By Konrad Kay
WITH Platini carrying on about possible experimentation with the Euros (while simultaneously ignoring the parts of the game which need urgent experimentation) these Euros may be the last of their kind. When asked the motivation for a 24 team-tournament he side-stepped the obvious economic answer and said: ‘At the moment we have the best teams here, but we have great teams who are not.’ The great teams he listed, straight faced, ‘Switzerland, Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Slovenia and Norway.’ It follows that what the competition stands to lose in its expansion is the quality and high level intensity of the group stages – a match in the opening week was replayed as the final, others would have made fitting semi finals. It won’t be as smooth and straight forward. That’s not to say we won’t have great goals (like Zlatan’s tribute to technique vs the French, or Andy’s hang time vs the Swedes), or consistently great individual performances (like Iniesta or Pirlo) or lasting images (Buffon’s singing, Balotelli and his mother). Four groups of four meant they came thick and fast.
The opening game rife with incident (and the one of the few examples of poor refereeing) and an opening goal from a new quantity to the unschooled fan in Lewandowski – the sort of player you back for top scorer while saying ‘Lewandowski? Don’t you know?’ Poland vs Russia another highlight, one of the few games still charged with political energy – ‘THIS IS RUSSIA’ the banner announced their intended re-occupation. A captain’s rocket and contender for goal of the tournament gave the Poles a memory worth all the planning and preparation and money. Russian supremacy over Group A looked a formality, but they were ousted in favour of the functional Czechs and Greeks. With the Russians went the brightness of Dzagoev. With the Poles we said goodbye to Piszczek and Boenishch – just two members of a pack of impressive full backs at the tournament.
Daniel Agger’s Denmark delivered the tournament’s first upset in the first game of Group B – the official group of death – we were spoilt for choice this time but probably won’t be in 4 years. The Danes dispatched the Dutch, a richly talented group of individuals who turned up and played like a richly talented group of individuals. Germany managed to marry that hackneyed idea of their own supposed efficiency to flair, motoring through the group stages with a perfect record. In the key moment though, their nerve wavered. When it worked for them, Ozil was terrific, Reus and Schurrle looked promising deputies. Gomez’s brace against the Dutch was a highlight – showing a deftness of touch and precision that his critics say he lacks.
Portugal continued their form of group stage bullies, having qualified from their six previous groups in Euro history – a record they can likely continue with less killer, more filler in future groups. Ronaldo’s performance against the Dutch was for some the individual performance of the tournament: the almost atomic energy and drive when he decides he is running from Point A to point B and will be first there and make it his, the robotic detachment when finishing. The logic/story behind 5th-penalty-gate is probably more boring than people want to make out, and it’s a shame that his summer ended like that. Portugal, second to Italy, were the surprise of the tournament. Pepe solid, Moutinho and Veloso industrious and neat, explosive on the flanks, supported by a position tacticians might soon call an ‘uncelebrated 9.’
Group D. England’s grade for the tournament? Before we get to that we should remember that Ukraine were entitled to their home stage memories too – and they got it when their most famous son, bowed by age, still had the wit to glide into positions he saw before any of the Swedish defence even knew were there. It was the heartlifting moment of the tournament – Voronin and Shevchenko, sat in their vests, two locals, two friends, approaching retirement.
Back to Hodgson’s England. Their legacy in Euro 2012? A cowardly draw against a team that wanted to be beaten in the French, a marginal victory over a poor Sweden, a game that should have ended in a draw against the hosts (the tournament deserved them through and either England or France out), and embarrassment at the hands of Italy. If it is a fear that a broader tournament will bring in a calibre of opposition told to be conscious of their weakness, impaired by their manager’s instruction to sit deep at a detriment to football – they have a perfect blue print to follow here. England’s obsession with winning will come closer to being satisfied when words like ‘heart’ and ‘spirit’ are replaced by ‘technique’ and ‘imagination’ in the their footballing lexicon, when talented young players are not imprisoned by an outmoded system and when Roy Hodgson returns to his level.
The only other side that could match that sense of collective international shame were the French, Nasri’s petulance, Ribery’s continued inability to perform to a level his reputation suggests, Benzema looking slightly clueless without his clued up Madrid colleagues. Timid against the English, submissive against the Swedes & their best player? Inevitably, a right back – Debuchy. The Swedes, for all their mediocre players, were enjoyable to watch – possibly down to their beautiful kits. More likely down to the fact that they were involved in Shevchenko’s homecoming, a high-scoring, low-quality romp with the English and a Zlatan exhibition match against the French. Zlatan, gave his detractors (most of whom watch him play biannually) another view of his gifts. They’ll go back to ignoring him, he’ll concentrate on winning the 10th title of his career (I’ve left in the two Juventus titles revoked due to Calciopoli – we all know Zlatan would want it that way).
It transpired the tournament was to be all about Group C. It threw up and out Ireland and Croatia. Ireland proved a disappointment to the many of the Irish who travelled, with Trapattoni’s approach not aided by conceding an early goal in the initial sparring with the Croats and Spaniards. Much focus for the Irish was off the pitch – the fun: the banners mocking the EU’s President in all but name, Angela Merkel, the picture of an Irish lad proving that opposition fans really can integrate in modern stadia, and the immensely tragic: the death of James Nolan. Exposing the competition to new sets of fans may well prove to be the sole boon of expansion – Platini got close to saying something right: ‘The Scots are also not here – they bring a lot of emotions, a lot of atmosphere with them.’ For many, Croatia were possibly the side of the tournament in the group stages, and missed out on qualification by a point to the eventual finalists. Modric looked like a player operating on another level and Mandzukic looked a “handful” of an attacking option in an era which may be losing them (Bayern obviously noticed).
The romantic highlight of the tournament was Italy’s renaissance under Prandelli, bringing a freshness to their approach and formation whose working philosophy was, in his words, “to make people fall in love with the Azzurri again.” No trophy, but an objective achieved. Their reward for having the boldness to try and play against the Spanish in the final was a swift and very public loveless execution, like how a king might do away with a pretender. Spain are not boring, though they may bring out boring football in opponents too willing to accept inferiority. Italy were not prepared to accept theirs, and they were finally given a lesson in it. But Italy ’s tournament will be remembered for the tactician’s wet dream that was their first outing against the Spanish, and their near perfect performance in the semis. Their dismissal of the best squad in the tournament seemed at once the world’s first tasting of a serious talent and the final vintage of another. Balotelli, the lead, Pirlo, with his giant Venetian mask of a face, the choreographer. Pirlo would exhaust pundits, some of whom had only just acknowledged his existence, as they scrambled around for an original superlative. They needn’t have bothered– he summed up his contribution with the moment of the tournament – an act of leadership hidden behind an impudent penalty. Balotelli took a brace of finishes away to rival it. His celebration against the Germans – a kind of PG-13 topless upgrade of the Old Trafford one – will endure, not only as a tongue in cheek retort to those who claimed he never celebrates, but more as a slap in the face to the stupid cartoonists and those who maintain ‘Non esistono italiani negri’ – ‘there’s no such thing as a black Italian.’ Here was Italy’s future: immovable, talented and black.
So to Spain. Two questions followed Spain around the tournament – does Del Bosque know his best team and are Spain boring? (i.e. Why wasn’t the idiot playing a striker?) The final was a perfect rejoinder to the naysayers, not that the Spanish were ever listening. The last 30 minutes, due to Thiago Motta’s injury (look out for more muscle injuries in a longer tournament at the end of a long season in 2016) was a procession. Xavi and Iniesta, even Busquets, now have a body of work, and silverware, to rival any of the great players. The unassuming Iniesta, adding a player of the tournament award, to a World Cup winning goal, has quietly assumed the mantle of one of the world’s greatest all-time midfielders. It is hard to get that sense of historic gravity, but it will come as the years pass. Casillas, surely the most successful goal keeper of all time, now has 9 clean sheets in European championships. Spain have not conceded a single goal in their last 990 minutes of action in major tournament knockout games, stretching back to the quarter finals of Euro 2008. You can tell the story in eye-catching and emphatic numbers. Or via any of the goals. All special in their own way – Alba’s adventure and speed, Iniesta and Xavi’s vision, Fabregas’s presence of mind, Torres’s finishing and selflessness. This is a team that utterly knows itself, its nation, and marries success so easily with the obvious talent at its disposal that its almost perverse. The best team. The champions. Not always the case in Euros past – and potentially not in the future – with the third-place finisher in four of the six groups reaching the knockout stage in at the next tournament. But who would take the other side of backing the Spanish to be the first European winners of a South American World Cup, the first nation to win the Euros three times in a row?
Euro 2012. Savour its distilled format. Savour Pirlo. Savour Spain. We will have lost at least two out of the three come France 2016.