Euro 2012: International football back on top

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Let’s face it: the last major international football tournament was something of a disappointment, promising much but failing to deliver.

In ‘The First World Cup On African Soil’, no team carried the hopes of the continent beyond the quarter finals, and the competition as a whole was blighted by controversy, negative tactics, and the twin curse of the Jabulani and the vuvezela.

Precisely the opposite could be said of these enjoyable Euros. The tournament got underway quietly: an underwhelming opening ceremony preceded an unglamorous first contest between Poland and Greece, both of which were overshadowed by the darkening clouds of racism and fan violence that so preoccupied the media. However, those clouds dispersed peacefully, and the football itself has, for once, been the only real talking point.

Thankfully, there has been much to talk about. For all that the Champions League has done for the profile and standing of club football, the evident and poignant anguish of Italy’s players in the aftermath of their final defeat was a timely reminder that international football still captures the imagination of players and fans like nothing else.

The modern footballer, like modern football itself, often gives the impression of being cynical and soulless: yet Balotelli, Pirlo, Ronaldo, Gerrard and many others produced some of the finest and most resonant performances of their careers in Poland and Ukraine. Their motivations seemed to be glory and pride, rather than greed or shallow self-advancement.

But this tournament was far more than just a story of individuals. Each of the successful teams integrated star players into tactically disciplined collectives: none more so than the champions, Spain. 

Moreover, the two teams that reached the final enshrined traditional, lofty football virtues of technique, control and creativity, ensuring that the more pragmatic virtues of recent times: physical conditioning, pace and functionality, though of course omnipresent, were everywhere touched by the sublime.

Nowhere did this balance find better expression than in the two stars of the tournament, Pirlo and Iniesta: likeable, honest, hardworking, physically unremarkable, technically outstanding, tactically sensitive, and full of imaginative genius.

Both seem to take an uncynical and childlike delight in playing beautiful football, fuelled by a fierce competitive spirit that is unusually joyous and creative rather than aggressive or destructive.

Under the sway of this spirit, the competition throughout possessed a quiet and tense drama, punctuated occasionally by the brutality of penalty kicks or by the dull predictability of a one-sided victory.

But frequent cards, play acting, malicious tackles and abuse of officials –  the unwanted pests of the modern game – surfaced rarely, if at all. The refereeing was for the most part gloriously anonymous.

And nobody had much to say about the Adidas ball.  

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