Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Euro2008: A Breath of Fresh Air - A Spanish Jinx Finally Broken

Finally, the perenial under-achievers realized how good they are and achieved what they fully deserved for ages. No more quarter final defeats after dominating the group stage, no more shoot-out losses on June 22nd and no more slipping when it matters most. There could not have been a more worthy winner that Spain this summer at the Euro in Austria and Switzerland.
Apart from the winner, the tournament was a breath of fresh air and saw the beatuful game at its best. For far too many tournaments we have been seen teams which are flamboyant initially winning the group stages and then giving it all away in the knock-out stage to a strong defensive team. Right from the 'Magical Magyars' of 1954 (Hungary) to the 'Clockwork Orange' of 1974 (Holland), the Brazillians of 1982 and most recently the Argentines of 2006 all have displayed flamboyant, attacking, entertaining displays only to meet their end in the most unforseeable manner. (Ironically 3 of the 4 teams mentioned fell prey to German resilience).
Most of the winners of the recent past in Euro and the WC have been teams which have strong defences with some even having a non-existant attacking line prompting fans and critics to suggest that the beatuful game has given away to a physical battle. Euro2008 changed the pattern. The team which won was an all round team which probably had no weakness. A great goalie, a strong defence and superb in attack. And not for once did they change their style of play (the curse of June 22nd notwithstanding) regardless of opposition or occassion. One look at all the recent winners will tell you why this Euro was different.
Italy, never having at attacking game, in 2006 depended largely on their last lines of defense in Cannavaro and Buffon with Pirlo and Toni launching the counter attacks.
Greece in 2004 - the less said the better. Three consecutive headed 1-0 wins tell you the story. No one needs to discuss as to how entertaining or flamboyant they had been on course to a championship win.
France in 1998 lacked a quality striker in the finals. Henry and Trezeguet were young and inexperienced and whatever they had was certainly not good enough to give world class defenders some anxious moments. On the other hand their defence led by the resilient Liliam Thuram was rock solid (Not a single goal was scored by their strikers in the last 4 knockout matches).
While the French team in Euro 2000 was more complete, it was less flamboyant to the dutch and the Portuguese teams of the same tournament. Needless to say they had to scrape through each one of the knock-out matches with loads of good fortune.
(Brazil of 2002 could be the only exception as they won all their matches without the slightest hick-ups in spite of being tested by England and Belgium.)
There would be no such thing in this Euro (though the Dutch partly maintained this tradition by losing it completely in the quarters after mersmerizing displays in the group stages). Justice was finally done and the best team won. The flamboyance, attackling instincts, flair, passing and teamwork was finally rewarded. And all along the defence led by Casillas and Puyol complementing wonderfully (Otherwise stopping the wounded Germans would have been impossible). The Spaniards displayed a combination of European resilience and Latin American flair which was on display right from the first match against Russia till the final whistle against Germany. Some EPL/La Liga fans call it the Barca-Arsenal effect which took over.

As far as I can recall, all of Spain's goals have been well worked out field goals as a result of brilliant passing and teamwork. No curling free-kicks, and no headed corner conversions. This makes the performance all the more creditable. The reasons for this are of course there. Some newspapers reported that the Europass ball did not curl or bend enough and hence we had only 2 free-kick goals, one of which deflected off the wall (Henry). However, the way the Spanish played I dont think it would have made any difference to them. The main reason for the free-flowing soccer was the fair-play from the teams and the referring. Cards were not shown for the slightest off offenses and the whistle was used less frequently allowing the game to flow. As a result we some great display of soccer from Portugal, Germany, Russia (the biggest surpise of the lot), Holland and of course Spain. Two successive 3-2 scorelines in the KO stages and withing 90 minutes for Germany indicates just that.

Finally, a word for the Russians - a team that I supported whole-heartedly and who did not let me down. Its unbelievable how Gus Hiddink proves his midas touch time and again. The signs were there for a Russian encore not only for the presense of the man but also for Zenit St Petersburg's UEFA Cup win a month earlier. The club has a sizable representation in the Russian squad including the star mid-fielder Andrey Ashravin who has now become a household name and is in a position to choose which club he wants to play for.