Spain were worthy winners of their first major prize since 1964. They won all their six games – albeit the quarter-final against Italy thanks to two fine penalty saves by Iker Casillas – and were far better winners in the final than the scoreline suggested.
A first-half goal from Fernando Torres brought Spain a second European title 44 massive years after their one and only and rewarded their first appearance in a final since defeat by hosts France in 1984. Victory provided belated fulfilment for a country which has had to rely for international jewels on the club glories of Real Madrid and Barcelona.
Overall Euro 2008 generated a lot of football fun. It had some excellent football, some gripping drama – mostly involving Turkey – and a modicum of awful, unambitious football; it had some outstanding goals and superb saves.
An intriguing factor was the selection of the diligent, perceptive Barcelona midfielder Xavi Hernandez as official player of the tournament. But the destination of that accolade underlined a dearth of outstanding centre-forward play. Co-hosts Austria and Switzerland as well as Greece, Croatia, France and even Italy suffering from their strikers’ poor form and finishing and the goal average was a disappointing 2.48 per game.
The jury remained out on co-hosting. European federation UEFA worked hard to produce a tournament which ran together as seamlessly as possible between Austria and Switzerland considering the different legal systems and different currencies.
The snag is that co-host countries have, by virtue of their modest size, only modest national teams. Any major sports event needs national, host momentum. That demands either that the host public believe their team can win or that they can at least go beyond the group stage. But middle-nation football nations such as Austria and Switzerland cannot generate that belief or thus excitement or momentum.
In Switzerland, even in Basel on match days, the casual visitor would have been in ignorance that a major football event was taking place. In Austria the practical staging of matches in Innsbruck and Salzburg left a lot to be desired and it took the Greek fans to awaken Salzburg to the event. Klagenfurt was just too small and too distant to catch even a minor fever except on match days. The stadia were the minimum size to meet UEFA’s organisational standards and accounted for the modest 37,076 average attendance.
UEFA also blundered in applying the flawed concept of making mutual results the first factor to split teams level on points. Thus concluding matches in several groups were unnecessarily “dead” – which would not have been the case had goal difference been the first factor. A return to goal difference might also amend attitudes to goal scoring. It was disappointing to see the top-scorer award being carried off by a player, Spain’s David Villa, who managed “only” four goals.
All in all, however, it was perfectly understandable that UEFA president Michel Platini should have declared himself, on the eve of the final, “a very happy president.”
Portugal topped Group A ahead of Turkey who owed their progress to two late goals from Nihat Kahveci which converted a prospective 2-1 defeat against the Czech Republic into a 3-2 win. Co-hosts Switzerland slid out despite beating the already-qualified Portuguese by 2-0 in the concluding outing.
Croatia made an impressive start to the finals by winning all their three games in Group B, including a 2-1 victory over Germany who finished runners-up. Co-hosts Austria went the same eliminatory way as Switzerland, managing only one goal in their three games – and that was a penalty converted by Ivica Vastic in a 1-1 draw with fellow failures Poland.
Group C was the most dramatic with Holland magnificent and Italy fighting back in gritty fashion after collapsing 3-0 against the Dutch in the first match. France were a major disappointment. They were held goalless by Romania, were thrashed 4-1 by Holland then fell apart 2-0 against Italy. Remarkably manager Raymond Domenech, despite contentious choices of personnel and tactics, somehow escaped the sack on his return home.
Romania were one of two teams whose unambitious approach shamed their presence at the finals. The other culprits were Sweden in Group D which won commandingly by Spain. Russia qualified as runners-up despite losing 4-1 to Spain in their first. Captain Andrei Arshavin returned from suspension just in time to inspire a last-match 2-0 win over Sweden which lifted them into the last eight.
The knockout stages brought more drama and upset. Portugal, with Cristiano Ronaldo a disappointment, went down 3-2 to fast-starting Germany while Holland surprisingly fell 3-1 to Arshavin-inspired Russia in extra time. Shootouts decided the other two ties. Spain, thanks to the shootout agility of captain Iker Casillas, overcame jinx rivals Italy 4-2 after a goalless draw while Turkey beat Croatia 3-1 after a 1-1 draw.
The Croats could not believe their ill fortune. They thought they had reached the semi-finals when Mario Klasnic broke the deadlock in the last minute of extra time – only for Semih Senturk to punish their celebratory lack of concentration with an instant equalizer. Semih was also one of the Turks’ match-winning penalty takers.
Turkey’s luck ran out, however, against Germany in the semi-finals. Much of Europe missed the drama, after a thunderstorm wiped out TV pictures of the Germans grabbing a 3-2 win after three goals in the last 11 minutes.
Spain used a comparatively easy 3-0 win over Russia as their springboard to an ultimate victory happily justified their status as pre-final favourites. They had won all their five games (albeit one on penalties) compared with the Germans’ four, lost none compared with Germany’s one and outscored their opponents by 11-10. They had also conceded fewer goals, three compared with six.
Everything went according to plan in the first half. Fernando Torres first headed against a post and then struck what proved the winner on 33 minutes after Philipp Lahm allowed the Liverpool striker to accelerate around behind him and slide his shot beyond advancing keeper Jens Lehmann.
Desperate situations demand desperate measures. Germany brought on striker Kevin Kuranyi for midfielder Tomas Hitzlsperger and piled forward. The gamble nearly paid off when the superb Michael Ballack thumped a volley just wide of Casillas’s right-hand post and then threw in a cross which forced the keeper to fly left to deny the leaping Kuranyi.
Spain would once have caved in. But this team, under Luis Aragones, in his last game as national coach, were made of sterner stuff. They resisted superbly and might even have scored again only for midfielder Marcos Senna to arrive just too late in front of an open goal.
Senna thumped the turf in frustration. But he did not have long to wait before making history as first Brazilian-born player to win a European Championship.
His impressive contribution, as midfield anchor, to Spain’s winning effort from first game to final was appropriate. After all, it was long since time that a foreigner gave something back to the national team of a country in which imported stars have traditionally stolen the local boys’ thunder.