In Vienna in June of 2008, Fernando Torres broke free from his marker and shot the only goal in the final of that summers European Championships. It was a goal that ended almost half a century without a major tournament win for Spain, and it marked the calcification of new Iberian footballing hegemony within Europe which continues to reign supreme to this day. And by the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, this wasn’t the only tectonic shift that was taking place. European political and economic power was beginning its wane, and the seeds of what may come to be regarded as the new world order of the twenty-first century were being sewn.
This was as true of football as it was in a wider political sense. The major international tournaments, which had over the previous three decades hit their commercial zenith before starting to take on the bloated look of the middle-aged, still had a clearly definable place in the football calendar but their pre-eminence was now being challenged by the annual circus of the UEFA Champions League, which by this time was beamed around the world to a steadily increasing audience. Club versus country had become more than a tug of love for a player’s affections at the time of one of FIFA’s increasingly frequently and erratically scheduled rounds of international matches. It was by this time developing into a battle for the commercial and moral dominance of the future of the game itself.
Nowhere could this gulf be seen more starkly than in England, where the Premier League had come, over the previous decade and a half, to dominate everything else in the football landscape. In 2008 it was two English clubs, Chelsea and Manchester United, who played out the Champions League final in Moscow but the England national team failed to even qualify for the finals of this tournament – the first time in twenty-four years that they had managed this – after a chaotic qualification campaign which included defeats against Russia and Croatia and a dismal goalless draw against Macedonia, before losing again to Croatia on a wet and windy night loaded with symbolism in London in November 2007 with a performance that had more in common with the Keystone Kops than so much as any England teams of the recent past.
The most obvious manifestation of the new world order of football came in the form of the G14, a group of the biggest European clubs which spent much of the last decade which agitated for national associations to pay players’ wages whilst on international duty and to provide compensation in the case of injuries to players during international matches. G14, the self-elected elite of European clubs which had previously taken FIFA to court on behalf of the Belgian club Charleroi over an injury to one of their players incurred whilst playing international football, broke up at the start of 2008 following negotiations with FIFA, but its replacement, the European Club Association, has only provided limited insulation from the growing sense of tug of war at the absolute top end of the professional game on the continent.
The gap between football’s biggest and the rest could be seen in terms of the performance of the host nations at the 2008 European Championships. Switzerland and Austria are in their own rights very wealthy countries, but in football terms they are relative paupers. In Austria, FC Wacker Innsbruck, Grazer AK and SK Austria Kärnten have all been declared bankrupt over the course of the last ten years or so whilst already this year alone Neuchatel Xamax and Servette have been declared bankrupt in Switzerland. For Servette, this is the second time in just seven years that the club has found itself in such a position. This reflected itself in the fortunes of the national teams for the two host nations for Euro 2008. Switzerland lost their captain, Alexander Frei, to injury in their opening match against the Czech Republic and lost this match by a single goal. Defeat to Turkey confirmed their elimination from the tournament with a match to spare, although they did at least salvage some pride with a 2-0 win against Portugal in their final match.
Austrian optimism going into the tournament couldn’t have been much lower. The team that qualified for the 1998 World Cup – the fourth time that they had qualified for the World Cup finals in six attempts – broke up shortly after the tournament, and lost 9-0 to Spain and 5-0 to Israel in a dismal qualifying attempt to get to the 2000 European Championships. Having never qualified for the finals of the European Championships before and without any major tournament finals appearances in the previous decade, there were concerns that the co-hosts could be humiliated on home soil at the 2008 tournament to the extent that 10,000 Austrians signed a petition demanding that Austria withdraw from the tournament to spare the nation’s embarrassment.
As things turned out, Austria were not humiliated at the finals, although they too were knocked out in the first round of the competition. They were also beaten by a sole goal in their opening match, at the hands of Croatia, and were eliminated from the tournament after drawing their second match against Poland before losing to Germany in their final match. The optimism brought about by the not-as-bas-as-expected performance on home soil carried over into their qualifying performance for the 2010 World Cup finals and the team started with two wins and a draw, but normal service was soon to be resumed with four straight defeats – including a 6-2 thrashing at the hands of Germany – and the team failed to reach the play-offs for the finals of the tournament. The days of the Wunderteam of the 1930s have felt as far away as ever for Austria in recent years.
If the early elimination of the two host nations from this tournament was not a major shock, there were some surprises to be had in the opening round of Euro 2008. Most notable of these was the performance of a French team which had only been beaten in the World Cup final two years earlier by Italy on a penalty shoot-out. After starting their tournament with a goalless draw against Romania, Raymond Domenech’s team were thrashed by the Netherlands and comfortably beaten by Italy in their remaining matches to be eliminated from the competition at the first hurdle with just on point from their three matches. Domenech, perhaps surprisingly, remained in his position until after a similarly abject performance by his team at the World Cup finals in South Africa two years later.
While France were labouring, however, the German national team was starting to regain a little of its imperiousness after a decade in the wilderness. European champions in 1998, the Nationalmannschaft had entered an uncharacteristic and unexpected decline which, after a quarter-final defeat in the 1998 World Cup finals at the hands of Croatia, bottomed out in finishing bottom of their group at the 2000 European Championships. The team recovered to a first World Cup match against Brazil in 2002 – a surprise as much to a German public that had seen its team struggle through the qualifying round via a play-off win against Ukraine – which ended in defeat. Two years later at the European Championships, though, they stalled again, held by the Netherlands and Latvia, before being eliminated after a defeat at the hands of the Czech Republic. Much of this, however, was a dress rehearsal for the main event – hosting the World Cup finals in 2006. But despite the overwhelming support of the population of the country, Germany were beaten in the last minute of extra-time in the semi-finals by Italy.
This time around, Germany again started with a stutter, with a comfortable win against Poland evened out by a defeat at the hands of Croatia in their second match. This left them needing a win from their final match against Austria and they managed it thanks to a goal early in the second half from Michael Ballack. Through to the quarter-finals, they went to to be involved in two of the best matches of the tournament, a quarter-final against Portugal and a semi-final against Turkey, both of which they won by three goals to two, with the winning goal in the semi-final coming from Philipp Lahm in the last seconds of the match. Wins against the middle-ranking teams of European football were one thing, though. What awaited them in the final was something else altogether.
Spain had almost five decades’ worth of the straitjacket of “under-achievement” resting heavily on their shoulders. The previous European Championships had seen the team knocked out in the first round of the competition, but hopes were high that 2008 would be the year in which they would prove all of those that bet on them through every tournament right. Spain, though, had one significant thing in their favour – the draw. Not only was their opening group a comfortable one, but they also had the not inconsiderable advantage of not having to move too far from their base. Two of their three group matches were played in Innsbruck, whilst the other was played in Salzburg. Their three straight wins would also give them another small boost. Due to the odd decision made to play all of the quarter-finals, semi-finals and the final itself in just two stadia, Spain would play the remainder of their matches in this tournament at the Ernst Happel Stadium in Vienna. Still, though, they were uneasy in requiring a penalty shoot-out to beat Italy before brushing aside Russia in the semi-final.
On the night, however, Spain were too measured and too controlled for Germany. The only goal of the match came with twelve minutes of the first half left to play, when a chipped ball through by Xavi was lobbed over the German goalkeeper Jens Lehmann by Fernando Torres. Germany had their moments, most notably shortly after half-time when Ballack shot narrowly wide, but Spain, playing a prototype of the possession game that they have come to perfect in the years since then, continued to control possession and in the end the one goal margin of victory was a little flattering on Germany. Spain, the best team in a tournament that flashed and sparkled, albeit intermittently, finally brought almost half a century without a major trophy to an end. Two years later, they would follow this up by winning the World Cup in South Africa.
All of which brings us to the present day. The 2012 European Championships will begin in June with the two favourites being the finalists from four years ago. If this sounds predictable, though, it is worth bearing in mind that the European Championships is a tournament that has been far more open than the World Cup. Only eight nations have shared the nineteen World Cups held between them, while nine nations have won the thirteen European Championships held since 1960, with only three nations having won the competition more than once. In just over four years time, the European Championships will land in France, newly expanded to take in twenty-four nations. FIFA might be able to tell UEFA a thing or two about what an unwieldly number of nations twenty-four can be in a major tournament, and it is also worth considering whether it is wise to further expand this tournament at a time during which tensions between clubs and the governing bodies remains high, not least with regard to the number of international fixtures being played.
Still, though, even as interest in tournament football seems to be on the wane and blanket television coverage of it has robbed it of any mysticism that it may have had, the European Championships remains a tournament worth watching and, perhaps more importantly than even that, since UEFA has not been tainted by the murkiness that seems to accompany everything that FIFA get up to these days, we can watch it with a clean conscience. Europe as a continent is nowhere nearing the power that it used to be or that, one suspects, many of its politicians believe it still is. As the pan-continental economy falters from the Irish Sea to the Caspian Sea, though, we can perhaps seek some solace in the fact that our game’s governing body can still put on quite a show when it wants to. It’s not much, but it’s something.
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