Saturday, 18 June 2016

Euro 2016: Some Talking Points

Four years on from the last one, two years on from Brazil 2014, I'm happy to report that the European Championships are back - I haven't been able to do a day-by-day rundown of what's happened, since I work and the matches are all broadcast early. One of the unfortunate things about watching a European tournament from the West Coast, I guess.

In any case, here are some thoughts about the tournament so far, with each team having played twice in the group stage:

Too much football
Well, it doesn't really feel that way, because I haven't been watching Copa America, but in another way, it totally feels like there's too much football on to follow. I understand it's the Copa America Centenario, but it's a little unfortunate that they decided to schedule it against the Euros. And yet, it's been entertaining seeing the results from a little closer to home (including a pretty spectacular crash-and-burn from Brazil). Also, a small part of me regrets that the African Cup of Nations isn't also on...

Goals, goals, goals?
So I was trying to decide if there had been a lot of goals scored so far, or if it's been a cagey affair. Because I'm a research analyst, and I'm trained to look at numbers and see what stories they tell, I can now report that there's actually been fewer goals per game than the past two tournaments. Euro 2016 has seen an average 1.96 goals per game, compared with 2.9 at Brazil 2014 and a whopping 3.8 at Euro 2012. There have been two 0-0 draws so far in the group stage, compared with three in 2014 and none at all (!) in 2012.

It FELT like there'd been a decent amount of goals, though, because we didn't start getting scoreless draws until just a couple of days ago, but on the whole, the games have been low-scoring. On Matchday 1 there were only three games won by a margin of more than one goal, and none in which either team scored more than two (or in which the total number of goals in a game was more than 3). As of Matchday 2 there have been a couple of 3-0 games, and a 2-2 draw, balanced out by two 0-0 results.

I haven't seen anyone refer to the number of goals yet, but some comments I've read or heard on podcasts might shed some light on why it's been so low. One issue might be the expanded format - we've gone this year from 16 teams to 24, which entails all kinds of weird permutations to determine who goes through as a third-place finisher. The extra teams means that worse teams are participating - the likes of Hungary, Iceland and Albania have been held up as teams that wouldn't have qualified under the old system. And yet... Hungary shocked everyone by beating Austria 2-0 in their first game, and Iceland have nicked a pair of 1-1 draws, playing entertainingly if not always fluidly.

The existence of third place finishing might have something to do with it too, as it appears to reward playing cagily and not conceding too many goals. And the field is still quite open, as any of the third-place teams as of now could win and go through, while only one team (Ukraine) has been definitely eliminated.

Another possible cause is the dearth of good strikers, apparently. I haven't looked at it systematically, but some of the big powers - Italy, Spain, Germany, France - don't really have any good options up front. The only big team that does have a good strike force is England, with Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy (who incidentally were the first English top-scorers in the Premier League since 1999-2000). Spain and Germany, in fact, have pretty much done away with the need for strikers, though Alvaro Morata did manage to bag two against Turkey this morning. It would be interesting to see if this holds true across all teams, and if so why, but it's Saturday night and I don't know if I have the time to go looking myself. But watch this space!

Thank gosh for streaming
The other noteworthy thing, at least for me, is that this is the first tournament I've watched exclusively on streaming. I did have to nick a Comcast profile off a friend, because my mom's moved away from the Bay Area and I can't use hers, and I also did have to get my home internet upgraded (although that's more because I'm working from home more regularly now).

In 2014 I managed to watch a lot of the games for free on through Univision's website, but they've wised up, and anyway aren't showing the tournament themselves - slightly less interest if the Copa America's on, I suppose. But it's interesting that with some strategically deployed technology and cannily downloaded apps, I can stream games to my TV and watch as normal - or log into my phone or laptop and watch them there.

Thinking back, four years ago, in England, it doesn't even seem like it would have been an option, or at least not for all matches. Even further back, in 2002, I remember having to slip unnoticed to a colleague's desk to watch Italy get knocked out on a portable TV - now I can just sign into whatever device I want and watch there. It's maybe not the most earth-shattering use case, but it does sometimes feel like all this tech isn't a bad thing.

Anyway, those are my thoughts for now - I'll be back after the group stage ends, and hopefully before the knockout round begins with some more. Or at the latest, on July 6th to think about the tournament as a whole...

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Argentina Hoy

I don't know if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but when I go somewhere I don't read up on it a whole lot. I try and get a sense of stuff to do there, of course, but I don't try to become an expert before I arrive. Part of it is probably the malign influence of Paul Theroux, who claims in his travel books not to read about places before he visits, so he can explore them on his own terms. It was in this spirit that I went to Argentina a couple of weeks ago.

Central Buenos Aires, day one

Why Argentina? A number of reasons - the most immediate being that my friend Sita, who writes her own blog "Buenos Aires - Life on the Edge (of a Continent)", has been living there for over a year and invited me down to visit. More generally I've also been fascinated by the place for a long time, since it's where a lot of European (and especially Italian) migration to the New World ended up, and my own grandfather ended up there after World War II, as part of the general Turkish-Armenian diaspora following the Armenian Genocide of 1915.

Buenos Aires was pretty different from any other place I've been... though at the same time, parts of it looked a lot like places that I do know. Some neighborhoods looked like any part of Europe, while others were clearly Latin America. It's a country that boasts a history of immigration and diversity, a real melting pot, though the only language I heard on the street other than Spanish was Chinese (and that was only once).

I suppose the first thing that caught me off guard was the sharp division between rich and poor that exists there. This was because, on the cab ride from the airport to Sita's house in Quilmes, the first thing we passed through on leaving the freeway was a pretty wretched-looking slum. I learned that this was the villa (pronounced vee-zha, because of the weird Argentine accent), and it's Argentina's answer to Brazil's favelas - Sita and her husband Alistair said they'd heard gunshots at night once or twice, coming from the villa.

On the other hand, I have a work colleague who lives in the center of town, and her neighborhood might as well have been in Italy. Next door to her building, in fact, was a store that sold artisanal pasta and olive oil. That part of town has the stores and chains you'd recognize, as well as ones that are local, and was mostly peopled by residents who wouldn't look out of place in Turin or London.

The other interesting thing about the city was how artistic it is. The connections to Latin American writers are well-known, with Borges being referenced all over - a cafe across the street from the Recoleta Cemetery has a pretty unnerving fiberglass statue of him at one of the tables - and with poems or extracts from stories about Buenos Aires on the sidewalks in some parts of town.

The view in Recoleta

There's also a number of great museums, of which I caught one of the most famous, the Bellas Artes. It has a great collection of European works dating from the Middle Ages to the 20th Century, and a great gallery of Argentine art as well.

Probably the most distinctive thing I experienced, though - apart from rounding a corner in a cafe on my first day and seeing a couple dancing the tango - was the Palacio Barolo, on my last night in town. It's a skyscraper named for and financed by an Italian businessman who'd come to Argentina in the 1920s, and is inspired by Dante's Divine Comedy. The number of floors reflects the lines in each canto, and it's divided into sections of Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso, while also claiming to hold the mortal remains of Dante himself, removed from Italy during World War II. Everything about the place was creepy and evocative though, as we were led on our tour through its darkened corridors by a guide who'd periodically point out a sinister red-robed figure positioned at certain spots in the building.

The other thing I wasn't really expecting was the Armenian community. As I said, I knew that my grandfather had ended up there after the war, and though I didn't manage to discover where he'd been living, my colleague, Sonia, did find an Armenian school and cultural center that does weekly dinners to raise money for class trips to Armenia. It was right across the street from a theater that has the same name as my mom (Siranush), and featured home-cooked Armenian food.

So Buenos Aires, difficult though it could be (for example, trying to find a bus home to Quilmes or determining which streets were safe for me to walk around), was also an excellent introduction to South America. By the end of the week I was navigating the transit between Quilmes and Capital, and within the city proper, without undue problems, and managed to avoid getting caught by muggers or by strikers. And I got to see a little bit outside of town too, when I went to Tigre, a town on the Parana that serves as the summer getaway for Buenos Aires.

Tigre; clearly where Fitzcarraldo ended up

It might not be top of everybody's list of places to visit, but it's good to experience it for yourself - it's a bit schizophrenic but that tension of European and Latin American cultures makes it fascinating. And as Sita can attest, it's even (mostly) safe for vegetarians - though I did have a couple of decent steaks, because it's the thing you do when you go there.
Pretty damn balanced meal, no?