Euro 2008: How was that for starters?
Despite the absence of the home nations, or perhaps because of it, the group stages of Euro 2008 have been compelling and exciting. Glenn Moore looks back at an encouraging and varied 10 days
The best parties are always the ones you do not get invited to and that appears to be the case for the British and Irish nations with Euro 2008.
The tournament, which reaches the knockout stages this evening, has been a considerable success to date, with generally vibrant football matches watched by joyous, if damp, supporters. There have been moments of high drama and low farce, of tension and merriment, all played out to the backdrop of two wide-eyed nations who sometimes seem unsure what to make of the sprawling, multi-tongued beast which has taken over their largely conservative nations. As the tournament enters its business end, this is a review of what we have missed:
Wingers are back in fashion
The football is what we are here for – apart from sponsors shifting tyres, cameras, engine oil and fast food, etc. With the exception of Greece and Romania, teams have set out to attack even when they are painfully ill-equipped to do so (Austria and Switzerland). Even Greece, when forced to, threw men forward and, by their awful finishing, proved coach Otto Rehhagel was right to put his faith in defence.
That such a philosophy failed confirmed that the modern game increasingly favours the offensively-minded, albeit with the large caveat that counter-attacking is often the most potent method. Romania, meanwhile, probably had little choice given the group they were dumped in, and had Adrian Mutu converted his last-minute penalty against Italy, coach Victor Piturca would have been this stage's tactical genius.
The Dutch matches against France and Italy were of the very highest quality. The Portuguese, Croatians and Spanish have also impressed, while Turkey produced a whirlwind 20 minutes to upset the Czechs. Wingers are back in fashion, and so is dribbling as coaches realise that it takes something out of the ordinary to unlock today's well-drilled defences. There is a danger that the high stakes will affect the knockout matches, but we can look forward to them with confidence.
The British summer
One of the main reasons the football has been so good is the weather has been so bad. To the despair of the various tourist boards, which have been keenly promoting their countries and regions, it has been the wettest and coldest tournament for decades. This has enabled the players, though tired after the long club season, to play with something approaching the intensity they bring to the Champions League. What a cruel irony. For once a tournament is played in conditions which would allow the British and Irish teams to play their high-octane, headless chicken brand of football without getting exhausted – and none of them qualify.
With neither side having reached a major semi-final in more than half-a-century, Austria and Switzerland are not the obvious choices to host a football tournament – and sometimes it shows. However, their teams performed nobly and the populace have taken to the competition enthusiastically, if not fervently. The organisation has been excellent, public transport has worked and the scenery spectacular, if often draped in cloud. Swiss prices, especially, have shocked many, but the tournament's location, at the heart of Europe, has enabled travelling supporters to descend en masse, often dropping in for a match, going home then coming back for the next one.
Zoning in on fans
More than two million visitors have occupied the various fan zones to date, which confirms they are here to stay, though the precaution of banning supporters from bringing alcohol in – which was not enforced in Manchester for the Uefa Cup final – is a sensible one. The only failure has been tiny Klagenfurt in Austria. A daft choice as a host city, its inadequacies were compounded by the ill fortune of each match it held featuring Poland and/or Germany, the only participant countries with significant hooligan numbers. Elsewhere, aside from a small minority of over-exuberant Turks, the fans have been well-behaved.
A few seeds of doubt...
The seedings were a misjudgement which has had a silver lining (unless you are French).
Three of the four seeded teams (the holders and both hosts) are out and the others (the Dutch) have upset expectations. However, bringing together Italy (world No 3), France (No 7) the Netherlands (No 10) and Romania (No 12) did mean Euro 2008 immediately grabbed the attention because no match in that group could be predicted and there was guaranteed to be at least one high-profile victim. It is a shame, however, that Romania were not in Group B which had two strong teams – Germany and Croatia – and two weak ones – Austria and Poland.
Age catches up with past champions
The last two European champions, France and Greece, are heading to the beach, while Denmark (1992) failed to qualify, leaving Germany (1996) as the only survivor of the past four winners. This shows the depth and strength of European football.
Greece are out because they were unable to repeat the tactical triumph of 2004, largely because teams are wise to them, the side is four years older and lacks the nous of captain Theo Zagorakis. France are out because of bad selection decisions (an ageing Lilian Thuram, left-back Eric Abidal and the hapless Jean-Alain Boumsong all preferred at centre-half to Mikaël Silvestre or Sylvain Distin), an over-reliance on old players who (Patrick Vieira being the prime example) get injured more often and bad luck (Franck Ribery's injury, Thierry Henry's deflection for Italy's second goal on Tuesday). The Czechs are also an ageing side, and missed Tomas Rosicky, who is far more important to them than to Arsenal, especially since Pavel Nedved's retirement. Romania lacked the self-belief to go for the kill against France in their first game and blew it against Italy. The rest of the departed were never likely to progress very far.
Drama and farce
Drama: Howard Webb giving, and Ivica Vastic, who at 38 is two years older than the English referee, converting, the injury-time penalty against Poland which kept Austria in the competition.
Farce: Manuel Mejuto Gonzalez sending mild-mannered coaches Joachim Löw and Josef Hickersberger to the stands in the Germany/Austria game. It is to be hoped Gonzalez never comes across Martin O'Neill.
And the winners are...
The form teams are the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Croatia, but having qualified Italy are still a threat. So perm one from five – but do not rule out Germany. Fence-sitting? No, the margins at this level are so slim that an eight-team knock-out is impossible to predict.
A Greek souvenir seller in Salzburg tries to sell a flag to two ladies of a certain age. They decline, pointing out they are German. He says: "Is very sexy flag". Two Russian fans walking past laugh. Maybe you had to be there; it is a shame the British and Irish were not.
You mean Boulahrouz can play?
While some leading performers, such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Deco, Lukas Podolski, Gianluigi Buffon and Xavi are recognised stars, other less-noted faces have caught the eye. David Villa, Wesley Sneijder, Rafael van der Vaart and Nihat Kahveci are all well-known in their native countries, and those they play in, but British audiences will have been less familiar with their talents.
Croatia's Darijo Srna, Niko Kovac, Spurs-bound Luka Modric and goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa have reminded us how difficult England's 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign will be. Poland's keeper Artur Boruc showed what Celtic fans have been applauding for several years. From Romania, goalkeeper Bogdan Lobont and defender Dorin Goian will have caught a few Premier League scouts' eyes. And it turns out Stamford Bridge laughing stock Khalid Boulahrouz (the Netherlands) can play after all...