Friday, July 4, 2008

Euro 2008 was a tournament to savour

Euro 2008 was a tournament to savour.
Back in England a week on from the end of Euro 2008, the tournament still looks as impressive as it did in the Alps. I am not relishing another stolid European club season, dominated by the tawdry money of the big teams, so for the last time, I am looking back on what was a refreshing festival of football, the sort of which comes around only every few years:

How was the play?
Very good, on the whole, refreshingly adventurous and attacking. Only France v Romania seemed to have come from planet boredom. The French appeared to have a cloud over them all tournament, while Romania strangely failed to turn the screw when they needed to in their final group game, so deserved to leave early, too.

Croatia v Turkey was not easy to sit through for two hours, but that was rather down to one team buttoning down the hatches and trying to frustrate another which was playing with winning ambition.

The Dutch were irresistible for two games, while Spain danced their way to the trophy delightfully throughout.

Portugal were also great to watch and Croatia were not bad, while even minnows like Austria and Switzerland showed enough fighting spirit to commend their efforts. Turkey’s late-late comebacks were thrilling, making up for a lack of the beautiful game with exciting attacking.

That leaves Poland and the Czechs as fairly forgettable, although they did at least play to win. Germany, as always, never dazzled but dazed as they ground out more impressive results to add to their endless roll of honour, while Greece could not make lightning strike twice with their safety-first and negative game plans. In their defense, one might argue that Greece were only making the most of their limited options, as were Italy when they kept it tight against Spain after losing playmaker Andrea Pirlo through suspension. The host nations, meanwhile, felt an obligation to their populations to go for broke, given they might not have made it to the finals had they been forced to qualify like the rest of the teams.

In terms of entertainment overall, Euro 2008 unanimously thrilled viewers more than the most recent comparisons, World Cp 2006 and Euro 2004. It was also more open than the average Champions League encounter, which tends to resemble the sort of high-quality but low-scoring encounter that Italy and Spain served up in the quarter-final in Vienna.

Why was this? The cool air and lush grass of the Alpine settings might have helped, but then again the sweltering conditions of USA ’94 produced plenty of goals, while Korea did not seem short of breath in 2002. Some games at Euro 2008 were chilly e.g. it was overcoat time when Spain played Sweden in Innsbruck, but other days were up to 35C.

You can’t read too much into climactic conditions. Euro 2008 was great to watch because the zeitgeist had changed, as it does every few years in football for reasons we find hard to pin down.

After a negative Italia '90 came a positive USA '94. Likewise, come 2008, most of the coaches had decided to win games by attacking first and defending second. Otto Rehhagel’s triumph with Greece in 2004 thankfully failed to inspire others to follow his defensive example. Ambition, the successful coaches correctly concluded, was the way to advance. If the next World Cup has teams as exciting to watch as the Spanish, Turkish, Dutch, Portuguese and Russians were in the Alps, then we are in for a treat.

The play was clean too, with hardly any diving or play-acting, which has blighted previous tournaments. Only when bad-losers Poland tried to make an issue of Howard Webb’s correct application of the laws on shirt-pulling was there any angry argument over refereeing.

The debate surrounding ‘was-it wasn’t-it’ Ruud Van Nistelrooy strike against Italy was more interesting. Given the absurdity of deeming a player lying in a heap off the field as an active participant, the rule surely needs changing to avoid any interminable debate over interpretation, but it looks like FIFA are trying to brush this one under the carpet.

Was there any tactical revolution?

Spain’s victory would have brought a smile to the former FIFA President Stanley Rous, who insisted that at the end of the day, nothing compares to skill. Let us hope Spain's technical prowess and desire to play to feet catches on.

4-2-3-1, a refinement of 4-5-1, seemed to be the preferred system for most teams, with 4-4-2 second, while even the Dutch ditched their old 4-3-3 formation to win games. Spain’s actual shape was more 4-1-1-2-1-1. The anchor midfielder sat in front of the back four (an advanced sweeper if you will) is certainly in vogue, typified by Spain’s exemplary Marcos Senna, who set up as many attacks as he intercepted.

Wingers too, were to the fore, with Roman Pavlyuchenko, Arjen Robben and Cristiano Ronaldo reminding us how exciting wide men can be, as indeed did the previously unheralded Colin Kazim-Richards with a stunning one-off appearance for Turkey against Germany in the semi-final. The overlapping full back is still a potent weapon, as Germany’s Philipp Lahm, Portugal’s flying Jose Bosingwa, Russia’s multi-talented Yuri Zhirkov and an unsung hero, Sweden’s Fredrik Stoor, reminded us.

Spain’s miasmic midfield brought back memories of some of its finest club sides, who proved how switching positions increases the attacking potential. Wide men Andres Iniesta and David Silva requently swapped flanks, while Xavi reveled in his free role, popping up all over the last third of the opposition half.

While we in England make a sport of criticising Latin teams’ lack of recognisable strikers, the mobile centre-forward in the Thierry Henry or Fernando Torres mould continues to impress. Germany reached the final with their real firepower coming from out wide in Lukas Podolski and Bastian Schweinsteiger. The top scorer of the tournament was a penalty-box predator (David Villa) but Spain won the final without him.

Daniel Guiza, Jan Koller and Luca Toni stood out as old style ‘raging bull’ No.9s, but watching the stylistic triumph of the Spanish, you could not help thinking they represented the past in football. If there is still room for tall men up front, then they will have to be skilful on the deck too, like Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Van Nistelrooy, as the physical centre-forward role looks dated.
In terms of height anyway, the short men (Spain) beat the tall guys (Germany) in the final.

Did the finals miss England?

As if. No, the tournament managed quite well without them, danke. When Euro 2008 was about to begin, most Anglos and the land’s breweries no doubt, felt the absence of the three lions quite painfully, but now it has ended, the inital proposition appears absurd.

A happy, party atmosphere engulfed the hundreds of thousands of fans who travelled to Austria and Switzerland, the sort of feeling England’s travelling hordes have yet to master en masse. The boorish and un-sporting attitude of too many England fans was certainly not missed, nor was the jingoistic nationalism of its tabloids. Only the Turkish fans (and at times a few Germans and Poles), failed to tap in to the party spirit, preferring to taunt opposition fans when winning or failing to look on the bright side of life when losing.

Women were more evident than ever at the FanZones, as were ‘adopted fans’, cheering for different countries every night with the appropriate shirts, flags and face paints. This idea of supporting countries other than your own and enjoying the losing as well as the winning is still sadly anathema to most Englanders.

Without England there, real English fans of football could appreciate the games without the nagging influence of the national team’s presence. Those English who travelled to Euro 2008 were true fans of the game. As well as some English supporters, I saw small groups of Irish, Lithuanians and some Colombians, identifiable by their national team shirts, who had travelled to the finals for the love of the game and the pleasant experience it can offer at big tournaments.

After a fun-filled month of mutual camaraderie in the Alps, I came home to watch the final in a London pub amid shouts of ‘f*** off Ballack’, and ‘Torres you c***’ etc, completely the opposite in ambiance to the rest of Europe.

England’s boorishness to the spirit of the game was exposed when the UK tabloids ran several racist articles during the country’s hosting of Euro ’96. Forget the nice stadia; if England wants to host the World Cup again it needs to understand how fandom has moved on.

We did not miss the ridiculously overladen English media expectation, nor the trashy WAGs behaving like it's hen night every night, without a nod of respect to the culture they have landed in.

If we are talking in terms of football, the question looks even stupider. England finished third in their qualification group and not since their 4-1 demolition of Holland at Euro ’96 have ever looked like contributing aesthetically to the world game.

Is Russia about to join the elite in European football?Following Zenit St Petersburg’s UEFA Cup triumph, Moscow’s hosting of the Champions League final, Roman Abramovich’s overflowing bank accounts and the national team’s ride to the semi-final of Euro 2008, one could be forgiven for thinking Russia are about to realise their long-held potential as a major football nation.

Steady on. The UEFA Cup is hardly the competition it used to be if Rangers can make the final. Rather, it resembles the old Cup Winners’ Cup in the quality of teams involved.

At Euro 2008, Russia flattered to deceive - starting badly before improving enormously, only to bow out in the semi-final the way they began the tournament. Their classy 3-1 dismissal of the previously untouchable Dutch will was unforgettable, but one swallow does not make a summer.

The Dutch and Russians had met before of course, in the Euro ‘88 final when Marco Van Basten, the coach 20 years later, scored one of the greatest goals of all time. Like the USSR of 1988, Russia of 2008 at their best were a well-drilled machine, exploiting all areas of the field and compensating for a wealth of individual genius.

Andrei Arshavin of course was one such talent, as was Igor Belanov in 1988, along with Lev Yashin one of only two Russians to win the Ballon d’Or European Footballer of the Year award (Oleg Blokhin was strictly speaking a Ukrainian).

Whether Arshavin or attacking colleague Roman Pavlyuchenko, is truly great I doubt. Arshavin’s age (27) is not important; players flower at different times in their careers. It is rather that he flourished under the shrewd coaching of Guss Hiddink, without whom Russia would not have even made it to the finals. In the event, they scraped in after losing away to England and Israel thanks to England’s inept 2-3 defeat at home to Croatia in their final game.

Russia turned on the gas against Sweden before they neutralized the Dutch courage but their semi-final surrender to the Spanish was such a let-down after those wins that their fans probably deserved a refund from Abramovich. That night, the Russians looked more like a moderately good eleven who had scraped into the finals via some good fortune, but in the end did not really deserve to be eating at the high table. And Arsahvin, the prematurely-crowned king of Euro 2008, was nowhere to be seen.

How was the tournament organisation and fan culture?
Pretty faultless. Two countries with a high standard of living and renowned for punctuality and cleanliness were never going to mess it up. The trains were plentiful, the signposting ubiquitous, the fan zones superb and the accommodation in the cities I visited available, except for around Basel, where not enough had been provided. With a train pass however, it was not hard to hop an hour to another city where there were beds.

That organizers tried to thrust a map and fan guide to the city into the hands of every passenger arriving at Vienna’s Westbahnhof or on nearby tram platforms was proof enough for me of their willingness to help visitors.

Poland and Ukraine, if UEFA does not get cold feet and withdraw their hosting, have got a tough act to follow.

The large fan zones which dominated the city centres of the two countries (I spared a thought for the middle-aged coachloads come to Salzburg to see the Mozart heritage on the day of Spain v Sweden!) should be the model for all future tournaments. Given there are far more travelling fans than match tickets, it makes sense from a security or atmosphere perspective to encourage them to enjoy themselves together in one area. As long as that area is securely monitored with bag checks, stewarding, plentiful big screens, toilets and food and drink outlets, there should be little risk of misbehaviour.

In Austria and Switzerland, there was negligible trouble. I read about a few arrests at Germany v Poland but didn’t see a single incident myself across the tournament and never felt any of the simmering tension present at England games overseas. I felt totally safe and relaxed throughout, whatever fans were in town.

When I was not inside the stadia, I found the fan zones almost as enjoyable. In many ways, it was a more relaxed way to watch a game because you could stand, wander around, sit down on the ground and drink beer or wine without restrictions on warm summer evenings.

What an amazing contrast the public viewing areas in Manchester were on the day of the UEFA Cup final in May. The big screens were the only similarity to the Euro 2008 fan zones. Without any restrictions on alcohol, inadequate facilities and stewarding, plus thousands of Rangers fans stopping the trams from running, the place soon descended into mayhem.

Austria and Switzerland got a lot of flack in the media for having only two stadia with capacities over the UEFA minumum of 30,000 seats, as well as some snide Anglocentric criticisms for having overly-cultural cities lacking the requisite grittiness for football.

It would be a shame if only England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain could host Europe's showpiece football event, while one can hardly complain if a host venue is clean and orderly. Let's see what happens in South Africa in two years' time before we moan about civilised countries.

Was Michel Platini the real winner?

Behind the football, UEFA and FIFA have been rattling sabres over Sepp Blatter’s ‘6+5’ law, which will force clubs to field a minimum four players at the start of a game from 2010/11, rising to six two years later.

Despite Platini’s pleas for the specificity of football to be recognized, he is against Blatter on this issue and in agreement with the European Union, whose laws permit the free movement of EU workers among member states irrespective of nationality. UEFA believes FIFA’s law would harm the UEFA Champions League, lair of wealthy clubs with multi-national cadres.

Unlike the world’s governing body, Europe’s also oversees the world’s biggest club tournament so has to please both the club and country game. As a concession, Platini instead has advocated quotas based on home-grown players irrespective of nationality, which FIFA opposes because it would encourage a scramble for children by foreign clubs.

FIFA’s whole beef is based on the fact international football is suffering from the power of the club game. The jaded European players in the 2002 World Cup helped push their arm, as did the fact England failed to qualify for Euro 2008, despite having two clubs in the final of this year’s Champions League.

FIFA weasels therefore, probably wanted Euro 2008 to be a damp squib, while UEFA hoped for a successful tournament to show national teams could withstand whatever the club game had extracted from their players over a long season.

Battling it out on their home patch – both organizations have their bases in Switzerland, UEFA came out on top. The free-flowing soccer and memorable goals seem to have won the battle, if not the war for now, and Platini, whether harbouring desires for Blatter’s throne in the future or not, has the upper hand.

Are Poland and Ukraine in danger of losing the hosting rights for 2012?Apparently so. Maybe it was the shining efficiency of the Austrian and Swiss settings, but the rumours swelled up in the press rooms in the Alps that Euro 2012 could be headed west after all.

There have been reports of UEFA’s worry at the Kiev stadium's refurbishment as well as the country's political situation, and Platini has just completed a short trip to assess both host nations. A curious story going around is that Scotland and Wales have already been in talks to step in should the visit draw negative conclusions.

Poland and the Ukraine were always facing an uphill task to live up to UEFA standards. Their entire hospitality, transport and stadia infrastructure are some way behind those of Western Europe, and the distances between the venues are far greater than ever seen before at a European Championship.

UEFA have announced a final announcement will be made in September. If they are politely ushered out following this inspection, it will be regrettable, but will come as little surprise.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccephile

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