The World Cup Finals may be football’s most watched showpiece event on the planet but there can be little doubt which one is the most difficult to win. Not even the threat of far-right extremist hooligans, as exposed in the BBC’s recent Panorama programme on the European Championships host nations Poland and the Ukraine, can remove the excitement generated by the one international football tournament that yields more high quality football than any other. Just one look at the opening round of matches and already you are into heavyweight territory. Of course, opening matches can often mean caution and conservatism but they can also be an opportunity for those teams with real intent to flex their muscles and show they mean to start as they go on. Every group could justifiably be labelled as a potential ‘group of death’ and a glance at the group stage match ups reveals such tasty fixtures as Germany v Netherlands, England v France, Italy v Spain and Russia v Czech Republic. Such fixtures are steeped in historic significance for reasons way beyond football and will not be for the faint-hearted.
In many ways the sport of football needs this year’s European Championships to deliver, more than any other before it. A good tournament could be the perfect antidote to another year that for many, has produced more evidence of the poison that runs through all levels of the professional game. This season above any other has reminded us that we are firmly into an era where money talks and has returned the ultimate vindication for those benefactors with the deepest pockets. Many fans of Chelsea and Manchester City will no doubt disagree, but their particular end of season successes will only serve to perpetuate the perversities that are fast turning the beautiful game into something that resembles the football equivalent of ‘Ugly Betty’. Players, managers and those in the board rooms of the game’s elite are now so far removed from the fans that to an increasing number of people, football is becoming a bigger turn off than the sight of Alan Carr dressed as Cruella De Vil. There can be no dispute that Chelsea’s Champions League success was a spectacular victory for resolve and indomitable team spirit. They ‘out-Germaned’ Bayern Munich on their own back yard and for that they deserve the maximum credit one could bestow on any team of individuals. However, for a watching neutral (with not a shred of patriotic allegiance) their victory was not one for the purists. A similarly belligerent display against Barcelona in the semi-final, saw them progress to the final but only the most die-hard fans could argue that apart from their incredible dogged determination, they were the better side over the two legs. The irony of their success is that it came at the expense of the type of ‘sexy’ football that their unscrupulous owner once sacked his ‘marquee’ manager for not producing. Moreover, many of us old romantics would prefer not to see football clubs that behave with a moral compass akin to a military dictatorship behind a mask of unlimited riches and one seemingly lacking in values or class, prosper in the way that the likes of Chelsea have this year.
On the continent, Italian football has once again been rocked by more allegations and resignations around match fixing. Whilst domestically, we have had incidents and allegations of racist behaviour from one fellow professional to another. We have also had managers and their respective clubs that have failed to address these and many other equally distasteful situations adequately. In addition, we have had yet more examples of foreign investors coming into the game that don't quite get it and therefore couldn’t give a monkeys what their paying supporters think so they just go ahead and do what they like before realising they got it wrong when it is too late. It is becoming more and more evident to many of us fans that the feeling of unconditional affection we feel towards our clubs and the game in general is not necessarily reciprocated by those that administer and deliver the game to us, as the route of all evil now reigns supreme.
Yet the Euro’s offer such mouth-watering contests that it’s hard not to get a wee bit excited and suddenly become overwhelmed by nostalgic thoughts of classic encounters from previous tournaments. Just a short trip down memory lane conjures up thoughts of Marco Van Basten’s late winner in Germany against the hosts in the 1988 semi-final that paved the way for that great Dutch side to become the eventual winners. His outrageous volley in the final against the Soviet Union still remains one of the abiding memories in the history of the competition. Other great games from yesteryear that immediately springs to mind include that fantastic Michel Platini inspired French comeback against Portugal in 1984 semi-final. Then there was the 2000 final between France and Italy, when the Les Bleus looked all but dead and buried before Sylvain Wiltord’s late equalizer in normal time, eventually culminated in David Trezeguet’s extra-time golden goal. Probably the most remarkable triumph came in 1992, when a Danish squad of players were hastily assembled following war-torn Yugoslavia’s omission from the tournament for political reasons just prior to the opening match. They duly went on to cause one of the biggest upsets in the competition’s history, beating Germany 2-0 in the final.
There have been numerous examples of the drama that has always made this competition particularly special over the years, probably too many to mention. Although one can normally expect only the cream of the European crop to excel, there has been the odd occasion when the best (or at least the most entertaining) team has not ended up as winners. In 2004, Greece introduced the world to ‘park the bus’ football, but it proved bizarrely effective and their own rendition of Beauty and the Beast saw their benign brand of football emerge victorious over Portugese flair in the final in Lisbon. Thankfully, Spanish ingenuity restored the balance of power back in favour of good over evil, four years later. But for every England fan the mother of all tournament heart-aches will forever be when ‘football came home’ in 1996. When England traded blows with their oldest and biggest adversary, it resulted in yet another painful semi-final defeat on penalties against yet another hideously efficient Germany team. Only this time the pain was compounded by the fact it was at Wembley and in front of an entire nation of expectant spectators. It was also one of those very rare occasions when England undoubtedly outplayed the old enemy over 120 minutes of blood, sweat but ultimately more tears.
Yes, the Euro’s promises much and could restore some hope to a sport where appeal is becoming a dying commodity. Yes there will be lots of diving, play acting, poor refereeing decision, calls for goal-line technology and chess matches, but there will hopefully be sufficient passion, quality and moments of sublime technical ability to offset it all and remind us that despite everything that’s currently wrong with football, it can still be the beautiful game.
Follow me on Twitter: @Wayne_Wiggins
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