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The Neutral’s Final

Could there be a better final for this year’s Euro than Spain vs. Germany?

One of the great joys of watching the Euro as an American is the ability to be unapologetically mercenary in my fandom. Germany vs. Portugal? I pick Germany because I can’t stand the smugness of Cristiano Ronaldo’s smile, and those young Germans seem like such good, wholesome guys. Germany vs. Greece? Can’t resist the geo-political underdog narrative, so Greece all the way.

Ultimately, this approach is about rooting for one of two things: Either the most compelling story or the most entertaining match. Sometimes, those forces align (e.g., Poland getting one back to tie Russia in a tense contest). Other times, both the narratives and the play are trite and disappointing (England-Italy is the obvious example, though in retrospect, who wouldn’t root for a chance to witness Pirlo’s grace and cunning in another—perhaps last?—major game for Italy?)

So, of the possible finals to come out of this week’s semis, which would be the most entertaining match? Let’s look at the recent history. We already know that that Germany vs. Portugal (1-0) was one of the duller matches of this year’s tournament. The last Germany vs. Spain contest in a major tournament was in the 2010 World Cup semi-final, also considered a rather stale contest. Spain won 1-0, mirroring the result of the 2008 Euro final, which was a more dominant performance by Spain that could’ve easily featured more goals but was far from a classic. This year’s Spain vs. Italy (1-1) was probably the most interesting of the bunch, with more chances and plot twists, including a bizarre scene in which Balotelli froze in front of the net as if waiting for his bookie to call and tell him whether the better money was on him scoring or not.

Just based on those recent results, you could argue for a Spain vs. Italy final. But that’s where the narrative complicates the picture. Back in Euro ’08, when Germany lost to Spain, all the talk was about how Spain had out-classed Germany with their elegant, pass-happy style. Tiki-taka has been all the rage ever since, to the joy of Barcelona fans and the frustration of fans from clubs who play that way but never score—any Gooners reading? The sensation around playing more stylish soccer has even made its way to traditionally staid Germany, where the national team now plays an increasingly entertaining, attack-minded style that reminds me of Barcelona’s rival, Real Madrid. It may not exactly be tiki-taka, but it’s far more beautiful than any prior mode of German play. In 2010, at the World Cup, a young German team tried to out-style Spain and lost. Now, with two more years of experience, most of those same young players could get a second shot.

As far as narratives offered by the other potential match-ups go, I’m not much interested in any story that ends with Ronaldo as the hero. And while I find Balotelli more compelling than other writers on Goal Post, I will admit that the chances of him either not performing or doing something stupid seem much, much higher than the odds of him having the kind of legacy-defining game that would finally silence the doubters. Likewise, Pirlo was a master against England, and perhaps the only player left in the tournament who can match Spain’s midfield wizardry (with apologies to Özil and Schweinsteiger), but I’d feel satisfied if his Euro glory ended with that brilliant Panenka on Sunday.

Spain-Germany it is then, which determines who I’ll be rooting for today and tomorrow. It may be another 1-0 result, perhaps to Germany this time. But even if it lacks in scoring, it will be tense and tactical, but also beautiful, like any good match should be.

And there’s an added bonus: Watching Michael Ballack, who got in a bit of a scrap with the Spanish defense during the ’08 Euro final, grimace during the 0-0 half-time show, knowing that if his team does go on to win, they will have done it playing a style he was never able to call his own.

Mark Kirby is the editor of Howler, a new print soccer magazine (get issue one here) in which he hopes to feature many of the writers from Goal Post, if Frank allows it.