WITH the volatile group stages having already achieved knock-out status and the quarter-finals proper hoving into view, we find ourselves with just about enough time to pause, take a deep breath, and declare that, all in all, Euro 2008 has been a bit of a cracker — so far.
That little two word proviso is important because, as the stakes get ever higher, the business end of big tournament football doesn’t always live up to what has gone before. But, at this stage of proceedings in Austria and Switzerland, we can say with confidence that, if the quarters, semis and final give us anything like the superior quality and entertainment value of the group stages, then it’s destined to be remembered as a classic. A big if, maybe, but right now there are good grounds for optimism.
The word from Ireland, however, suggests that the tournament hasn’t really captured the popular imagination. If so, that’s a pity but also understandable up to a point, and not only because of the absence, yet again, of the green shirt on the big European stage. The deeper problem is that, as in Germany two years ago, there are really two tournaments taking place here.
Even with one of the co-hosts having already left the scene, football fever around these parts is the real thing — colourful, noisy, ever present and deliciously infectious.
The other tournament, meanwhile, is taking place simultaneously in the virtual world of television, the perfect medium for the close-up view, slo-mo insight and informed (or not) punditry but ultimately a soulless version of the real flesh and blood experience.
But if any team and nation has managed to bridge that divide then it has to be Holland, whose sensational demolition of France surely lit up living rooms all over Europe.
It’s been a tour de force from Marco Van Basten’s men — seven goals scored and only one conceded, a couple of candidates already for goal of the tournament and then those heart-warming scenes at the end of 90 minutes when they celebrate with their loved ones in the stands and happily mingle with their delirious fans. But then that’s the Dutch for you – it’s either all back-biting, internal strife and egos rampant or it’s all peace, love, understanding and a bit of the old total football.
And though it wasn’t as if Italy and more especially France didn’t have a good go before expiring in a blaze of goals, it will be interesting to see if the Dutch can keep their sunny side up when the going gets tougher.
Spain too have been hugely impressive and even when pushed all the way by a resolute Swedish side which hardly gave them a moment’s peace, still found the extra gear required to nick it right at the death through David Villa, his four goals to date threatening Michel Platini’s record of nine goals in the finals of 1984.
Croatia have stood out too, their slow start against a game Austrian side notwithstanding. But it was the deserved 2-1 victory over Germany in that titanic clash in Klagenfurt which really made the rest of Europe sit up and take notice of Slaven Bilic’s slick, well-drilled side.
Elsewhere Ronaldo continues to make headlines and heads spin for Portugal, while tomorrow’s clash between Italy and France could be the mother of all wounded lion battles, assuming, of course, that a Romanian side growing in confidence and self-belief don’t get to take advantage of a spliff-break by the Dutch.
But if we were to witness an admittedly improbable act of giant-killing in Vienna tonight, the game between Austria and Germany would eclipse everything else we’ve seen so far. And that’s irrespective of the quality of the football. All that matters in this one is the result and, were the co-hosts to spring the biggest surprise in the European game since the Greeks went all the way last time around, then the implications for the tournament on the ground – if not necessarily for that other tournament on the box – would be enormous.
Austria have only scored one goal and picked up one point so far – but that modest enough achievement, courtesy of a last-minute penalty against Poland, was greeted with wild national enthusiasm.
So what they might do in the event of toppling their mighty neighbours doesn’t bear thinking about – except that the Austrians themselves are already bending their minds in that direction and seeking encouragement in fabled historical precedent.
“The Spirit Of Cordoba”, a reference to the Austrians’ celebrated 3-2 defeat of Germany in the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, is being widely invoked just across the border from where I write. Radio and tv are once more full of the emotional tones of the late Edi Finger, the commentator who did for Austria that day what Bjorge Lillwlien did for Norway in 1982 with his incomparable ‘Maggie Thatcher – can you hear me? Your boys took a hell of a beating’ riff.
Mind, Herr Finger came close. As Hans Krankl grabbed an 88th minute winner against Germany for the Austrians, the man behind the mic gloriously lost all professional composure and jubilantly informed his listeners: “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re hugging each other here — me, my colleague Rippel, the sound engineer Posch. We’re kissing each other! I wish you could see us! I think we’ve beaten them now.”
How magnificent is that? Of course, you and I and the rest of the football world know that Germany will probably hockey Austria this evening but, if this vibrant, unpredictable and absorbing European Championships has thought us anything so far, it’s that everyone is entitled to dream. And some times the dream even comes true.
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