By Paul Gardner
We've now seen all 16 of the teams competing in Euro 2012, and it seems a pretty fair comment to remark that none of them on the form so far displayed deserves to win it.
We’re still waiting for a team that displays confidence and flair ... and good soccer. And we’re still waiting for a game that displays the sport at its best, at its most skillful, at its most exciting. In other words, a game worthy of a tournament that purports to put on the field 16 of the world’s elite teams.
Not that things have been dull -- there have been plenty of incidents and controversial moments. It’s just that there hasn’t been much exceptional soccer.
Quite possibly, that is entirely down to the structure of these tournaments -- the four-team group arrangement, which really means that for each team, the competition boils down to an initial three-game affair ... and woe betide any team that loses its first game.
The stats are pretty clear. There have been four Euro championships since it adopted the 3-points-for-a-win system in 1996. They have featured 23 teams that have lost their first game; of these, 15 failed to advance to the next (quarterfinal) round. A 64 percent failure rate. In fact, of those 23 teams, 12 ended up in last place in their opening round group. Of the 22 teams that won their first games, 16 advanced -- a 73 percent success rate.
A set of stats that might suggest that the priority for that first game is to make sure that it isn’t lost. Playing cautiously for a tie seems to be indicated. In fact, that wouldn’t help much, according to the stats -- of the 18 teams that tied their first games, only 7 advanced -- a failure rate of 61 percent, only slightly lower than that of teams that lost their opening game.
The stats are clear -- but you can bet that Italy and Spain, and France and England, and Poland and Greece all of whom tied their games, are feeling, if not totally satisfied, at least relieved. Of those six teams, only one -- England -- was evidently playing for a draw. The others did their best to win, but in a rather cautious let’s-not-lose sort of way.
So tactics have dominated, as they always tend to do in tournaments these days, and tactical games are never wildly exciting. Russia of course, with its 4-1 romp over the Czechs can be excused of being overly tactical -- this was a spirited, attacking performance, a team that maintained throughout a commitment to attacking soccer. We wait to find out, in the next games, whether the Czechs are as poor as they looked.
As for Ireland, I can’t imagine that any amount of waiting is going to improve its chances. I suppose that every tournament contains at least one team that leaves you wondering just how it ever qualified -- and that distinction surely belongs to Ireland in Euro 2012. A woeful performance that made a very ordinary Croatian team look like a threat for the title.
If the soccer has left a great deal to desire, there was a wonderful ending to this first batch of eight games, in the game that saw Ukraine come from a goal down to beat Sweden. Came the hour, came the man -- in the shape of the 35-year-old Ukrainian captain Andriy Shevchenko. With two superbly headed goals, Shevchenko claimed the win for his country ... and there can have been few more emotionally satisfying results than this one, few more deserving heroes than the modest Shevchenko, nearing the end of an outstanding career, one that would surely have been even more glittering but for repeated injuries.
Tactics will continue to overshadow performances throughout the rest of the first round of Euro 2012. When the quarterfinals begin, on June 21, things get more straightforward; from that point on, we should see games -- there will be seven of them -- in which the two teams take the field with the one aim of winning. But the sport has allowed itself to slide into a negative mindset in which cautious and defensive play is still likely to dominate, even in the knockout stage. And the absurdity of the shootout tiebreaker -- which can also encourage teams to play for a tie -- is not helpful.
Just last week, over in New Jersey, we got a thrilling reminder of just what we miss out on, of just how the life is squeezed out of the sport, when negative tactics enter the picture.
The occasion was an exhibition game between Argentina and Brazil. I attended not necessarily expecting anything great -- I’ve seen enough games between these old rivals to know that they can be sublime, or they can be dreadful, and anything in between. And we all know about exhibition games, which often barely qualify as real games as the teams are on holiday, the players don’t really exert themselves ... and all those substitutions.
This time it all worked like a charm. No hesitation -- this was the best exhibition game I’ve ever seen. Tremendous atmosphere -- over 81,000 fans, half for Brazil, half for Argentina, or so it seemed.
And of course there was something special -- or potentially special -- about this one. A matchup between the Argentine Lionel Messi, the reigning genius of soccer, and the young Brazilian Neymar, who is staking a claim to be the next great world star. Messi, all 5-foot-7 of him, and Neymar, something of a giant at 5-9.
The game was special. Very, very special. Was this soccer “they way it used to be”? Maybe -- though memory plays all sorts of tricks. Anyway, who cares -- this was soccer the way it ought to be played. Open, flowing, full of smoothly executed skills, thrills at each end ... and there were end products. We got seven goals, each one more beautiful than the one before. Consider how the scoreline kept changing. The first goal came after 22 minutes: Brazil 1 Argentina 0 -- then 1-1, 1-2, 2-2, 3-2, 3-3 ... and so this superb game was poised at 3-3 with just over 15 minutes to go. Messi had already delivered two terrific goals, maneuvering the ball so quickly, so slickly, shooting with such deadly precision. Neymar had been lively throughout, involved in two of Brazil’s goals, and unlucky not to get a penalty kick at the half-hour mark.
At 3-3 the game was there to be won, and the inescapable thought was that it would be either Messi or Neymar who would settle matters. Messi it was, with an electrifying golazo to seal his hat trick, and to dispose of the old enemy Brazil, 4-3.
Now that’s an exhibition game scoreline -- 4-3. An indication of a game that had shaken off its tactical chains, a reminder that goalscoring is the essential, almost the magic, ingredient of any soccer game. It is not a pleasurable trip from the non-stop excitement of that 4-3, to the calculated aridity of the 1-1 ties between Spain and Italy, and England and France.
Yet we will be told -- and it’s perfectly logical -- that the free-flowing 4-3 scoreline cannot be taken seriously, and that those taut 1-1 ties are the real game. What a ridiculous contradiction of the sport’s most precious values.