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The Euros are underway! And England are not out yet!

Euro 2012 is now upon us, preoccupying the minds of millions of people across the country and driving all of the remaining uninterested millions crazy with the constant background noise of match stats and highly aroused opinion. As a football-loving young man who also has experience of depression both personally and professionally, I have long been interested in the connection between mood and major sporting events such as the Euros, the World Cup and the Olympics. After noticing the hugely positive effect these events seem to have had on myself as well as people I’ve worked with, I came across some rather interesting info.

                It turns out that data taken from twelve European countries revealed a statistically significant reduction in suicide rates in ten of the countries studied in years involving either a World  Cup or European Championship. For example in Germany, during the years 1992, 1994 and 1996, where the national team were playing in a tournament,  it was found that an average of 44 fewer people committed suicide during the month of June than in 1991, 1993, 1995 and 1997. Importantly, the effect lasted beyond the tournament to the whole year.

                Whilst a bad result can sometimes induce a pretty foul mood for us football fans- as many of our disinterested loved ones might attest to- overall it’s a great spectacle, capable of absorbing our minds through pure escapism and allowing us to forget all the crappy stuff in our lives for an hour and a half at a time…plus injury time…and at least half an hour of inane punditry.

                With sport – and football in particular – playing such an important role for so many young men, I think the antidepressant effect of international tournaments is something to be celebrated. The kind of ‘common cause’ engendered by the Euros is noticeable; people have an obvious discussion point with taxi drivers, rather than having to resort to asking ‘busy evening?’, or with colleagues at work rather than talking about, you know… work. The social cohesion created across the country during such global events is particularly helpful for those most at risk to suicide: those who are isolated, cut off from society with little sense of connection to others.

                At a street party in Brixton over the Jubilee weekend, I saw members of the public ranging from black teenagers to middle-aged white women river dancing to dub step. The supposed reason for such eclectic partying seemed pretty insignificant to most people over that long weekend – as I don’t think this was a traditional royal dance unless I’m mistaken-but the palpable sense of community and social connection was beautiful to see, and this is exactly what will be so great about the London Olympics I hope.

A sporting chance?: England vs France match analysis

              For the moment though, it’s Euro time and I thought I’d impart my semi-informed analysis and opinion for CALMzone readers to hopefully enjoy. The racism issue, most notably highlighted by BBC Panorama, caused genuine concern that the football would be overshadowed by this ugly subject, particularly as it seems feasible games could actually be suspended if racist chanting ensue. Things didn’t start well with Holland players having to endure the onslaught of highly sophisticated racial commentary from a small minority of locals- yep, monkey noises. Although there have since been two further claims of racist chanting at games, I hold on to the hope that the tournament will be remembered for Mario Balotelli roundhouse kicking a footballing opponent rather than a racist thug.

                With the Euros fast approaching, national excitement over England’s prospects grew in a peculiar yet refreshingly muted way. The squad’s lack of world class quality has been widely accepted across the nation’s public and media, and surprisingly has endured without recourse to blind optimism even as kick off drew close. (That is, minus The Sun’s standard wheeling out of Ian Wright and Terry Venables in the hope of whipping up some good old jingoism).

                With the competition having started very brightly thanks to the perfect combination of great attacking play and poor defending, it was time for Hodgson’s England to meet their fierce international rivals/Norman ancestral countrymen: the French.

                Hodgson’s first two games showed a clear intent to build the team’s foundations on a solid defensive unit of two lines of four; or as Mourinho might call it, bay parking two team buses in front of the goal. It’s always a bit worrying when the consensus held is that the team are great without the ball, but pretty shoddy with it. I have to admit to having questioned some of the squad selection decisions, namely the inclusion of Downing, Kelly, Carroll, Glen Johnson and Henderson…hang on, there seems to be a theme emerging here… and the omission of Adam Johnson, Micah Richards, Michael Carrick and Joe Cole. But alas, the squad is picked and that is, as they say, that, so like most England fans I decided to back the manager and the squad with all my will.

                The game started very brightly for England, with some neat passing belying England’s recent inability to keep possession. It was immediately noticeable how much time Parker and Gerrard were afforded on the ball in midfield, which could only have helped boost their confidence. It was actually quite strange watching Parker- the closest thing to an ‘outfield goalkeeper’ you are likely to find in his role for England- with the ball at his feet, out of his comfort zone of diving headfirst at powerful shots, realising he should probably try and do something positive with the ball. France took longer to gain any fluidity in their play, but the signs were already there that their front three of Nasri, Ribery and Benzema possessed greater attacking quality than their English counterparts.

                England created the best chance early on, after Young received the ball facing goal midway in the French half and slipped a well measured pass through to Milner, who took a good touch taking himself beyond Hugo Lloris in the France goal but couldn’t wrap his rubbish left, I mean left foot around the ball and he poked it wide to the sound of 4,000 English groans. Ah Milner, you try so hard. Shortly afterwards Hart produced an excellent reaction save from a close range header from Diarra. The acrobatic punch will have gone some way to alleviating the nerves he was clearly feeling after fumbling a simple catch from a corner, which I had never seen him do before.

                On the half hour mark, Gerrard whipped in a delicious free kick that Lescott- left unmarked by Diarra- managed to head beyond Lloris and England were 1-0 in front. The goal was very well taken, replays showing how he had to lean back mid-air to angle the ball downwards. England have a remarkable record of scoring first in major tournaments, and in keeping with the realistic approach of England fans this year, there was a sense that this by no means spelt a certain, or even likely, win for England.

                Unfortunately our reluctance to get carried away was soon vindicated, with Nasri scoring a fine goal within nine minutes to level the score. The English defence and, importantly, midfield had dropped deep within their penalty box giving Nasri time to shape up for a shot. In their attempt to block the effort, Gerrard and Parker obstructed Hart’s view so his dive was more retrospective than anything. Darren Gough on Talksport said that Hart’s inability to save the shot was as bad as Green’s howler against USA two years ago. He backtracked a little after he realised he was talking nonsense, but that goes down as the most over-the-top comment so far. I will keep you posted with Gough’s gaffes throughout the tournament.

                France dominated possession before the break and England were very happy to go in level. The second half was a less entertaining affair for the neutral, as England tired in the heat and France stepped up their dominance of possession. The double-parked-bus approach was working for England on the whole as they displayed excellent organisational discipline, limiting France to long range shots. Benzema had the best of these efforts, forcing Hart into a good save. Things became increasingly nerve-jangling as France looked dangerous and England looked exhausted, but they admirably held out to the end, with the help of a crucial Glen Johnson interception (I always said he should be in the team) and a Danny Welbeck deflection from Cabaye’s  goal-bound half volley.

                Although England didn’t create many real opportunities, with Lescott’s goal England’s only shot on target, and only managing to gain 40% of possession, on reflection I’m pretty sure this was as well as England could have done with limited resources and in fact represents a successful execution of Plan A. Going forward, there was a very promising performance from Welbeck, and Oxlaide-Chamberlain showed glimpses of class that I predict will make ‘Feed the Ox!’ a well-recognised catchphrase for years to come. A point against the French- unbeaten in 21 games- was actually pretty useful, and there was unquestionably enough evidence of goalscoring potential for the remaining group games against the weaker Sweden and Ukraine to make progressing to the quarter finals a realistic expectation.

Player Profiles:

Joe Hart- 8: In most match reviews I read, Hart was given 7. I think he deserves 8 as this was his first taste of international tournament football, and he made a handful of smart saves including one excellent save, and generally looked nice and scary shouting at his defence.

Glen Johnson- 7: After failing to perform for four years as an international, one feels his inclusion in the team owes a lot to Hodgson’s familiarity with him whilst at Liverpool. He actually looked more assured than in the preceding friendlies, and was England’s busiest player with the most possession of the ball. Defended solidly, making one crucial interception.

John Terry- 7: Managed to go a full 90 minutes without kneeing someone in the back or sleeping with anyone’s ex-wife, whilst also producing a solid performance in an unfamiliar centre back position (normally plays on left side).

Joleon Lescott- 7: Was picked ahead of Jagielka and justified the decision with a strong aerial performance. Did look a look a bit clueless when distributing the ball from defence, but hey, remember Upson at the World Cup?

Ashley Cole- 7: Forced to play a more defensive role than he probably would have liked, but did it very well as usual. He never looks like he’s in trouble and made a couple of key tackles.

James Milner- 6: Off the ball: 8, on the ball: 4. Lost the ball 17 times in the game and wasted a chance that Harry Redknapp would claim his mother could have scored, although in all reality it’s more likely she would have broken her hip after swinging her leg wildly at the ball. My, he does run though. I bet he’s Hodgson’s teacher’s pet, always putting his hand up for questions whilst Roy ignores him and looks in hope at Wayne Rooney, only to find him playing thumb wars with Andy Carroll.

Steven Gerrard- 7: Again, guilty of losing the ball too often, looking for the killer pass without any success. However, also put in the proverbial shift and coordinated the midfield defensive line well.

Scott Parker- 7: Was completed knackered after an hour and looked like he would struggle to make it to the sideline after being substituted. Harrassed the French all game (not in the legal sense) causing them great frustration. I’m yet to be convinced he has international quality on the ball, but time will tell and I hope to be proven wrong.

Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlaine- 6: He’s so good his name doesn’t even fit on his shirt. Looked a little nervous to start with, but that’s hardly surprising seeing as he’s only 18 and has only featured sporadically for Arsenal in one Premier League season. He clearly is a classy player and also works really hard for the team, meaning Hodgson is likely to persevere with him.

Ashley Young- 6: Much better at receiving the ball facing goal so he can run at players, he doesn’t look natural holding the ball up facing his own goal under pressure from large centre backs. Despite this, he still showed some excellent touches and worked like a trooper.

DANNY WELBECK- 8: Man of the Match: Worked tirelessly under difficult conditions, often receiving the ball in a different postcode to his team-mates. Despite his isolation, he kept the ball very well, showed no fear in attacking French defenders and did well in the air as well. Could well score against Sweden.

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