Euro 2008: How was that for starters?

Despite England's absence, or perhaps because of it, the group stages of Euro 2008 have been compelling and exciting. Glenn Moore looks back at an encouraging and varied 10 days

The best parties are always the ones you do not get invited to and that appears to be the case for the British and Irish nations with Euro 2008. The tournament, which reaches the knockout stages this evening, has been a considerable success to date, with generally vibrant football matches watched by joyous, if damp, supporters. There have been moments of high drama and low farce, of tension and merriment, all played out to the backdrop of two wide-eyed nations who sometimes seem unsure what to make of the sprawling, multi-tongued beast which has taken over their largely conservative nations. As the tournament enters its business end, this is a review of what we have missed:

Wingers are back in fashion

The football is what we are here for – apart from sponsors shifting tyres, cameras, engine oil and fast food, etc. With the exception of Greece and Romania, teams have set out to attack even when they are painfully ill-equipped to do so (Austria and Switzerland). Even Greece, when forced to, threw men forward and, by their awful finishing, proved coach Otto Rehhagel was right to put his faith in defence.

That such a philosophy failed confirmed that the modern game increasingly favours the offensively-minded, albeit with the large caveat that counter-attacking is often the most potent method. Romania, meanwhile, probably had little choice given the group they were dumped in, and had Adrian Mutu converted his last-minute penalty against Italy, coach Victor Piturca would have been this stage's tactical genius.

The Dutch matches against France and Italy were of the very highest quality. The Portuguese, Croatians and Spanish have also impressed, while Turkey produced a whirlwind 20 minutes to upset the Czechs. Wingers are back in fashion, and so is dribbling as coaches realise that it takes something out of the ordinary to unlock today's well-drilled defences. There is a danger that the high stakes will affect the knockout matches, but we can look forward to them with confidence.

The British summer

One of the main reasons the football has been so good is the weather has been so bad. To the despair of the various tourist boards, which have been keenly promoting their countries and regions, it has been the wettest and coldest tournament for decades. This has enabled the players, though tired after the long club season, to play with something approaching the intensity they bring to the Champions League. What a cruel irony. For once a tournament is played in conditions which would allow the British and Irish teams to play their high-octane, headless chicken brand of football without getting exhausted – and none of them qualify.

Alpine excellence

With neither side having reached a major semi-final in more than half-a-century, Austria and Switzerland are not the obvious choices to host a football tournament – and sometimes it shows. However, their teams performed nobly and the populace have taken to the competition enthusiastically, if not fervently. The organisation has been excellent, public transport has worked and the scenery spectacular, if often draped in cloud. Swiss prices, especially, have shocked many, but the tournament's location, at the heart of Europe, has enabled travelling supporters to descend en masse, often dropping in for a match, going home then coming back for the next one.

Zoning in on fans

More than two million visitors have occupied the various fan zones to date, which confirms they are here to stay, though the precaution of banning supporters from bringing alcohol in – which was not enforced in Manchester for the Uefa Cup final – is a sensible one. The only failure has been tiny Klagenfurt in Austria. A daft choice as a host city, its inadequacies were compounded by the ill fortune of each match it held featuring Poland and/or Germany, the only participant countries with significant hooligan numbers. Elsewhere, aside from a small minority of over-exuberant Turks, the fans have been well-behaved.

A few seeds of doubt...

The seedings were a misjudgement which has had a silver lining (unless you are French).

Three of the four seeded teams (the holders and both hosts) are out and the others (the Dutch) have upset expectations. However, bringing together Italy (world No 3), France (No 7) the Netherlands (No 10) and Romania (No 12) did mean Euro 2008 immediately grabbed the attention because no match in that group could be predicted and there was guaranteed to be at least one high-profile victim. It is a shame, however, that Romania were not in Group B which had two strong teams – Germany and Croatia – and two weak ones – Austria and Poland.

Age catches up with past champions

The last two European champions, France and Greece, are heading to the beach, while Denmark (1992) failed to qualify, leaving Germany (1996) as the only survivor of the past four winners. This shows the depth and strength of European football.

Greece are out because they were unable to repeat the tactical triumph of 2004, largely because teams are wise to them, the side is four years older and lacks the nous of captain Theo Zagorakis. France are out because of bad selection decisions (an ageing Lilian Thuram, left-back Eric Abidal and the hapless Jean-Alain Boumsong all preferred at centre-half to Mikaël Silvestre or Sylvain Distin), an over-reliance on old players who (Patrick Vieira being the prime example) get injured more often and bad luck (Franck Ribery's injury, Thierry Henry's deflection for Italy's second goal on Tuesday). The Czechs are also an ageing side, and missed Tomas Rosicky, who is far more important to them than to Arsenal, especially since Pavel Nedved's retirement. Romania lacked the self-belief to go for the kill against France in their first game and blew it against Italy. The rest of the departed were never likely to progress very far.

Drama and farce

Drama: Howard Webb giving, and Ivica Vastic, who at 38 is two years older than the English referee, converting, the injury-time penalty against Poland which kept Austria in the competition.

Farce: Manuel Mejuto Gonzalez sending mild-mannered coaches Joachim Löw and Josef Hickersberger to the stands in the Germany/Austria game. It is to be hoped Gonzalez never comes across Martin O'Neill.

And the winners are...

The form teams are the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Croatia, but having qualified Italy are still a threat. So perm one from five – but do not rule out Germany. Fence-sitting? No, the margins at this level are so slim that an eight-team knock-out is impossible to predict.

Best quote

A Greek souvenir seller in Salzburg tries to sell a flag to two ladies of a certain age. They decline, pointing out they are German. He says: "Is very sexy flag". Two Russian fans walking past laugh. Maybe you had to be there; it is a shame the British and Irish were not.

You mean Boulahrouz can play?

While some leading performers, such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Deco, Lukas Podolski, Gianluigi Buffon and Xavi are recognised stars, other less-noted faces have caught the eye. David Villa, Wesley Sneijder, Rafael van der Vaart and Nihat Kahveci are all well-known in their native countries, and those they play in, but British audiences will have been less familiar with their talents.

Croatia's Darijo Srna, Niko Kovac, Spurs-bound Luka Modric and goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa have reminded us how difficult England's 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign will be. Poland's keeper Artur Boruc showed what Celtic fans have been applauding for several years. From Romania, goalkeeper Bogdan Lobont and defender Dorin Goian will have caught a few Premier League scouts' eyes. And it turns out Stamford Bridge laughing stock Khalid Boulahrouz (the Netherlands) can play after all...

Domenech's wedding and a funeral angers French

An attempt by the France coach, Raymond Domenech to temper national grief with personal joy on prime time television drew a furious response from the French media yesterday.

As he was questioned about France's ignominious exit from Euro 2008 after a 2-0 defeat by Italy, Domenech turned towards the camera and announced to millions of crestfallen viewers that he had decided to propose to his long-time partner, Estelle Denis.

"My only thoughts from now on are about getting married to Estelle. I would like to ask for her hand," said Domenech, who has been widely criticised for the poor performances of the France team.

A series of French news and sports websites hit on the same mocking headline yesterday – "A wedding and a funeral" – to express their disapproval of Domenech's timing.

The newspaper Le Parisien said that the national coach has imposed a scene from "reality television, trash television" on viewers desperately disappointed by the France performance. Libération said that the moment was "so pathetic" that the only possible response was – in English – "No Comment".

Domenech, 56, has lived with Denis, 31, a television presenter, for several years. They have two children. The national coach, a defensive hardman for Lyons and France in the 1970s, has a somewhat flaky reputation. He revealed before the 2006 World Cup that he selected his squads partly on the basis of his players' star signs.

After a miserable performance in Euro 2008 – two defeats and a draw and a goal difference of minus five – Domenech is not expected to retain his job for long. Didier Deschamps, the former Juventus and Monaco manager and captain of the France team who won the World Cup in 1998, is widely tipped to replace him.

Asked about his touch-line wedding proposal at a later press conference, Domenech said that he had intended to provide a "gimmer of light on a cloudy night". He admitted, however, that he had made a "communication error".

He claimed he should have dwelled on the talent of the young players in the France squad and pointed out that Euro 2008 was just the "preparation of a new generation for the (2010) World Cup."

John Lichfield in Paris

Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Sport
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Voices
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Arts and Entertainment
The sight of a bucking bronco in the shape of a pink penis was too much for Hollywood actor and gay rights supporter Martin Sheen, prompting him to boycott a scene in the TV series Grace and Frankie
tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine