UEFA Euro 2012
The overall picture of the tournament



By Adam Higgins
Chief Football Editor 



The opening ceremony of the tournament- before Poland against Greece- was a colourful tribute to the sixteen participating nations at Euro 2012


What a tournament it turned out to be. I enjoyed watching it and being a part of it in terms of the journalism side of the coin. Having watched international football for years and years, I know that after all the build-up, the wait and the anticipation, the major tournaments can be a major disappointment with the argument that players don't put 100% in for their countries like they do for their clubs and the players are physically strained and mentally drained on the back of a long domestic season. However, this one wasn't at all. Better than the 2010 World Cup? Well probably not if being completely candid, but it certainly came close. Spain came out on top in a one-sided final recording the biggest ever win in a European championship final. This was after claims that earlier in the tournament they were producing "boring" football. Is winning considered to be tedious?

After all the hype and negative press surrounding racism beforehand and whether or not the Polish and Ukranian people will be hospitable towards tourists and fans travelling from all walks of life and corners of the earth for Euro 2012 were just urban myths. There were a number of incidents where fans looked to cause minor trouble however there was only one major flare-up coming before the Poland vs Russia match in the group stages and before one of the biggest derbies in world football I might add. The people of the two host nations were welcoming to all and that was very important for the tournament.

I'm glad that football did the talking on the pitch most of the time and we saw thirty-one cracking games all in all- well twenty nine excluding the two that finished goalless. We saw some delightful football amidst the fans trying to invade the pitch, bananas being thrown towards players being substituted, the racist chanting, the balls of paper being thrown onto the sidelines and the fighting outside stadiums between two sets of conflicting lunatics. We saw just about everything from the supporters however some just came solely for the football. I am talking, of course, about the Republic of Ireland fans who had four times the number of England fans at the tournament. The affectionately nicknamed "Green Army" were absolutely fantastic in backing the country and getting behind the players singing their hearts out from minute one of the first game to minute ninety of the last. Even when being thrashed by the world champions Spain in the final  five minutes, the fans kept on cheering and singing. It was great to see and they deserved better on the pitch however the group proved just too strong for Giovanni Trapattoni's men.

Not only that, we weren't talking about officials alot either which speaks volumes for the way the referees handled the games and how well the players on the whole conducted themselves. After the first game between Poland and Greece in which we had two red cards and a missed penalty, fears started to creep in and everybody was thinking "Oh no not again" however there was to be just one more red card and three more penalties. The twelve European officials were fantastic whereby they didn't draw controversy, they let the play flow well generally, they weren't blasting at their whistles left, right and centre but also didn't ruin the game by trying to make a name for themselves or become centre stage- like some referees do. In the main, I wouldn't like to see the refereeing list change much for the 2014 World Cup. I think the officials can be proud of their efforts at the tournament and their performances.

From the moment the opening ceremony took place, I knew that the three weeks ahead were going to be special. I thoroughly enjoyed watching the well-choreographed performance of the dancers The fact that the 1000 performers were all volunteers is quite unbelievable to think that they have given so much time and effort to put together a small production of such high quality- they must have been truly honoured. The displaying of the sixteen nations in their flag ribbons and the whole twelve minute event was worthwhile and was a commemoration to the teams competing. Infront of millions of people, it demonstrated great unity and passion for the sport combining a number of different cultures.



Andrea Pirlo curls in a sumptous free-kick for Italy against Croatia in the group stages 


I remember covering the first game and I was as excited as a boy going to the sweet shop. I was really looking forward to seeing how a distinctly mediocre match on paper, Poland against Greece, would liven up infront of a global audience of millions and be the perfect curtain raiser to the tournament and raise everyone's expectations. With 0-0 on my predictions list, I wasn't expecting a great match at all nevertheless the outcome proved that I obviously know very little about football. An entertaining, flowing and eye-catching game swinging one way then the other in the blink of eye was played out between the co-hosts and the surprise winners of the 2004 tournament in Portugal. Poland lifted the roof of the National Stadium in Warsaw for the first time as the much wanted and spoken about striker Robert Lewandowski netted the first goal of the tournament on 17 minutes. A rather disastrous moment just before half-time for the Spanish referee put a dampener on what had been a fairly engaging contest up until that point when he showed a second yellow card to Greece defender Papastathopoulos for two niggly "fouls" which didn't look to be punishable with a free-kick whatsoever.

With the Poles in the boxseat, the second half was just as interesting from a neutral perspective and kept the remote control firmly out of reach as the Greeks from nowhere levelled through Salpingidis early after the restart. And there was more drama to come, when Salpingidis was taken out by Szczesny (the Polish goalkeeper), the referee pointed to the penalty spot and gave a red card to the Arsenal stopper. The battery in the Greece watch, captain Giorgos Karagounis, looked nailed on to have blasted the spotkick past rookie replacement Tyton to give Greece a precious lead but saw the unknown shotstopper from PSV prove an instant hit as the penalty was saved. So it was honours even and thankfully in terms of the red cards didn't set a precedent for what was to follow however it didn't stop the drama from continuing over the 31 matches of tension.

One of the highlights of the tournament for me was the Poland-Russia derby which brought together two nations closely linked on a geographical scale and warring off the pitch in economic terms. It has always been noted as one of the most combustible derbies in world football and not one for the faint-hearted. It was unsurprising then when fans of the two countries clashed violently outside the venue hours before kick-off throwing missiles towards each other and police who were desperately trying to break the fans apart. However, the actions of the players on the pitch didn't match their respective nations off it as the twenty-two on the field kept their minds on the football and first and foremost kept their discipline with points at stake which ultimately went towards qualification to the quarter-finals.

Russia, who destroyed the Czechs in their opener, were favourites to get another win under their belts taking the lead when their rising star Alan Dzagoev flicked in a free-kick by their talismanic captain Andrey Arshavin of Arsenal. We then saw a huge response from Franciszek Smuda's side and one of the competition's greatest moments unfold before our very eyes as the Polish skipper Blaszczykowski showed his quality with an unerring right-footed pearler past Malafeev which sent the stadium into uproar. You couldn't hear yourself think or hear a pin drop. Thousands of Polish fans were out of their seats and were shouting and screaming at the top of their voices. It was just fantastic to hear and a truly memorable goal for the Poles to treasure.

We may have been having flash flooding and downpours in England throughout the month of June, which is expected, however nobody expected a thunderstorm to descend on the Donbass Arena in Donestk on 15th June when Ukraine were due to meet France. The match, taking place in Group D, was pencilled in for a 5pm kick-off and it went ahead as planned to begin with. The rain was pouring down and after just five minutes, the pitch was filled with water as well as thunder and lightning breaking through the clouds. A spectacular storm was brewing prompting the referee to send the players off the pitch and suspend the game after just five minutes of play. I remember sitting down to watch the game and I couldn't believe what I was seeing- it was something I had never seen at a major international summer tournament before. Fans took shelter and players waited in the tunnel like drowned rats. UEFA were keen to get the game on again with the match resuming an hour later after the rain had died down.

As for the eight venues chosen and the country in which UEFA chose back in 2007 to host the tournament, it has proven to be a wonderfully insightful decision. Many people question how much research goes in to deciding where the huge football competitions are held and what goes on behind the scenes and the answer is a lot. Poland and Ukraine are Eastern European countries that have pumped huge amounts of money into getting their nations ready for hosting this huge event and in return it has brought capital, industry and tourism thus boosting their economy. The eight stadiums, four in Poland: PGE Arena (Gdansk), National Stadium (Warsaw), Municipal Stadium (Wroclaw) and City Stadium (Poznan) as well as four in Ukraine: Metalist Stadium (Kharkiv), Donbass Arena (Donetsk), Olympic Stadium (Kiev) and Arena Lviv (Lviv) have been great and are truly mindblowing venues.

A lot of work has gone in to revamp the stadiums, increase their capacities and get them upto scratch and in accordance with UEFA's rigorous procedure. The National Stadium in the heart of the Polish capital is a genuine work of art. It only opened in February but some of the tournament's greatest moments occurred between its walls- you couldn't hear yourself speak. The noise reverberating around the arena was incredibly loud. Even the Arena Lviv generated a terrific atmosphere and that was the smallest of the lot. The Olympic Stadium, which hosted a quarter-final, a semi-final and the final, fitted enough fans to create a carnival ambiance for these special fixtures. 



Spain destroyed Italy in the Euro 2012 final to become the first international team to win three consecutive major tournaments


With Germany outperforming all of their opponents so far, seeing off Greece with relative ease in the quarter-finals and boasting a 100% winning record from their four opening games, it was the biggest surprise of the tournament for me to see the Italians come out on top in their semi-final encounter. This was an Italian team who had drawn two of their three group games, couldn't get past a tired England failing to convert a hatful of chances and whose attack was led by an Italian who is more interested in making the headlines for the wrong reasons. It looked to be a stern challenge however ultimately one that the mix of youth and experience in Joachim Loew's side could overcome. It was a night for them to forget.

Balotelli was exceptional on the night netting two goals including a bullet header and a firecracker into the roof of the net for the second. A partnership was forged with Antonio Cassano on the night and the two worked together in harmony to get at the young centre-back pairing of Hummels and Badstuber. Pirlo too was imperious while the midfield quartet did their jobs against the more classier Ozil, Khedira and Schweinsteiger and for the first time in the tournament, the Germans ran out of ideas and were devoid of quality in the final third. Following the success, albeit finishing third, in the 2010 World Cup, everyone was tipping the Germans to go all the way and thought this would be their year. They have reached the same stage as they did in South Africa- the semi-final- and crumbled again at the hands of a nation who were one of the best footballing sides of the generation but not worldbeaters. It was one hurdle too far for a team filled with talent but are still learning.

One of the players of the tournament was Italy's midfield maestro Andrea Pirlo who, in typical Ryan Giggs fashion, proved that age doesn't matter if the quality is still there and in his case, it is there in abundance. The 34-year old's dynamism was evident throughout the tournament as he produced some wonderfully dominant displays in the middle of the park for the Azzuri and blew England out of the water in the quarter-final with some fine passes as he was afforded far too much room. His assist for the Antonio Di Natale goal in their Group C opener against the Spanish in Gdansk was precise, accurate and spectacular to say the least and one that the Welshman Giggs would have nodding his head at. The free-kick against Croatia was curled to absolute perfection around the wall and the displays in the knock-out phase against the Three Lions and Germany rolled back the years as he demonstated that he still has a lot more to offer on the international stage and at club level. 

A title winner with Juventus in Serie A last campaign, Pirlo was released by AC Milan in the summer of 2011 for being "too old". He irrefutably stuck two fingers up in the direction of Milan at Euro 2012 for his all-round performances, never tired and even helped out in defence against the Germans in the semi-final clearing one off his own goalline. I couldn't write about him without mentioning his spotkick in the shoot-out against England in the quarter-final which not even some of the football legends of the past would have dared to attempt. He had the nerve and the confidence to nonchanantly chip over Hart who himself would have been drooling over it when watching it back on the television in the locker room. Although he went missing in the final against the world and European champions Spain, Pirlo can look back on the tournament with heaps of pride.

Amidst the misery for England, it was compounded by the familiar feeling of a quarter-final exit on penalties in a major tournament- not for the first time. After the 2004 Euro exit and 2006 World Cup abolition to the Portuguese, the failure to qualify for the finals at Euro 2008 and the mauling two years ago at the hands of Germany, the Three Lions were optimistic that this could be their year. But the scandal over John Terry and the resignation of Fabio Capello earlier in the year left England without a captain or a manager just weeks before the beginning of the Poland/Ukraine venture.

West Brom head coach Roy Hodgson, rather than the bookmakers favourite Harry Redknapp, was installed and got off to a flying start with friendly wins over Belgium and Norway with everyone finally thinking that the national side were on the up with Euro 2012 on the horizon. The dust was allowed to settle as Roy brought his strict training regime in to practice and the base in Krakow was the ideal preparation for the 23-man squad, and of course being England, there were eyebrows raised in the media regarding his selections with eight players taken from Liverpool who finished a meagre eighth in last season's Premier League including Andy Carroll and Stewart Downing. He also had a host of injury withdrawals to contend with not to mention the Rio Ferdinand episode.

Following the battling display against France which earned England a 1-1 draw in their opening Group D clash in Donetsk, fans both abroad and at home began raising expectancy levels for the next two games against Sweden and Ukraine. Erik Hamren's side provided the assid test for the Three Lions on matchday two in Kiev when they turned the game around, after trailing to Andy Carroll's powerful header, to take a 2-1 lead. The character of the young squad and masterful tactical genius of the brain-haired boss got them out of jail with the introduction of Theo Walcott's pace a major turning point. The Arsenal man levelled before setting up Danny Welbeck's winner as they escaped with a vital 3-2 win to put them in poll position to qualify in second place at least. In the final match of the group against co-hosts Ukraine, England rode their luck to come away with three points on Wayne Rooney's return as the United forward scored the game's only goal- well I would be telling a lie if I said that. The goal-line technology debate came back as Oleh Blokhin's team had a "goal" not given as the officials judged that Terry had cleared the ball before it crossed which television replays contradicted. Justification for the World Cup perhaps or the gods smiling down. You decide.

The added bonus though was a French slip-up against the Swedes meaning the Three Lions fortuitously avoided Spain in the quarter-final stage thus being paired with the Italians rejuvenated since the arrival of Cesare Prandelli. More England fans travelled out to watch the game and the BBC were anticipating huge viewing figures as the country got themselves ready for one of the biggest matches of the tournament. England looked wobbly, tired and far from their best as the Italians dominated from the 20th minute mark until the final whistle after 120 minutes of strain in the heat of the Ukranian capital. Their good old friend called the "dreaded penalty shoot-out" came back to haunt them as, in Gary Lineker's Match of the Day style, the two Ashley's (messes Young and Cole) fired against the crossbar and too close to Gianluigi Buffon respectively as it transmitted anguish back to the United Kingdom in huge waves. Crashed out.

The final proved just what a team the Spanish really are and why everyone loves football so much. Another eye-catching ceremony to bring the tournament to a close before the showpiece at the Olympic Stadium in Kiev was soon followed by a masterclass in passing from Vicente Del Bosque's men as the Azzuri, still on cloud nine from the euphoria of knocking favourites Germany out in the semi-final, were sent crashing down to earth with an almighty thudder. After their victories by one goal in the Euro 2008 final over Germany in Vienna and against the Netherlands in a tempestuous final at Soccer City, Johannesburg two years ago at the World Cup final in South Africa, they went one better (or three better should I say) this time around as they obliterated Cesare Prandelli's Italians to pieces in some style. Xavi and Iniesta were the stars of the show with Jordi Alba rising to the challenge and justifying his selection in the left-back berth with the reigning world and European champions making history in the Ukranian capital becoming the first international team to win three major tournaments in a row. Del Bosque are rightly the much-fancied side to win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and are making a claim to become the best team ever. They are definitely the team to beat.


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