When the brilliance has briefly dried up there’s been compensatory drama and any football follower in this country who isn’t enjoying Euro 2008 should have an operation for insularity.
The absence of a contender from these islands is a gross embarrassment but it should leave us free to be biased in favour of football, to appreciate the standards of technique, tactical coherence and wholehearted competitiveness that are so far promising to make the action in Austria and Switzerland the most entertaining and impressive major tournament the game has provided in at least two decades.
What we are seeing should also drive into the consciousness of the multi-millionaires of the England squad the hard, simple truth that their exclusion from the big party, far from being some kind of malign accident, was the thoroughly deserved consequence of collective inadequacy seriously compounded but not excused by their manager’s incompetence.
Contrary to imaginative assessments of their own talents, in their qualifying group they were, when it mattered, clearly inferior as a unit to a skilfully integrated Croatia team and it would be presumptuous to suggest they would have progressed further in the finals than Slaven Bilic’s men.
Maybe they would have exited at precisely the same stage, since losing quarter finals has become a speciality for them.
Croatia represented themselves well, particularly in beating Germany, until their ability to score deserted them against Turkey on Friday, allowing perhaps the most sterile match the tournament has seen to limp into extra time before a desperately late exchange of goals produced the penalty shootout that sent the Turks through to compete with the Germans for a place in the final.
Even on that night there was more than the tensions of the first knockout phase to explain the scarcity of exciting penetration. The Turks were so ravaged by injuries and suspensions that they could be forgiven for adopting conservative methods to create a context for their renowned resilience of spirit (in their four games they have been in front for a total of only nine minutes).
Now that additional suspensions have added to their troubles, just fielding a recognisable XI may have to be regarded as a triumph in Basle on Wednesday. The Germans, who have been demonstrating their familiar gift for growing in effectiveness throughout a competition, won’t quite be able to treat the confrontation as a light sparring session but it should certainly be an assignment comfortable enough to let them hone their weaponry for Sunday’s climactic assault on the continental championship in Vienna.
And, with Chelsea’s Michael Ballack rising to such dominant form as the hub of their midfield that he threatens to be the tournament’s most influential player, they are fully entitled to their position as the bookmakers’ favourites to lift the trophy.
The respectability of Croatia’s performance was predictable but many were probably surprised by the early success in these European finals of the other nation who survived from England’s qualifying group: Russia. They were unquestionably fortunate to qualify with a general level of performance that was noticeably worse than England’s (which is saying something) but they were always likely to derive huge benefit from having Guus Hiddink as manager.
Hiddink has most of the attributes vital to the achievement of success in his job —profound understanding of football and footballers, shrewdness in the specific application of his resources, whether they are rich or modest, and innate authority—but if a career that has given him wide experience in a variety of environments around the world identifies a paramount strength in his work it is his gift for building and developing teams.
Whereas England in the seven years under Sven-Göran Eriksson and Steve McClaren stagnated as nothing more than a collection of celebrity players, and possibly regressed, Russia in the Dutchman’s care were almost certain to progress.
The dramatic extent to which they have done so was thrillingly demonstrated in Basle last night in a quarter final that saw the previously rampant Holland utterly outplayed through the entire match and ultimately torn apart in the second half of extra time. Russia brimmed with impact players and the electric Andrei Arshavin was simply unsubduable but the Dutch will recognise that the individual mainly responsible for their 3-1 defeat was their countryman Hiddink.
He has no cause to worry about whether it is Italy or Spain who emerge in Vienna tonight as his men’s semi final opponents. And his handling of Russia’s challenge has already put manners on those who were dismissive when some of us touted him as a strong candidate to take over England (he was my second choice behind Martin O’Neill). Would the FA think of ignoring his credentials now?
Evidence of an abundance of outstanding coaching talent has been another of the encouraging themes of Euro 2008. The men impressing have spanned a broad range of ages and, if Hiddink leads the older group, Bilic with Croatia, Marco van Basten with Holland and Joachim Loew with Germany have made a powerful case on behalf of youth. There must be sympathy this morning for Van Basten, who was an unforgettably great player and may yet be a great coach.
But perhaps the coach who should be most in our thoughts is Fabio Capello. We don’t have to tell him that absence from festivals of excellence does make the heart grow fonder.
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