And the other winners are . . .
Published 03/07/2012 | 17:00
EURO 2012 is over and, as visitors from across the continent checked out of Ukraine yesterday, it's hard to remember a more satisfactory conclusion to a major tournament.
Nobody can dispute the fact that the best team won. The merit of Spain's emphatic success was acknowledged by an Italian side who exceeded expectations to reach the final in the first place.
By adding to their Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010 triumphs, the Spaniards have proved themselves as the outstanding side of the modern era, and possibly the most complete international team of all time. The prevailing neutral mood in the stadium late on Sunday evening was fortune at being able to watch this group of players in the flesh.
For Ireland, it's been a tournament of two halves. Our contribution to the finals will not live long in the memory. After seven months of anticipation, optimism was spiked within three minutes. For the Irish in Poland, the rest of the tournament was a blur while Giovanni Trapattoni's men suffered through 10 days of misery.
When they exited the stage, it was finally possible to grasp the context of the overall competition, a renewal which has given international football a badly needed shot in the arm following the underwhelming fare in South Africa. Hard-luck stories were few and far between. In truth, the knockout stages rewarded the teams who played the better football and, on reflection, the unluckiest team were Croatia, who would surely have qualified from Groups A, B and D.
The main prize was Spain's destiny, but there were plenty of other highlights and lowlights.
It was Andrea Pirlo until the final furlong, but the manner in which Andres Iniesta again responded in the decisive game was rightly recognised by UEFA, and it would be foolish not to do the same. An honourable mention must go to Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas.
With Joe Hart looking every inch like an Englishman trying to do the Haka, Pirlo strolled up to calmly execute a 'Panenka' and turn the quarter-final in Italy's favour. Of course, he would have looked like a prat if he missed it, but the smartest player on the pitch clearly read Hart's intentions and wisely chose the nonchalant option.
Some fine contenders during the run-up to the final, but Jordi Alba's dart from his left-back station to collect a Xavi pass and put the Spanish two ahead tops the charts for both its excellence and its significance in terms of deciding the competition's winner.
Donetsk. Limited hotel rooms at exorbitant costs, with the problems exacerbated by confident Russians holding accommodation for the semi-final they never reached. At £780 for a hotel room and £500 for a squat flat, it's no wonder there were empty seats. Greed, and not hooliganism, was Ukraine's biggest problem.
Michel Platini may have delivered a pat on the head to Ireland, but the exceptional Green Army weren't the only ones to make noise during the competition. Poland's fans were also noisy, particularly when they continued to attend games and chant songs after their country was eliminated from the tournament.
Empty seats in the stadium for the Euro 2012 final. It was a feature of the quarter and semi-final matches in the Ukraine as well, and reflects dreadfully on the organisers. Thousands of people around Kiev would have loved the opportunity to see the game. A combination of pricing structures, tout behaviour and a flawed resale policy led to this disgraceful situation.
A joint award for Russia and Holland. The Russians mauled the Czechs in the opening game and then collapsed when it mattered against Greece. Andrey Arshavin's petulant post-game comments to disappointed fans just about summed up a key reason for their failure. "It's not our problem we didn't meet your expectations, it's your problem," he is reported to have said. As for the Dutch? From World Cup finalists to home without a point. Say no more.
It's not really very good, but the official Euro 2012 tune, 'Endless Summer', by Oceana, was played repeatedly before every game, twice at half-time, and at length around the match venues and Fanzones whether there is a match on or not. There is no escaping it. Those old enough to remember the communist regimes will have recognised the subtle method of planting something in your head.
Obviously, Vicente Del Bosque deserves huge credit for the utilisation of his squad and his tactical ambition, but Cesare Prandelli still tops this category for galvanising a crisis-ridden Italian side and steering them to the final with a positive style of play and a collection of characters that other managers would have struggled to control.
BEST DRESSING-ROOM ARGUMENT
The French have cemented their status as the new Dutch with an epic barney following their group stage defeat to Sweden. Hatem Ben Arfa, who was substituted, sparked it off by pointing out that other players were much worse and asked boss Laurent Blanc to send him home. Samir Nasri then got involved in a scrap with Alou Diarra. Florent Malouda said it reminded him of their traumatic experience in South Africa. "What I saw awakened some demons," he said.
BEST PEP TALK
No doubt there were plenty of inspirational words uttered in dressing-rooms, but if you need to build up courage for a major event, a motorway service station is the place to go. As the Irish media bus pulled into one such establishment on the road between Gdansk and Poznan, a bride who was en route from church to wedding reception had stopped in with her new husband for some vodka to steady nerves for the speeches. She received some inspiring words ahead of that mission.
Gdansk. A beautiful old town, nice restaurants, proud people, and a rich history. The Solidarity movement started in the shipyards here, a phenomenon that eventually brought down Communist rule and opened this city up to the rest of the world. While the weather wasn't kind during Ireland's visit, the overall package should encourage a return trip, or an exploratory mission if you stayed at home. Nearby Sopot offers a beach and a higher-end lifestyle.
Cristiano Ronaldo missed his flight from Donetsk to Lisbon because he nipped off to purchase a bread roll. Preposterous, but remarkably, the spoof tale was picked upon by Ukrainian and Russian news agencies, and Twitter aided the contagion of the nonsense. The story was completely implausible. Ronaldo would have waited for someone else to go first.
Poor old John Delaney was innocently making his way home when, in his own words, "200 lads see me, they lift me up, and they carry me up and lift me head-high to my hotel, and they sing, 'Shoes off for the Boys in Green'. And they handed me my shoes back, and they handed me my socks back. Simple as that." As simple as that, indeed. They must be fine shoes. And what a moment for those fans, who must have grown up dreaming they would one day have some banter with a chief executive.
BEST TAXI DRIVERS
It's fair to suggest that the Ukrainians were keen to make the most of this experience. One cabbie in Donetsk justified his rip-off by turning to a customer and simply saying, "You're not going to come back here, right?" In Kiev, the Irish Independent was charmed by a classical music-loving fiend who commanded a high price by simply claiming to have no change, apart from a souvenir coin which he had spent the preceding 30-minute journey trying to flog.
From Donetsk to Warsaw via Athens. This was one of the only available options if a television crew wanted to make both semi-finals. The logistics of travelling between Poland and Ukraine also brought airport traffic to Belarus, Austria and several parts of Russia.
Michel Platini's announcement that Euro 2020 could be hosted by 12 different cities is a step towards destroying a competition that's on a par with awarding 2022's World Cup to Qatar. These tournaments should be a festival of football that bring together fans from all parts of the world for a month-long celebration. Turning it into a staccato series of Champions League ties would be disastrous.
GAFFE OF THE euros
Eamon Dunphy's suggestion that the silence from the Spanish players during their national anthem was a collective decision from the Barcelona and Real Madrid camps to leave "their culture and politics in the dressing-room" is hard to top. We can all make mistakes, of course, but surely after six years of Spanish dominance, a highly paid analyst should be aware their anthem has no lyrics.
SPARE A THOUGHT FOR . . .
The prostitutes of Ukraine. They were expecting a huge surge in business during the tournament but reduced travelling numbers and general disinterest scuppered their hopes. Local activists were delighted. "Men have no interest in anything apart from beer and football during Euro 2012," said Yevhenia Kuvshynova, a representative of a charity which supports people affected by HIV/AIDS.
Why narrow it down? Shakira is always a crowd-pleaser, while the respective partners of netminders Iker Casillas and Gianluigi Buffon tend to find themselves in front of the cameras. Particular mention must go to Lena Gercke, the girlfriend of Sami Khedira, who picked up a yellow card from the German FA for wearing skimpy shorts for the quarter-final with Greece. First world problems, eh?
EURO 2012 in NUMBERS
4,893 Passes attempted by Spain. They successfully completed 80pc of that, and tried over 1,000 more passes than the next best, runners-up Italy.
1,249 Passes attempted by Ireland, putting them bottom of the charts. The completion rate was 58pc. In fairness to Trap's men, a technically solid Croatia side were third worst. Spain and Italy didn't give much of the ball away.
990 Spain haven't conceded a goal in knockout play for this many minutes. A staggering feat.
76 Total number of goals scored in the competition, one less than in the 2008 tournament.
36 Shots on goal by Italy in their quarter-final with England. A record total for a team that failed to score in the match.
22 Headed goals during the tournament, more than any other in history.
11 Foreigners who sought medical care in Ukraine during the tournament. Not quite what 'Panorama' envisaged.
9 Goals conceded by Ireland in their disastrous Group C campaign. Only Yugoslavia, 1984 (10) have shipped more in the finals.
3 Teams who stayed in Ukraine during the competition itself. Only Sweden, France and the hosts chose to base themselves there, with everyone else opting for superior Polish facilities.
1 Poor old Alvaro Arbeloa was the only regular Spanish starter who missed out on UEFA's 23-man squad of the tournament.