Euro 2008: Host Failure No Big Deal

Yesterday the Swiss joined Belgium in a select category of soccer failures: host nations of a major tournament that failed to get past the first round. Belgium screwed up in the 2000 Euro tournament, and it is possible that the "failed host" category will expand to three today - with the co-host of Euro 2008, Austria, sharing the unenviable honor if it fails to beat Poland.

It is also quite possible that, in two years' time, the same fate awaits South Africa, which looks quite likely to become the first-ever World Cup host to be bounced out of the tournament in the first round.

There was a time when such a thing was unthinkable. That was when major tournaments were awarded only to countries where soccer was a thriving spectator sport. It had to be that way, or the stadiums would not be filled, and the tournament would involve the organizers in huge financial losses.

Television, marketing, and cheap, rapid international travel have changed all of that. The USA -- clearly classified as a non-soccer country -- broke the mould in 1994 when it set record attendances for the World Cup that still stand.

And Euro 2008 will bounce along very nicely, even if both Switzerland and Austria depart quickly. The stadiums will be full, the television interest will be maintained. The television rights were sold before a ball was even kicked, before anyone knew, with any certainty, which teams would comprise the 16 finalists.

So: Euro 2008 is headed for financial success, and it really doesn't matter at all that both Switzerland and Austria have feeble teams that will not be around when the knockout stage begins. That situation ought to cut into attendances, ought to deprive the tournament of interest and excitement -- but it won't.

Already the money people are chortling, because television ratings are reaching 80 percent. OK -- that means 80 percent of people who were watching their TV when a match was being aired. And that 80 percent figure came in from Portugal and the Netherlands. We have actual numbers from Poland, where 23.7 million viewers watched their team lose, yet again, to Germany.

The huge numbers highlight the importance of television, and raise a specter that has been haunting soccer -- indeed, all major pro sports -- for a decade or more now. Will a stage be reached where the live event itself, the crowd at the stadium, takes second place to the vast television audience?

That alarming idea is usually a part of a wider doomsday scenario in which television is portrayed as a monster that has virtually killed off sports as a live spectator attraction. The only reason for filling a stadium then becomes simply cosmetic -- to make it look good for the millions of television viewers.

Maybe, maybe. For the present, the stadium atmosphere in the Euro 2008 games has been brilliant -- colorful, enthusiastic and friendly. Particularly pleasing has been the sensible treatment of the national anthems -- upbeat band versions that encourage the players and the spectators to sing along. What a change -- and a relief -- from the excruciating manglings of the U.S. anthem that are repeatedly inflicted on us. US Soccer should take note.

As for the soccer, it's covered a pretty wide range, from very lively (the Dutch and the Spanish), through impressive (the Germans and the Portuguese) -- and a whole bunch of under-performers who surely promise better (Italy, France, Croatia, Czech Republic) and down to the abysmal Greeks.

I'm not unduly sorry to see both Italy and France struggling. These are two nations with much to offer, but they seem to have grown old rather suddenly after the 2006 World Cup, and offer little by way of sparkling soccer. And yet, despite the huge task that Italy has set itself after its poor display against the Netherlands -- basically, it has to beat both Romania and France -- I wonder how many people truly feel that the Italians cannot fight their way back? They have a remarkable record in tournaments, going back many years.

On the topic of teams getting older, it is worth noting that among the 368 players participating in Euro 2008, only one is a teenager -- and he, Eren Derdiyok, will depart rather quickly with his Swiss teammates.

I'll admit to surprise at that minimal figure. Evidently, despite the sport's almost frantic worldwide search for young talent, there are very few teenage superstars. Two years ago, in the 264 players from the 12 countries who participated in the Copa America, there were four teenagers -- but one of them was a superstar -- Lionel Messi, who turned 20 during the tournament.

If I look for a superstar at Euro 2008, I don't have to look very far or for very long. There is only one candidate, Portugal's 23-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo. That there should be only one superstar among 368 players is surely a cause for concern. Soccer without its stars is food without spices, jazz without soloists, a garden without flowers. Something crucial is missing.

The best way to describe what Ronaldo brings to every game he plays, is to use the old cop-out: you know what it is when it's not there. Portugal is doing well, and Ronaldo is playing his part. Being a superstar does not mean doing it all yourself, and Ronaldo is not attempting to do that.

It means making the crucial plays, often the spectacular ones -- in Ronaldo's case, it means scoring the big goals. The superstar aura is involved in all of that, but it adds a special excitement, the thrill of anticipation, the expectation of a moment of magic that exceeds the very expectation.

Which is one hell of a reason to hope that Portugal play the maximum number of six games at Euro 2008.

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