Euro 2012: England’s exit sets up a mouth-watering finale | Sid Lowe
Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal are by far the best teams at the tournament and they have set up two exciting semi-finals
Cheer up everyone. There’s a European Championship out there and it’s really ra ther good: a tournament in which there have been 69 goals, where no one’s moaning about the ball and almost no one’s moaning about the referees. Where there has been only three red cards and only two penalties, one of them saved by the substitute goalkeeper. A tournament where there has been just one goalless draw, and we all know which game that was. Sorry to rub it in but here’s the thing: that might even be good news.
Goodbye England, hello Europe. Now that Roy Hodgson’s team are out we can all get on with our lives. We can all get on with the Euros too, enjoy them. Spain versus Portugal, Germany versus Italy. The semi-finals couldn’t be better. Packed with plots and sub-plots, redemption and revenge, history oozes through them. There is something big, something historic, something right about these match-ups. For Spain, “historic” could be meant literally. They are chasing a unique treble: no one has won consecutive European, world and European titles befo re. The closest were West Germany; they lost the 1976 final to the Czechs when Antonin Panenka took the penalty that Andrea Pirlo emulated.
Germany’s obsession is Spain, their victors at Euro 2008 and South Africa 2010. At the end of the World Cup semi-final, Joachim Löw went to the Spanish dressing room to congratulate them. He also went to warn them that his team would be back, seeking to end their cycle. Perhaps now it is closer than it has been before. “Germany have a style I really like,” Cesc Fábregas admits. “Spain didn’t have many chances, did they?” Philip Lahm asks. But first there are two standout semi-finals.
Spain have played Portugal more times than anyone else, winning 16 of their 34 matches since 1921. Their first competitive meeting came in qualification for the 1934 World Cup. Spain won 9-0. The most recent was at the last World Cup; Spain won that too.
Italy and Germany’s last meeting? The best game of the 2006 World Cup; the semi-final won by Italy. Then there was the 1982 World Cup final and the 1970 World Cup semi-final, considered by many Italians to be the greatest game ever. Cesare Prandelli, the Italy manager, said: “For us 14-year-old kids Italy 4 Germany 3 in the 70s was the game. I remember watching it with my dad.”
If you detect a pattern it is because there is one: Germany have never beaten the Italians at a major tournament. Then again, Spain had never beaten France in a competitive game before the quarter-final on Saturday.
At the start of the competition, seven of the eight highest-seeded teams found themselves in just two groups. Now all four of the semi-finalists have come from those groups. Maybe the group of death is not such a bad place to start out after all. Spain and Italy could meet again in the final, so could Germany and Portugal. It has happened before. Holland and Russia, finalists in 1988, had faced each other in their first group game. So, too, Czech Repub lic and Germany in 1996 and Portugal and Greece in 2004.
The bottom line is that these match-ups are no fluke, no quirk of an easy fixture list nor a lucky bounce.
Spain, Portugal, Germany and Italy have been the best teams at Euro 2012. Not just at Euro 2012: you have to go back to 1988, six Euros ago, to find a final that did not involve at least one of Spain, Italy, Germany or Portugal. Seven of the last eight World Cup finals have involved at least one of these four. Between them they have won six European Championships and eight World Cups. Now among the four are two of the top-three ranked countries in the world and the three top-scoring teams at this competition, plus four of the top five when it comes to shots on goal. Cristiano Ronaldo alone has had more shots than the entire England team.
He and Germany’s Mario Gomez, who was left out against Greece, have both scored three; Fernando Torres has two, as does Fábregas. The golden boot will be decided here, maybe even the golden ball. Gomez and Ronaldo have enjoyed astonishing seasons: 41 in 52 games for the German at club level, a barely believable 60 in 55 games for the Portuguese. Lionel Messi is missing but every other podium place over the last four years was occupied by a man taking to the field in these semi-finals.
For Ronaldo in particular there is a redemptive feel about this competition, a sense of opportunity. This could yet be hisEuro. In 2004 he scored against Greece and Holland but since then he has been unable to mark a major tournament. In 2006, 2008, and 2010 he scored just one, against Iran, the Czech Republic and North Korea respectively. Now he is up against Spain. Against Sergio Ramos, Alvaro Arbeloa, Xabi Alonso and Iker Casillas, team-mates all. There will be seven Madrid players on the pitch, three of them in Portugal shirts, and five Barcelona players. Alliances have had to be realigned. Some of the Madrid media herald Ronaldo as their real hero; now he must briefly become their villain.
There are other narrative threads that fascinate. Bayern Munich’s players have something to prove. Spain’s have something to lose and are confronted, perhaps for the first time, by fear. People are wondering if they might even be the least exciting team there.
Portugal have finally found a formula. Italy are different now, Prandelli says. Andrea Pirlo left Milan, no longer wanted, and won the league with Juventus. Mario Balotelli is Mario Balotelli. Antonio Cassano, Il Talentino, has returned from a stroke. Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira, representatives of a new Germany, have marked this tournament and may yet bestride it. These four teams have. More, much more, than anyone else.
“Most teams are trying to keep the ball, keep control of the games, and are looking for an attacking game. That is the best way to look for victory. The teams that are in the semi-finals deserve to be the re,” Xabi Alonso said. “Fans are watching great football games and great football teams. I’m pretty sure they’re enjoying the competition.”
Maybe now England fans can join them. Read More