Sport has an affinity for the four-year cycle.
I am continuing my look at this century’s European Championship editions.
The two ongoing stories to come out of Euro 2008, besides some quirky cameos from Turkey and Russia, were the new teams that emerged from Spain and the Netherlands. They would contest the World Cup final against each other in two years, although in both cases they each played a better tournament in 2008.
New Netherlands sighted at starboard
The Netherlands’ daunting first two matches were against the 2006 World Cup’s finalists. The Netherlands thrashed both of them, quickly proving them shadows of the teams they had been in 2006.
Their first game was against world champions Italy. The Netherlands were already a curious goal up when Ruud van Nistelrooy was played onside by an off-field, prostrate defender. They scored a peach of a counterattacking goal to go up 2-0.
After left-back Giovanni van Bronckhorst cleared an Italian corner kick off the line, he sprinted forward. Attacking mid Wesley Sneijder likewise volley-passed that clearance from the air to a teammate, sprinted forward and the move was on.
The ball was returned to Van Bronckhorst on the halfway line, who crossed to the far post to the unmarked Dutch players, hardworking forward Dirk Kuyt heading down for Sneijder to side-volley in. It was the type of goal that beleaguers and sinks teams then and there. Italy had done much of the game’s attacking but ended on the wrong side of a 3-0 scoreline.
An identical match occurred against France. After an early 1-0 lead to the Netherlands, France created a cache of chances before the Netherlands stuffed them with another classic length-of-the-field goal. Van Nistelrooy pivoted 360 for recent substitute, the streaking Arjen Robben, to power on and put the ball on Robin van Persie’s boot in the box. His flying finish was struck directly into the French keeper’s hand but still trickled over the line.
Thierry Henry, now yesterday’s man, had just had two mediocre seasons and had moved from Arsenal to Barcelona in the meantime. He languidly ballooned over the bar a straight one-on-one with the score still 0-1 and had generally been out of touch, but he cleverly got an angle right to score and reignite the match for a few mere seconds. But it was too late. The Netherlands immediately buried France with two goals from their new figureheads Robben and Sneijder for 4-1.
The Netherlands were less a balanced team and more a collection of players whose attacking midfield and forwards were of Europe’s highest individual quality. In 2008, as detailed above, they spent much time defending before wildly uncorking spectacular attacking moments.
Arjen Robben, the streaky winger, and Wesley Sneijder, the generalised attacking mid whom coach Jose Mourinho would later reinvent as a classic number ten, together had just won the Spanish title with Real Madrid, but it was only upon leaving that sorry club that they would come into their own, both with their new clubs and in the Netherlands’ journey to the 2010 World Cup final.
The forward unit was intangibly woven together by the goal-shy forward who nonetheless did much of the grunt work up front, Dirk Kuyt. He provided assists, hustled to win lost balls, helped out in defence and kept his position, and from the look of things was good for team spirit. While his labour was never noticed, it was telling that by 2012 when he was gone the Netherlands surprisingly fell into a heap.
The centre forward was Ruud van Nistelrooy, the classic poacher and the man in the box, who while appearing to come from the generation after Patrick Kluivert was actually a late bloomer who was curiously born on the same day as him. He was still going around in 2008, scoring a crucial late equaliser in the quarter-final in his last tournament for the Netherlands, but he was gone by 2010.
He may have made the difference in winning the World Cup, for after him the mantle was taken up by young Robin van Persie, the quick slender player with the thunderbolt shots. He couldn’t quite integrate himself into the otherwise firing 2010 team, whether out of form or whatever, and it may have cost them the title.
For all the flashy individual ability in attack, they would prove that they were not disconnected from the mob that had delivered the farce of the Portugal match. In the middle were the thuggish defensive mids Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong.
Still, love them or occasionally loathe them, a new Netherlands had risen after the ashes of the Dennis Bergkamp generation. In the quarter-final, however, they would be brilliantly dispatched by a two-game wonder called Russia and their goal-scoring midfielder Andrei Arshavin, who had inspired Zenit St Petersburg to win that year’s UEFA Cup but was otherwise an utter flash in the pan.
Russia gave both Sweden and then the Netherlands a lesson, although the Netherlands would not actually be beaten until two goals in the 112th and 116th minutes, the first set up and the second scored by Arshavin.
Turkey, a different team from 2002 World Cup bronze medallists, played one of the most curious campaigns in memory. They recorded a comeback 2-1 win in injury time over hosts Switzerland, then came back from 0-2 down in the crunch group game against Czech Republic, scoring in the 87th and 88th minutes to win, then conceded a 119th-minute goal to Croatia in the quarter-finals only to tie it with the last kick of the match and easily win the shootout.
A skeleton squad decimated by injuries and suspensions still took the semi-final to Germany, tying the game 2-2 in the 86th minute only to lose at the end. As their coach said afterwards, they’d been colourful, which isn’t easy in the grey world of Europe.
Meet Xavi and Iniesta, unknown quantities
Barcelona had gone through a comparatively terrible season, finally turfing the now discontented Ronaldinho, Deco and coach Frank Rijkaard himself (and barely saving Samuel Eto’o), but from Barcelona came the core of the Spanish line-up. Two midfielders had yet to make a huge name for themselves, but they controlled much of what went on at Euro 2008 and ever afterwards.
Xavi was a one-dimensional player who merely received short passes and gave them off again, tick tock, tick tock, as regular as a clock. He was a terrific passer, of course, but his entire game was played at a low-confrontational, low-pulse level. He would personify Spain’s game in the years to come, often in style looking like they had taken the field with 11 Xavi clones whose brief was simply to spend 90 minutes doing small passes to each other.
Already in the middle of his career, overlooked by Rijkaard who preferred the similar Deco, Xavi would now become the man who controlled from centre midfield every major game for the next four years, doing nothing more than giving and receiving short passes. Tick tock, or perhaps tiki taka, the nonsense name that the Spanish media had christened Spain’s short-passing game.
He was complemented by the similar but slightly more thrusting Andres Iniesta, who made the occasional burst forward with the ball in addition to the tick tock passes. Iniesta would score two of the most important goals of the modern era.
At the back was Barcelona captain Carlos Puyol, the shaggy-haired defender who once said he’d rather die than cut it, but who on the field was no-nonsense and often was the only man who gave Barcelona and Spain some semblance of positional shape and strength in the years to come. His goalkeeper and Spain captain was curiously the Real Madrid figurehead Iker Casillas, but they had a fine relationship.
Casillas had emerged as a 19-year-old to win the 2000 Champions League with Real, and had mostly been a mainstay ever since, pulling off classic saves to preserve victory at the end of the 2002 Champions League final. But he along with Real had spent years out of the limelight, frequently humiliated by Barcelona by gargantuan scores (0-3, 2-6, 0-5).
Spain finally had some forwards. Both had played in the 2006 World Cup, but had now gained more maturity with Liverpool and Valencia respectively. Fernando Torres was the tall blond crash or bash forward, more direct as influenced by his time working with Steven Gerrard in England. David Villa was the small tricky one who was more similar to the other Spanish players. He would score nine goals in the next two tournaments, winning the Golden Boot at Euro 2008 and all but single-handedly dragging a weirdly out-of-sorts Spain to World Cup glory in 2010.
Villa scored an all-action hat trick in the opening 4-1 win over Russia, a game whose memory perhaps skewed the rosy way people regarded 2008 Spain compared to the versions that followed. He also scored the last-minute winner in their second game against Sweden.
Spain’s quarter-final against Italy was symbolic rather than a decent performance. It was a go-nowhere game that ended 0-0, but this time after so many years it was Spain’s turn to finally win the penalties. Spain’s neuroses could be considered annulled at a stroke, summed up in substitute Cesc Fabregas putting in the winning penalty: they seldom to never progressed beyond the quarter-finals of a tournament, never beat Italy, never won shootouts, and even the date June 22 had been considered unlucky due to past events.
Curses banished, Spain took to their semi-final with both Torres and Villa as usual. But Villa, who in addition to his four goals had converted in the shootout whereas Torres had been subbed off, went down injured after a goalless half in their Russian rematch. Spain through necessity put Torres alone up front, brought in Fabregas as their fifth midfielder, and oddly from the ashes of their best player being ruled out of the tournament was born the dominant game that would take Spain to three consecutive titles: a packed midfield of passers with only one forward (or none, in the perverse but successful 2012 team). Spain easily scored three goals in the second half against a Russia, who had not displayed anything like their game against the Netherlands and would swiftly disappear.
Heads up, Spain controlled a featureless, short-passing-based 1-0 victory in the final against a transitioning Germany, with very few chances to score at either end despite Spain’s nominal dominance, the type of match that became their specialty in the years to come.
Torres, who with Villa out knew he had to be the man to deliver, did so with an aesthetic chip over Jens Lehmann. Spain had won their first tournament in 44 years and Xavi was named player of the tournament. This was the most exciting of their three-peat tournament wins, more conventional, more dynamic and in the shape of Villa and Torres with more of an appetite for goals. By the time 2010 and 2012 came around something else had happened.
Spain would now become a phenomenon and a revolution, changing the way the game was played. Whether that revolution was interesting for football or not became the biggest football debate of the time.