The Euro that mattered
The second most awaited international football festival has certainly lived up to expectations, with the quality of football it has provided, enthralling us all. The lack of goalless draws has really caught the eye and, except for a few teams, most have been quite positive in their approach. However, this Euro has mattered to me in more ways than one. It has served as a well deserved break to the every day struggle for existence for the people in a lot of nations across Europe. It has brought back to football a dynamic it has been missing for what seems an eternity,”physicality”, and most importantly has been a spectacle of tactical nuances.
Most of the news coming out of Europe to hit the new channels has been about the European sovereign-debt crisis centering mostly around Greece. The implications of ever increasing government debt levels around the world and banking system bailouts have been felt across most of Southern Europe and now is having an effect on the rest of Europe. Euro’12 for the people in Greece and other countries like Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Italy, who have been hit most severely, gave them a buoyant force, a feel of getting together, to hope for achieving something tangible, in essence, a reason to feel happy when most things around them look dull and gloomy.
The smile on their faces for me stood out more than some of the footballing achievements on the field. This spirit was vividly seen in the Irish fans who sang their hearts out even when footballing sense dictated they were down in the dumps. This tournament was more to them than a mere footballing tournament. It called to their inner being, giving them a reason to be happy and make merry and forget the everyday desperation for their emotional existence. Footballing joys weren’t reserved for the Irish, but they cultivated it in their own Irish way. Greece’s passage to the last 8 resulted in pompous celebrations. Spain, Italy and Portugal also succeeded in giving their citizens a reason to be joyous in these difficult times.
The football on the pitch has more than matched the fans’ enthusiasm. Football in these Euros finally seems to have returned to being a full body-contact sport. The UEFA and their referees have taken a bold step and must be lauded for their thinking and effort. In an age where such decisions are not made in fear of high handed criticism it may bring from the media, such a decision has achieved what decades of various dubious policies have failed to. It has more or less eradicated diving. It seems so simple now. If referees apply common sense and stop giving people silly free kicks and are able identify cons, people don’t dive just out of fear that may get caught. The physicality in this Euro has added another string to the bow of an already marvelous event.
The thing that has been most intriguing and makes this tournament so special is the wide variety of tactics and approaches used by various teams. We have been hearing about the death of Italian football for quite a while but their display in this year’s event may put an end to what one may now refer to as blasphemy. Their new style of playing a 3-5-2 formation at the highest level deserves much praise. Occasions which required that they move away from such formations have been identified and Prandelli has more than answered all Italian critics. Their new style has breathed a new dynamic to the beautiful game again.
Russia and Croatia came out as the early real dark horses and both were really unlucky not to go through inspite of giving a good account of themselves. Poland may have had the firepower, but could not hold on to their nerves and quietly fizzled out towards the end.
Deserved praise to Roy Hodgson as he has played the team according to their strength. England were stubborn, methodical, largely boring, but for their sakes effective. But eventually, their curse of penalty shoot-outs caught up with them. Germany hit their stride early and have been looking sleeker by the day, but they’re just as efficient. The real disappointment cam from the Netherlands, with sporadic displays of brilliance surrounded by ineffective “team football”, horrendous failures of execution accompanied by questionable decisions from the manager himself. The Dutch display never really looked like a concerted one, with individual brilliance taking precedence over the co-ordinated team football. The brilliant Van Persie, Robben, and Sneijder looked pedestrian at best. The woeful defense never helped their cause with De Jong and Van Bommel unable to provide the cover required, while the fragility at the back didn’t allow them to join their mates upfront.
“The French connection” wasn’t as fluid as they themselves or their fans would have liked it to be. Lots of possession with no final result symbolized their displays. Their imitation of the Spanish tiki-taka eventually hurt the team as it was mostly confined to the triumvirate of Benzema-Ribery-Nasri with a lack of width and also selfish play. The off-field dressing problems didn’t help either. Their defense looked wobbly from the get-go and probably would have suffered the fate of the Dutch had they been subject to more severe tests. The French and the Dutch lacked individuals who make other people around them look good and it hurt them.
The Spanish attempt at the strikerless 4-6-0 system certainly caught the imagination. Some may recall it being first played by Roma under Luciano Spalletti, and then also adopted and perfected by the Catalans. It depends on the creation of simple and ever evolving triangles between players, compensating for one focal point. It certainly did not come off to perfection in their game against the Azzuris, which provided ammunition to the traditionalists to come out and condemn such tactics. In truth, Italian excellence (in an equally unorthodox 3-5-2) contributed more rather than Spanish flaws. For once, a team was matching and sometimes even beating the Spanish in midfield. The French themselves playing a fluid system where the Tiki-Taka is seen along with the hints of formational rigidity no doubt fascinated but they just lacked personnel and polish.
Football is ever-changing. What we conceive to be conventional and basic wasn’t so if we just go back a few years back. The well-known 4-4-2 formation itself is no more than 40 years old. The World Cup in 1966 was won by England playing 4-2-4. The Catenaccio was a different ball game all together. India, a powerhouse in the 1950s and 60s never operated with more than 2 defenders in their heydays. The Dutch then brought about total football, which changed the face of the game all together. For a period of time, the 3-5-2 was quiet fashionable (thanks to Italy, it may yet have a return). Now we have upon us the age of the 4-3-3 , the 4-5-1 and the, 4-2-3-1. The ever rigid and defensive approach towards the game coincides with the ever-decreasing life span of managers at the top level of club football. They just are not prepared to take the risk. But Fabregas or Messi,originally Totti in the striker-less system, employed as the false nine might be the next great venture in the ever evolving world of football, or it could be the tipping point of the next great shift.
This is what’s so alluring about this game. Beautiful minds keep on rediscovering on how this game should be played. The complexities which they bring about when executed to perfection looks like a masterpiece fit for any grand stage, having the grace of any great orchestra. The human imagination is boundless with more and more pioneers looking to play the game in accordance to their own understanding and vision. Even the Catenaccio may come back one day in a new avatar. “Freedom” in football, a tantalizing prospect for the future, may eventually be realized through such complexities.