Monday, May 21, 2012

Euroinflammation (2)

Re-reading my post of last weekend, I realize I need to elaborate a bit more.  Clearly there are many possible outcomes at this point; the G-8 countries' announcement emphasized those nations' (four of which--Germany, France, Italy, and the U.K.--are in the European Union) intention to favor stimulus over austerity, and to try to save Greece's participation in the Euro.  The current deal will have to be re-negotiated; for one thing, it requires a referendum in Ireland (by that country's constitution), and the Irish will be glad to cock their snook at the central continental bankers whom they blame for the severity of their recession five years ago.

So, there will be an attempt to find a more favorable formula, which might--if it is sufficiently strong and sufficiently timely--could interrupt Greece's progression toward rejectionist parties and increased unrest.  I suspect that behind that announcement, though, there may be a feeling--which is fully justified--that Greece is too far down the path, and that its continued participation may need to be sacrificed to allow the remaining members to pull together, more strongly, and do what must be done to strengthen the Euro for the rest.  Greece's economy was too weak, its observance of the required norms for entry to the Euro a sham from the beginning, and the biggest thing that country had going for it, Euro-wise, was the distinction of having invented the term a couple thousand years ago.

Regardless of Greece's "Eurovian" fate, the next move across the continent will be a loosening of some restrictions on government spending to allow some reflation of their nations' economies.  The current approach is turning out to be an unmitigated political disaster, toppling the governments of Spain, Italy, France, Netherlands, and threatening to do something similar to both the U.K. and Germany.  We in the U.S. bemoan our weak recovery, but Europe is heading toward a double-dip recession if it doesn't do something fast, or maybe even if it does.

Chicago and NATO: To Be, or NATO Be?
Thankfully, the tension that was NATO coming to town has ended, and nobody got blowed up. It seems there were a few folks who talked a bit too openly about doing some dirty deeds, and there were a few unforunate scenes, but there was neither a massive police riot nor a massive anarchist one, and we can move on.

NATO is an organization that hasn't had a very clear mission ever since the Iron Curtain came down.  Since that time, it has been a useful device for the US to bring to bear multinational forces for its own international objectives, no matter how ill-defined.  This meeting showed that clearly, even if it brought no clarity on any long-term purpose for the organization.

The agenda for this meeting was fairly limited and produced some canned agreements.  The first was to unite around the principles of the US' accord with Afghanistan for phased withdrawal by the end of 2014, with some presence, and lots of aid, thereafter.  Shades of the later stages of the Vietnam War, to be sure.  The second was some sort of agreement on the US' turning over responsibility for the missile defense of Europe from those nasty Iranian missiles to NATO.

This latter seems like a perfect NATO project:  standing united in a blustering effort to camouflage ineffectiveness. The whole game with this one is to add force to our will to stand up to Iran:  if they can't hit Europe, then they can't threaten to do it and thus hold the Europeans hostage for the ransom of allowing Iran to build nuclear weapons.  Oh, that and to irritate Russia.

Only the last part makes any sense, and only to an unreformed Cold Warrior (there are plenty of them, in the US and in Europe, too).  Iran doesn't have missiles that can threaten Europe, they would have no interest in attacking Europe anyway (Israel would be a much more inviting, and close, target), and even if they could it would make no strategic sense as they are far and away the weaker country and would be devastated in the retaliation that would surely follow.  Oh, and the anti-missile missiles have probably something like a 25% chance of successfully intercepting an attack, if there were to be one.

Other than that, it's a great idea.

Euro 2012
Now we must move on to more important matters, namely European football.  The European championships in June and early July will provide a bit of much-needed economic stimulus to the host countries, Poland and the Ukraine, and a brief burst of well-channeled nationalism for all participants.  The format is 16 teams in four groups playing a round robin; the top two in each move on and play an elimination tournament of eight.

Following my "inflammatory" theme, the Ukraine has irritated many with its political prosecution (persecution, perhaps even torture) of former Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko.  It's not quite Moscow Olympics 1980, but there was some serious annoyance about the choice of this country, made back during its democratic "Orange Revolution" some years ago; politically things have gone downhill ever since.

Here are the groupings and some brief commentary:
A--Poland, Greece, Czech Republic, Russia--a very weak grouping; Czech should be favored, Russia will be the villains (but sometimes villains win), and a real opportunity for Greece to salvage some national pride.
Even Poland, which has usually had weak performance in these international tourneys, might be able to make it through.
B--Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Portugal--a ridiculously tough grouping, with three of the top five ranking teams in the world! Pity poor Denmark, not a half-bad squad but should have no chance here.  Germany always gets the results somehow, so the game between Netherlands and Portugal (on the last day of the first round, June 17, in Kharkiv) shapes up as the most critical of the whole first round.
C--Spain, Italy, Ireland, Croatia--Spain is the favorite, the defending champs both in Europe and the World Cup holder.  They will be under a lot of pressure but still have the guns, and a fairly weak set of opponents. Italy is rebuilding, and expectations will be relatively low.  They will either fail miserably or make it to the finals, but I would expect the former, so I'd pick Croatia--another very unpredictable team--to be the other making it through besides Spain.
D--Ukraine, Sweden, France, England--It will be interesting to see if France has got it together again after their disaster in South Africa with the World Cup.  England is looking strong with a good mix of youngsters and veterans and should be able to win this group.

My prediction:  England defeats Germany in the semifinal and somehow wins over Spain, in a mild shocker. It is informed by the Champions League results discussed below.

Chelsea:  King for the Day 
I don't know if there was ever a European champion which finished as low as Chelsea did in its domestic league this year (6th), but the Blues certainly rank up there for the most unlikely route to victory.  Time and again through the qualifications they trailed and looked the lesser team in their matchups: vs. Napoli, vs. Benfica, vs. Barcelona, and then, in the final, vs. Bayern Munich.  Somehow, destiny was on their side this year as it was not in previous Champions League tourney runs, and their victory last weekend completes a remarkable decade of unprecedented success for the team. 

I didn't read the German reaction to the game, but I am sure it was a lot like the Barcelona players' and fans': frustrated, angry, and bitter.  Yes, somewhat inflamed. Bayern had 30-something shots, 15 or so corner kicks, to Chelsea's five (maybe), and one (according to the official stats, but I'm sure I saw another). Several times I heard it from the broadcasters--Bayern is the better team--just as I heard it during the Barcelona series.  Nonsense:  Bayern failed to win the match (Barcelona actually clearly lost it), so Chelsea picked it up, like found money.  Based on quality of squad and beauty of style, the final should have been between the two great Spanish teams, Barcelona and Real Madrid, but Barcelona came out of its match with Chelsea proud, but looking somewhat stubborn and stupid (they failed to make necessary adjustments), and Real Madrid came out a bit unlucky (losers in a penalty shootout, as their conquerors Bayern would do in the final).,

There were several Chelsean elements in common between the two-game match vs. Barcelona (the replay a 2-2 tie, after the 1-0 Chelsea win at home) and the final against Bayern Munich, apart from the obvious one, that being the Italian-inspired style of play that coach Roberto di Matteo employed: lay back, let them hammer away futilely, then break free from defensive discipline and score when the moment is right.  The key elements were Ashley Cole in a critical defensive role, Petr Cech playing great in goal, Frank Lampard contributing key linkages, and Didier Drogba as the principal "actor" (as the German coach said it, mis-translated--he meant "performer").  Drogba scored the goal in the first Barcelona game and played a key role on the perimeter in the second.  In both the second Barcelona game and the final, he made a defensive blunder and giving Chelsea's opponents a penalty kick--which, each time, they failed to convert!  (Missed by two of the greatest players in the world, Leonel Messi of Barcelona and--former Chelsea player--Arjen Robben of Bayern Munich.) Then, Drogba scored a huge goal two minutes before the end of regulation time against Bayern, and he made the last, winning penalty shot in the last act of the finale.

Only a longtime Chelsea fan like myself can fully appreciate the long, often-painful 10-year road which the team has traveled to get here, providing the definitive vindication of the billions that our moneybags owner, Russian kleptocrat Roman Abramovich, has spent to fulfill his dream.  This is not the best Chelsea team of this period, but it is the one that pulled down the ultimate prize.  Chelsea Rule OK! For a day, anyway....

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