Euro 2012 So Far: Road Flares, Wet Fans, And Goals By Vladimir Putin

POZNAN, POLAND - JUNE 14: Stipe Pletikosa of Croatia fails to stop a goal from a Andrea Pirlo of Italy (not pictured) freekick during the UEFA EURO 2012 group C match between Italy and Croatia at The Municipal Stadium on June 14, 2012 in Poznan, Poland. (Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)

Euro 2012 is just getting started, but there are already important things happening, like Italy not being evil, England parking the bus, and Russia being Russia.

1. Don't let Croatia bring flares into the stadium, and if you do, do not let them light them. Italy was on schedule for their standard win: go up a goal, play suffocating defense, and advance with a win.

Then this happened.

If we know anything about soccer, it's that teams from the former Yugoslavia thrive on the rich, nourishing smoke of road flares. Powered by the inspiring fumes, the Croats then tied the game, drew with a flustered Italy, and now stand tied with Spain and ahead of the Azzurri in Group C. (Don't mention Italian ultras' fondness for road flares. It's devastating for our theory here.)

2. Italy has been less than loathsome, if we're being totally honest here. They've played nasty defense, have been aggressive on offense, and on the whole have been a shadow of their divey, conservative worst. Andrea Pirlo's free-kick goal in the Croatia game was the goal of the tourney for us to this point, a screaming bender of a shot rendering all defense useless and laughable.

They did have their best player at the moment make homophobic remarks in the media, and there's still that match-fixing scandal to tend to back home, but for the moment they've been good citizens as graded on the "Italian international soccer curve." (Never a frittata without some large chunks of eggshell for Italy.)

3. The look of sadness and dismay in Cristiano Ronaldo's eyes as his teammates bailed out Portugal against Denmark may every well be worth the heavy cost of watching his national side advance. Ronaldo then exited to taunts of "Lio-nel Mes-si" from fans, and promptly reminded reporters afterward that Lionel Messi and Argentina only got to the quarterfinals of the Copa America.

4. Cristiano Ronaldo is now Daffy Duck to Messi's Bugs Bunny, the Salieri to Messi's Mozart, and the Pete Campbell to the Argentine Don Draper. For the first time Cristiano has a utility to me, and it is more marvelous than I could have possibly imagined.

5. Spain's Fernando Torres can score again. It's weird, but he seems happy, so don't make a big deal out of it or he'll get weird about it.

6. Spain remains stupidly talented, and yet is tied after two games with Croatia in group play. Road flares: you must buy out the entire regional supply, Spain, and keep them away from the Croats at all costs.

7. Ukranian fans seem to be leading the tourney in fun-produced-per-capita, even when they sit alone with only their jolly belly and sopping wet scarf for company.

You would have known this already if you watched Ukraine's giddy 2-1 victory over Sweden, but that GIF should give you the rest if you missed it. Andrey Shevchenko is not only alive, but has scored goals and stuff. If he explodes from the strain of it all mid-match, know that he died happy and doing what he loved most, and that there will be a fan in the rafters fistpumping wildly in tribute.

Oh, and this. This, forever, and ever, and ever.

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8. Arjen Robben is now, at this moment, still dribbling at the top of the box laterally, moving sideways, and holding the ball while Robin Van Persie and Wesley Sneijder slowly pray for his death. So, it's the Netherlands in a major tournament, and everyone hates each other, and this is simply cut-and-pasted from the 2010 World Cup. (Robben: still moving sideways around the top of the box and not shooting. Teammates: still having quiet, resentful strokes.)

9. In contrast, the French seem reasonably content to hate each other quietly. This constitutes serious progress from the Domenech era, even though France are infinitely more entertaining when their coach is legitimately insane. Credit the Cantona-designed popped collar on the national jerseys for the added flair. If fashion is a steroid for the French side, then the popped collar is the nandralone IV of Gallic performance enhancing couture.

10. Russia. Just...

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Yeah. You do you, Russia, mostly because you can't do it any other way.

11. They're not playing in the strongest group, but Russia's been a joy to watch both because their fans bring hyperbole as the default setting and because of Alan Dzogoev's hellbending run through the tourney thus far. If you see an experimental aircraft ripping into the box through three defenders at unusual, even impossible speed, that is Dzogoev.

12. If you see someone who looks like Vladimir Putin running into the box and heading in a goal, that is Vladimir Putin. Let him do it. He is Vladimir Putin, and you are not.

13. If you see someone in a German uniform running into the box and heading in a goal, let them. They'll just end up scoring more on you anyway just to prove a point, especially because two very controlled victories thus far have netted only three goals. Denmark really doesn't deserve to be on the end of a five goal Mannschafting. Then again, deserve's got nothing to do with bad timing and playing a deadly team on the verge of an impending offensive explosion.

14. On day one we pitied Michael Ballack, stuck on the set with little direction and Bob Ley nodding gamely along with his terse, telegraphed answers to softball questions. On day two we began to resent him. And here, on day five, we love him for providing what every telecast needs: a slightly off-script German punctuating the broadcast with ominous absolutes like "ZISS TEAM HASS NO CHAHNCE" and "HE MUST SCO-AHR IN ZISS GAME OR ZEY WILL FAIL."

15. Ballack also appears to be improving Alexei Lalas' English, so there's that, too.

16. England's now playing Paraguyan ball, and thus earns the TROLLFACE OVERLORD crown for the tourney. The double-decker bus will be parked in front of the goal, all ambitions will be abandoned, and it's hard not to agree with Lalas on this: there's something beautiful about the honest desperation of it all. It's like you've hit bottom, England, and can now begin the twelve step process of rebuilding your team.

17. How's the racism weather? We're at "Thrown Banana" levels of precipitation, but nothing physically malicious at this point. So, somewhere below a civil rights march in 1966, and somewhere above a standard soccer weekend in Anytown, Europeland. Thus far racism must be considered several goals down to nationalism, as Russian and Polish fans clashed in the streets in Warsaw this past Tuesday.

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Welcome to Poland! We've got dogs and pepper spray.

18. The anthem leader remains Russia for this tourney, but it's a shame Montenegro did not qualify, because their anthem simultaneously makers Montenegro seem like the most badass and terrifying place on the planet, much less in Europe.

(via Run Of Play.)

The first two stanzas alone should make them automatic qualifiers:

Oh, bright dawn of May

Our mother Montenegro

We are sons of your rocks

and keepers of your honesty

We love you, the rocky hills

And your awesome gorges

That never came to know

The chains of shameful slavery.

Play like your gorges, Montenegro, and don't rob us of the sight of an opposing team's fans running out of the stadium from sheer terror.

19. Uncle Bob's the best. He was the one who decades ago showed us our first soccer matches, always genial, always nudging us toward the beautiful game one rarely broadcasted game at a time. And there he is now that we're all full-blown fans, nodding and smiling on the television as Euro 2012 is shown all day on ESPN, silently beaming and looking at you saying: I told you so.

Bob Ley knew you'd come around, America. You just needed a devoted uncle, the one who took you to games, illustrated the basics of the game, and who can now enjoy a quiet moment of gloating and pride as you cleared appointments to watch Germany/Netherlands on a random Wednesday in June. Thanks, Uncle Bob. You were right all along.

20. Ireland lost every game, but won life.

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By being Irish. That's what we meant. Stop.

No, YOU stop.

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