Europe says yes to Lisbon

IT might be Lisbon treaty day in Ireland today but yesterday in Geneva, this non-aligned part of Europe was entirely preoccupied with a Lisbon treat. Mind, they were made to wait for it.

Portugal eventually beat the Czech Republic 3-1 in the Stade de Geneve but the Czechs were unlucky not to get at least a share of the points. Similarly, the stats will show that Ronaldo helped make two goals and scored another, but they won’t record that, for long periods of the game, he was in danger of being eclipsed by Milan Baros, a man of whom it’s probably fair to say that the whole world of football is not exactly hanging on his next move.

Like the Lisbon Treaty itself, Ronaldo is hard to read. Yes, he helped set up an early opening goal for Deco and selflessly played in Ricardo Quaresma for the clinching tap-in with time running out. But in between there were times when he was not much more than a passenger on the pitch, attracting attention only when he lost possession and did one of his trademark ‘Mummy-I-want-an-ice-cream’ supermarket sit-down tantrums.

But for all that, there is a good reason why Ronaldo is currently the most talked-about footballer on the planet and he demonstrated it just a couple of minutes past the hour mark with a truly glorious strike. It was a crucial intervention too, coming at a time when, having equalised through a Libor Sionko header, the Czechs were threatening to edge ahead of their much-vaunted opponents.

But the whole balance of the game altered when Ronaldo raced onto the end of a precisely weighted Deco pass and, from outside the box, swept the ball imperiously past Petr Cech. Cue the boy wonder headlines all over again, from Sagres to Porto and from Manchester to, well, Madrid.

Among the 30,000 attendance was ‘Big’ Phil Scolari’s now future employer, Chelsea oligarch Roman Abramovich who had hotfooted – or, more likely, hot helicoptered – from Innsbruck, where he’d watched the motherland receive the mother of all beatings on Tuesday. Don’t doubt that he’d like Ronaldo to follow too, but his presence at yesterday’s game was all part of the successful attempt to land Scolari as the next gaffer at Stamford Bridge.

We’ve seen all 16 of the finalists in action by now, and four have really stood out. Holland lead the elite pack after their hugely impressive dismantling of Italy. In brushing aside Poland, Germany have also begun brightly and, while Spain’s 4-1 crushing of Russia might have flattered the victors, it was nevertheless convincing enough to suggest that Senors Villa and Torres have the pace, livewire movement and explosive finishing power to inflict further damage. Then there’s Portugal, from whom there must be extra still to come.

Tonight, the attention switches back to Group B in Austria, with both the co-hosts and Poland fighting for their tournament lives in Vienna, while in Klagenfurt, Germany and Croatia collide in what is likely to be a deafening, guttural roar of a game.

Since, let’s be honest, defending champions Greece losing their first game to Sweden was hardly a sensation, probably the tournament’s biggest talking point so far continues to be Van Nistelrooy’s briefly contentious first goal for the Dutch in that momentous victory over Italy.

For once, officialdom had the last laugh, as the blazers joined forces with the men in black to force-feed humble pie to ignorant players and media alike. The little-known rule by which the apparently offside Dutch striker was ruled onside also gave birth to the quote of the week, from Uefa Chief Executive David Taylor.

“This is a widely-known interpretation of the offside law among referees that is not generally known by the wider football public,” he purred. “Incidents like this are very unusual – although I’m informed that there was an incident like this about a month ago in a Swiss Super League match between FC Sion and FC Basel 1893.”

How did we all miss that?

But while the rule may have been correctly employed on Monday night, the spirit of the thing still gives rise to misgivings. The word ‘active’ is going to require a new definition if it’s to include poor, prone Christian Panucci who, having just collided with his own goalkeeper, was hardly trying to influence the play when Van Nistelrooy poached his goal.

Of course, to some extent, footballers as a breed have some responsibility for this unhappy state of affairs, since it’s the booming practice of ‘simulation’ – or plain cheating to you and me – which prompted Uefa to amend the rule in the first place.

But since that clearly didn’t apply in the case of Panucci, then there has to be a better way. So why not a bit of zero tolerance for the spoofers? Treat the offence the way a goal-denying professional foul is treated – a mandatory red card – and the ultimate deterrent should ensure that, even if theatrics are destined to continue to be part of the game, at least they’ll be confined to the stage and not allowed to spill into the wings.

And surely we can all vote yes to that.

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