Spain Come Out On Top
Spain turned EURO 2008, held in Austria and Switzerland from 7 to 29 June, into their very own footballing fiesta. They regained their European crown after 44 years, delighting even neutral spectators with their stylish play.
Was this, as many experts claimed afterwards, the best European Championship ever? It is often unjust to draw comparisons with past tournaments, since memories of the latest tournament are of course fresher in the mind than those of previous ones. We tend to hyperbolise, glorifying what has just been witnessed and automatically ranking it above the past. Nevertheless, EURO 2008 was certainly a thrilling tournament, full of unexpected results and an atmosphere that was electric both inside and outside the eight stadiums in the two Alpine countries.
For the first time in a while, a major football title was actually won by the team that played the best and most attractive football. Spain were peerless in this tournament, being the only one of the 16 teams to emerge victorious from all of their matches. They also had the most shots at goal (117), scored the most goals (12) and boasted the most prolific goal-scorer in the competition in David Villa (four goals).
“All of Spain goes crazy” was the headline of one leading Spanish newspaper after the final in Vienna. Hundreds of thousands of people across the country took to the streets to celebrate the 1-0 victory over Germany thanks to Fernando Torres’s goal – their first major triumph since the European Championship title in 1964.
Spain has had to wait AA years for a major title. Invariably among the favourites for European Championships and World Cups in the past, they have often been knocked out at an early stage. While Spanish clubs have repeatedly won European competitions and Spain has regularly blazed a trail in junior competitions and futsal, the senior national team has disappointed.
SLICK COMBINATION PLAY
At EURO 2008, however, Spain finally made up to its fans for the many losses and disappointments of the past. “La furia roja” (The Red Fury) lived up to their nickname, not only beating their opponents but dominating them with slick combination play. The Spaniards made 569 passes per game, more than any other team, and 81 per cent of them were successful.
They left opponents bewildered with some of their play. Midfielders Xavi Hernandez – rightly crowned player of the tournament by UEFA – Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas and Marcos Senna were comfortable in possession, nimble and quick, and passed the ball around among one another with such speed and skill that opponents were often completely nonplussed. Before their opponents knew what was happening, one of the Spanish midfielders had slotted an angled pass through to red-hot strikers Villa or Torres or had ghosted in to finish off the move himself.
Luis Aragones, the oldest coach in this year’s EURO at 70, allowed his team to play modern, entertaining and efficient football, thereby creating something of a revolution. For in a time when many believe that successful footballers have to be big, strong and athletic, Aragones opted instead for smaller, even delicately built players. They showed great discipline, sticking to their pattern of play and never losing their shape, but nevertheless took advantage of the freedoms allowed them to play thrilling attacking football that delighted even neutral spectators.
Russia and Turkey were the surprise packages of the tournament, upsetting the odds to qualify for the semi-finals. The Russians, the youngest of all the teams competing, offered up a refreshing brand of football characterised by athleticism, so much so that names like Andrei Arshavin, Roman Pavlyuchenko and Yuriy Zhirkov are now familiar outside of Russia, too.
The Turkish may not have stood out in terms of their style of play, but they demonstrated what can be achieved with team spirit, morale, willpower and passion, coming back from a goal behind in three different matches.
Several big names performed poorly at EURO 2008. Defending champions Greece, statistically the best team in qualifying, failed to win a single point in the finals and were knocked out after the group matches.
There was little to cheer for the French either. The EURO 2000 champions and 2006 FIFA World Cup™ finalists were also sent home after the first round following painful defeats to the Netherlands (4-1) and Italy (2-0). Coach Raymond Domenech has kept his post but will have no choice but to build a new team.
There was no such mercy for Roberto Donadoni, who lost his job following Italy’s elimination in the quarter-finals against Spain and lethargic performances in the group matches. His successor is his predecessor, Marcello Lippi, who led the squadra azzurra to FIFA World Cup™ victory in 2006 before supposedly retiring.
Hosts Switzerland and Austria failed to spring any surprises. Switzerland, at least, managed to win one match (2-0 against Portugal), while Austria contented themselves with a draw (1-1against Poland). Off the field, however, the two host countries gained top marks. As expected, they were hospitable, open and professional organisers of an event which, bar a few minor incidents, passed off peacefully.
As at the 2006 FIFA World Cup™ in Germany, the so-called public viewing events also proved to be a big hit in Austria and Switzerland. According to reports, four million people in the two countries watched the 31 matches in the fan zones. EURO 2008 emphatically demonstrated the appeal of national teams – 130,000 Dutch followed their team to Switzerland, while up to 40,000 Swedes were counted in Austria. The fans are no longer content just to turn up wearing shirts and scarves and waving flags. Matches have now become veritable masked balls where Supermen from Spain mingle with angels from the Netherlands and Julius Caesars from Italy. Creativity abounds amid a carnival atmosphere.
The players and coaches also appear to have been inspired by the blaze of colour, originality and spontaneity. Concerns prior to kick-off that the EURO would appeal only to advocates of defensive, tactical football proved to be unfounded. In total, 77 goals were scored, an average of 2.5 goals per game, which is not bad by any means.
The tactic of playing five midfielders and only one striker is becoming increasingly popular, and appears to guarantee goals.
Both finalists took to the field with only one striker — Spain with Fernando Torres, and Germany with Miroslav Klose. This tactic does not say much on its own, however, as the Spaniards had five clear-cut goal-scoring opportunities, and the Germans none.