European Dreams

Quite a lot has been made of the decision to change the European Championships to a 24-team competition at its next incarnation in 2016, in that, on the whole, there has been quite a negative reaction. The perception is that increasing the number of teams will lead to a dilution in the quality. And after a pretty damn good summer of tournament football, it’s hard to disagree.

We had the situation where two arguably “weaker” teams hosted the tournament, thereby taking up two of the four available slots in the pool for top seeds, and thus skewing the difficulty of the group stages somewhat. Anyone trying to justify that the group of Czech Republic, Russia, Greece and Poland was similar in class to that of Germany, Portugal, Denmark and the Netherlands is unfortunately suffering from some kind of football-based political correctness addiction. A fairer system would be to seed host countries based on their FIFA ranking [before you say it – I know. Ed] along with everybody else; this would stop more higher ranked teams from being drawn as second seeds than seems reasonable.

Having said all that, the group stages were hugely entertaining. With most teams still having something to play for going into their final match, and no danger of a penalty shootout, hope sprung eternal (except in Ireland) and there was far less cagey doggedness than we’ve seen in recent summer football fests.

Leave it to England, of course, to supply the first 0-0 of the tournament.  Some blame has to be laid at the feet of the horribly profligate Italians (in that game), though, who really should have been home and hosed long before England bottled yet another penalty competition.

As an England fan, it is always the hope that kills you. You spend the weeks, months, even years going into an international tournament playing down your chances, saying you’re overrated, bemoaning the ridiculous nationalistic fervour driven by the tabloid media, and yet after riding your luck against the Italians, you think “maybe it’s meant to be. Maybe this is our time.” And you’re still thinking that even after the shootout begins, then boom. That’s why you’re pessimistic about England.

Spain won the thing, of course, but that there has been any debate about the merits of their playing style at all, let alone the scathing accusations of snobbery and reverse snobbery between the relevant parties is evidence enough that Spain 2008-2012 do not possess the mercurial artistry to be considered a truly timeless football team. They are a machine, a process. A particular science can only be beautiful to those who subscribe to the environs of that specific branch. For where is the artistry in a high defensive line and pressing all the way up the pitch? Where is the soul in endless unnecessary two yard passes?

Chinua Achebe observed in Morning Yet on Creation Day that “art for art’s sake is just another piece of deodorised dog shit”, and though while I wouldn’t extend this harsh a criticism onto the current Spanish side, I am nonetheless forced to wonder at the circumspection of those who innately believe them to the bestest footballing side ever in the world ever ever. They’re good, yeah. But so what? Football shouldn’t be about the pursuit of scientific perfection. It’s about that feeling in your soul that you don’t get from watching other sports, even when you’re not that bothered about the participants.