Alexi Lalas vs Michael Ballack: The Euro 2012 Cage Match On ESPN Continues

It’s been a strange Euro 2012 when you consider that one of England’s biggest critics in America, Alexi Lalas, has been lauding how well the England national team has been playing. When Lalas speaks on ESPN, I almost have to pinch myself to believe that he’s actually praising England. His track record includes a history of harsh criticisms about England. He said the 2010 England World Cup had “delusions of grandeur.” Plus he’s been known to inflate the perceived quality of Major League Soccer, to the detriment of the Premier League. He once said that if a spaceship beamed one of the top MLS sides on to an EPL ground, that the MLS team would battle for a mid-table position. The suggestion is quite laughable, even years after he said it.

The pessimist in me wonders whether Lalas is backing England in order to make good television, especially when juxtaposed against an anti-England Michael Ballack. But I don’t think so. Lalas, a defender in his playing days, appreciates a team built around defense, as most defenders do. Heck, this England team is more like Italy than any other side in Euro 2012, Italy included. So, it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that Lalas has fallen for England given how well the national team has been playing, and how they’re playing much more like a sound team than a jigsaw puzzle of individual footballers.

The chemistry between Lalas and Ballack, particularly when the topic of England arises, is incredible to watch. Sitting next to each other, Ballack is sticking to his principles of how soccer should be played. His pride for Germany shines through. He’s stubborn in his beliefs, blunt with his words and punctuates the air with a style that’s completely opposite to his colleague beside him. Lalas, the effervescent American, is entertaining to watch and listen to, and seems to enjoy the debate. Best of all, there’s a tangible friction between the two pundits. It’s friendly, but tinged with a competitive spirit. When making a point, both men are looking each other in the eye when they speak, even when the questions are posed by Bob Ley or Rebecca Lowe. It’s almost as if the two men are engaged in a staring contest, trying to unsettle his opponent.

What is plainly obvious is that Ballack is holding back. He has deeper thoughts on England as a national team, but so far, he has only offered mere glimpses of his beliefs. By the manner of his tone, we know he’s not a fan of England under Hodgson. His quip about England parking three buses against France revealed a lot. But I’m looking forward to hearing more of Ballack’s viewpoints as the tournament unfolds.

Lalas, on the other hand, has shown us his cards. He’s a proponent of Hodgson, a man who recognizes England’s weaknesses and plays to its strengths, while nullifying the opponent. It’s not pretty, but it’s effective. But at least, so far this tournament. England is no longer playing like 11 chickens with their heads cut off. They’re all part of a team plan — a simple notion, but something that has been lost on England for far too long.

The best thing for ESPN and we admirers of the tete-a-tete between Ballack and Lalas is that England progresses far in this tournament. The further England goes into the latter stages of Euro 2012, the more testy Ballack will become. We can only hope that Ballack reaches a breaking point, where he spills the beans on what he really thinks about England. We’ve only had a taste of that, so far, but I’m looking forward to hearing his uncensored thoughts on what he really thinks. Lalas, I’m sure, will keep on pushing Ballack’s buttons. The tragedy is that England could be out of the tournament as early as Tuesday. For the sake of entertaining television, and the chance to see a methodical German explode before our eyes, let’s hope England can keep the run going for at least another week or more.

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