Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Euro Vision

The rain in Spain might stay mainly on the plain, but since last Sunday evening, hangovers have continued to pound in large parts of the Iberian peninsular, as well as countless capitals around the world where Spaniards gathered to watch what is now largely regarded as the finest football final in living memory.

Now we, I, you, Spain, have put three days' distance between Euro 2012 and the void that is "pre-season", what can we take out of the three-and-a-bit weeks of football hosted for our pleasure by Poland and Ukraine, along with the besuited behemoth that is UEFA?

Let's go back to the eve of battle, June 7. There were, then, naysayers predicting, well, nothing special. There was the odd extremist prophesising a bloodbath of right-wing hooliganism (I recall the word "coffins" being mentioned at one point), but in the end, there was neither the snoozefest suggested by pre-tournament apathy or a mass outbreak of malevolence from Eastern European Neo-Nazis. Thankfully.

Instead we had a feast. A proper feast. 31 courses varying in quality from the Michelin-starred experience of Spain's run to the Dutch omelette that turned up already falling apart and disappeared back to the kitchen for a serious inquest with chef. While in this food vein (sorry), let us not forget the Italians, who, like their cuisine, provided tasty servings that sometimes flattered to deceive and at other times exceeded expectations. And then there was England, who turned up, did the job they'd come to do, were a little better than might have been predicted, and then went home again without setting anyone's footballing palates on fire. I'll leave myself open to comments about British food.

Clearly this tournament belonged to Spain, even if their maiden Group C innings against Italy brought led them to being tagged "boring". Who knew? In the end La Roja gave football and its disciples a masterclass, returning to meet L'Azzurri again in a memorable final (even if the Italians looked jaded from the outset), resulting in second consecutive international tournament title.

There was so much to like about Euro 2012: refereeing, for a start. We normally enter a tournament with the referees and their assistants already typecast as moustache-twirling villains, but this time around there was genuinely nothing major to complain of. The cards were kept to a blessed minimum, the preening and posturing was left to the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, and games were managed with a balance of the right sort of attention from the officials.

Of course, we wouldn't have a tournament without at least one goal-line incident, and while Ukraine's ghost-goal against England wasn't as dramatic as Frank Lampard's in South Africa, the fact that a UEFA-appointed line referee was gawping at the ball as it bounced over the English line brought us once again back to the topic of technology. And a spectacular U-turn by the ever preposterous Sepp Blatter (I can't be bothered to go over it all again, but just Google what he said in 2010 and again after the England-Ukraine game. What a twat.).

I'm not going to go on, either, about England's performance at Euro 2012, mainly because I've already done so (For once, it's OK) and secondly because there were far better individual and team performances. Spain, for a start.

In Xavi, Silva, Alba, Iniesta, Fabregas and even the much-maligned Torres we were treated to a fluidity of play, of telepathic understanding, of passes of prosciutto-cut precision, the likes of which will be studied for years to come. 
That Spain were almost disregarded as title prospects says a lot about jaded football punditry. 

In the end we witnessed a team waltz to a trophy. In other countries around the world - and the dentures will be grinding most profusely in my homeland - footballists will be looking at Spain and wondering: what if? Here is a national side that has, over time, 'lent' players to other leagues but ultimately is at its best when it is comprised of talent that plays together domestically and nationally.

Let's not forget the Germans, doing absolutely nothing whatsoever to dispel national stereotyping about robotic efficiency and clinical tactics...until they were left completely shell-shocked by an Italian side spearheaded by a 21-year-old colossus with temperament issues. Joachim Loew's reactions to both goals by Mario Balotelli in their semi-final were a delightful 

From complete teams to the one-man army that was Portugal, a fairly average side for them, but blessed beyond all that is fair by a preening narcissist with exquisite pace, poise and agility.

It's hard to effectively label Christiano Ronaldo. I know we all like to consider the compulsive winker as part genius-savant, part-pantomime villain, and his constant glances up towards the stadium big screens hardly helps endear him further, but there is little one can do but being absolutely breathtaken when he's on the ball.

The tears at the end, the sensitivity to Danish fans' "Messi! Messi! Messi!" chants ("You know where Messi was at this time last year? He was being eliminated in the Copa America, in his own country. I think that's worse, no?" - Oooooh!! Get her!) all demonstrate that for all the multi-million Euro trading between clubs, and the tutorage of two of the best coaches in the business (A. Ferguson, J. Mourinho), there is more boy in Ronaldo than man. But then there is also a terrific footballer.

In Ronaldo, then, and Mario Balotelli, we have two diamonds, one apparently flawless, the other rougher than a girls' night out in Essex, but clearly in no more need than a concerted program of polishing and etiquette. I'm tempted to say that Balotelli simply needs a Swiss finishing school, but that would be inviting the wolf to not only enter the henhouse but pick it clean. Maybe, then, just a qualified psychiatrist is all he needs.

If Euro 2012 had ended with the semi-final between Germany and Italy, we would have been hailing Balotelli as the player's undisputed star.

His two goals against Germany repaid every bead of sweat shed in trepidation by coach Cesare Prandelli, or indeed by Manchester City's Roberto Mancini, who took the biggest punt of all on the Ghanaian-born, Sicilian-raised striker.

Even Prandelli had been flumoxed trying to figure out the 21-year-old ("How do you try to work out what goes on in the head of such a young man?" he has said)

Here is a player who prompted this fabulous quote from Croatian tennis player Goran Ivanisivic: "I like Balotelli. He's someone who can damage himself, the team and his opponent. He can score the winning goal then set fire to the hotel." Two goals, in a game Italy had been expected to lose, transformed Balotelli from trouble with a capital T to national hero. "Until now, he has been the most controversial, talked about and, in part, detested national team player," said journalist Sandro Modeo of the Corriere della Sera. "His goals against Germany changed all that; it was the break which makes him a champion."

At the other extreme from Balotelli's teenage truculence, his national captain, Gianluigi Buffon, demonstrated dignity and humility in spades. His smile as he walked through the Spanish guard of honour to receive his runners-up medal spoke volumes of a seasoned pro with a complete grip on perspective. "Tonight, there was no contest, [Spain] were too superior," the goalkeeper graciously conceded. "The bitterness at losing this final is only relative. It was a great adventure."

Italy were, surprisingly, the surprise package of Euro 2012. Italian football can be a petulant, negative affair, dominated more by effete posers unable to stay on their feet in the faintest of tackles, but despite repeated attempts, we saw precious little of that from Italy this time. Of course, they are always feted as possible champions, a prediction rarely based on evidence of form, it has to be said.

Perhaps its because they are the perennial horse backed by neutrals (especially the ladies...) who either expect a cultured performance or glorious hair.In Andrea Pirlo they had both. They also had a midfielder who covered more ground than the average Italian car does before something falls off it. Some say he carried Italy. I disagree - he was simply an outstanding player in a good side.

I watched this tournament through an odd lens: living in Paris, the most vociferous interest I'd seen in the tournament came from Portuguese, Italian and Spanish ex-pats, along with tourists who belted up and down the city's main thoroughfares after each game their teams have played, honking horns, flapping flags and generally yelping like they'd just brought down a vicious dictatorship. The sight last Sunday of jubilant Spaniards draped in red and gold tearing up my street was one to match that of Paris in 1998 going Tonto following their World Cup triumph over Brazil.

So that was the good. What about the bad and the ugly? And is there room for the so-so?

Let's skip straight to the ugly: I don't wish to re-rake old, still-smoldering coals, but at risk of excess metaphor, has there ever been a firework that looked as potent in the shop as the Netherlands but went off like a damp squib, setting its own shed on fire in the process? I say "the Netherlands", but almost everyone - including UEFA - seemed to refer to the Dutch as ”Holland" which, pedants unite, refers to only one part of the country.

With an identity crisis like that, no wonder their football team can't ever get it together when it counts. Either way, I can't recall a team as disappointing in the build-up and execution of a major football tournament (and in that measurement I include England as exemplars of the art of failure), in terms of expectation created and not fulfilled.

We joke about the Dutch habit of implosion, but it should only have ever happened once - like Kevin Keegan throwing a punch at Billy Bremner (oh, alright, Kevin Keegan losing it on live TV). Fractiousness of that kind it shouldn't be an ever-present threat. And yet repeated Dutch coaches have encountered it, wrestled with it, and ultimately failed to cap it.

"We should all take a good look in the mirror,” winger Arjen Robben said as his team prepared to head home. “Everyone one of us has failed. There are some things that happened in the squad, but we must keep them to ourselves."

Perhaps he includes his alleged retort of "shut your trap" to coach Bert van Marwijk, who had the temerity to criticise him in training.

Similarly, France find themselves staring yet again into their collective navel, wondering why the 2000 European champions and the 1998 World Champions should have faded so poorly amid more internal strife. France will host the next European Championships, which means that whoever is in charge of les bleus by then - and that may not necessarily mean Laurent Blanc's immediate replacement - will have the weight of a nation that was clearly thinking about other matters this time to really get behind his side.

The last word on Euro 2012 must be left with the hosts, Poland and Ukraine. There were doubts about their ability to host a tournament as complex as this, but they proved without reservation that they were more than capable. UEFA's Michel Platini is now floating the idea that after France has cleaned up in 2016 (funny that...) the tournament could be hosted across 12 cities in different countries, with an extra 20 games added by widening the field of competitors from 16 to 24.

This might sound like a positive attempt at inclusion, by increasing the tournament size to that of the World Cup, but the reality, I'm afraid, is more cynical than that. 51 games equals 51 sets of TV rights. Yes folks, we're talking about money. We're certainly not talking about a footballing jamboree whereby the fans of competing nations - and a few others - converge on a host nation (or at most, two host nations) to celebrate their culture as much as the matches being staged.

The World Cup in Germany six years ago, universally acknowledged as the finest in terms of staging in modern times, set the benchmark for a tournament to be enjoyed by everyone - at home in front of the TV, in the pub, in front of the FanZone jumbo screens, or at the stadia themselves. Poland and Ukraine lived up to that standard. Let's hope nobody comes along and messes with a winning formula. Eh, Michel?

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