The common consensus seems to be that Euro 2008 has been a great tournament, possibly the best European Championship ever. I recall the same hyperbole being applied to Euro 2000, and though neither set of critics were right the ones from eight years ago were closer to the mark.
Euro 2008 still fell some way short of arguably the greatest European Championships of them all, Euro ’84, when Michel Platini’s nine goals in five games helped the hosts France lift the trophy and made him arguably the only serious challenger the young Diego Maradona ever had as the world’s number one player.
Euro 2000, though, was an outstanding tournament whose most memorable games, Spain – Yugoslavia, Slovenia – Yugoslavia, and the semi-finals, France v Portugal and the co-hosts Holland v Italy, were as good, if not better than any of the admittedly numerous fine matches Euro 2008 served up.
Where Euro 2000 had the edge was that its leading teams arrived in Holland and Belgium with better squads than those that graced this summer’s competition. All four of the semi-finalists eight years ago, Holland, Italy, France and Portugal were vastly superior sides to the four sides which made up this year’s final quartet, and also far stronger than their Dutch, Italian, Portuguese and French successors that arrived in Switzerland and Austria this summer harbouring serious designs on the Henri Delaunay trophy.
In that halcyon summer of 2000, France’s Zinedine Zidane and Portugal’s Luis Figo, the latter about to complete his sensational and controversial move from Barcelona to Real Madrid later that summer, were at the height of their powers, assisted by the likes of Didier Deschamps and Rui Costa, while Denis Bergkamp spearheaded Dutch hopes and for Italy, Alessandro Del Piero and a young Francesco Totti competed for the Azurri’s fabled number ten shirt.
In the first of Euro 2000’s sensational semi finals, the Dutch, then coached by a pre-Barcelona Frank Rijkaard and World Cup semi-finalists two years earlier, could forever consider themselves unlucky to have come up against an Italian side who despite having Gianluca Zambrotta sent off in the first half, still managed to put together one of the most heroic defensive performances ever seen in the game’s history, Maldini, Cannavaro and Toldo in goal putting in stunning performances, and aided by the Dutch missing three penalties, the Azzurri won on spot kicks to progress through to the final.
There they would face and ultimately fall against a Zinedine Zidane inspired French team who in the other semi final had put out Portugal in a fiery encounter decided by Zidane’s golden goal penalty in extra time.
In 2000, Zidane was arguably at the height of his powers for the world champions, and Roger Lemerre’s side were superior to the Aime Jacquet team that lifted the World Cup on home soil two years earlier, effectively without a convincing striker. This was indisputably the last great international side the world has seen.
Since their decline after their doomed defence of their world title in Japan and Korea six years ago, the world has waited to see a new power emerge. Despite Brazil and Italy winning the last two World Cups, neither side convinced in lifting the trophy in the manner which one would expect world champions to.
Now Spain, in winning Euro 2008, have won their first trophy in 44 long years, and thus shed their ‘nearly men’ tag - now assumed by England – but how good are they? Can they kick on, as Match of the Day pundit and reluctant want to be manager Alan Shearer suggested and pose a serious threat in South Africa in two years time.
For all their fawning admirers, the jury is out. An iffy defence is their Achilles heel, and the departure of the irascible coach Luis Aragones may also go against them. Former Real Madrid coach Vicente Del Bosque is set to take over, and one of his first moves is likely to be to restore Real Madrid icon Raul - whom Aragones worked so hard to remove against the wishes of the powerful Madrid press - to the fold. Aragones brought unity to a team often riven by regional differences and Madrid and Catalan cliques, and whether Del Bosque, so closely identified with Real Madrid, can keep the players singing from the same hymn sheet must be in doubt.
Another factor which goes against the Spanish is that Euro 2008 was flawed from the beginning because of UEFA’s bizarre meddling with the format that meant that group teams could meet each other again in the semi-finals (something that urgently needs to be addressed).
For all the talk of how good the Russians were, the fact is that Spain defeated them twice and emphatically, proving perhaps that Russia’s 3-0 autumn defeat at Wembley to Steve McClaren’s England in the qualifiers was no freak result.
In past tournaments, potential European champions would have faced more serious tests than matches against an ageing Sweden team, and defending champions Greece, in sharp decline, and they would have met fresh opponents in the last four.
It could also be argued that they ‘failed’ their sternest examination which came against a poor Italian side in the last eight. Nervous, with every reason to be given a woeful record against the Italians, Spain could not break down the world champions who were missing injured skipper Fabio Cannavaro, the suspended Gennaro Gattuso, and their playmaker, the always-elegant Andrea Pirlo. Could they have emerged victorious had they encountered the likes of Holland, Croatia or the Portugal that turned up for its first two group games? It’s doubtful.
The English press, meanwhile, have lavished praise on both Fernando Torres and Cesc Fabregas, but both Aragones and the Spanish press seem less convinced about the stellar pair. Torres failed to complete any of the four matches in which he started, and Fabregas came off the bench in the matches he was involved with, and though he started the final, he was substituted on the hour mark.
The Spaniards' narrow win over a woeful German side in the final should have been more emphatic, but Fabregas’ inclination to go down the Liverpool route of playing the long ball to Torres and capitalising on the forward’s phenomenal speed saw Spain abandon the intricate passing game that had wowed so many neutrals in Austria and Switzerland.
Europe awaits the emergence of the next great team; a team that like the French at the start of this decade threatens to and then does sweep all before them, taking football to new levels. A team whose memory, like the French alumni of 2000 and the great Platini side of 84, and the Dutch of Gullit, Van Basten and Rijkaard in ’88, burns even stronger with the passing of the years. This Spanish side do not fall into that category and would have been dismantled by any of the great aforementioned sides, as would have the other leading contenders at this year’s competition.
Looking around, there exists a power vacuum in international football. There seem to be many good sides but none that threaten greatness, and none that seem capable of claiming an era for themselves.