Super Mario, Striker: The Game I Love and the Polarizing Persona Defining the Euros

I. Why I Can’t Write About Soccer

I’m slowly dying. Since June 8th, ESPN has been showing about 6 hours of soccer games and footy-related coverage every day. As a red-blooded American, instinct tells me to despise this development, decrying the snail’s pace and Charmin UltraSoft players, flopping on the ground like a particularly resolute bass. Lamenting the surnames that trip up my tongue like my palette is a pogo stick, and deriding the result that stands against America’s beloved cutthroat Ricky Bobby capitalism, the dreaded draw. I know people who would rather attend a Creed concert than watch a scoreless tie.

But some sort of mutation in my genetic code has kept me glued to the Worldwide Leader in Sports like a 1st-grade art project. I’ve been religiously following international tournaments since 2004, but became devoted to the cult of European football at the start of this decade. I’ve played the computer game Football Manager 2011, in which you don’t even get to control players but rather devote your time to the most mundane financial negotiations and tactical modifications, for 458 hours. That’s nearly 20 days. Hello, my name is Matt, and I’m an addict.

Since the first day of my summer, I have been wielding a double-edged longsword, barbed and poisonous. While others toil their lives away with a summer job or internship, I have enjoyed a pressure-free summer of watching the beautiful game. While others make bank or improve their resume with a summer job or internship, I have wasted a productivity-free summer of watching an inherently boring game.

I seriously do need a support group, because I have no acquaintances as passionate about the sport as I am. And none of my readers can relate (except maybe the three hits I got the other day from Guam…do they like soccer in Guam?). So instead of covering the tournament, I just want to sow the seeds of interest and evangelize from the pulpit of the soccer indoctrinated.

 II. Super Mario Smash Goals

Awesome goals in soccer are tailor-made for the top 10 generation, as the game features some of the coolest feats of scoring in any sport. Deft, contorting, poetic finishes that make it worth the wait for viewers. Just from Euro 2012 to date, 6’5” Zlatan Ibrahimovic twists into a mesmerizing volley finish , England wunderkind Danny Welbeck spins away from a cross and taps in a no look backheel, and Ghana-born Italian-raised striker Mario Balotelli boxes out a defender and finishes a bicycle kick.

Balotelli might be the character of the tournament, known to pass out money to the poor like a self-looting Robin Hood, a soccer player who claims he is allergic to grass, he who burnt down his house by lighting off fireworks in the bathroom, before later changing course and becoming a proponent of firework safety. The man is a walking TV show, a blond Mohawk-clad Dennis Rodman of the reality age and on an international platform. Possibly the single most polarizing person in professional sports, and many Americans are too set in their ways to appreciate him. We love us some Jersey Shore, a show about fit, peacocking Italians getting into mischief, so why not the Italian footballer sharing the nickname of Super Mario with one of our most beloved animated characters?

Balotelli showcasing his work ethic

And Balotelli’s hairpiece might not even be the worst one in the tournament. France defender Philip Mexes is a white man sporting  grimy dreadlocks, a cardinal sin for those with fashion sense, as well as those with the sense of sight.

In America, minor leagues and college sports filter out much of the young and exciting talent, forcing them to wait longer for the big leagues even when some might be ready. Not so in Europe, where youth is on display. Welbeck is only 21 (like our pal Mario), but seems like he plays bingo and uses words like whippersnapper when compared to his teammate Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain, who started England’s first game at a fledgling 18 years old. If the country who invented the modern game can showcase a teenager among their best, of course blooming players can feature for other nations. Group B featured Jethro Willems, an iron-lunged fullback with a 1994 birth date who starts for Holland, and Christian Eriksen, the pride of Denmark at a tender 19. The youth often brings more creativity and risk to the matches, as opposed to the wily, calculated approach of veterans, while casual fans reap the benefit of extra entertainment.

Americans love their brackets; I chortle smugly come March of every year, when countless college basketball bracket challenges and office pools are entered by people who have watched a handful of games at most, people who confidently predict upsets in games where their only knowledge comes from a brief Yahoo blurb. People find information easier to consume when it is ranked, and are predisposed to prefer articles composed in list form (Note- Make sure you change the title to “The Five Reasons you Should be Watching the Euros” before posting). The obsession with brackets has leaked into mass culture, with MTV trying to decide the best music acts, and Grantland hosting a Souperbowl to crown the champion of boiled broth. Teams in the Euros are seeded based on a world ranking (the only system that might be worse than the BCS,) then play through a group stage to be placed in a bracket. The format is practically begging for controversy and debate, the tenets of the watercooler chat that have launched thousands of Skip Bayless-es.

And the teams bring so much drama, Deadspin’s head would explode. Every player on most teams is scrutinized on the same level as LeBron James. British tabloids live for embarrassing events within England’s national team. Perhaps in an ode to the Gloria James/Delonte West rumors, former captain John Terry had an affair with a teammate’s wife, forcing the teammate to quit the national squad. Wayne Rooney has been caught with prostitutes a number of times, which is technically legal- though Rooney’s wife couldn’t have been happy about it. Italy’s team is caught up in a major match-fixing scandal that forced one defender off the squad and has many others in professional limbo, possibly facing legal sanctions. Enigmatic Balotelli applies again, this time because his teammate had to cover his mouth after a goal . The kicker- Bonucci doesn’t speak English, he just saw Balotelli yelling and figured it was controversial.

Welcome to the wacky, wonderful world of European football. The circus of the absurd, the canvas of the beautiful, and the home of future celebrity Mario Balotelli. There’s going to be fireworks, I can promise you that.

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