Germans help to rekindle Platini legacy
Euro 2012 has helped international competition regain its status at the pinnacle of the game
Sunday 24 June 2012
To encounter Michel Platini in a Warsaw hotel lobby and be assailed by his views on goal-line technology – he remains implacably opposed to a reform now less than a fortnight from enactment – was to be reminded that Uefa, for all their faults, are headed by a football man. To paraphrase his compatriot Voltaire: we may not agree with the man, but we should exult in the passion of his fight to the death.
Those too young to have seen Platini play the game might imagine Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, perennial contestants for world supremacy among individual footballers, are exceptional creatures of a golden age. But Ronaldo, wonderfully though he has imposed his personality on this European Championship with three goals in four matches, will rival Platini's dominance of the 1984 tournament only if he scores nine in five.
Platini was European Footballer Of The Year three times in a row. He wore the stripes of Juventus with pride and the blue of France with love, and that is why international football is in appropriate hands. If you find it ironic that the European Championship's expansion to an unwieldy 24 countries is about to happen on his watch, you are not alone; at least it is a less dangerous compromise than goal-line technology, Sepp Blatter's ill-advised attempt to slake the thirst for radical assistance for referees.
There were eight countries in France in 1984 and that was the finest of my nine European Championships. This is shaping up as the most serious challenger. We have a group of young Germans on the verge of greatness and Englishmen, conceivably, standing in their way, so the possibility of Anglocentric over-enthusiasm must be examined, as in 1990, when a dire World Cup was lauded because Bobby Robson and his boys got to the semi-finals and Gazza, to Pavarotti's stirring accompaniment, wept.
But our appreciation of football for its own sake has improved in the intervening two decades of Premier League success. Ronaldo, who may prove the man of this tournament, became a great player in Manchester. Lukas Podolski is on his way to London. Spain became champions with the significant aid of players such as Cesc Fabregas and Fernando Torres who were, or were to become, notable features of the English landscape. And the key feature of June 2012 has been not individualism, despite Ronaldo's feats, but team play.
Germany, above all, have demonstrated that a country can perform like a club, closing the gap in standard between the international game and the Champions' League to which club managers such as Arsène Wenger are apt scathingly to refer (at least when not flitting from Poland to Ukraine and back in the interest of expert analysis on French television).
Enormous credit must go to the Germans and Joachim Löw for creating such a unit, even though the familiarity of the Bayern Munich contingent must have been helpful, just as the effective amalgamation of groups from Barcelona and Real Madrid was fundamental to the rise of Spain – and just as England are benefiting from an attack formed by Ferguson at Manchester United now that Wayne Rooney has joined Ashley Young and Danny Welbeck.
For me, Welbeck's winner against Sweden was the goal of the tournament so far: a combination of technique and context worthy of comparison with Antonin Panenka's penalty for Czechoslovakia in the 1976 final.
But England have become essentially a team too and, while it would be simplistic to ascribe this to the FA's appointment of an English manager – Greece united under a German in 2004 – the effect of Roy Hodgson is undeniable. Their discipline and sense of purpose have been as Teutonic as Germany's passing and movement have been Iberian.
England and Germany should meet in Warsaw on Thursday. England can beat the Italians inside 90 minutes if they use the speed of the United trio and, if necessary, Theo Walcott or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on defenders accustomed to Serie A. According to Wenger, it is ''a classic 50/50 match'', but the Arsenal manager has seen what pace can do, not least when his own team beat Inter 5-1 at San Siro a few years ago.
If England reach the semi-finals, their chances of overcoming Ger-many will be diminished by a relative shortage of recovery time: four days, compared with the six following the victory over Greece. Löw's players use a lot of energy but by Thursday they should be refreshed.
But if the Germans were the stars of the group stage, every team except Ireland played a part – and their supporters earned 12th-man-of-the-match awards. The Czech Republic started by losing 4-1 and yet reached the quarter-finals. The 1-1 draw between Poland and Russia was a candidate for match of the tournament and yet both teams were eliminated. That serves as a measure of Euro 2012, although it will ultimately be judged on the class of the winners – and it may be that Platini is relying on Germany for that.
The Good and The Bad
Three good things:
*Unpredictability, as in Czechs reaching the quarter-finals after Russia were eliminated by Greece.
*Variety in attack – from the close-knit passing of Spain, France and Germany to the fulminating headers of Robert Lewandowski for Poland, Andy Carroll for England and Cristiano Ronaldo for Portugal.
*Organisation. The traffic management in Warsaw is a good example. Vast crowds have got around.
Three not so good things:
*Both hosts going out early.
*Hooliganism before the Poland-Russia match. It wasn't exactly World War Three, but we had almost forgotten how vile even vaguely football-related violence can be at an international tournament.
*The suspension from Greece's quarter-final of Giorgos Karagounis after referee Jonas Eriksson wrongly judged that he had dived rather than been the victim of a trip.
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