Tag Archives: Croatia

Follow Your Leader

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International football proved itself yet again to know no boundaries when it comes to cruelty, as Croatia were sent packing from Euro 2008 by Turkey in the most astonishing circumstances. If football was run on a basis of commonsense like most other sports, and timed matches offically rather than leaving it up to one individual’s watch, Turkey would now be on their way home. Instead they scored the latest goal ever in the history of the European Championships, 121 minutes and 4 seconds into the match, which was 4 seconds after their time should have been up.

Croatia themselves had broken the deadlock less than two minutes earlier, but couldn’t wait to indulge in wildly joyous celebrations, and failed spectacularly to observe Brian Clough’s old maxim that ‘It only takes a second to score a goal’. The brunt of the blame for this must be taken by the man who led them so magnificently to this stage, their coach Slaven Bilic. In a previous post I had commented that Bilic had given the impression of being the strongest leader amongst all the competitors coaches, but I was proved wrong as Bilic allowed himself to be swept away by euphoria when his side scored in the 119th minute, joining a pile of rejoycing bodies instead of calming and organising his players to see the job through. At that moment Croatia required leadership, but for once it was not forthcoming.

Croatia’s failure to spend 90 seconds nailing a victory which they had deserved exposed a lack of experience at this level both on the pitch and the bench. They also missed clearcut chances to win the game in normal time, and failed to heed the warning of Turkey’s previous match-winning late finishes, so any claims of bad luck on the Croatians’ part would be misjudged.

Bilic and his side were punished in the harshest way possible, as their nerve disintegrated in the penalty shoot-out where they were barely able to hit the target. The scenes afterwards told you everything about the expectation that they had carried into the game; crestfallen Croats littered the field, many in tears, others rendered numb by the sudden and untimely death their campaign had suffered. For Croatia this wasn’t meant to happen, mentally it seemed as though they were already in the semi-final against Germany and that was almost certainly their fatal mistake. Defeat at this stage, after winning three group games easily and convincing themselves and everyone else that they were genuine contenders for the title, was something they were utterly unprepared for and it showed on the faces of their shattered players and supporters.

The Turks showed once and for all, if there could have been any remaining doubt, that they don’t know the meaning of giving in; and yet unlike in their previous unlikely recoveries against Switzerland and the Czechs, this time they were genuinely beaten. None of the Turkish players could honestly say that on going behind they immediately steeled themselves for a 90-second attempt at retrieving the situation. What they did was win a free-kick in their own half, launch it hopefully into the area, and get lucky on two counts as the loose ball dropped at the feet of Semih Sentürk, and his shot took a deflection and flew into the top corner.

The drama in this encounter was almost entirely reserved for the final two minutes of extra-time and the resulting penalties. The 118 minutes that had gone before Croatia opened the scoring had been largely forgettable, Turkey basically setting out to run their legs off in an attempt to keep Croatia’s time and space to a minimum, which was negative but sensible, given that Croatia would have destroyed them had they been allowed this, and the Turks knew it. The Turks had to work so hard to prevent Croatia from playing that they had very little resources left for attacking themselves.

Turkey shouldn’t have got away with it, as even though chances were few and far between for Croatia, when they did arrive they were gift-wrapped, and Ivica Olic will be seeing the open goal he missed from 4 yards in his sleep for a very long time. Luka Modric, the best player on the pitch by a mile, escaped wonderfully from the attentions of two defenders to slip a ball straight to Olic that took the goalkeeper out of the equation, and the striker somehow contrived to hit the bar when needing only to tap it over the line. Chances such as this one should have been snapped up by anybody, and those citing the loss of Arsenal’s Eduardo from Croatia’s line-up as a reason for their failure to break Turkey down are off the mark; Croatia hadn’t missed him up to this point, and they did enough in this game to win without him again.

The second half was even worse than the first, and Croatia simply ran out of ideas. In extra-time they ran out of energy too, and sensing they had broken their opponents, Turkey became more ambitious, and began to look the more likely winners for the first time in the match. That was until their most vulnerable factor, veteran goalkeeper Rüstü Reçber, rendered all their hard work meaningless, or so it seemed, by wandering off after a ball drifting tamely away from his goal, only to beaten to it comfortably by Modric who centred the ball for sub Ivan Klasnic to head home.

Rüstü, quite frankly, had a dreadful night. Yet somehow, in Jan Tomasziewsi fashion, he managed to keep almost everything at bay despite quite obviously being ‘a clown’. That was until his faux-pas appeared to have cost Turkey the game, but the keeper was given a quite undeserved opportunity for redemption; firstly sending the free-kick into the box from which the Turks’ equalised, then saving the final penalty which sealed their semi-final place. That such an awful performer on the night should end as the hero must have been tough to swallow for anyone inclined towards Croatia, but for us neutrals the good news is that Rüstü may well be back again in the semis to provide yet more comedy, that is unless first choice keeper Volkan Demirel wins an appeal to have his suspension reduced from two matches to one. The biggest question posed by Rüstü’s display, is just how bad must third choice keeper Tolga Zengin be?

Only a complete fool would write the Turks’ chances off altogether, but with more suspensions collected in this game, plus another key injury to add to their list, to striker Nihat Kahveci, you have to fear for the first semi-final as a contest. If the Germans can wipe the floor with Portugal, they ought to do the same with a decimated Turkish side you would think, but then again the Turks will be more organised at the back than the Portuguese, and they will do everything they can to frustrate the Germans. If the Turks get through the first hour at 0-0 again, anything becomes possible, though if they find themselves within one goal as the game enters its final seconds, something tells me the Germans might just be a little more prepared to deal with a final desperate throw of the dice.

Croatia are a massive loss to Euro 2008, and have played a huge part in making it the great tournament it has been. I don’t think anyone watching them over the last year or so, and that will include plenty of English fans, could argue that England are close to Croatia as a team right now, or that anyone else should start as favourites for World Cup qualifying group 6. It was sad to hear Slaven Bilic say that he had thought about quitting, so devastated was he by this loss. Although his and the players’ inexperience proved costly for Croatia in this match, they will surely never find another coach who commands such respect from the team. They must stay together, and learn together.

Interestingly, Turkey’s win made it two out of two for the group runners-up, despite the ‘advantage’ gained by the group winners by resting all their players for the third match. Surely the idea couldn’t be proved to be entirely false logic? Could it?

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The Good, The Bad, and Pogatetz

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I suppose it was probably too much to expect another capricious evening of confusion and disarray, and it was certainly too much to expect Austria to keep their hopes alive by shocking their illustrious neighbours. The Austrians, as the saying doesn’t really go, couldn’t score in a house of ill repute. As Alan Hansen put it: “If the Austrians had sat back and played on the break, they wouldn’t have scored. If they’d played all out attack, they wouldn’t have scored. If the Germans had left the field for 10 minutes and had a cup of tea, the Austrians still wouldn’t have scored”.

That, in a nutshell, is the story of not only this match, but of Austria’s entire Euro 2008 adventure. Apart from making a sluggish start in the first half against Croatia, Austria played with passion, creativity, organisation, and will to win. Unfortunately none of these guarantee you goals. It must have been incredibly frustrating for Austria watching the Germans create absolutely nothing for Podolski and Klose, they must have wanted to ask the Germans if they could borrow one of them for five minutes, seeing as they weren’t using them.

Knowing the Austrians luck, if the Germans had agreed to lend them a striker, they would have got Mario Gomez, who unfortunately would fit seamlessly in to the current Austrian set-up. The only clearcut chance created by Germany all night fell to Gomez inside the first three minutes, and he robbed the Greeks of a title they seemed nailed-on for by achieving the miss of the tournament so far, failing to tap-in to an empty net from four yards out with no defender in sight.

The rest of the match set into a pattern, Austria got the ball efficiently to their wingers, who consistently got past their full-backs and put in dangerous crosses. To absolutely no-one. The Germans, who only needed a point, could barely be bothered as it became quite clear a draw was near-enough guaranteed. When your captain is as model a professional as Michael Ballack however, nothing gets left to chance, and he stepped up early in the second half to rocket in the tournament’s first successful free kick.

That was that, and there really was no suggestion that it was going to change, but whilst the outcome was predictable, the evening was not without its interesting diversions. Firstly there was the Austrian players accommodation of their German guests. At face value the game didn’t appear dirty, and yet there were several strange incidents of the TV director suddenly cutting to a shot, usually some yards away from the ball, of a mysteriously flattened German. Time and again the referee was distracted from the play, and would suddenly arrive on the scene wearing a puzzled expression, as he found an injured German player, and no red shirt within 10 yards of him. The whole thing was mystifying, I can’t possibly speculate on what brought these episodes about.

Could it be that the two managers were debating this point when they suddenly decided to launch into a bout of touchline handbags, for which they were both despatched to the stand. Once the referee had intervened, the two managers became united in their disdain for the offical instead, and bonded like two cell-ins about to start a five-stretch together. On reaching the stand, Joachim Low managed to bump into his Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and looked as though he may take a seat beside her. Moments later, Low had found an alternative seat beside Oliver Bierhoff, perhaps having realised that the country’s leader might not have been the ideal companion had the match not gone Germany’s way.

Also adding a touch of the irregular to this game was Austrian defender Emanuel Pogatetz, who gives one the impression that he may not be of this world. He looks like the madman on the bus that you pray doesn’t sit next to you, terrifyingly wide-eyed and unstable. Pogatetz of course plays for Middlesbrough, and when you study his erratic behaviour along with that of Turkey’s Tuncay, you do have to worry about the effect the town’s infamous fumes are having on non-natives of Teesside.

Pogatetz at one stage picked up the ball and attempted to take a bite out of it. Now I don’t know about you, but if I was an attacker that is one opponent I would be giving a wide berth. Personally, I would be perfectly comfortable with any accusations of lying too deep, “Sorry boss, I am doing my best to get further forward but you see the thing is there’s a serial killer at centre-back, and I have a family”. Maybe Pogatetz was so fed up at being part of Austria’s hopeless campaign that he’d asked the manager to sub him and been refused, so now thought summoning the men in white coats represented his best chance of escape.

As I said, predictable but not uneventful. The Germans were presumably more than a little nervous at the potential humiliation of losing this one, which perhaps explains why they weren’t exactly fully committed, but with Portugal now looming the Germans aren’t exactly taking with them an abundance of confidence or momentum from this group.

Croatia on the other hand are flying. Having already secured the group, they made nine changes to the side that beat Germany but, unlike Portugal on Monday, Croatia appeared to have used the tactic to their own advantage. Instead of looking like players sent out to make a token gesture in a meaningless match, the Croat reserves had the look of a side motivated to prove themselves worthy of a place in the side and to play their part in a genuine team effort. Or maybe it’s just that Croatia’s reserves are much more capable than Portugal’s, who knows?

Whatever the reason, Croatia very impressively disposed of Poland with a 1-0 win that should have been many more, and completed a perfect group programme. Their goalscorer Ivan Klasnic, still wearing protection after a kidney transplant just last year, could have had a hat-trick on the night but for more heroics from the goalkeeper of the tournament, and the only Pole to cover himself in anything like glory at Euro 2008, Celtic’s Artur Boruc. In the end the striker had to settle just for scoring the winner. Klasnic’s story of triumph over adversity sums up the mentality of the whole Croatian team, who are showing an extraordinary unity which is threatening to overcome both the perceived gulf in class between them and their more famous rivals, and the loss of their best striker, Eduardo Da Silva.

The Croatian celebrations at the final whistle once again revealed the togetherness of their squad, and the respect they have for their coach, Slaven Bilic, who looks by far and away the strongest leader at this tournament. The entire squad took a lap of honour, just as they had against Germany, and every individual player seemed keen to embrace Bilic, and he to reciprocate. Croatia now have more confidence and momentum than any team besides Holland, but the difference between their soaring team spirit and the ever-fragile Dutch squad is cavernous.

With their next test being a quarter-final against the gritty Turks on friday, Croatia will now be favourites to reach the semi-finals, which is a stage they have never yet breached. If they make it, they are almost certain to be amongst those to whom lifting trophies is the norm, and it is then we will then find out if their squad possesses the one quality we can’t yet be sure about – belief.

It was generally another excellent night for the BBC, with Martin O’Neill and Alan Hansen in sparkling form, particularly during the half-time interval. When asked about the incident involving the German and Austrian managers, O’Neill dismissively replied “Well I don’t blame them for taking no notice of the 4th official, they’re always wrong”.

As the second half approached, Gary Lineker attempted to take back the reins ready for his handover to the commentary team, but was ignored completely by O’Neill and Hansen who preceded to lean over Alan Shearer and conduct their own in-depth discussion on the German second-half tactics. It’s little moments of lost control like this that O’Neill provides, and that makes the BBC coverage so much more entertaining than ITV’s joyless efforts.

The beeb boys did however let themselves down, right at the end of the show as they were looking ahead to tonight’s Group C conclusion. Hansen and O’Neill were almost wetting themselves at the prospect of France v Italy! O’Neill even made the astonishingly misguided observation that ‘The tournament starts tomorrow’. What? Are we ever going to get away from this boot-licking of the football aristocracy? Anyway, could someone please explain to me what they were getting so excited about? Italy v France will be a dead-rubber, and a guaranteed bore-fest of all time, should Romania score an early goal, and they both realise they’re going home.

The truth is, the clue to this evening lies within the following statement: For the final round of Group C to deliver any excitement, it is reliant on the spirit of fair play being invoked to the full – by the Dutch.

I shall say no more.

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Filed under BBC, Football, Group B, ITV, Sport, TV, UEFA Euro 2008

Congratulations Croatia, Worthy European Champions!

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Well that’s it then, a magnificent end to a great tournament, with Croatia deservedly lifting their first major trophy. I must say it flew by for me this time. The final went to the underdogs in thrilling fashion, as Croatia’s slick, high quality passing game proved too much for the tournament favourites Germany, and goals from Darijo Srna and Ivica Olic swept the Croats and their exciting young coach Slaven Bilic to a memorable victory.

I’m sorry? What do you mean? Croatia haven’t won the championship? But I saw them do it! I mean, they beat the Germans, all the coaching staff came on to the field, the players did a lap of honour and threw their shirts into the crowd, Bilic took a bow infront of his adoring public, celebratory music boomed out, the fans embraced one another; okay there was no trophy, but I just assumed this was part of some new UEFA security directive.

All right I’ll knock it off now, but watching the way Croatia celebrated their group B victory over Germany yesterday, you had to wonder what on earth they will get up to if they do become champions in Vienna on June 29th. This idea, by the way, will now be scoffed at far less after this result, and Croatia’s reaction at the final whistle which suggested they had just won the whole thing, perhaps reflected that all connected with the team had gained the belief that they could do just that.

Croatia came into this competition as no more than dark horses, their chances mainly being written off due to the absence of Eduardo Da Silva, their greatest forward threat in qualifying, and a lack of experience at the highest level. They overcame both in thoroughly convincing fashion, sending the tournament favourites packing with plenty apparently still left in the tank. The Germans were made to look pedestrian and unsophisticated, as Croatia picked their way through them at will with a display of technical brilliance that matched, and probably surpassed, anything seen so far from their more luminous peers in other groups.

If the Croats’ opener had been scored by Argentina, we would have seen dozens more replays by now, and it was not all that dissimilar to the ‘perfect goal’ that the Argentines scored against Serbia and Montenegro in the World Cup, a stunning multi-pass move that displayed patience and purpose, technique and flair. The Germans were lucky to go in at half-time only one down, but their luck soon ran out in the second half as a deflected cross embarrassed Lehmann and provided a tap in for Olic, settling a few Croatian nerves which had begun to appear. With a two-goal lead though, the Croats relaxed, and got back to attacking at will again. Only when the lead was reduced late in the game by

LU – LU – LUKAS PODOLSKI!

did the Croatians begin to think about looking after what they had. They even did this superbly, and a seemingly inevitable 10-minute German avalanche never materialised. The tournament officially has new contenders.

In Vienna the Austrian and Polish hordes, distraught, no doubt, at the Germans’ demise, somehow dragged themselves to the stadium or town centre for an enormous knees-up. The Austrians seem to have come into this shindig with such low expectations for the team that mass drinking appears to be the sum total of what they imagine they can get out of it, and it would appear they intend to make the most of that. The problem is, the team never make it that easy. How many Austrian fans do you think are asking today “why couldn’t we just get caned 3 times and be done with it?”, because the team have decided to play so heroically they have given their public the one thing they probably dreaded the most. Hope.

Austria conclusively secured the title of the Scotland of Euro 2008 by confounding expectations for a second time and giving a supposedly superior opposition an absolute roasting, but failed majestically to convert their dominance into a victory thanks to an irresistable combination of incompetence and bad luck.

Now I’m not sure of my facts here, but I always imagined Austria to be place with an above average number of barn doors, but you would never have guessed it from watching their strikers, who displayed a quite stunning inability to hit one. The strange thing is, for a team that we have been led to believe are useless, there doesn’t appear to be a great deal else wrong. They displayed a superb attitude from the start, attacked with skill and pace down the flanks, and created genuine chances, admittedly with a little help from the worst defence in the tournament. They were also well-organised in defence, passed the ball well, worked hard at closing down space, etc, etc. All the elements appear to be there. They just couldn’t hit the target if it was fifty feet wide.

Austria managed to miss three one-on-one, clean through on the keeper, take your time mate, help yourself, pick your spot chances, amongst a whole host of other near misses in a frantic first half that Poland would have been lucky to escape from with a 4-0 deficit. This being Scotland…sorry, Austria, they went in with a 1-0 lead, thanks to the second outrageously offside goal of the tournament which the BBC commentary team of Guy Mowbray and Mark Lawrenson, a buffoon, failed to notice altogether. This despite the director giving them a replay with the most dramatic ‘this is the moment he is offside, just here, see, HERE!’ pause that you could wish for.

Had that been the only goal of the game, it would have been an injustice on such a scale that I would have advised the Austrians to seek assistance from the European Court of Human Rights, and it looked like being just that, until England’s standard bearer at these championships, ref Howard Webb, intervened. A blatant and brainless act of assault from Polish defender Lewandowski on Sebastian Proedl, as another inevitably fruitless cross made its way into the box two minutes into injury time, resulted in an Austrian pen. Now given the earlier profligacy from not dissimilar range, and with the small added pressure of it being the last kick of the game to stay in the tournament, I can’t imagine there was exactly an abundance of confidence amongst the Austrians. Thankfully though, in it went, and we at least have a host nation still offering a faint pulse in Euro 2008. Unfortunately, the grim German reaper is looming.

More important than the result though is that this was just another fantastic game, in what is turning into the best tournament in years. This match, like the Switzerland v Turkey game the night before and a few others, resembled an English game from the 70s or 80s, but with added technique; fast attacking football, using both wings, with a healthy amount of shambolic defending. What more could you ask for?

I’ve been trying to think how many times in the past I’ve got to this stage of a tournament and not been constantly moaning about diving, play-acting, whining, crazy referees, unambitious teams ruining the game with dire tactics, etc etc, and besides the French there’s been none of it. For the most part we’ve had positive football, played in a good spirit, well refereed, and with the least amount of cheating I can remember for a long time. Many of the best games have involved the unfashionable teams, a fact which completely contradicts ITV’s opinion that we have to watch Portugal, Holland or Spain in order to be entertained.

Come to think of it, this blog might be in trouble, because TV coverage aside, I’m running out of things to moan about. Now who’s playing today, let me see… Ah! France v Holland. What a relief.

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Safe In The Arms Of Auntie

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Excuse me while I just get something off my chest…

LU – LU – LUKAS PODOLSKI!

That’s better. The finest chant of World Cup 2006 is back in business.

If I had found time to write a preview of this group, it would have been difficult to avoid saying the blatantly obvious, which is that Germany and Croatia ought to walk through to the second round. After both recorded opening wins, they will be even stronger favourites to advance, but they both now know that they won’t be walking anywhere.

Germany, Poland, and the BBC got this show on the road for real this evening with a rip-snorter of a match, and a televisual feast, that came straight from the old-school. First of all, it’s amazing what a difference it makes to have two sides playing good old 4-4-2, an endangered species at the highest level these days with so many wretched 4-5-1 advocates amongst the elite managers. The result was a wide open match with a ridiculous amount of chances that somehow didn’t end up with a 6-2 German victory, but rather a routine looking 2-0 that doesn’t even threaten to cover the events.

It must be conceded though that this excitement was down in no small part to a kamikaze Polish defensive system, which was based around playing the offside trap somewhere near the halfway line. This never fails to make a match worth watching, so all power to the Polish coach for a well-judged act of martyrdom in the name of entertainment.

The Germans gleefully waltzed through the non-existent Polish rearguard at will (additional jokes are unwelcome at this point), the charge ironically led by two Poles in opposition colours, Miroslav Klose and, our hero, Master Podolski. The scoreline may have been more embarrassing for the Poles but for Klose’s strangely over-generous mood, as he appeared to believe that his role was not to score but to attempt to lay on a chance for his younger strike partner at every opportunity, rather like a father playing up front with his own son on the park. In fairness to him, he made a pretty decent fist of this task, laying on both goals for Podolski; firstly turning down an easy chance for himself to provide his team-mate with a tap-in (this was at the second attempt, having made a horlicks of the exact same scenario a few minutes earlier), then mysteriously hacking at a great chance which resulted in the ball looping up perfectly for Podolski to rifle in a superb left-foot volley. Young Lukas ought to be nailed on for top scorer with a guardian angel like Klose watching over him.

Not that the Germans had everything their own way by any means, the Poles responded to each German attack with one of their own, and with just a bit more nous around the box they would surely have breached a far from solid looking German defence. It was just a huge lift to the spirits, and a romantic throwback to better times now sadly passed, to see two sides, roared on by a deafening crowd for the duration, prepared to commit men forward, to play with wide men, and to appear to agree with the idea that your best chance of winning a football match is to try and score as many goals as possible.

Croatia may wish take note of the latter point, as their attempt to try and hold a 1-0 lead earned with a 2nd minute penalty against the written-off Austrians almost came unstuck, as the beleaguered co-hosts launched a wonderfully spirited response to an enormous group of home dissenters who have actually campaigned in complete seriousness for their own charges not to be allowed participation in the tournament because they feared national humiliation.

I have a feeling this group of Austrian players may have made heroes of themselves amongst their public tonight, after the kind of glorious defeat that we have become accustomed to seeing Scotland produce down the years. After an initial 20 minutes which threatened to confirm all Austrians’ worst fears, the Croats found themselves still with only a single goal to show for their domination, and in an attempt to strike a balance between defending their lead, and making some effort to increase it, lost their way completely. The Austrians picked up on their uncertainty, and went for the jugular, creating numerous chances, but alas found no-one with the required composure to convert any.

One suspects that the Croatian boss Slaven Bilic will have been less than impressed with the panic caused to his defence by the tournament’s rank outsiders. It must be noted however that Austria have been written off on no adequate basis, as they had not actually played a competitive international for two and a half years before this evening, and they will go into their next match against Poland with vastly increased confidence.

The real stars of the evening though, were our faithful broadcasters. If Auntie BBC’s team had put their feet up and revelled in the hopeless submission of their ‘rivals’ the previous evening, tonight the big boys put their fags out and got to work on kicking the other side into touch. The Beeb couldn’t have played a bigger hand tonight, and with both games in their locker they sent out the A-Team, keeping Lineker and Hansen out for the entire evening, and arrogantly showing off a conveyor belt of genius by exchanging Gordon Strachan for Martin O’Neill between games. They also took the inspired decision to give Motty the night off, meaning the only sources of embarrassment were Alan ‘bleedin obvious’ Shearer, and village idiot Mark Lawrenson. But even the presence of a dreary geordie and a halfwit couldn’t detract from the BBC’s awesome display.

Half-time during the Germany-Poland game was a joy, with Hansen calling on the words that should carry his copyright, ‘abysmal’ and ‘shambles’, to describe the hapless Polish defending. O’Neill joined in a ruthless dissection of their incompetence with angry relish, sounding truly offended at being asked to watch such bungling and ineptitude. When this fun was over, the Beeb then played another blinder, previewing tomorrow’s action by pulling out a hilarious, and long-overdue, half-time feature on how the ludicrous French coach Raymond Domenech is a fruitcake who uses astrology to select his team. An incredulous French journalist asked “How can you take seriously an international football coach who refuses to select a player because he’s a Leo?” Could not have put it better myself Monsieur.

More of this French lunatic and his crowd of overrated underachievers tomorrow. Tonight I shall enjoy a most content night’s sleep after an evening to make the heart glow; football as it should always be played, presented with panache and humour. And do you know something else? I can’t remember the Premier League being mentioned even once tonight.

Aaaaah….Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…

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