Is there life after the group of death?

MR European Championships — you are spoiling us. Two days on, and those of us who were lucky enough to have had grandstand seats in the house are still trying to come to terms with Turkey’s sensational comeback against the Czech Republic in Geneva, a night of ineffable drama which seemed to prove that even the poorer games can be brilliant in this hugely enjoyable Euro 2008.

Just before the break in the Stade de Geneve, the call of nature had obliged me to leave my press box seat early in order to beat the half-time rush. A Scottish colleague saw me departing and shouted “Seen enough already, have you?”

The comment was perhaps a little harsh but understandable in the context of a cagey, pedestrian first 45 which had seen Jan Koller give the Czechs the lead but which had otherwise failed to come anywhere close to matching the excitement levels generated by so many other games in this tournament.

Well, oh we of little faith. The second half began with a Turkish onslaught, moved up another notch of intensity through a second Czech goal as well as breakaway chances for at least two more and then, just when we were preparing to bid farewell to our friends from the east, the whole game was spectacularly turned on its head, with Turkey scoring three goals in the final quarter of an hour, two of them coming from skipper Nihat Kahveci inside a three-minute spell as the game reached a heart-stopping crescendo.

And did I mention Petr Cech’s howler, Jan Koller’s wasted one-on-one and ‘keeper Volkan Demirel’s red card? Little wonder that there were occupants of the press box, furiously rewriting against tight deadlines, who were almost as grey as Karel Bruckner by the time the final whistle blew.

So, to add to all that has gone before in the last eight days, we now have one of the greatest comebacks in international football to cherish.

And, tonight, there’s the prospect of what could turn out to be the most lively dead rubber ever when Italy and France clash here in Zurich.

Should Romania manage to beat Holland at the same time in Bern, then the Azzurri and Les Bleus will both be packing their bags irrespective of what happens in their own head to head. But at kick off time the wounded lions will have everything to play for, as they bid to overcome grievous setbacks in their first two games and attempt to qualify for the quarters the hard way. They mirror each other in other ways too: both have weakened defences and potentially explosive attacks; both are struggling with the ravages of age; and both are managed by men whose by now permanently injured expressions have become a signature feature of this competition. Raymond Domenech and Roberto Donadoni know only too well that one more false move and their leaving, unlike that that of the players, will be of the permanent variety.

Meanwhile, Ireland’s new assistant manager Marco Tardelli, who is covering the tournament for Italian tv, has chipped in with a mischievous take on tonight’s clash. “I am sure that we will go through,” he said.

“France are coached by Domenech. He is our secret weapon so we can succeed.”

So, is there life after the Group Of Death? The Dutch already know that there is, and appear heaven-bent on immortality; the Romanians, given their gothic folklore, doubtless believe it to be so; and tonight in the Letzigrund, former world champions France and Italy are about to find out.

As I say, we’re being a little spoiled over here. While 30,000 people were falling off the edges of their seats in the Stade de Geneve on Sunday, 250 kilometres away in Basle 40,000 were filling the St-Jakob-Park for what, by any objective standards, ought to have been the most meaningless of after-the-ball fixtures between Switzerland and Portugal.

Big Phil Scolari certainly saw it that way, choosing to field what was essentially a reserve side, with a place in the quarter-finals already secured. But the game meant much more to the Swiss, the host nation who had seen their hopes badly dented by injury to Alex Frei and a narrow loss to the Czechs, and then their fate sealed by a first late, late Turkish comeback in the surreal waterworld that was Basle last Wednesday.

That was cruel in the sporting sense but the Swiss camp had to contend with real human pain too, manager Kobi Kuhn’s wife Alice having suffered a serious epileptic fit which put her into intensive care five days before the tournament began.

Because her condition was not life-threatening, Kuhn felt able to stay in his position but, as the Swiss media reported yesterday, when doctors awoke her from a medically-induced coma last week, it was only to hear from her husband that his team had already been eliminated from the competition.

Happily, for Kuhn, his loved ones, the team and their supporters, Switzerland finally got to enjoy their first win of the tournament — and, indeed, their first ever in three visits to the Euro finals — with two goals from the veteran Hakan Yakin on Monday night. Arriving back at my lodgings in Zurich from the game in Geneva at 4am, I was able to sit down and enjoy the local television coverage of the emotional scenes at the end of the match in Basle, as the players and the crowd bid a fond farewell to the 67-year-old Kuhn who has now retired from his post after seven years in charge.

Like Brian Kerr in Irish football, he was one of their own, a man who graduated to the top job through the underage ranks, and the affection in which he was held was clear as the players unfurled a banner reading ‘Merci Kobi’ and the fans chanted his name.

Meaningless? Well, for those who view winning as everything, yes. But football is, or should be, about more than that, and Kuhn’s touching farewell in Basle reminded you that there can also a place in sport for such qualities as dignity, loyalty, respect and even, dare I mention the word, love. Even in this pulsating tournament there will ultimately be only one winner and 15 losers.

Against that backdrop, honourable failure is nothing to be sniffed at.


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