A Cup of Nations: Euro 2008
The End of the Pain in Spain
Spanish football stood on the threshold of a new beginning as years of pain in Spain had finally come to its end. Years of unfulfilled potential, underachieving and under-performing was now a thing of the past. The Class of 2008 was to banish the past torment, heartache and self-destruction to the midst of the deepest outer realms; the team finally breaking through the glass ceiling that had held them back. It would take them to the pinnacle of the European game on the international arena, to the top of their trade, so long overdue for a fully deserved triumph in every sense of the word. Finally the best team had won in what was a model way to play football.
This was Spain 2008, the New Spain, who had finally found the attributes to finally realise the country’s potential. It was a Spain that added a new mental grittiness-strength, steel, resilience, heart, teamwork and tactical discipline to its arsenal of weapon to compliment traditional traits of speed, technique and skill. The real battle was won not on the pitch but their minds. This under the willy guidance of coach Luis Arangones, a controversial character, but an astute and top leader, finally bringing home Spain’s first trophy after a wait of 44 years – their only previous title success. Interestingly, he would be one of the 10 managerial departees after the finals.
It had been Spain’s first final since its glorious 1984 defeat to France. The 40-million populated nation gloried in victory, revelled in its new found status as clearly Europe’s best team. A nation that had relied on the glories of Real Madrid and Barcelona had finally got rid of the notion to accommodate the stars of just these two Spanish giants.
Spain’s final triumph was a just reward for their superiority at some of the most basic aspects of the game – accurate passing, instant control and sharp movement. The backbone to this was Spain’s cluster of talented midfielders; Xavi, Andreas Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas and David Silva (most consistent performer) plus anchor man Marcos Senna – who held his side together, providing the defensive base that allowed others to support the forwards that possessed blistering pace and had a sharp eye for goal.
It would end in the magnificent arena of Vienna’s Ernst Happel stadium on June 29th. Opponents Germany, a pre-tournament favourite, had been second best throughout this finale to a team that seemingly had not moved out of second gear. Spain carefully dictated events and could certainly have inflicted a heavier margin of defeat on the tournament’s most successful ever nation. They had never previously beaten the Germans in a tournament match. Iker Casillas, playing his 82nd international had not been forced into one serious save, such was Spain’s dominance. He cemented his status as the world’s top keeper having been outstanding in the quarter-final with Italy with two penalty saves.
In the final it was Spain’s cutting edge; technically excellent, fine touch, accuracy of passing and a top-notch finish by Fernando Torres – his 36th of the season – rather than Germany’s powerful running that fittingly secured the trophy. Man-of-the-match Torres had scored 24 premier league goals but had only scored once before the final, the opening goal in 2-1 win over Sweden – substituted in both games against Russia as well as against Italy. The goal wiped away concerns about the absence of injured David Villa, Spain’s top goalscorer with five goals who limped out of semi. It was only fitting that Euro 2008 signed off with a classic final after three weeks of consistently high-quality attacking and entertaining football that helped make it one of the best tournaments for years.
It had all started by trouncing neat Russia in the first game, where the goals rained in Innsbruck from David Villa – chief tormentor; the Spain bandwagon had started to roll. Even resting nine first-teamers for the final group match against Greece could not stop them from maintaining a 100% record. History had been made by beating Italy on penalties after a desperately poor goalless draw; in a contest strangled by fear of failure and in Spain’s case, having lost so regularly at that stage ,so that was understandable. It was a landmark first victory over opponents in nine competitive meetings since the first in 1920. Cesc Fabregas rammed in the decisive penalty in Vienna. Interestingly Spain had lost penalty shoot-outs on June 22nd at tournaments in 1986, 1996, 2002 – June 22nd now used to be a dark date for them. Second half goals from Xavi, Daniel Guiza and David Silva nailed Russia, a ghost of the team that had clinically dismantled and magnificently outplayed the Dutch – Hiddink’s third defeat in a major semi-final, after Holland 98, Korea 2002 respectively. Germany, the beaten finalist and third-placed finishers of its own World Cup of 2 years earlier had put on a credible performance at these finals. This a marked improvement on the first round exits in 2000 and 2004. Germany’s high point was the thrilling 3-2 quarter-final win over Portugal when the advanced midfield role of Michael Ballack – some saw as possibly their only true world class player – inspired them to one of their best performances for years. This despite getting away with a blatant push on Portugal Paulo Ferreira when he scored Germany’s second. Joachim Low, one of 6 of 16 coaches to stay on was satisfied with the finals as a whole, and acknowledged defeat, citing a great performance in reaching the final. Spain deserved to win no arguments. He had the foresight half way through the tournament to change the system after defeat against Croatia in second game that left them requiring a point against Austria. The new 4-2-3-1 system gave Ballack the freedom to roam and stamp his authority. Despite being outplayed by Croatia in group stage and riding its luck against Turkey – displaying a sheer will to win saw them proceed – as a place at the Ernst Happel stadium beckoned.
The tournaments biggest casualties and flops came from the so-called Group of death – Italy and France finalist of 2006 final. As with its performance at the 2002 World Cup, a total shambles, France proved to be a bunch of talented individuals that played with little direction and left the tournament like a flash of lighting with Italy doing no better, leaving without so much as a stir.
The very unpopular Domenech – especially with French media because of insistence that access to his squad be kept to a minimum – had put too much reliance on the class of 98 and 2000, leaving no space for youngsters who could have helped; tensions to simmer in the camp between young and older generations as the untouchables became immovable as age had taken its withering toll, especially catching up with the French back line, while others were disinterested on the pitch. Many were openly critical of boss’s nonsensical decisions, questioning his tactics, selections and substitutions. Lilian Thuram, the sole survivor from the 98 winning team, and Claude Makekele called time on their international careers as the campaign descended into a farce with Domenech’s post-exit marriage proposal. The strikers starved of service were usually not on the same wavelength in a side that played at a stately pace showing a lack of urgency and enterprise. A tameless woeful draw against theoretically the weakest link of the group Romania was followed by a crushing devastating loss to Holland; the French (like the Italians before against the Dutch) suffering their worst tournament defeat – 4-1. This was despite Domenech having made a number of changes including the return of Henry. France, along with Italy left scrambling for second place.
Italy capitalised on French misfortune in the form of a serious injury to Ribery and Eric Abidal’s early dismissal. Donadoni lived to fight another day longer as Italy ripped France apart – in a contest fast and furious – more decisively than the scoreline suggested. Luca Toni should have completed his hat-trick in a five-minute spell.
Aiming to add to their World Cup win of 2006, the Azzuri in its opening game had been blown away by a devastating five-minute first-half period during which Holland scored twice. In one match Italy had conceded more goals than in their entire World Cup campaign in Germany. Their last comparable defeat was 4-1 to Brazil in the 1970 final. Only a fortuitous 80th minute penalty save from by Luigi Buffon saved Italy from elimination against Romania in Zurich – a thrilling pulsating game. Italy only scored three goals at the finals and none was by a forward. Too many long balls were pinned over to misfiring Luca Toni while injured captain Fabio Cannavaro was badly missed as was the suspended Pirlo in quarter-finals against Spain – a lack of creativity stifled the contest. The sacking of Roberto Donadoni, (4 days later by the Italian federation) and replacement World Cup winning coach Marcello Lippi was no surprise. Donadoni’s tenure seemed very much like that of France’s Domenech and seemed to be experimenting from match to match, a recipe for disaster.
Turkey’s return to a major tournament – following non-attendance at Euro 2004 and the World Cup 2006, re-building its reputation after failure – brought a surprise vein of form again defying odds for one of the great stories of the finals. They matched its performance of 2002 World Cup finals with yet another semi-final appearance – again denied by the more illustrious opponent, a step too far. They proved to be fearless and unstinting, winning friends with their never-say-die attitude and surprised everybody, not least themselves. Turkey went into the finals with a point to prove and reminded the world of their talent. Faith Terim, possibly Turkey’s greatest ever coach, moulded a winning team from a depleted threadbare squad ravaged because of suspension and injury; only 14 players were available for selection at one point. Veteran striker Hakan Sukur had been discarded and left at home, Terim berated back at home for his opening selection; he returned home to a hero’s reception. An incredible hat-trick of comebacks against Switzerland, Czech Republic and Croatia gave them the self-belief that they could emulate neighbours Greece and reach a final. Their brave gusto performance in the semis against rattled Germany deserved better. They had in fact looked on the verge of another amazing revival when Semih Senturk hit a late goal to make it 2-2. But German left-back Lahm, blamed for Spain’s goal in the final, popped up in the last minute to send Turkey home. Omens had not looked good when they were overrun by Portugal in opening match, but late goals against Switzerland – victory to end the hosts continued participation – and then even more remarkably against the Czechs in Geneva; snatching victory from the jaws of elimination with a last gasp win, helped with a blunder from Cech in goal. The Turks went in the match with Czech Republic with an identical record, meaning a draw would lead to penalties to determine qualifiers. They then suddenly came alive in extra-time against Croatia for yet another remarkable victory.
Under the leadership of the canny old master Guus Hiddink, Russia had proven to be one of the most attractive teams at these finals; played in a way that reminded one of Arsenal with its slick imaginative first-touch passing, hugely impressive against Sweden and Holland. Andrei Arshavin, with superlative performances was the inspiration, the revelation of the finals, winning universal acclaim despite playing limited time after being suspended for the first 2 games. He staked a claim to being Europe’s next superstar. Hiddink, displaying all the motivational skills and tactical nous, was hailed as a genius after outwitting Holland in a contender for the game of finals that saw some 54 attempts on goal. The Russian league being a third of the way through the season meant the players were fresher than its western rivals. Roman Pavlyuchenko played his part also giving the attack a focal point and linked well with Arsharvin.
Recovery from the battering by Spain was achieved with the single goal win over Greece which set up a win-or-bust showdown with Sweden which they passed with flying colours. The return of Arsharvin gave the Russian attack a new dimension as Sweden’s were swept aside to secure their first knockout stage appearance at a major tournament since the break-up of the Soviet Union. Until then Russia, a young team of talent were impressive in their cultured build-up play but lacked a killer instinct – that was until Arsharvin’s entrance transformed attacking options. Two-assists, one brilliantly taken goal against Holland and the previously unfancied Russia were into the semis; recovering from the setback of conceding a late equaliser in regular time against the Dutch who in the end ran out of breath and were spent physically and mentally after being forced to chase the game for the first time at the finals – played at their own game. Then it was Russia’s turn to chase shadows as Spain eventually passed them into exhaustion then picked them off with three well- crafted second half goals in a terrific semi-final where barely a backward pass was made.
The lead to these championships had been all about one man, Cristiano Ronaldo, world football’s top performer of the 2008 season and the name on everybody’s lips. A monster 42-goal contribution helped take the Champions league title for his club Manchester Utd as well as the League. Ronaldomania had engulfed the entire occasion just as his namesake had on the lead up to the 1998 finals of France. He revelled in his status as world’s top player as he flirted with Real Madrid. The transfer saga surrounding its main man plus coach Scolari’s own deal with Chelsea, announced within seconds of qualification for the quarter-finals did not help the cause. Agents had been banned from Portugal’s training base in Neuchatel by a manager who did not practice what he preached. Quarter-finalist in 96, semi-finalist in 2000, and finalist in 2004 would they be winners in 2008, many wondered? Portugal had the talent, and, early on, the inclination to go a long way and looked one of the most slick and attractive teams using 4-2-3-1 – a normal formation. Ronaldo showed flashes of brilliance in the group stages and had his moments, notably against the Czechs, scoring one and setting up the other two, but when he was needed most, in the final hour against Germany, he disappeared – somehow inhibited by the speculation concerning a possible transfer to Real Madrid. Portugal ultimately went out because they failed to do basic defending and deal with Germany’s aerial assault.