Euro 2012 has been a highly enjoyable event thus far thanks in no small part to the raft of shocks and surprises we have been served up over the past fortnight.
You can quibble all you like about whether we are halfway or three quarters of the way through tournament—each team left has played three of a possible six matches, while 24 of the 31 scheduled fixtures have now been fulfilled—but there is little doubt that this has been a great tournament so far.
Hoping for the unexpected is what makes cup and tournament football so appealing, and seeing it happen brings great satisfaction.
Even if the latter stages of Euro 2012 all go to form, there have already been plenty of big surprises both on and off the pitch, 10 of which are listed here.
Feel free to add your own contributions below.
When drawn in a group in which co-hosts Poland were the other seeded team, it was widely predicted that Russia would sail through into the knockout phase.
Their comprehensive 4-1 win over Czech Republic on the opening day of the championship saw them installed by many as the tournament’s “dark horses,” just as they were four years ago when they made the semifinals in Austria and Switzerland.
However, a 1-1 draw against Poland meant their fate was in the balance going into the final round of Group A games, when a 1-0 defeat to Greece and the Czechs beating Poland by the same scoreline sent Dick Advocaat’s side packing.
Just as Russia failed to meet expectations despite their great start to the tournament, so Greece exceeded them after their own campaign’s disastrous beginnings.
They salvaged a 1-1 draw against Poland in the opening match, but could have won the game, which ended with 10 men on each side, were it not for Giorgos Karagounis having a penalty saved.
Defeat to the Czechs in their second game had them clutching at straws going into their final match, but Karagounis made amends by scoring the winner as Greece made Russia look distinctly second-best.
Greece booked a quarterfinal with Germany, prompting a slew of Eurozone-themed headlines and quips like the awful one above.
The Dutch self-destructing at tournaments due to tensions and rowing within the squad has long been a cliché rolled out at almost every finals they reach, but now it seems to have become a matter of fact.
How else can we explain a squad crammed full of talent which entered the “Group of Death” with Germany, Portugal and Denmark and left with no points and only two goals scored?
After their opening 1-0 defeat, the 2010 World Cup finalists’ card was marked, and subsequent defeats to Germany and Portugal had many punters tearing up their betting slips.
Portugal came into the tournament without a win in 2012, and they only qualified via the playoffs against Bosnia & Herzegovina.
That record, combined with their poor showing at the last World Cup, meant many were eyeing Cristiano Ronaldo and Co. as the side to finish bottom of the “Group of Death.”
After losing to Germany in their opening match, Portugal beat a spirited Denmark 3-2 and then confirmed their path to the quarterfinals thanks to a 2-1 win over Netherlands.
Both goals in that game were scored by Ronaldo, whose performance featured five shots on target, five off target and two attempts hitting the woodwork, making it the most impressive attacking display in the competition since records began in 1980.
The opening fixture in Group C between European and world champions Spain and Italy was one of the most anticipated games of the group stage, and even before the 1-1 draw in Gdansk, it had provided thrills aplenty.
As news began to filter through that Spain manager Vicente del Bosque had named a team with six midfielders and no strikers, Twitter almost collapsed under the weight of excitement.
Not only that, but Italy also fielded an alarming lineup which featured midfielder Daniele De Rossi in a three-man defence and a two-man attack comprising Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano—two strikers for whom the word mercurial barely begins to adequately describe them.
The match itself ended in a 1-1 draw, which was a wonderful exhibition of technical continental football at its finest.
When Giovanni Trapattoni’s Ireland were rewarded for qualifying for their first major finals in 10 years by being put in a group with Spain, Italy and Croatia, the expectation was that they would most likely finish at the bottom of the group.
However, after heading to Poland and Ukraine on the back of a 14-game unbeaten run, they were at least expected to give a good account of themselves by being difficult to beat. Instead, their campaign was insipid and inept from start to finish.
They conceded early goals in their first two matches—a 3-1 defeat to Croatia and a 4-0 schooling at the hands of Spain—making them the first team to be eliminated. They could not even salvage any pride in their final match, a limp 2-0 defeat to Italy.
With the Irish team unable to even look like giving it a good go—something you should be able to count on them for, if nothing else—it was left to their amazing fans to leave the best impression on the tournament and put their players to shame.
Legendary Ukraine striker Andriy Shevchenko said on the eve of the first major tournament in his home country that he had thought of little else ever since it was awarded, and that playing in it was perhaps the main reason he was still playing at the age of 35.
However, those advancing years and a troublesome knee injury looked endangering to the former European Footballer of the Year’s chances of playing any significant role in Oleg Blokhin’s team.
So it was quite a thrill to see his name on the teamsheet for the co-hosts’ opening match against Sweden and an even bigger one to see him score both goals in their 2-1 win.
That may have been the high point of Ukraine’s campaign, but at least they can look back on the tournament with fond memories thanks to Shevchenko rolling back the years.
England’s campaign has been full of surprises—making it to the quarterfinals in itself exceeded expectations, let alone as winners of Group D.
The performances of relative international novices Danny Welbeck and Andy Carroll have also been better than many could have hoped, while Theo Walcott also delivered in an England shirt for the first time since his hat-trick against Croatia four years ago.
But perhaps the biggest surprise of all was before their first match against France, when news began to filter through that manager Roy Hodgson, not known as a man for taking risks, was giving 18-year-old winger Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain his first competitive start.
"The Ox" may not have exactly set the world on fire, but he played his part in England fighting their way to a creditable 1-1 draw that ultimately helped them top the group.
For all the concerns about stadiums being completed on time, infrastructure being in place and overpriced hotel rooms, the biggest fears around the tournament being partly-held in Ukraine centred around the threat of racism and violence in the country.
Both the BBC and Sky Sports screened undercover reports about neo-Nazi hooliganism being rife in the country, with former England defender Sol Campbell stating to the BBC, "Stay at home, watch it on TV. Don't even risk it… because you could end up coming back in a coffin."
However, most of the main incidents of anti-social behaviour—fighting between fans, hooligans attacking innocent members of the public, fans racially abusing players etc—have happened in neighbouring Poland, with Ukraine so far enjoying a relatively peaceful record.
This is not by any means to disparage Poland in their role as co-hosts or as a nation on the whole, but simply to point out how differently things have transpired compared to expectations before the tournament.
A bit of an Anglo-centric observation, this, but one that is worth making.
Live broadcasts of every major tournament in Britain is shared equally between the state-funded BBC and the commercial ITV, with both organisations broadcasting the final live.
Traditionally, the BBC trounces ITV in the ratings for the final (thanks in part to having no commercials), and generally wins the plaudits for having the better coverage. But so far this summer it has been ITV—so often rightly accused of pandering to the lowest common denominator—who have provided the better service.
Everything from their charming, stop motion animated titles to their studio location on site in Warsaw, via the more engaging and less complacent pundit, ITV have been better than the BBC. Ratings for the final on July 1 will be interesting to see.