The Last Word: Euro 2012 - A tournament as great as this... you have to be there
Poland had the nerve and belief to skim light-footed along the precipice
Wednesday looks bad enough. The first rest day. A first glimpse of the despair that ultimately beckons, the morning after the final. This time, moreover, it's going to be worse than ever – with millions about to share a meretricious hysteria that may prove rather more instructive about the fragility of democracy than any Olympic ideal.
It would be particularly galling, then, if the BBC decided to cover proceedings in Poland and Ukraine from beneath a Salford railway arch in order to preserve its budget for the bronze play-off in the handball. Whatever the reason, the failure to fund a set in Warsaw represents a fairly scandalous dereliction of duty in the national broadcaster. Its hierarchy has clearly failed to comprehend how the viewing medium itself becomes integral to communal memory of a World Cup or European Championship.
ITV understood that these tournaments are embedded in the national psyche not only by climactic moments on the pitch but also, so to speak, through the pattern of the bedroom wallpaper. That's why many eyes will moisten on hearing Peter And The Wolf for the last time; when the swifts of Castle Square shriek their farewells through the warm dusk behind the throbbing cerebrum of Roberto Martinez. Unless, that is, you prefer weary MOTD panellists, immured 900 miles away, bestowing precious benediction upon "new" stars whose achievements with the likes of Dortmund or Juventus count for nothing, plainly, when measured against the honour of Alan Shearer learning how to pronounce your name. It is to be hoped that any wealthy, arrogant suitors out there – roused from an obtuse torpor of their own – will find themselves thwarted by the sort of gratifying example set by Dortmund, in recently agreeing a contract to 2017 with Mats Hummels.
In the meantime this tournament is redressing the pernicious theory that international football has been eclipsed by the Champions League. Among the elite – as well as, mysteriously, certain England players – this can be a self-fulfilling heresy. It is true that Ronaldo keeps lesser company in a national shirt than with Real Madrid. Moreover the folly of permitting eight teams worse than Ireland into the 2016 finals will presumably extend a perfunctory quality from the qualifiers to the group stage. For now, however, it is precisely the self-regard of the top clubs that prevents them matching the unfettered dash that has already made this a classic tournament.
For could anyone remotely pretend that the stakes were higher in the Champions League final, a match that exasperated neutrals throughout the continent, than when Poland played Russia? Yet where the elite clubs tend to become most tense, most averse to risk, Poland took on exorbitant odds – the weight of bitter history and a relative deficiency in talent – with a performance that disclosed the nexus between exuberance and courage.
Contrast the one joining pragmatism and fear, which had secured England an identical result against France. Cowards and heroes, remember, have fear in equal measure. Bravery is not absence of fear, but its conquest. Poland were not reckless; they just had the nerve and belief to skim light-footed along the precipice. And, in view of the malign atmosphere outside the stadium, they extended that infinitesimal grasp of tolerable risk to their manners. In fact, bar one brief misunderstanding late in the game, both teams manifested marvellous responsibility. Players even stopped to apologise before the referee had blown for a foul.
It so happened that I spent the first day of the tournament in a Bavarian spa town, on the banks of a green-blue river swollen with Alpine meltwater. At 11pm a convoy of cars drove around the town, sounding their horns: Russians, celebrating their big win.
Next day, the Munich train was boarded by a gang of youths in football shirts, off to watch Germany's first game in a fan-zone. They were drinking beer, making plenty of noise. But they were respectful to the other passengers, and full of laughter. Perhaps this same train had been the one on which two Chelsea fans covered each other in blood on the way to the Champions League final.
Of course, English fans do not have a monopoly on visceral aggression. Nothing like. There were vile scenes in Warsaw, even as the players set that impeccable example. But this tournament presents this island a challenge, on the eve of its great big Olympic ego trip. From the viewers to the players themselves, the English must look at the options distilled by their two broadcasters and decide: are we detached and insular, or engaged and adventurous?
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