A Russian fan in a sea of Oranje at St. Jakob Park in Basel. (Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP/Getty Images)
Let's play a little game. I have a hunch that there are quite a few people out there (yes, that assumes I have readers) who follow both soccer and college sports. So I'd like to try this comparison out on you.
I have been glued to my TV and computer (during work hours, which thankfully my boss doesn't mind) watching every game of Euro 2008, and like many soccer fans I've been enthralled by almost every minute of it.
Yet I can't help being a little bit dismayed with the teams who've made the semi-finals so far: Germany, Turkey, and Russia. We'll find out tomorrow whether Spain or Italy joins them to round out the final four.
When I watch college basketball, I like seeing mid-majors do well. I'm always thrilled by big upsets in the NCAA Tournament, even (okay, not quite always) when they blow my bracket to smithereens.
But when I watch international soccer, much like when I watch college football, I want to see the superpowers win.
In the case of college football, I think it's because I'm attracted to the big crowds and the traditions and the marching band and stuff like that. It's not something I've ever been able to feel a close connection to, which is part of the reason why I don't write about Penn State much on here.
In soccer, though, I don't know why I root for the big teams. Not least because often times -- including this year -- the supposedly 'lesser' nations play more skilful, creative soccer.
Russia has been a prime example of that of late, led by their slick attacking midfielder Andrei Arshavin (hat tip to Washington Post soccer guru Steven Goff for the video). Soccer America columnist Paul Gardner even argued this week that Russia's play has been more attractive than what was seen in the recent Brazil-Argentina game.
This year, the little guys have finally won. It's the soccer equivalent of George Mason's run to the 2006 Final Four -- but with two mid-majors still alive instead of one.
Turkey's comeback-and-penalty shootout win over Croatia yesterday and Russia's equally stunning victory against the Netherlands this afternoon sent two of the tournament's biggest names crashing out in completely unexpected fashion.
There's not much question that Russia outplayed the Dutch -- whose uniforms are among the coolest in sports -- today, and there's not much question that Turkey's series of comeback wins has made for a really thrilling storyline.
But I can't help thinking that Italy or Spain -- which thumped Russia, 4-1, in the group stage -- will have an easy time in the semis. The same goes for Germany, which will face a Turkey team minus a number of its stars who've been suspended for the game due to yellow card accumulation.
Remember how George Mason got blown out by Florida in Indianapolis? The disparity in talent isn't that big this time around, but it's not insignificant.
(For those of you who don't follow soccer, Russia is a superpower politically but not so much on the pitch. The last time they were any good, they were still the Soviet Union when they made the 1988 European Championship final -- and lost to the Netherlands on a goal by Marco Van Basten, who concluded his tenure as the Dutch coach today.)
So, you tell me: What kind of semifinal and championship clashes do you like?
Are you more attracted to George Mason or North Carolina playing in the Final Four? In the BCS, would you rather see Boise State or USC on the big stage? And in soccer, would you rather see Russia or the Netherlands playing for a spot in the final?