Is Group C of the Euro 2012 finals – Croatia, Italy, Ireland and Spain – the most catholic group in international football tournament finals history? That thought occurred with the fourth team in two of next summer’s groups still to be drawn out and Italy’s and England’s balls still to be opened. When Saturday Comes magazine asked the question of one of the 2002 World Cup finals groups – also involving Italy and Croatia, alongside Mexico and Ecuador – so it wasn’t an original thought (when I have one, I’ll surely let you know).
But because I wanted that opening line, I was hoping Italy would be in Group C rather than England… nothing as noble as having no aesthetic desire to see another ghastly England/Ireland clash at a major tournament finals. I was even prepared to give up the dream of all “anyone-but-Englanders” – England in Spain’s group, just for that opening line. My life has taken a wrong turning somewhere. I also didn’t find the draw itself that dull – a sign of old age, perhaps. BBC rent-a-quip Mark Lawrenson possibly echoed the thoughts of a nation for the first time with his open distaste for proceedings, leaving a genuinely frightened-looking Gary Lineker to plead to that nation not to turn over to an actual programme called Pointless on BBC1 – if it was a rehearsed gag, the rehearsals worked. But I was more repelled by Lawrenson ironically complaining about superfluous pre-ambles while he and Martin Keown spent fifteen minutes deciding that England might “want to avoid Spain.”
The Beeb managed, just, to cover for their complete lack of available footage from the qualifiers. But the programme would surely have been better scheduled to start at five o’clock, rather than 4.45, especially as they knew the draw itself wouldn’t be until 5.30 (“not for another 45 minutes,” noted Lineker in his introduction). That way it could have skipped the Cossack dancing and Jonathan Pearce’s wide-eyed over-excitement in Kyiv and limited itself to the draw and its relevant pre-amble – introducing the host cities, past players and the mechanics of the draw itself. And I say this knowing that Cossack dancing has more cultural and historical validity than ‘Riverdance from a squatting position’ but…well… And Pearce’s expression (“Marty Feldman eyes,” noted Lawro, nearly right for once) recalled his early radio days, when his commentaries on throw-ins reached a high-pitch that only specially-trained dogs could hear.
There was plenty to semi-admire, not least Uefa president Michel Platini’s minimal role. The Daily Mail’s Martin Samuel would have been cheered by that, although Platini fans might have claimed it as a sign of the humility of the man. You decide. There was no “humility of the man” when it came to the Ukrainian president’s speech. Viktor Yanukovych made his proverbial hour upon the stage feel like a real one, with even his hairstyle – reminiscent of a Jack Lord tribute act at a Hawaii Five-O convention – providing insufficient distraction. This was Pearce’s only opportunity to lend proceedings the air of gravitas Terry Wogan used to apply to the Eurovision Song Contest. He chose not to take it, instead picking from Yanukovych’s speech the declaration that beer would be 80p a pint. If nothing else, Pearce knew his audience.
The co-presenters on stage were relatively to-the-point. Ukraine’s Olga Preimut (“a Fulham fan”) overcame the considerable weight of her eyelid make-up and accessories, which might have rendered autocue reading a major problem for lesser professionals. Meanwhile, Poland’s Piotr Sobczynski exuded an authority which wasn’t entirely down to his specs – the sort favoured by shirt-sleeved American scientists from mission control in late 1960s and early 1970s Houston (as in “Houston, we have a problem”). Indeed, BBC presenter of those space extravaganzas James Burke came to mind more than once. Sobczynski’s professional mask slipped only as he read out his native country’s group opponents at the end, “Greece” coming out as an endearing laugh/sneeze combination which betrayed his delight at the Poles having the easiest group of the four.
Some of the players seemed over-eager to take the stage – one could imagine Cristiano Ronaldo doing much the same at the draw for Euro 2032, except for the unlikelihood of him ever representing a Euro-winning Portuguese side. France’s 1984 representative Alain Giresse was particularly fleet of foot over the few yards he had to travel – much as he was as a player. And his determination to avoid Platini’s attempts at a friendly wave was as admirable as the way he took his place in the line-up long before an unsuspecting Preimut had finished her intro. It might have been interesting to see the Soviet Union’s 1960 rep Viktor Ponedelnik alongside Luis Suarez of Spain’s 1964 winners, in case any of the old political enmities between Kruschev’s Soviets and Franco’s Spain has either lasted, or ever existed among the players themselves (Spain did not take part in the 1960 tournament because of Franco’s distaste for communism). Ponedelnik sounded every syllable the Soviet apparatchik and any visible warmth between him and Suarez would have been genuinely fascinating. An opportunity lost, maybe.
The draw itself was conducted by Uefa General Secretary Gianni Infantino. For a man frequently pushed in front of the cameras to explain Uefa’s ‘financial fair play’ regulations to the uncomprehending masses among football’s family, overseeing this draw was a breeze. He had problems controlling Zinedine Zidane, who was ready to draw out the nations before Infantino could finish wishing the previous ones good luck in their native language. But many people have had problems controlling Zinedine Zidane, not least, of course, Zidane himself. Infantino was prompted from the wings on “good luck” in each country’s language, which curiously led to problems with his native Italy and led him to wish Ireland “Folcha”, which was barely an approximation of the Irish word “failte”…and means “welcome” anyway. But criticisms of Infantino were few. He finished proceedings long enough before the hour to allow TV stations all over Europe to cut away from the “official” Euro 2012 song before too much psychological damage could be done. He’ll never work for Fifa with efficiency like that.
There was just enough time to declare it a “good” draw for England – they had, after all, avoided Spain – before BBC2 underwent its biggest-ever programming contrast by moving from Keown and Lawrenson to brainbox quiz show Eggheads. But within 18 hours, John Motson was dabbling in Stalinist revisionism, suggesting it was a “rotten” draw for England. “And I’ll tell you why,” he warned. Motson being Motson, he viewed England’s chances against Sweden through a stat – England’s failure to beat Sweden in a competitive fixture – rather than footballing criteria, such as Daniel Majstorovic’s lumbering presence at the heart of Sweden’s defence. And if England survived their “rotten” group? “It’s Spain or Italy in the quarter-finals,” he ventured, offending Slaven Bilic’s Croatia by assuming that Italy would beat them and offering Ireland some extra motivation, should they need it. As I’ve said before, it could be that Motson’s years of covering European Nations’ finals in their various guises has given him an insight beyond that of Martin Keown AND informed observers. Or he could just be an idiot.
Roll on June, eh?
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