What’s Wrong with the European Sides?

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Is there an elephant in the room or I am alone in thinking that not enough people are talking about the desperately disappointing start from most of the European nations? In light of Italy’s shock exit, the elephant is now clear for all to see.

Before the start of play Thursday, I wrote the following about group F, which contained 2006 World Cup winners Italy…

“It’s D-Day (or should that be F-Day?) for Italy shortly, as the reigning champs must defeat Slovakia (another European nation surely exiting early) to progress. No matter, there is no way (is there?) the Azzurri can retain the trophy and their spineless display against New Zealand (and Paraguay, to a lesser extent) will remind older fans of their shock 1966 defeat to North Korea. On that occasion, they were pelted with tomatoes upon returning home; will their supporters even have the energy to turn up and do the same if they don’t make it through to the last 16 today?”

Well, I stand corrected! Italy lost 3-2 to Slovakia (who I should have never dismissed in my preview) and ended up rock bottom of the group, not just joining France, who also came last in their group but now have, along with Les Bleus, the unenviable statistic of being the only two reigning finalists to not qualify from the next tournament. And with two miserable draws and this shocking defeat to their name, perhaps their countrymen will greet them at the airport with the aforementioned tomatoes.

Needless to say, more than enough has been written about the French farce that unfolded in South Africa (though, truth be told, the warning signs have been there for a while, as pointed out on our blog). But for those of you that can’t get enough of the latest news from that sorry camp, French president Nicolas Sarkozy held a government meeting on Wednesday to discuss what went wrong (rumors that the meeting hasn’t finished yet remain unconfirmed) and meets with Thierry Henry today.

France, of course, came bottom of group A and we know that Italy are on an early flight home but let’s look at how the European sides in the other six groups have fared. In B we have EURO 2004 winners Greece, who couldn’t capitalize on beating Nigeria, and didn’t even look like making a game of it in their crucial clash against Argentina, who admittedly have been one of the best sides on show thus far. Group C contains England, who made extremely heavy work of getting out of an easy quartet: the 0-0 against Algeria will go down as one of England’s worst ever performances, the opener with the U.S. wasn’t much better though signs of life have been seen after beating Slovenia, who must be added to our list of European nations failing to progress. The Slovenians weren’t so much undone by Landon Donovan’s injury time winner against Algeria yesterday but more his goal against them, which sparked the U.S. comeback in that match.

Germany might have topped group D but have failed to live up to the heady expectations after their 4-0 thrashing against Australia and proceeded to lose to Serbia (who would have had high hopes of progressing but fell short), even missing a penalty in the process! They just about got the better of Ghana on Wednesday but will be considered slight underdogs against England on Sunday. And please explain to me why former player and manager Franz Beckenbauer continues to rile the old enemy? His latest missive is almost bordering on the offensive, by stating, “Stupidly, the English have slipped up a little by finishing second in their group,” before going on to say, “The English look a little tired … they are burnt out. We respect them but we certainly don’t fear them.” Stupidly? Burnt out? Yet again, Der Kaiser is writing Capello’s team talk and the feeling persists that England have one great performance in them and Germany may well be on the receiving end.

In group E, my argument (I’m happy to admit) falls apart as the Dutch have looked in ominous tournament form thus far, meaning they are doing enough to win games and keep something in reserve for the latter stages. And although Denmark are currently in third place, I expect them to qualify too, think they’ve been underrated and have scored one of the goals of the World Cup (to see which one, look for my top 10 moments on TIME.com tomorrow!)

Group G did find Portugal turn on the style against our friends from North Korea, with the Ivory Coast now requiring a cricket score against them to stop Portugal from progressing. But the number 3 ranked side in the world were lackluster against Les Elephantes and have yet to deliver in a major tournament. While I’m happy to declare an interest in that I backed them each way at 28/1 a few months ago, I do not expect to trouble the bookmaker on July 11.

And group H remains in the balance. The Swiss might have pulled off the shock victory of World Cup 2010 by beating Spain (so one should spare them any criticism) but the EURO 2008 winners must come in for a couple of questions. The Spanish might have played some lovely stuff against Honduras but nevertheless reminded this viewer of Arsenal: great to watch but what do they ever win? It’s almost unthinkable that Chile will eliminate the Spanish on Friday (and plenty of rioja will be drunk on both sides if so) but Spain, as with the vast majority of the European nations, need to up their game to avoid watching the latter stages from home.