formed after the fall of the Berlin Wall).  Starting slowly the Greens eventually shucked off their origins as a protest party and became willing to join a government (perhaps reflecting their growth from a niche environmentalist party to the favored outlet of the wealthy, urban left).  This was a major development: for the first time a government could be formed without the free-market FDP, making a socially leftist government possible.  It also tipped the subtle balance of German politics; given the unlikelihood of the Greens’ siding with the conservative Christian Democrats, it had the effect of opening up possibilities for the Social Democrats while driving the FDP even further into the CDU’s arms, as for the first time they faced opposition without them.

Reunification brought with it a new party.  First called the Party of Democratic Socialism, then combined with a coalition of ex-SDP members, the Left is a motley crew of ex-East German communists, far-left anti-communist reformers, disaffected Greens and Social Democrats, frustrated workers and welfare recipients.  It is the first quality that has made them anathema to the rest of German politics: initially it met with a cordon sanitaire of the type deployed in the Netherlands, Belgium and France to stop extremist parties from joining government.  At first it didn’t matter: the Left was a small party focused mainly in the East, so drawing fairly equally from potential CDU/CSU and SDP voters, and for the first decade of its existence it struggled both to repudiate communism and connect with the electorate.

Change is rarely spare

That changed in 2005.  The economic reforms of SPD chancellor Gerhard Schröder managed to trigger a Bangkok dilemma: his actions were considered unacceptable to leftists and insufficient to rightists.  The Greens, in power for the first time since 1998, occupied only three or four non-economic ministries and provided little resistance.  In 2005 the SPD-Green alliance rallied on the back of the personal unpopularity of Angela Merkel, then CDU/CSU leader; but it was to no avail.  The government lost its majority.

Left leaders Gregor Gysi (ex East German Communist, above) and Oskar Lafontaine (ex-SPD, below)

Left leaders Oskar Lafontaine (above) and Gregor Gysi (below). Guess who was a Communist

But the CDU/CSU did not gain one.  Indeed they lost nearly as many seats as did the SPD.  The big winner was the Left party, now co-headed by a high-profile SPD defector, Oskar Lafontaine.  Lafontaine and others balked at Schröder’s reforms, which were seen to be uncompassionate, excessively pro-business and – worst of all – Anglo-American.  From a low of just two seats in 2002 the Left gained 54.  This is basically because the German system, mixed-member proportional, makes big changes between major parties require big changes in the overall vote.  This rarely happens, and a government has a majority of only 20-40, including coalition partners.

Drive a wedge of 54 into that – 54 members of Parliament that no one will have and that consequently will vote against anyone – and you have a problem.  Germany had that problem.  No coalition of two parties gained a majority.  Of the many options only one was plausible: a “grand coalition” of both CDU/CSU and SDP.

How can two opposed parties work together?  Tenderly.  Schröder had to go – and go he did – and in his place were Merkel and Frank-Walter Steinmeier, formerly his second-in-command.  Steinmeier was a politician with limited public exposure, first as head of Schröder’s private office and then as Foreign Minister, and despite an even split of ministries between the grand partners it was Merkel who gained credit for being public-spirited and a “safe pair of hands.”

Despite predictions they survived the entirety of their four year term.  But predictably Merkel and the CDU/CSU entered the election with a big lead over the SPD.  The entirety of the election campaign did nothing to dent that lead.

Yesterday and what it means

The results are contained here.  (Don’t laugh, Wikipedia is filled with elections nerds, and unlike so many national election bodies writes with an eye to general clarity.)

The traditional CDU/CSU-FDP coalition “won.”  But this was on a very small increase in seats (13) for the CDU/CSU (and a drop in votes).  These were mostly “overhang seats,” a German quirk which basically awards bonus seats because an opponent wins more individual seats than their party vote would allow.  This benefits the two major parties, as they win most of these single-member seats on the basis of strong regional and local support.  (It makes its last appearance this year – German courts ordered it quashed by 2011.) The SDP lost a record 76 seats and came an anemic second.  Here’s the kicker, though: both major parties had their worst result ever.  Only a bare majority of Germans voted for both parties of government combined.

The FDP surged to 93 seats (the CDU/CSU had 239), which means their partners will contribute some 30% of the coalition’s total, a number unprecedented in Germany and indeed most modern parliamentary democracies).  This was the greatest night in their history.  Their success has been so profound that they are actually within striking distance of being Germany’s second party – an unheard-of development.

Both the Greens and the Left also had the best nights in their history.  Though they maintained only their single constituency seat, in urban Berlin, the Greens surged over the 10% mark for the first time to take 68 seats.  The Left did better still – they surged to 13 constituency seats, including a majority of those in the state of Saxony-Anhalt, and rose to 76 total.  Only the success of the FDP prevented the Left from forcing the two main parties back into grand coalition.  For the first time, the three opposition parties’ total votes and seats outnumbered either of the two parties of government.

It can’t be surprising that the collapse of the SDP aided both the Greens and the Left – despite leadership under leader Steinmeier which, if not stentorian, was not at all disastrous.  The SDP is at serious, even terminal risk of becoming merely a pan-German leftist fraction, splitting their traditional voters with the Greens in the West and the Left in the East.  There is no love lost between the two, especially as the Left is (bizarrely) depriving the Greens of some of their anti-establishment luster.

FDP leader Guido Westerwelle, who hopefully didnt drink it all in one go

FDP leader Guido Westerwelle, who hopefully didn't drink it all in one go

But Merkel must be said to have lost, too.  Her majority comes from the FDP’s success and they will not fail to let her know it.  Worse, whereas the grand coalition allowed her to govern “above politics” while avoiding any difficult questions – with the SPD’s tacit consent – the FDP have become unashamedly radical in their economics and their opposition to green politics, and they will push Merkel in their direction.  She cannot simply shrug, as she did with the SPD, and agree that the differences are irreconcilable for the sake of the government.  (Hence the suggestion that she actually preferred the prospect of a new grand coalition.)  The FDP will take their ball and go home if she doesn’t give them almost everything they want, and it’s likely she’ll do just that.  The consequence of not doing so is implicit in this interview, where the FDP leader tries to put down fears about a “centre-right” government: this “party of all people” is perfectly capable of making a government itself one day, especially if they continue to shine in the face of a taciturn, unhelpful Christian Democrat majority.  “We wanted reform – our own allies betrayed us,” etc.

Clearly people are fed up in general, and there is a sense that the financial crisis has revealed that the traditional manner of doing business – by whomever – has failed.  All three smaller parties were fired up; anyone in government is meanwhile seen to be tainted.  This is a trend that has been growing and escalating as the post-9/11 world has taken shape.  It will continue to do, especially if the far right-wing National Democratic Party – neo-Nazis in all but name, handicapped only by being run through with agents of the security services – manages to begin making an impact.  So far, though, Germans are far more ready to cast a ballot for ex-communists than neo-fascists.

Elsewhere

These trends: the decline and fragmentation of major parties; surge in support for parties with more hardened, philosophically coherent (and so inflexible) beliefs on the fringes of the political spectrum; and an increased tempo of attacks by the mainstream against that fringe which has the effect merely of eroding further their own popularity; they don’t exist in Germany alone.  Britain, France, and the US face similar problems and have electorates of similar prosperity and more similarity of mind than many think.  They may not vote for the same things, but all follow the same cues.

British National Party rally (Sentinel)

British National Party rally (Sentinel)

In the UK all three parties have been hurt by the financial crisis and the related row over MPs’ expenses.  As in Germany, the collapse of the primary center-left party has not unlocked a surge for the center-right: people want Labour out but they don’t want the Tories in.  In the meantime disaffection with the political system and calls for reform are reaching a fever pitch.

A brief surge in the popularity of independents and other parties seems to be abating, but then there are established fringe forces to turn to: the conservative anti-European UKIP, the Welsh and Scottish Nationalists, and the ultra right-wing BNP.  As yet there isn’t really a well-organized leftist force along those lines, partly because of the defeat of the unions by the Conservatives and the Trotskyists by Labour coupled with the presence of two established, mainstream left parties who can exchange votes between them.

Strangely in a solely first past the post system, like the UK or US, you seem to get more minor and fringe parties than you ever do in a country that actually lets them win.

Villepin (left) and Sarkozy (right) - as it were

Villepin (left) and Sarkozy (right) - as it were

In France personality politics seem to count for more than ideologies (and really, Gaullism‘s less an ideology than a state of being), but the success of the National Front – they made it to the second-round of the French presidential election in 2002, which saw Jacques Chirac re-elected with 82% by a coalition of mainline conservatives and leftists of all stripes who encouraged a vote for “the crook, not the fascist.”  Though the rare and unexpected success was not repeated two years ago, terrible splits rage through the political class as the Socialists continue to gleefully tear each other apart and the entire ruling class of the governing UMP is embroiled in the Clearstream trial (or, put so much more delicately in its native italics, L’Affair Clearstream).  Clearstream sees the President of the Republic, Nicholas Sarkozy, suing the last Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, for allegedly falsifying a document listing Sarkozy as the recipient of a defense kickback.

Such behavior obviously makes off-the-grid candidates like young Communist leader Olivier Besancenot and perennial Franco-German Green Daniel Cohn-Bendit more palatable to the general public. Interestingly 2007 saw a moderate force appear and challenge the two main parties for the presidency, the Democratic Movement under Francois Bayrou; but after failing to endorse either remaining contender and disappointing results in parliamentary and European polls it looks to fizzle.  People can say what they will – nobody votes for a moderate party.

Canada faces an even more daunting prospect.  Unable to form a majority government after three elections in four years, with another looming, the Parliament split between the center-left Liberals and center-right Conservatives is further cleaved by the increasingly left-wing New Democrats and the Quebecois sovereigntist Bloc.  Add atop that a Green Party which polls 10% but doesn’t win a seat and you have a centre-right, and at times quite right-wing, government for whom only about 35% cast a ballot, against left wing votes of something like 52% (and a further 10% who would prefer not to vote in Canada at all).  The continuing inability of Ottawa to form a government is really a consequence of the annihilation of the Progressive Conservatives at the 1993 election, masked for eleven years by outsize Liberal majorities drawn from the resulting chaos.

There’s little prospect of a similar fate for either the new Conservative government or the Liberal opposition – though one might take the selection of a philosopher as their leader to be a sign of some despair – but a snap election today would probably ratify that of the last two polls.  This is no “message” from the people, besides that they don’t much care for anyone they have and don’t think it’s worth voting for anybody they don’t.  Quebec, lacking a separatist majority, is so divided between the mainstream parties that it returns almost uniformly separatist members who wouldn’t take part in any government (despite a half-baked attempt to replace the Tories with a Liberal/NDP coalition with Bloc support, which triggered an extraordinary dissolution of Parliament and a change in the Liberal leadership.

And then there’s the USA.  Our situation is a bit different because of the overwhelming difficulty of altering the basic structure of our government (which assures it’s only been done once or twice, and then relatively minor changes); the non-parliamentary system of government which makes it more difficult to logically tie a Congress together with a government; and the non-ideological political parties.  Make no mistake: Democrats are liberal and Republicans conservative out of convenience.  History is littered with liberal Republicans (and continues to be clogged with conservative Democrats).  Our parties are first and foremost regionalist.

But indeed all of these factors coalesce to make the situation worst of all the others.  Our ossified political system, reflective of an age in which travel, communication and authority were totally different, practically breeds disaffected.  A high rate of abstention is one way.  Another is the recent spate of specifically ideological “independent” (of what?) movements.  Ross Perot and Reform and Ron Paul come to mind most prominently. (But not Ralph Nader; his relationship with the Greens was uncertain at best.)

Ron Paul - a new force in politics, like him or lump him

Ron Paul - a new force in politics, like him or lump him

The American system – for reasons totally alien to its practice – tends to suppress most of these movements.  That’s the effect of the primary system: force dissident candidates to fight intraparty elections rather than stand independently or found a new party entirely.  Like most of the progressive reforms of the early 1900s, primaries have had unexpected and almost totally anti-democratic side effects.  (Thanks for that, WJB.  Where was that cross of gold again?)  Not for nothing are the British Conservatives, riven themselves with internal dissent and still broadly unpopular, adopting the primary for their own candidates.

The object then becomes not the creation of new parties but the “capture” of existing ones.  The Democrats and Republicans are subject to an unending series of political, ideological and personal coups as different factions with different priorities attempt to seize control of the party – and through them government – via favored candidates.  (Hence the otherwise inexplicable vitriol on the liberal wing of the party towards Hillary Clinton, not usually thought to be a McCarthyite herself.)  Even these movements are often as geographic or personal as ideological – Nancy Pelosi has ensured the placement of liberal, Californian allies at the head of a number of key committees, even ousting and replacing John Dingell (Michigan – Ann Arbor and Detroit Suburbs) on the Energy and Commerce Committee.

But even this broad, non-ideological two-party consensus – encompassing a space which would otherwise be occupied by five or more parties were they ideologically- or geographically-based – has come under increasing strain.  Progressive Democrats are having a harder time governing with conservative Southerners now than at any time since civil rights and the phenomenon of Sarah Palin, Joe the Plumber and other populist figures have driven a deep, festering wedge into the Republican ranks.

In some respects this year really has been an extraordinary one.  All of that plus the suggestion by a sitting governor that perhaps secession was legit after all and the inexplicable running battles over health care and climate (60% of the Congress is Democratic, yes?) and it’s no surprise that there’s a bumper crop of independents getting a lot of earlier exposure.

America’s a weird case.  In almost any other country I would say that both parties here are headed for a thumping (and both generally perform poorly in a generic ballot).  But the Constitution was not designed for parties and did not lend us a system that manages the inevitable ones well; and the two major parties have had decades – indeed centuries – to craft everything to their advantage and build up structures necessary to blunt even the best-funded challengers.  (We were speaking of Ross Perot.)  It also hurts that there are little in the way of central party structures; parties are not national affairs as in Europe because America is not a metropolitan country, with a clear center and periphery.  The people – political leaders, staffers, fundraisers – necessary, able and willing to craft any sincere challenge to the political center are not concentrated if they exist at all, and the ideological confrontation required for pieces of one party or the other to collectively defect simply isn’t there.  Animus, even hatred, has not yet translated into intolerance.  Part of that is because American politics is an older man’s game than most.  They are simply not as passionate, or hot-headed, depending on your view.

The party system we have will not last forever; but I can say that only in an abstract historical sense.  It could go on for a hundred years or a thousand or ten or through the day after tomorrow.  I don’t know.  There are signs that it’s corroding, and badly, in a way incomparable to the past – but this isn’t quite unique yet.  I am certain, if nothing else, that discontent with American politics will only continue to grow while the two parties continue their singular dominance of the country.  Don’t be fooled by good turnout recently (and ours still isn’t very good); it’s the break in the fever that foreshadows a renewed attack of the virus.

The bottom line is that it appears, at least to me, that the consensus built after World War II – not ideological, for that departed long ago, but the basic structure of how Western countries allow themselves to be governed – is breaking down.  Record losses for major parties, record gains for minor ones, fringe candidates with growing bankrolls and calls, even here, for broad-based electoral reform.  This evinces an entire hemisphere of people unsatisfied with their legacy.

The common thread seems to be a belief that the major political groups, the parties of government, have sacrificed a coherent, rigorous system of beliefs for the possibility of a vague electoral mandate.  Those parties and figures who reject that path, and prefer to offer an honest explication of their ideology, have begun to surge instead.  (Though in Europe and Canada more than here.)  If the parties of government are going to continue to be that in the future, the horror of triangulation and microtargeting will have to give way.  Ideology must be on offer; not just “real beliefs” or “convictions” coupled with vague platitudes about a stronger future but systems of seeing the world, the civil society, politics and the place of government in them.

Otherwise it will be extremists, unafraid to bare to the world their vision for it, who will benefit. For in a democracy ideological battles are no different than electoral ones: in the end it’s a matter of who chooses to show up.

This is out of the English Der Spiegel in Germany, complete with video.  They’re in the final weeks of a relatively boring, sanitzed campaign there – it’s hard not to be boring coming from four years of Seinfeld government – and apparently some local wags have decided upon a relatively, shall we say, unique campaign.  Flash mobs are dispatched – a singularly inappropriate word, I know – to speeches by the Chancellor (and Chancellor-candidate for the CDU/CSU) Angela Merkel.  At the end of every sentence – every single one – the mobbers shout “Yeah!” in the manner of an American tent revival.

Behold:

At one point Merkel apparently chided the crowd for simply saying “Yeah!” to

Presumably, this is not what theyd intended to cheer.

Presumably, this is not what they'd intended to cheer.

everything, so the crowd immediately started shouting whatever word Merkel’s last sentence ended with, regardless of relevance.  The article cites cheers of, “Growth!” “Five!” and – yikes – “Back door!”  I’ll bet her speechwriters will learn a valuable lesson about ending sentences.  Or perhaps they’ll work with it?  Can you end sentences in a preposition in German?  I’d delight in the spectacle of 20,000 people shouting “With!  Of!  For!”

Most of the people interviewed for it confessed that it was basically for fun.  However assholes like me can’t help but search for political subtext in it.  (And to be fair there are reasons things come across as ironically funny.)  Spiegel suggested, via a blogger, that the “protests” (?) were “all about reclaiming public space for debate.”  Another confessed a desire to find “a subtle [Huh?] way of presenting the other members of the crowd with a big question mark.”

Personally, I see it as no small reaction to the scripted, anemic character of modern political events.  Anyone who has ever watched the excruciating display of a presidential speech, with every other phrase interrupted by polite semi-spastic applause from an acceptably docile audience (and despite exceptions this is no more true of anyone than of Obama) can appreciate the desire to break loose from this stultifying spectacle.  In this sense the crowd’s repetition of whatever word Merkel concludes with is rather trenchant, wrecking the careful rhetorical balancing act that has turned every political statement into an act of Byzantine diplomacy, endlessly-dissected by a political lumpenproletariat that would make Marx blush.

In the event, I would be pleased to see this trend spread.  Perhaps I could even recommend a theme song for the Yeahppie movement.

Previous: Group 1, Group 2, Group 3

Group 4: The pun I can’t quite make

Participants: Germany, Russia, Finland, Wales, Azerbaijan, Liechtenstein

grp4

I was thinking of calling it “Operation Barbarossa.”  But I’m a culturally sensitive guy.

At least we finally have a group behaving as it’s supposed to.  Russia is nipping at the heels of leader Germany, which is hampered only by a draw to Finland.  Azerbaijan and Lichtenstein games constitute freebies for the other countries, having drawn only against each other.  Wales is also not in practical contention, having won only their freebies and lost against all others.

What’s really at issue here is which of Germany or Russia gets the automatic slot and which to second-round draw.  While I feel bad about disregarding the Finns so callously (and there’s no doubting that they’re a plucky people, lest I omit a World War II reference), there’s not much of a way for them to break through.  This is a team that hasn’t qualified for a World Cup or Euro Cup in 50 years – a team that in the last Euro qualifiers was doomed by a loss to the same Azeri side that we’re comping for everyone in this group.  (It was the sole victory the Azeris took, while Finland missed a trip to Austria by three points and the goal differential with struggling Portugal.)

That wouldn’t itself be so bad if not for the first, disastrous game they played against Russia, where they gave two – two! – own goals!  The help gave the Russians a 3-0 victory, which they repeated in the second meeting.  Anyway the numbers just aren’t there – even a shock victory over Germany would put Finland at 22 points.  Even if the Germans also lost to the Russians they would almost certainly beat Finland on goal differential.  Either Russia or Germany would have to suffer a cascade of major setbacks to give Finland the juice necessary.  It’s just not happening.

Russia and Germany are simple.  Both will win three of their four remaining games.  (Indeed just today Germany took the first against Azerbaijan in a stadium whose name they utter with a grimace.)  On 10 October they’ll play each other.  The winner of that comes first.  The loser goes to the playoff.

Prediction: There’s no reason to believe Germany won’t take the automatic spot and qualify.  Their game against Russia is the only real question mark left on the board, and I don’t think Putin’s Punishers pull it off.  (Though I will be watching it closer than the waiter at a dinner date with Alexander Litvinenko.)  The good news for the Bear is that they are certain to qualify in the second round.  Only victories by the deep underdog Welsh (or the other, deeper underdogs) could jeopardize this fundamental situation.