Reflecting on the Euros: 15 Things We Learned

1.      It’s getting harder and harder to host- In recent years, FIFA and UEFA have made a lot of noise about the importance of spreading football around the globe, encouraging traditionally unsuccessful football nations to host international tournaments. It’s no surprise, then, that, despite a couple of glorious moments, this year’s hosts were both eliminated before the first knockout round. After all, neither Poland nor Ukraine is one of the best eight teams in Europe.

Wild expectations don’t help. After Poland’s disappointing 1-1 draw with Greece, Francizek Smuda claimed that his team had been “paralyzed by pressure.” Ukraine looked similarly disabled against England, though a controversial goal-line decision provided them with a readymade excuse.

2.      Holland are still unreliable- Almost 40 years after the 1974 World Cup final, Holland are still masters of self-destruction. First, their pre-tournament preparation was marred by a dressing room argument over whether certain black players had been racially abused by someone outside the squad. Then the team imploded against Denmark, Arjen Robben forgot how to shoot, and Robin Van Persie reverted to, well, Robin Van Persie-at-the-2010-World-Cup-form. Holland exited the Euros without a single point, and Bert Van Marwijk resigned soon thereafter.

3.      The Irish are lovely, but their footballers are rubbish- At least they never stopped singing. Euro 2012 taught Giovanni Trappatoni a harsh lesson in reality: Championship-level footballers don’t belong at international events. For the first time ever at a major tournament, Ireland failed to punch above their weight, succumbing first to Croatia, then to Italy, then to Spain. They came to the tournament to defend, defended badly, and promptly exited. But, as every pundit helpfully reminded us, their fans had a great time anyway.

4.      England still can’t score penalties- 1990, 1996, 1998, 2004, 2006, 2012 – the same old story. England played like cowards and exited like cowards. Once again, Wayne Rooney flopped. Another batch of young players promised briefly, but ultimately disappointed. In short, nothing new. At least they have the Olympics to look forward to.

5.       Ronaldo deserves the hype- For the first time since 2004, Ronaldo reached top form at an international tournament. His three goals represent a major improvement on Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010, where he barely featured for two anemic Portuguese teams. The press will, rightly, question the way Portugal’s management planned the penalty-shootout loss to Spain, but Ronaldo is blameless – his performances against Holland and the Czech Republic were arguably the two best individual displays of the tournament.

6.      France are the new Holland- France weren’t the worst team at Euro 2012, but they were by far the most disappointing. Blanc’s side performed well in their first two games — a draw with England and a win over Ukraine had reporters purring — but slipped to second in Group D after a surprising loss to already-eliminated Sweden. Suddenly, the shenanigans returned. “We sent some missiles at each other,” Florent Malouda said after that defeat. “There were quarrels — well, let’s say exchanges.” The implosion was dangerously reminiscent of South Africa 2010. Certainly, France’s subsequent 2-0 loss to Spain in the quarterfinals was as bad as any of their performances at the World Cup. The whole fiasco was capped by Samir Nasri, who, following France’s elimination, launched some pointed criticism at a journalist whose articles had upset his mother: “You are always looking for shit. You write nothing but shit in your papers,” Nasri yelled at the L’Equipe reporter. “Go fuck yourself, you son of a bitch.” We can only imagine what Mrs. Nasri thought of that.

7.      Zlatan is brilliant- As I argued here, Zlatan Ibrahimovich is not overrated, whatever the English press say to the contrary. His two goals represent a superb return, especially in a group that included a couple of European heavyweights and a co-host. However, it was Ibrahimovich’s goalless performance against England that won over the most doubters. Zlatan orchestrated the game with his typical calm, drifting in and out of the channels to confuse a ragged English midfield. He was, by quite some way, the best player on the pitch.

8.      Modric is worth the money- Luka Modric was just an Ivan Rakitic header away from delivering one of the assists of the tournament. His bent, outside-of-the-foot cross would have sent Croatia into the knockout rounds – thereby eliminating one of the two eventual finalists – had Rakitic met it with just a little bit more conviction. Ah, well. It was a highlight-reel moment, and one big reason why Modric is worth his massive price tag.

9.      You’ll win nothing with kids- Who says football is no sport for old men? Euro 2012 was the tournament of the geezer, featuring brilliant over-30s like Andrea Pirlo and, erm, Giorgios Karagounis. Italy’s semifinanl victory over Joachim Lowe’s youthful German team proved definitively that Alan Hansen is a football luminary.

10.  Death of the striker?- In an effort to squeeze as many attacking midfielders as possible into one starting line-up, Spain manager Vincent Del Bosque ignored Torres, Negredo and Llorente, and fielded a striker-less team in the European Championships final. It’s difficult to say whether any team but Spain will adopt that system. After all, what works for a team bloated with technicians, creators and other diminutive midfield types won’t necessarily work for everyone else.

11.  Allegri is stupid- Massimiliano Allegri is one of the few Italians alive who doesn’t find the term “peerless Pirlo” — surely a cliché by now — at all amusing. The Milan manager let Pirlo leave the San Siro on a free transfer last summer, paving the way for his magnificent season with Juventus – a season that ultimately saw Allegri’s team deposed – and an equally spectacular Euro 2012.

12.  Super Mario can play football, too- This tournament was just what Mario Balotelli needed. After a season of high highs and low lows at Manchester City, Balotelli enjoyed a tumultuous Euro 2012, replete with his customary sulks, strops and super-strikes. His goals against Germany were finished with the calm of a player who fears nothing because he has mastered pyrotechnics, tamed school bullies, and stomped on Scotty Parker. World football just wouldn’t be the same without you, Mario. Roberto Mancini must be awfully proud.

13.  Boring, boring Spain- It’s like watching paint dry, they said. It’s monotonous, redundant, repetitive… It’s also very, very effective. For most of the tournament, Spain lacked their usual fluency, but, by the time the final arrived, they had clicked into top gear. Many coaches would love their teams to be just as boring as Spain.

14.  Headers are the way to do it- From Robert Lewandowski onwards, this tournament was all about headers. Cristiano Ronaldo, Andy Carroll and Olof Mellberg were particularly lethal. Even wee David Silva got in on the act. Perhaps the sudden glut was enabled by this year’s ball – the roundest yet, or so the makers would have us believe. The Tango 12 moves more predictably than the infamous Jabulani, allowing wingers to deliver accurate, incisive crosses. However, the ball didn’t seem to help free-kick takers – Andrea Pirlo’s goal against Croatia was the only direct free kick scored all tournament.

 15.  Platini is a moron- For UEFA, it was a tournament of shame. First, a BBC Panorama documentary featured endless footage of Ukrainian racists abusing opposition players. Then, after fining a number of nations for their fans’ racist behavior, UEFA fined Nicklas Bendtner more than all the racists put together for flashing his Paddy Power underpants at a camera. Maybe team captains should read speeches about kicking advertising out of football, too. Finally, with magisterial disdain for such trivia as fans’ convenience, tournament expenses and travel costs, Platini suggested spreading the 2020 Euros should be spread across 12 cities in 12 different European countries. Really, Michel?

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