Winnipeg Free Press


I've heard it's a beautiful game

Good morning, folks.

As a sports fan, then a sports reporter and now a sports editor, I've always kind of felt that I've perhaps missed out by not learning to appreciate the world's most popular sport.

Known as The Beautiful Game and referred to as football by most of the planet, soccer — as we call it here in North America — has never really captured my attention.

I mean, I'm obviously familiar with Pele and Maradona and Beckham and the various Ronaldos. And of course, I'm well aware that it's a sport lots of you want to read about. It certainly posseses plenty of off-the-pitch personalities, but watching it played on the field — sorry, pitch — always seemed, um, kinda like watching paint dry.

Just kidding. Kinda.

Apparently, there can be tremendous drama in a nil-nil game. That's zero-zero, in case you didn't know.

Italy will play Turkey at the Rome Olympic stadium today, kicking off Euro 2020.

Italy will play Turkey at the Rome Olympic stadium today, kicking off Euro 2020.

I guess I shouldn't be one to talk; after all, I've spent a fair bit of time in front of the tube watching golf and baseball over the years.

In retrospect, it's just not a game I was exposed to in my formative years. I played a little at Victor Mager Junior High, but I don't recall every watching it on TV as a kid.

It also could be that I'm Irish: I've blamed that on a lot of things, by the way.

Most people seem to cheer for a soccer team — I mean, football— based on their family heritage.

But the lads from the Emerald Isle have qualified for just three of 21 World Cups and only three of 15 UEFA Championships (The Euros) — with a grand total of four wins in those six appearances. They did win the 1986 Iceland Triangular Tournament — whatever the heck that is — and the 2011 Celtic Nations Cup. 

Hard to get jacked-up over that record.

I bring all this up because the 2020 Euros are starting today and I was thinking maybe I'd check them out and see if I could finally stir an interest in the game.

Yes, it's Euro 2020. The 16th renewal of the event was originally scheduled from June 12-July 12, but owing to the pandemic was postponded and will now be played from today until July 11.

Obviously, Ireland is not competing — and I'm obviously not at the stage where I could just watch for the love of the game — so, I need a few teams to root for.

John Kendle, managing editor of our Canstar Community News products and a huge football fan, dropped by my office this week on another matter and I conveyed my dilemma to him.

He said I could cheer for his beloved England if I wanted. Um, no... remember, I'm Irish.

He also mentioned that Belgium, where my boss's family is from, is No. 1 in the world so I could cheer for them.

Say what?!

Belgium is No. 1 in the world at soccer? I mean football. Seriously, who'd have guessed that?

Brazil, maybe. Argentina, perhaps. Maybe even France or Germany. But, Belgium? How did this happen?

OK, my curiosity is piqued.

All right, who else is in this event?

I have enlisted our crack football columnist Jerrad Peters to provide you a preview of the precedings, but here's my look at the groups — that's like divisions — in an effort to get behind a team or three:

Group A (Italy, Switzerland, Turkey, Wales)

Hmmm, I guess I could hope for Italy to win. My buddy Bobby Mottola has had a tough time with the pandemic shutting down his businesses, so Go Azzurri. Plus, I love pasta and cannoli and gelato. I don't have much of an affinity to any of the other three countries, other than Turkish desserts are among the best in the world: one of the best baklava I ever had was from a Turkish vendor in London’s Borough Market.

Group B (Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Russia)

I mentioned my boss in Belgian, right? I guess I should at least hope they advance right to the next round. The other three do nothinbg for me.

Group C (Austria, Netherlands, North Macedonia, Ukraine)

I’ve been to the Netherlands and loved it. The bikes, the canals, the cheese — Gouda for me, please. But, they have this drama-llama goalie named Jasper Cillessen, who makes me want to cheer against them. Since the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, North Macedonia haven’t contested a major international tournament — until now. I’ve always been fascinated by the history of the Balkans — Robert D. Kaplan's Balkan Ghosts and The Arabists offers incredible insight into the region. Plus, who doesn't love an underdog?

GROUP D: Croatia, Czech Republic, England, Scotland

I have fallen in love with London as a city, but I’m suspicious they have done something to keep the Irish out of the event. Again, just kidding. Kinda. I had the great pleasure of visiting the Czech Republic a few years ago, and it is easily one of the most beautiful places I’ve traveled to: Prague, of course, but the magical forests of Bohemia Switzerland is a place I would love to venture to again. 

Pravcice Gate in the Czech Republic's Bohemian Switzerland National Park.

Pravcice Gate in the Czech Republic's Bohemian Switzerland National Park.

GROUP E: Poland, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden

That Wiecek character has been talking about Poland the whole 30 years I've known him, but I don't recall him ever serving me a Polish dessert. Pass.

GROUP F: France, Germany, Hungary, Portugal

I spent 10 days in Paris a few years back and loved every minute of it, but a couple of recent trips to Germany have made it one of favourite places to travel to. Greek and Arab desserts are my favourite, but the Germans do cake like nobody else and a delectable streusel is hard to beat.

So, here it goes folks:

I'm going to root for Germany, the Czech Republic and North Madedonia: I betting they make a pretty good baklava there, too.

Enjoy the games. Oh sorry, matches.

As always, you can reach me by replying to this mailing or by sending me an email here.

Our Coverage

Diversity in data: To kick off Pride Month, the LGBTQI2S+ Sport Inclusion Task Force (SITF) proudly announced the launch of its new website on Tuesday. Taylor Allen has the story behind it and what it means for sports in Manitoba;

• Best of the West: Mike Sawatzky has a story on Winnipeg Ice forward Peyton Krebs, now with the NHL's Vegas Golden Knights, being named the WHL's player of the year and winner of the Four Broncos Memorial Trophy;

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