By Keir Radnedge
One specific difference separates the finals of the European Championship from the finals of the World Cup, geographical differences aside of course.
The World Cup is one of two global events which happen to be about sport (the other being the Olympics); the European Championship, by stark contrast, is a football tournament.
Sometimes it's said that the Euros is the World Cup without Brazil and Argentina. True. But it is also the World Cup without the dross of 16 quality-lowering also-rans. This is the reason Uefa president Michel Platini finds himself fielding more and more doubting questions about the scheduled expansion from 16 to 24 teams.
The European Championship certainly isn't bust, hence there is no need to fix it. The 16-team formula is perfect, mathematically, and is fan-friendly. Each match is an event in itself, unlike the cascade of run-of-the-mill stalemates at a World Cup.
Perfection | Marco van Basten's volley is Keir's ideal Euro moment
The corollary is that the more memorable football emerges from the four-yearly European showdown rather than from the World Cup.
Not that it always appeared that way. This writer's first 'full' finals was the event in Italy in 1980, the first after Uefa had expanded the tournament from four teams to eight. The 12 group games produced only 22 goals. That, however, certainly did not reduce the passion among the crowds - particularly in Turin where riot police unleashed tear gas to quell unrest among supporters during England's opening draw against ultimate group winners Belgium in the old Stadio Comunale.This was the first time in which crowd trouble had erupted during the Euro finals, sending out a warning about far worse to come in the succeeding decade with the horrors of Heysel and Hillsborough.
One of the finest games of all was in the same tournament, down in Naples, where eventual champions West Germany defeated Netherlands 3-2 on the inspiration of a glittering performance from the young Bernd Schuster in midfield. Such a shame that his subsequent fall-outs meant this was both his first and last masterclass on the international stage.
This writer later travelled back to San Paolo to witness what now stands as history: the Euros' last third place play-off, in which Czechoslovakia defeated Italy 9-8 on penalties.
|KEIR RADNEDGE'S TOP FIVE EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIP MATCHES
June 23 1984 | Marseille, France
France's 3-2 semi-final win over Portugal in 1984 possessed drama and class and the right winners, albeit only just.
June 26 1992 | Gothenburg, Sweden
Denmark’s 2-0 dismissal of Germany in 1992 served up a fairytale finale.
June 26 1996 | London, England
England v Germany in 1996 produced the most memorable golden-goal extra-time as well as shootout.
June 17 2008 | Zurich, Switzerland
France’s early exit after a 2-0 defeat by Italy produced the weirdest moment with Raymond Domenech proposing via TV link to his girlfriend during his post-match interview ...
June 25 1988 | Munich, Germany
... But Netherlands' 2-0 victory over the Soviet Union was sealed by the greatest goal – and most perfect Euro moment - of them all: Marco Van Basten’s angled volley from Arnold Muhren’s deep left-wing cross.
Uefa reintroduced knockout semi-finals in 1984. This was the finest of the eight-team tournaments. France were at a first peak with their commanding, contrasting yet complementary four-man axis of Luis Fernandez, Jean Tigana, Alain Giresse and Michel Platini.
Their 2-1 extra-time victory over Portugal in the semi-final ranks as probably the finest game in Euro history. Platini was a nine-goal top scorer but perhaps most important of them all was his last-minute, extra-time winner against the Portuguese.
Four years further on and the summer was 'Oranje'. Netherlands saw off the Soviet Union 2-0 in the final after having lost 1-0 to them in their group opener. As Ruud Gullit, captain and scorer of their first goal in the final, told me smilingly: "We played well in that first game and lost ... and not so well in the final but won."
One of the qualities of the Euro finals is unpredictability. That stems from a field of teams with comparatively little between them in terms of talent, experience and tactical nous. Thus Denmark delighted the game with their 'Roy of the Rovers' triumph in 1992 but Greece were an anti-climactic surprise in 2004.
England in 1996 had seen the extension to 16 teams. More games meant more thrills in what was the hosts’ finest tournament since the 1966 World Cup win. Those of us who witnessed the thrashings of Scotland and Netherlands and the semi-final defeat by the Germans – with Paul 'Gazza' Gascoigne an inch from touching in the most golden of goals - had to pinch ourselves to believe it.
Was this really England?
Penalties. So painful all round. Frank de Boer missed two in the Dutch's 2000 semi-final defeat by Italy, but the Azzurri ran out of luck when France snatched a late leveller in the final and a golden-goal winner. That was also the tournament in which France and Portugal produced another spine-tingling semi-final crowned by Zinedine Zidane's golden goal, a penalty winner.
France were as dominant then as are Spain now. Four years ago in Vienna they ended a 44-year title drought. Yet the final was not the most memorable game: more breathtaking for the neutral was Germany’s 3-2 defeat of Turkey in the semi-finals after a late flurry of three goals in the final 11 minutes.
The lesson: don't miss a morsel. If the last World Cup, in Sir Alex Ferguson's words, was like a "visit to the dentist" then Euro 2012, by comparison, might just prove a gourmet delight.
- Keir Radnedge is currently attending his ninth European Championship since 1980