— One specific difference separates the finals of the European Championship from the finals of the World Cup, apart, that is, from the geographical connotation inherent in the event titles.

The World Cup is one of two global events which happen to be about sport (the other being the Olympics); the European Championship, by stark contrast, is a football tournament.

Euro 2012 street decor flies the flag for Warsaw

Sometimes it’s said that the Euro is the World Cup without Brazil and Argentina. True. But it is also the World Cup without the dross of 16 quality-lowering also-rans. This is the reason UEFA president Michel Platini finds himself fielding more and more doubting questions about the scheduled expansion from 16 to 24 teams.

The European Championship certainly ain’t bust; hence there is no need to fix it. The 16-team formula is perfect, mathematically, and is fan-friendly. Each match is an event in itself, unlike the cascade of run-of-the-mill stalemates at a World Cup.

The corollary is that the more memorable football emerges from the four-yearly European showdown rather than from the World Cup.

Not that is always appeared that way. This writer’s first ‘full’ finals was the event in Italy in 1980, the first after UEFA had expanded the tournament from four teams to eight. The 12 group games produced only 22 goals. That, however, certainly did not reduce the passion among the crowds – particularly in Turin where riot police unleashed tear gas to quell unrest among supporters during England’s opening draw against ultimate group winners Belgium in the old Stadio Comunale.

This was the first time in which crowd trouble had erupted during the Euro finals, sending out a warning about far worse to come in the succeeding decade with the horrors of Heysel and Hillsborough.

One of the finest games of all was in the same tournament, down in Naples, where ultimate champions West Germany defeated Holland 3-2 on the inspiration of a glittering performance from the young Bernd Schuster in midfield. Such a shame that his subsequent fall-outs meant this was his both his first and last masterclass on the national team stage.

This writer later travelled back to San Paolo to witness what now stands as history: the Euros’ last third place play-off, in which Czechoslovakia defeated Italy 9-8 on penalties. 

UEFA reintroduced knockout semi-finals in 1984. This was the finest of the eight-team tournaments. France were at a ‘first’ peak with their commanding, contrasting yet complementary four-man axis of Luis Fernandez, Jean Tigana, Alain Giresse and Michel Platini.

Their 2-1 extra-time victory over Portugal in the semi-final ranks as probably the finest game in Euro history. Platini was nine-goal top scorer but perhaps most important of them all was his last-minute, extra-time winner against the Portuguese.

Four years further on and the summer was ‘Oranje’. Holland saw off the Soviet Union 2-0 in the final after having lost 1-0 to them in their group opener. As Ruud Gullit, captain and scorer of their first goal in the final, told me smilingly: “We played well in that first game and lost . . . and not so well in the final but won.”

FIVE OUT OF FIVE . . . France’s 2-1 semi-final win over Portugal in 1984 possessed drama and class and the right winners, albeit only just . . . Denmark’s Gothenburg dismissal of Germany in 1992 served up a fairytale finale . . . England v Germany in 1996 produced the most memorable golden-goal extra-time as well as shootout . . . France’s early exit after a 2-0 defeat by Italy in 2008 produced the weirdest moment with Raymond Domenech proposing via TV link to his girlfriend during his post-match interview . . . . but Holland’s victory over the Soviet Union in 1988 was sealed by the greatest goal – and most perfect Euro moment – of them all: Marco Van Basten’s angled volley to Arnold Muhren’s deep left-wing cross. 

One of the qualities of the Euro finals is the unpredictability. That stems from a field of teams with comparatively little between them in terms of talent, experience and tactical nous. Thus Denmark delighted the game with their ‘Roy of the Rovers’ triumph in 1992 but Greece were an anti-climactic surprise in 2004.

England in 1996 had seen the extension to 16 teams. More games meant more thrills in what was the hosts’ finest tournament since the 1966 World Cup win. Those of us who witnessed the thrashings of Scotland and Holland and the semi-final defeat by the Germans – with Gazza an inch from touching in the most golden of goals – had to pinch ourselves to believe it.

Was this really England?

Penalties . . . so painful all round. Frank de Boer missed three in Holland’s 2000 semi-final defeat by Italy but the Azzurri ran out of luck when France snatched a late leveller in the final and a golden goal winner. That was also the tournament in which France and Portugal produced another spine-tingling semi-final crowned by Zinedine Zidane’s golden goal, penalty winner.

France were as dominant then as are Spain now. Four years ago in Vienna they ended a 44-year title drought. Yet the final was not the most memorable game: more breath-taking for the neutral was Germany’s 3-2 defeat of Turkey in the semi-finals after a late flurry of three goals in the last 11 minutes.

The lesson: don’t miss a morsel. If the last World Cup, in Sir Alex Ferguson’s words, was like a “visit to the dentist” then Euro 2012, by comparison, might just prove a gourmet delight.

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