During a fine European Championship finals tournament which had its shocks, the revelation that BBC co-commentator Martin Keown once captained England was possibly the most disturbing shock of all. Keown had as bad a tournament as Ashley Young, a player labelled an “international natural” last month by…er…me. And while commentators are prone to mistakes, having to fill air-time with one other person who is sometimes Jonathan Pearce, almost every word from Keown was either wrong or very wrong indeed. Mark Lawrenson is the BBC’s “top” co-commentator but Keown was the worst in show. It was hard to see how he qualified to be at the tournament in the first place. And then you saw Robbie Savage go through his analytical paces.
Thankfully, the football, mostly, took your mind off those commenting on it, even when Spain’s ultimately crushing victory over injury-dogged Italy brought furious back-pedalling from pundits who were writing them off as “boring” just days ago. The entertainment on offer sagged a little at the quarter-final stage and in Spain’s semi-final against Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal. But it was brought back to its earlier vibrancy by the Warsaw semi-final and, at least until Thiago Motta’s hamstring went ping, the best international tournament final in ages. Italy were involved in the best two-and-a-half games – their meetings with Spain and their folklore-entering ambush of Germany. The BBC’s Alan Hansen may have claimed that Mario Balotelli “ain’t a world beater” but the 21-year-old phenomenon hinted strongly that one day he will be. And his impact on the semi-final went beyond his two goals, even his Geoff Hurst-esque second goal. His muscle-rippling celebration will have had women all over Europe, and a fair few men, wondering why on earth that was a bookable offence.
Cesare Prandelli’s team probably had the player of the tournament in Andrea Pirlo. And Pirlo’s team-mate Leonardo Banucci made the save of the tournament…saving Balotelli’s short-term international career by shutting him up before he said too much in celebration of his goal against Ireland. Goal of the tournament was Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s waist-high volley in Sweden’s 2-0 win against France, who in turn vied with the Netherlands as tournament under-achievers, in a field with remarkably few contenders. Indeed, only one team was uniformly bad which is a painful but unavoidable admission for someone called Murphy. Ireland’s shocking performance deserves only minimal re-evaluation in the light of two of their group opponents reaching the final, with their third opponents, Croatia, probably the most impressive of those who failed to reach the knock-out stages.
It could have been argued that Greece and Poland were among the tournaments worst teams, after their enjoyable but mistake-riddled tournament opener. And after Greece’s tame defeat to the Czech Republic, I was arguing that Ireland would have got at least a point off them. At the same time, though, I also wrote that Greece were going home, unloved. This wasn’t a mathematical error but a wild misjudgement of Russia’s ability to underachieve, at least over this particular 90 minutes. Still, the second 45 minutes of Greece’s win over Russia was about the most heart-warming of the competition. As I wrote in reply to the Greek fan who pulled me up on my premature report of his team’s demise, I was delighted to be wrong. Later that evening, a BBC news reporter was trying to convey the tension in Greece on the night before their most recent elections. It wasn’t long before he had to admit that trying to convey politically-polarised fear and angst over the increasingly noisy, car-horn-heavy celebrations was pointless.
That little cameo certainly did more to demonstrate football’s unifying power than Italian keeper Gianluigi Buffon reading a scripted message about races, creeds, colours and orientations uniting under football’s banner. I did briefly wonder what John Terry would have made of that, if he’d captained England to the semi-finals, before realising the ludicrous nature of the premise. But for all that England lacked over the past fortnight, they had in Terry one of the competition’s best defenders. I’d certainly forgotten Terry made the 2006 World Cup “squad of the tournament”, after a more impoverished England performance. So he should certainly have made this one. After all, Spain’s victorious centre-back pairing might as well have been HG Wells’s Invisible Man and his reclusive twin brother for all their involvement. And Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique weren’t that great under pressure.
I never thought Spain would miss Carlos Puyol so much, or at all. But they did. However, at least their central defensive strategy was smarter than Germany, whose use of Philip Lahm to defend the long ball over the top was as significant a factor in their semi-final exit as any ability to undo the creativity of Mesut Ozil. Ozil’s semi-final penalty was a rarity in that he was still on the pitch so late in the game. Regularly substituted by Real Madrid supremo Jose Mourinho last season, he was at least only being rested by Germany’s Joachim Loew for greater battles ahead – or, as it turned out, greater battle, singular. Ozil’s frustrations could barely have been greater, as colleagues regularly wasted his good work. To a lesser extent, France’s Franck Ribery suffered a similar fate. Ribery was not in Ozil’s class, of course. But there was less of the petulance, theatrics and nastiness which have so besmirched his club and country career.
Unfortunately, he couldn’t drag any quality out of Karim Benzema, Samir Nasri and, by the second half against Sweden, pretty much anyone else in a (ghastly) French shirt. And whatever attacking threat France provided, centre-back Bruno Mexes was a defensive threat to their chances. Mexes clearly won his place in the squad in some competition among members of the public…after the winner and runner-up pulled out. He was the worst player in a tournament involving Aiden McGeady, on which, the prosecution rests. The co-hosts were unable to reach the knock-out stages for the second tournament running, although both improved upon Switzerland’s and, especially, Austria’s lamentable 2008 displays. Ukraine were at least plucky failures. And their victory over Sweden was the most spine-tingling of the tournament, a sensational turnaround of fortunes in an already intriguing game with two great headed goals by a national football icon. “Time for Andriy Shevchenko to come off and Ukraine’s tempo to rise,” I wrote when Sweden took the lead. Glad to be wrong again.
Poland’s draw with Russia stirred the soul too, especially Jakub Blaszcyzkowski’s run and thumping shot for Poland’s second-half equaliser. The historical enormity of the occasion matched the massive flag unfurled by Russia’s support before kick-off. And while the crowd disturbances in Warsaw before the game were disappointing and unjustifiable in equal measure, they were an almost inevitable combination of the huge and hugely nationalistic Russian support and the fact that it was “Russia Day.” Football as a venue for violence, not its cause. Seeding low-ranking host nations skewed the relative quality of the four finals’ groups. The host nations’ groups obviously lacked a genuine top-ranked nation. And the quality of football they produced lacked quality as a result. That said, they produced their fair share of entertainment. For all England’s style faults, their 3-2 win over Sweden was borderline-pulsating. And Danny Wellbeck’s winner was a touch of genuine class. Russia’s three games had their moments, for radically different reasons. And the weaker groups would have produced the tenser finishes but for the inability to see a ball cross a line against the backdrop of Terry’s ego, as the Czechs were a genuine goal-line clearance away from third place in their group. And that, in turn, may have lifted the quality of the quarter-finals.
Among the many pre-tournament fears which proved unfounded was the fact that so few teams adapted the Chelsea template for winning the Champions League. But after Portugal tried and failed against Germany, it happened twice in the quarters. The Czechs tried against Portugal. And Greece tried a super slo-mo version of it against Germany, time-wasting from the very first goalkick onwards. England, many would argue, did likewise against Italy. But in reality, they just couldn’t get the ball. Denmark’s 1-0 win over Holland also relied on long spells of defence but they were better than that suggested and, alongside Croatia, were the team least well-served by the draw. They were genuinely unlucky to lose to Portugal, for all Ronaldo’s misses in that game. And even Nicklas Bendtner looked almost half as good as he thinks he is. Silvestre Varela’s stunning late strike didn’t prevent the headline most mocked by subsequent events, as the Independent newspaper in the UK ran with “Wrongaldo.”
This was notable for being as off-target as most of Ronaldo’s goal efforts and for highlighting how right Andy Townsend was (a grouping of words I can’t recall using before). Townsend was insistent that the preening Portuguese was on good form, despite his penalty box profligacy. And he was right. The Netherlands discovered that to their cost. And while his two-goal display against the Dutch produced some disturbing hagiography from BBC commentators, Ronaldo did have a very good tournament. After all, Portugal’s manager and Jools Holland doppelganger Paulo Bento could have told Ronaldo to take an earlier penalty in the shoot-out. But he didn’t. The tournament’s best goals were also very good rather than great. Even Pirlo’s goal against Croatia, the only goal from a direct free-kick, wasn’t as aesthetically pleasing as such goals often are. Most of the thumping strikes were from inside the box rather than outside it – the afore-mentioned Varela goal, Sami Khedira and Marco Reus’s volleys against the Greeks.
There were goals-a-plenty for any spectacular montage of goal-scoring imagery, with these and other delightful strikes such as Rafael Van der Vaart’s curler against Portugal and Robin Van Persie’s slammer against Germany – both in lost Dutch causes. But you can’t escape the dearth of quality in the UK television coverage. For the first time since 1982, ITV were better than the BBC. That was when Jimmy Greaves first appeared in ITV’s studios and seemed fresh and funny. Yes, that long ago. Every co-commentator tried to be Mark Lawrenson, having presumably thought Lawrenson funny in the first place. And the result was commentary box cringeworthiness – as if Lawrenson, Keown, Bright, Burley et al could not just shut up, for fear of producing “dead air,” which only matters on radio anyway. Mispronunciations abounded, naturally. No-one could match David Pleat’s syllabic confusions at previous tournaments. But there were still impressive debuts announced for Sweden’s Christian Williamson (Keown) and Giorgio Collini (Mark Bright), for Sweden and Italy respectively.
Ancient and modern history got a bit of revisionism. ITV’s Jim Beglin thought Greece would “need something Trojan” against Germany, for whom Gdansk “felt like a home game.” Clearly Trojan wars and Polish corridors didn’t feature highly in Waterford’s school curriculum. And if Adrian Chiles really thought togas were Greek inventions, then Worcestershire’s education system needs looking at too. The BBC’s Steve Wilson struggled with population distributions, as the Czech fans at their team’s game with Poland in Wroclaw only had to make the short journey, “60 miles from the Czech border.” What, all of them? The qualification competition passed Clyde Tyldesley by if he thought Denmark “tiptoed into these finals under the radar,” and above…Portugal. While Alan Shearer apparently thought “Republic” had snuck a team into the competition to replace Ireland for their last group game, against Italy.
Every chance the Netherlands’ Robin Van Persie had “would have been in the back of the net if that had been in the Premier League,” (Townsend) while “Ronaldo would have scored that” about four times for Portugal against Denmark (Townsend again, who then suggested that was why Portugal were wearing white shirts…it wasn’t working then, was it?). Craig Burley lauded French midfielder Yann M’Vila, who had “pulled the strings against Celtic” for Rennes in last season’s Europa League. “It wasn’t that difficult,” Burley laughed, overlooking the fact that Celtic picked up four points from those two games. And if you were wondering why Chelsea ex-boss Mourinho was at the Germany/Portugal game, Guy Mowbray was on hand to tell us that he was there “to watch his three Real Madrid players” in the Portuguese team. That’s Jose Mourinho, the…Portuguese Jose Mourinho.
The tournament was a delight, though. Many recent tournaments have suffered under the weight of refereeing directives, or the lack of weight of the tournament’s “official” matchball. The former usually resulted in sendings-off for utter trivialities and left you wondering why major international tournament finals were being used for such rule experiments. The latter usually resulted in fearful goalkeeping and spectacular long-range efforts either flying high and wide or producing the sort of late outswing you’d get from England bowler Jimmy Anderson. Neither were conducive to good football, and neither made much of an appearance here. The officiating was decent and low-key – each error was literally remarkable.
We had possibly the worst two decision in European Championship history, Greece’s Sokratis Papastathopoulos cautioned twice in the opening game for barely half a foul (If you are going to take a name twice, make it a big one). But the officials seemed less pompous and less fussy. Graham Poll wouldn’t have known what to do with himself. Howard Webb was an exception but that was his ‘agent’s’ fault. Keown’s delight at Webb “holding up the numbers board well, there” was probably tongue-in-cheek, but you couldn’t be sure. And the “Tango 12” was one throwback to the 1970s which didn’t embarrass anyone. Where goalkeeping errors were made (Greece’s goal against the Czechs, England’s goal against Ukraine) they were mostly goalkeeping balls-ups rather than swinging balls, as Lawrenson might have said.
It will help Euro 2012’s legacy that the right team won. Certainly the right four teams got to the semi-finals. And Spain were sumptuous in the final, with Italy keeping it as a contest until Thiago Motta’s injury. Had Antonio Di Natale made it 2-1 with either of his clear early second-half chances it might have been a real classic. This tournament was the best since Michel Platini’s France won on home soil in 1984, with Spain the best team since then. After all, as the cameras panned away from ITV’s Warsaw studio at the end of their coverage, even Roy Keane was smiling. Thinking about it now, maybe that was the most disturbing shock of all.
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