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Old 1st July 2008, 10:02   #1
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Default Savour 2008 because greed will be party-pooper

Savour 2008 because greed will be party-pooper

It was the charm of Euro 2008 that everyone looked beatable, including Spain

Kevin McCarra
July 1, 2008
The Guardian

Euro 2008 has been a marvellous comfort to those who dreaded that club football would turn the international version of the sport into an anachronism. When the season is in the throes of the Champions League programme the pause to let one country play another can feel like a distraction and, often, a plunge into mediocrity. As the tournament in Austria and Switzerland has proved, though, international fixtures have a profound appeal whenever they are allowed to top the bill.

The Uefa president, Michel Platini, argues that it is this stage which confers greatness on a footballer. His example is Pele, who owes his status not to his efforts for Santos but to exploits at the World Cup with Brazil. The same pattern is evident in the career of Platini himself. At the mention of him, those in the appropriate age bracket think of his uncanny influence when, from midfield, he scored nine times in the five matches it took for France to win the 1984 European Championship.

For all that contemporary players bow to the financial imperatives of the Champions League, Euro 2008 was an unchallenged priority over the weeks set aside for it. The attitude came across lucidly and helped make it one of the most appealing international tournaments. It induced fascination, too, with its element of surprise. The shocks were usually pleasant ones and that made all the difference.

Four years ago there was the same total of 77 goals at a European Championship but the astonishment at the triumph of Greece then was qualified for neutrals by regret over the stifling means that had to be employed to pull off such a coup. There was little of that grimness at Euro 2008.

So undistinguished was the defending that any attempt to build a style on it would have been absurd. A Portugal squad with much to commend them departed early because Luiz Felipe Scolari was incapable of identifying a goalkeeper who, in contrast to a hapless Ricardo, would come out boldly to deal with the sort of crosses delivered by Germany.

Italy, hauling Spain to a penalty shoot-out before losing, were true, for one night, to the dour strategies of resistance, but by and large there was verve even when the managers were absorbed in counterattacking schemes. Marco van Basten set the standard for audacity when, with Holland 1-0 up against France, he decided the best thing to do with that lead was expand it. On came Arjen Robben and down went the opposition's morale in a 4-1 rout.

Sides such as France and Italy were wrong in supposing they could take a batch of ageing if experienced individuals to the competition. Austria and Switzerland were no countries for old men. The Uefa technical committee acknowledged that in announcing its notional squad of the tournament yesterday. Thirteen of its 20 outfield players are aged 26 or under.

A slot was reserved for Michael Ballack but there must be a suspicion that the calf injury that threatened to keep him out of the final was his 31-year-old body's way of protesting about additional exertions at the end of a debilitating season. Only one senior performer held sway to the end. Marcos Senna, who is the same age as Ballack, lasted Euro 2008 better and it was the holding midfielder who gave Spain the balance between security and audacity.

The competition, on the whole, was sterile territory for strikers. It now seems midfielders, in one guise or another, are expected to excel. The defenders were moderate at best and no forward was sharp throughout. Even Fernando Torres, whose goal clinched the trophy for Spain, was treated as a work in progress by the coach, Luis Aragonés.

Andrei Arshavin was beguiling because there is more of the playmaker than the scorer about him. Russia enjoyed tremendous impact for a time. They supplanted Holland as the darlings of Euro 2008 and were afflicted by the same fault - their defending could not bear up under the scrutiny that was inevitable sooner or later.

It was the charm of the competition that everyone looked beatable, including Spain, who might have lost to Italy but for an accomplished save by Iker Casillas. In its capacity for preserving doubt Euro 2008 teased the public before Spain confirmed that they are a team apart.

Cynicism was diminished as people saw a tournament in which Italy, France and Germany were no longer so intimidating. Croatia, with a win over Joachim Löw's side in the group stage, illustrated that hierarchies can crumble.

The tournament has been wonderful yet we may have to preserve those memories. There appears to be unanimity among Uefa's 53 cash-hungry members that, from 2016, there should be 24 teams rather than 16 at the finals. The structure can only be unwieldy and the quality must be diluted from its present potency. We may look back in horror and appreciate that Euro 2008 was too great a success. Excluded sides wanted to be part of all this at any price, even if that cost came in tarnishing so excellent a tournament.
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. Martin Luther King
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