Euro 2012 on course for greatness

As he flies home from Ukraine, Tom Adams says a brilliant group stage means Euro 2012 has the potential to be one of the great tournaments.

A rather skewed form of tradition now dictates that each major tournament must have a slogan. Euro 2012’s suitably vacuous catchphrase is “creating history together”, which at first glance appears it has been spewed out by an automatic-sentence-generating machine designed by a think-tank of particularly uninspired marketing professionals.

Yet perhaps UEFA, in its accidental wisdom, has a point. Following the conclusion of a group stage that has provided sporting thrills with extreme regularity, spread across two countries towards Europe’s eastern fringes, it does feel as though Euro 2012 might have the necessary elements to demarcate itself from the majority of other major tournaments.

Euro 2000 is the modern classic of the genre, yet with just seven of 31 games remaining in Poland and Ukraine, the latest incarnation of the tournament has the Belgium-Netherlands edition shifting nervously on its throne.

Certainly in the cold, hard currency of goals, this tournament has paid out to a good degree. There have been an average of exactly 2.5 per game in the group stages at Euro 2012. Coming just two years after a rather sterile opening stage of the World Cup in South Africa that had only 2.10 goals per game, this has felt like liberation, and compares pretty favourably with the average of 2.74 seen at Euro 2000.

The fact that not one game has ended 0-0 is also to the tournament’s credit – Euro 2000 had three stalemates - as it means goals have been more concentrated, games have been closer affairs. On only six occasions have a side won by more than one goal, compared to nine 12 years ago; Ireland have been on the receiving end three times. On only 10 occasions has a team failed to score in 24 games – at Euro 2000 the figure was 17.

These narrow victories have supplied no end of drama and intrigue. Andriy Shevchenko’s goals against Sweden that turned a likely defeat into a 2-1 win for Ukraine electrified a nation and concluded the first set of group games in wonderfully romantic fashion. The second round of games culminated with arguably the most chaotic and illogical match of the tournament so far in England’s 3-2 win over the same opposition in Kiev; the third opened with the completely unexpected progression of both Greece and Czech Republic in 1-0 victories over Russia and Poland respectively, and ended with England somehow topping their group when riding their luck in Donetsk.

Tension has been an essential component of these finals. Something significant was at stake in every single game in the final round of group fixtures, and from an Iker Casillas save that kept out Ivan Rakitic’s header and prevented Spain’s reign in international football from coming to an end, to the Netherlands’ disastrous elimination in Kharkiv, some of Europe’s grandest teams have either flirted with disaster or jumped straight into bed with it.

But away from statistics and convoluted group permutations and into the realm of less definable qualities, Euro 2012 has also been a great tournament - though we are now straying into a more subjective, personal domain of course. On the opening day alone we had Robert Lewandowski’s goal after only 17 minutes that promised so much for the co-hosts - only for Poland’s elation to be rapidly flattened, their pride eventually dented as they failed to negotiate a route to the quarter-finals – and Russia’s illuminating yet ultimately misleading 4-1 destruction of Czech Republic, despite the very best efforts of the borderline comical Alexander Kerzhakov.

Spain tried to seize the tactical initiative with their 4-6-0 formation against Italy, only to revert to type in their hammering of Ireland as Fernando Torres cast aside 18 months of frustration with two expertly-taken goals. The sight of a previously luminous talent rediscovering his touch was thrilling, his return to mediocrity and Spain’s to a strikerless system for the end of their 1-0 win over Croatia another twist to the tale. Other strikers have excelled – witness the proficient displays of more traditional centre-forward fare from less expected sources such as Mario Mandzukic, Nicklas Bendtner and Andy Carroll – while even more sublime has been the withdrawn majesty of Andres Iniesta and Xavi, Wesley Sneijder and the peerless Andrea Pirlo.

We have been treated to all manner of goals. Jakub Blaszczykowski’s stunner against Russia matched the standard set for evocative thumping efforts from host nations by Siphiwe Tshabalala in South Africa two years ago, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic took technical honours with his volley against France and no one has surpassed Danny Welbeck’s spinning backheeled flick against Sweden in Kiev for sheer audacity.

There have been setbacks, of course. Any final analysis of the tournament would be incomplete without publicising the alleged incidents of racism that have cast a shadow over events: Croatia have been fined for the racist behaviour of their fans against Italy; UEFA is looking into reports that Czech Republic defender Theodor Gebre Selassie was subjected to abuse by Russian fans; and right at the start of the tournament Netherlands captain Mark van Bommel vehemently complained of monkey chants directed at his team-mates during an open training session.

These incidents should not be marginalised, and it is of course hoped that further will be avoided as we head into the knockout stages.

The finals have been marked by violence, too, with Russia fans particularly culpable in this regard, attacking a steward at their match against Czech Republic and then becoming involved in running battles with Poland supporters in Wroclaw. But when we gaze back through the years at Euro 2012, violence will not come to colour our perceptions of three-and-a-bit weeks in Poland and Ukraine. After all, we don’t remember Euro 2000 for the fact that hundreds of England fans were arrested and deported following violent scenes in Charleroi. It is widely accepted to be a classic tournament despite those awful scenes.

Racism and violence have flared up as predicted, but such incidents do not render UEFA’s decision to award the tournament to Poland and Ukraine faulty. Ukraine has been almost completely free of trouble up to this point: supporters’ groups have reported no racist abuse towards England fans while strong anecdotal evidence suggests the travelling thousands from all over the world are being warmly received by their hosts in Ukraine – a nation keen to impress and be hospitable, and succeeding in the process. Certainly the army of young, enthusiastic UEFA volunteers situated at every major transport hub could not have worked any harder to assist fans and journalists alike.

Personal highlights have included the imposing Soviet architecture and design spread across the country, the hugely impressive stadiums in Kiev and Donetsk, the warm and welcoming locals in Kharkiv and the chance to indulge in a traditional pint of kvass, bowl of borscht or plate of shashlik at regular intervals.

Accommodation is ropey, travel at times daunting and the language barrier often impenetrable, but visiting Eastern Europe has been a cultural education for many, and UEFA’s decision to send the tournament to this corner of the continent has so far been a successful one. As the first major football finals to be held on former Soviet soil, it could even be argued it is a historic one.

The first fortnight of Euro 2012 has not been perfect – what tournament could be? - yet in terms of the sporting excellence on display and the manner in which it is subtly shifting perceptions of an oft marginalised region of the continent, perhaps there is a bit of history being created in front of our eyes after all.