Monday, June 30, 2008

And finally...

Thankfully the quality and excitement of Euro 2008 didn't let up and the tournament produced worthy winners in Spain, even if it was a shame they weren't able to copper-fasten their clear superiority to Germany with a more emphatic scoreline. The Spanish laid their ghosts of past failures to rest to collect their first European title since 1964 (the front-page headline on Marca, the leading Spanish football paper, today is 'It's not a dream, it's reality - we are the champions!') Spain were the most consistent side in the tournament and played some great football with their only flaw being a lack of clinical edge at times. Their attitude was a refreshing reflection of the tournament as a whole; even in the dying seconds of the match, they went chasing a second goal when most teams would have taken the ball to the corner flag to count down time. There were also two touching tributes on the podium after the match, one was the t-shirt worn by Sergio Ramos in honour of his friend and former teammate Antonio Puerta, who died after collapsing during Seville's first game of last season. Reserve goalkeeper Andrés Palop also collected his medal wearing the shirt worn by Luis Arconada in the 1984 final, when Arconada's unfortunate error allowed Michel Platini's free kick to slip underneath his body for France's opening goal. Platini, who presented the Henri Delaunay Cup to Iker Casillas, had also invited Arconada to the final, a touching homage to a great goalkeeper who is too often remembered for two errors, the one against France and the one that allowed Gerry Armstrong to score in Valencia two years earlier in Northern Ireland's shock win.

Casillas is another fine keeper, whom I can admire in spite of my own antipathy towards Real Madrid. Sid Lowe on the Guardian podcast told a story of a young Casillas costing his father an enormous football pools win by forgetting to check in his coupon. With this win, the debt has probably been paid back. It's also easy to forget that that the star of Spanish football, Raúl, was absent from the squad, unpicked since the defeat in Belfast two years ago. The Spanish media have taken Luis Aragones' decision poorly but, given Raúl's previous track record of bottling it in vital games for Spain, more steel was surely needed for this tournament, and Aragones was probably right.

And so ends a great tournament; it has to be acknowledged that most of the great football was facilitated by terrible defending and there is no guarantee that it will be repeated in South Africa in two years' time. But with great international tournaments in both Europe and Africa this year, the future looks bright for international football. One thing I hope doesn't happen is UEFA's intended expansion of the tournament to accomodate 24 teams. We don't need a tournament that allows undeserving underperformers such as Ireland, Belgium and England an easier passage to the finals. The match of the tournament will remain Holland v Russia, as two teams who were exhilarating but ultimately not good enough, produced a dizzying show of attacking football. Hopefully both sides will be in South Africa in 2010. The prospect of returning to watch Premiership football now is a bit disheartening.

And here are some images from a joyous Madrid, captured by an Irishman abroad.