Euro Cup 2012: Reliving the memories
As it happens in all the major tournaments, Euro 2012 too had all the ingredients of a potboiler – some wonderful goals, some goals that could have been but didn’t, some impressive defences, some great saves, heart-in-mouth moments, stars failing to deliver when it counted, teams which were favourites crashing out, teams which did not come to the tournament with much fanfare surprising everyone, rousing nationalism and heartbreaks.
History beckoned the game of football at the Olympic Stadium in Kiev, Ukraine. While Spain were looking to become the only team in the world to win three major tournaments in a row, after having won the Euro Cup in 2008 and the World Cup in 2010, Italy were looking to become the European champions after 44 years. It was said that Spain were destined to win and only the unpredictable Mario Balotelli and an Italian team out to surprise everyone could halt them on their road to glory.
It was also being said that the Italians perform the best when the chips are down. Remember, they came in this tournament amidst the backdrop of match-fixing scandal with dark clouds looming over some of their big players like Gianluigi Buffon, Leonardo Bonucci and Domenico Criscito.
Also, the two finalists had one thing in common – along the journey to the final, players from both sides had brazenly attempted the ‘Panenka’ shot during their penalty shootouts – Sergio Ramos in the semi-final win over Portugal and Pirlo against England in the quarter-final.
But at the end the winner took it all. The Kaiser, Franz Beckenbauer had predicted a Spain victory in Euro 2012 . He wrote in his column before the final – “I believe that despite Italy’s strengths, Spain will defend their title.” Spain did not only defend the title but created history in the process by winning the Henri Delaunay Cup - they have now won three international titles in a row, they have three Euro Cups in their kitty, and they slammed four goals against the Italians, surpassing West Germany's 3-0 win over the Soviet Union in 1972. They also sent a message out to the world to stop terming their brand of football as boring. There is no doubt that the hard work, determination and the short-passing game of possession had paid off. As the great Pele once said, “Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do.”
The Spanish team have also given loads of memories to their countrymen to savour for a long time. An emotion that was expressed by the keeper Iker Cassillas in these words – “Not many are capable of such. We’ll surely come to remember this moment above all when the time comes that we are no longer reaching finals.”
When Spain won the 2010 World Cup, I was rooting for them because they had never won the coveted trophy and most of us do like a new champion to emerge. But I also wanted them to win as Spain have been reeling under a huge economic crisis for a long time now, and I firmly believe that any sporting glory lifts the spirit of the nation at least momentarily and gives its people something to cheer about. I am sure that if they could, the Spanish team would do everything to lift the country from all the worries just as they lifted the Euro Cup. Casillas did tell a radio station – “It’s strange what happens in life sometimes. However badly things are going for the country in terms of the crisis and all that, football has been a kind of oasis that has allowed people to forget everything a little bit.”
And this is precisely the reason why I felt sad when Greece lost to the Germans 4-2 in the quarters. Yes, I know they were not the favourites and neither were they a great team but pause for a moment and think the joy that the debt-mired nation’s 11 million people would have felt if Greece had advanced further. Ironically, the new Greek Prime Minister, Antonis Samaras, took over the mantle of the country recently with the promise of taking the recession-hit country on the path of growth, a blueprint which will require the nod of Angela Merkel’s Germany. Greece may have lost to the Germans on the football pitch but many hope that they manage to stay in the Euro currency and work out the terms of EU-IMF bailout.
Let’s spare a thought for the Italians. Temperamental Italian striker, Mario Balotelli had said after the victory over Germany in the semis, “I waited a long time for this moment, especially because my mother came all the way here and I wanted to make her happy. This is the greatest evening of my life, but I hope Sunday will be even better...For the final my father is coming, too...So I hope to score...”
But that was not to be. As in life, so in sports, the script cannot be written according to a plan. The end of the match saw an upset Balotelli storm out of the field, Italians in tears and the Spaniards overjoyed knowing that they had achieved what no other team had achieved before. The reactions were also different. While, Italy’s goalkeeper and captain Gianluigi Buffon said, "I just want to forget the last ten minutes of the match, erase it from my life,” the Spanish coach Vicente Del Bosque had this to say – “I think in football we have done a great job.” Well, someone needs to tell Del Bosque that they more than did a good job. His team has started a debate amongst experts of the game whether the present Spanish team is the greatest team of all time. That debate can continue to rage but one thing is for sure, they are definitely one of the most consistent teams in recent times.
Every major tournament throws up some exciting and stunning moments which remain with you forever. The two goals by Balotelli in the semi-final between Italy and Germany, the four goals in the final by the Spaniards against the Italians, the ‘Panenka’ spot kick in the quarter-final between Italy and England by Italian playmaker, the 33-year old Andrea Pirlo and so on.
I vividly remember watching the quarters between England and Italy at home late at night with my brother ruing the fact that it had been a goalless game - penalty shootouts are so boring, cruel and unpredictable way to decide a game. Anyway, as soon as Pirlo chipped the ball calmly and like a monk into the net past the English goalkeeper when his turn came to take the penalty kick, both my brother and I looked at each other and realised that we had watched something special. (A spot kick eponymously called the ‘Panenka’ is named after the goal in the Czechoslovakia vs West Germany 1976 Euro final shootout by Antonin Panenka who floated the ball down the middle of the net past the German Sepp Maier. Czech won the match 5-3). Just as I can never forget the powerful header by Spain’s Carles Puyol against Germany in the 2010 World Cup semi-finals, I cannot forget this too.
There were other goals too that were special. Spaniard Jordi Alba’s amazing run in the final after getting a pass from Xavi and scoring the second Spanish goal by passing three Italian defenders and stunning Buffon. Swede Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s 54th minute goal against France, who, after getting a cross from Seb Larsson smashed the ball in the net with his right boot, almost horizontal from the ground and past keeper Hugo Lloris.
The two goals by Spaniard Xabi Alonso in the in the quarter-final against France – the first was a header which sailed past the French goalkeeper Hugo Loris and the second, a cool penalty. Incidentally, this was the midfielder’s 100th appearance for Spain.
And some more – 21-year old Danny Welbeck's winner against Sweden in England’s Group D victory, Andy Carroll's header against Sweden from a long ball from the England captain Steven Gerrard and Spanish star Fernando Torres goal in the final against the Italians.
Euro 2012 amongst other things also saw the German hearts break after Balotelli struck twice in the semi-final to send the favourites packing from the tournament. Here, one must feel sorry for the German coach Joachim Loew and his young team who thought that their time had come after finishing third in the 2010 World Cup. Italy ended their 15 match winning streak in international competitive games. They may well have to wait for glory for sometime more.
Someone else who will have to wait for international glory is the star Portuguese player, Cristiano Ronaldo. The Group D game between the Netherlands and Portugal saw one of the best individual performances by Ronaldo who scored twice to seal a place in the last eight. Also Ronaldo’s 79th minute header in the quarters against the Czech Republic helped his team reach the semis. But the semis turned out to be a nightmare for Portugal and the captain – imagine Ronaldo didn’t even get to take the penalty kick during the shootouts. He was to take the fifth kick but the Spaniards were on their way to the final much before that.
England once again disappointed. Since the time I have been watching the game, one thing that had struck me as consistent is that the English always come to a major tournament with a star studded team but bow out with a whimper. Also, most of the stars perform wonderfully at the club level but when it comes to delivering for their country, they are simply not up to it. And yes, when it comes to the wire and the game has to be decided by a penalty shootout involving England, then one can be rest assured of what the result would be. This Euro was no different and the English curse was yet again on display. England lost to the Italians in the quarters with the likes of Ashley Young and Ashley Cole missing the net. Also a mention about Wayne Rooney who we thought could provide a moment to relish in posterity, but in the quarters he was hardly able to threaten the Italian defence.
World Cup 2010 finalist Holland too were a disappointment and the French also bowed out of the tournament without creating any splash.
Postscript: Football is a beautiful game. This was the first definition of soccer that I got to hear when I started watching the game in my schooldays, mostly thanks to my Dad. I may not like to delve too much into the intricate strategies and tactics of the game, but to put it simply, what I care for is that the game fills me with excitement for its sheer pace and raw energy at display. In that respect watching all those late night matches in India being aired on television and being bleary eyed to office the next day, has been worth it. I only wish that there had been more goals scored in the tournament and the final had been more competitive and not so one sided. And yes, one of my recurrent dreams – imagine if India had been a great footballing nation...