Monday, July 19, 2010

Third time's the charm... sometimes

2010 should be remembered as the third times' year in professional sports.

This is Marian Hossa.

He's a Slovak hockey player who plays in the NHL, the North American top hockey league, and routinely competes with the Slovak national team in international tournaments. At the end of the 2007-2008 season he was traded from the Atlanta Thrashers to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins qualified for the playoffs and won all three series in the Eastern Conference, to play the final series against the Detroit Red Wings.

The Red Wings won in 6 games, hoisting the Cup in Pittsburgh.

That summer, the Penguins offered Hossa a 5 year contract but he declined, preferring a one year contract with none but the Detroit Red Wings with whom, he said, he thought he had a better chance to win the Cup. And it wasn't a big deal with anyone, come to think of it he had been with the Penguins only for the playoffs.

Season 2008-2010 found the Red Wings strong once again, qualifying for the playoffs and beating the Chicago Blackhawks in 5 games in the Western Conference final and getting to play the Stanley Cup finals with the Eastern Conference champions... once again, the Pittsburgh Penguins.

This time, the Penguins won. It took them 7 games, playing the final game in Detroit.

Journalists and fans alike had a field day with him, and seriously, how often do you find someone in his position?

That summer, his contract with the Red Wings over, he signed with the Chicago Blackhawks, a team full of young and talented players. The Blackhawks qualified for the playoffs and fortunaly he didn't cross paths with any of his former teams this time.

Maybe that helped the Chicago Blackhawks win their first Championship in 49 years and thus ending the longest winning drought in the NHL. As they say, third time's the charm. Interestingly enough, there weren't any apologetic articles from the journalists that 12 months before had poked fun at this player... Anyways, he holds a record for playing at the Stanley Cup playoffs for four years in a row in four different teams, and playing the finals three years in a row, obviously, with three different teams. A field day for sports statistics lovers, no doubt, now that nobody (as far as I know) has given him a fraction of the attention he got when Detroit lost in 2009. I really don't think he cares, though.

The second third time I'd like to mention today, is this one.

The Dutch royal family is the Orange-Nassau and the country's official color. While it's nowhere in their national flag, their national teams sport the hue in their outfits, and they've so been recognized for a long time.

The Netherlands football team's performance in the FIFA World Cups in 1974 and 1978 was stellar, displaying a style of playing never seen before that proved immensely influential in the following years. The "total football" approach gained them the nickname "orange clockwork", which they' ve held ever since even if their international performance in the roughly thirty years after it wasn't, as a whole, that visible and impressive.

In 1974 the Orange played its first World Cup final game against host and champion of 1954, West Germany.

That day, West Germany won its second Cup.

The Orange kept with the good work, reaching the finals again four years later again against host, and already defeated once in the finals, Argentina. So, none had ever won the Cup but both had played one final (though Dutch players were still active while the original Argentinian players were senior citizens).

Maybe it's because a final played by the host under a dictatorial regime is, let's say, more stressful for everybody like players, referees and fans (like Italy in 1934), or maybe because at least one Dutch star refused to play in a country under said regime. Simply put, Argentinians scored more that particular day.

And the Dutch went home empty handed again. Funny they didn't think of hosting a Cup themselves, don't you think?

The Orange's appearances at the following seven World Cups had ups and downs, but it wasn't until South Africa 2010 that they managed to reach the final stage again. This time the hosts had been eliminated in the first round and the contender was newcomer Spain, who had never been this far in the tournament. In the semis former champions Germany and Uruguay got to play for the third place, and the Dutch squad, undefeated for two years, faced current Euro Champion Spain.

I saw the game and definitely the Dutch playing style has a focus on effectiveness. Sometimes tougher than ice hockey players the Orange squad got to the finals undefeated from the start of the tournament, allowing more than one goal (two to be exact) just once in the semis against Uruguay. The Spanish style, instead, reminds a little more of the "total football" of Netherlands of yore, with short passes and absolutely breaking the opponent's game. It's also very effective. And boring if you're not an absolute fan of the game.

The game ended tied with no goals and went to extra time. Just five minutes before it was over, Spain scored. So third time... wasn't the charm for the orange clad people. Many thought they deserved to win because they were seasoned veterans in the final playing games, while Spain would benefit of the experience anyway. Sports, however, are not about deserving but winning.

For the sports statistics fans, Netherlands is the team having played more finals without winning any, but it's still not the team having lost more finals overall. That's Germany at four out of seven played, while Brazil, also with seven appearances, won five of them. Uruguay is the team with the longest winning drought, 60 years, and England is the next one at 44 years. The other members of the list are Argentina at 24, Germany at 20, France at 12, Brazil at 8 and Italy at 4 (seriously, how many of those can be called droughts?)

Having a third example would be fantastic, but unfortunately I don't know of any. If you can help, please let me know of that in the comments.

picture one, picture two, picture three, picture four

picture five, picture six, picture seven, picture eight

Language note: this blog is written in American English so I should use the word "soccer" instead of "football". I choose to disregard the consistency on this particular point, but I promise to keep at bay any other disgressions.

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